Some Thoughts on Academic Disciplines: A Meditation on Methodology, My Entry Into the Humanities, and Experiencing a “Pedagogy of Discomfort”

Those of you who know me know that I’m a perpetual student, addicted to lifelong learning (and the pieces of paper that certify I accomplished something). In September 2014, I started work on the Ph.D. in Mythological Studies, with an emphasis in depth psychology. As I finish the readings for the first session of my third semester in my latest academic endeavor, I find myself thinking about the different ways of knowing in academic disciplines.

I’ve had a lot of experience as a student. (I remarked to a class the other day that I’ve been doing homework for 30 of my 35 years. And then I nearly cried. They looked a mixture of horrified and awed.) At the undergraduate level, I overloaded my schedule each term (requiring the Dean of Students’ signature) and did significant work in international relations and political science, economics, Spanish, and foreign language study (Spanish, Italian, French, German, Ancient Greek, and Japanese). At the Master’s level, I’ve studied library and information science, education (instructional technology), writing, and English. At the doctoral level, I’ve done years of work in political science and education.

I’ve been around the academic block a few hundred times, and I live and breathe to the rhythms of the academic calendar. I love the ebb and flow of energy within the time capsule of a semester: the energy of students arriving to start their studies, the frantic scramble for books and classrooms, the calm before the storm of midterms, the frantic careening of research papers and deadlines and finals, the satisfaction of a graduation ceremony. And then a break, a breathing space before it all starts again and we welcome veteran and new students alike back into the mix. The environment itself, one that encourages learning, where many of our students are learning to function as independent adults for the first time, where faculty argue vociferously over changes to the curriculum and how exactly those changes serve our students, and where students wrestle with new information and new perspectives, is one that brings me joy.

Most of my academic training has been set squarely inside the social science disciplines. In the social sciences, my experience has been tasting a distinct overtone of measurement in the bouquet of subjects. In the Ph.D. program in Political Science at Emory, I was introduced for the first time to the quantitative versus qualitative research methodology wars, and though some students and faculty did excellent qualitative work, the department focus was quite heavily on the quantitative side, both in course offerings and in in philosophy. (Part of the reason may have been not only the research preferences of the faculty, but the openly acknowledged time difference involved in quant and qual work. My advisor at the time told me quite clearly that quantitative was the way to go for a dissertation, because when it comes to dissertations, “Good is not good. Done is good.”) While my many years studying education offered a more balanced view of quantitative and qualitative work (and some excellent doctoral level courses in mixed-method research methodology), measurement and evaluation was still of utmost importance, and framed many of the discussions of important issues. I understand this: to want to explore something and learn about it, learning to measure a thing (as well as the hows and whys of that measurement) is an important foundation for knowledge.

In these social science settings, it is easy for me to understand the hows and whys, the idea of dependent and independent variables, effect and affect. Though I avoided as much math as possible in my undergraduate days, I did take Econometrics I and II, and left with a firm grasp of codifying variables, linear regression and other forms of data analysis, and the idea that measurement is key to understanding. After years and years of graduate courses in quantitative research methodology (and one summer spent at ICPSR data nerd camp), I understand this language. It is familiar; the literature review and methodology sections of research papers are my brain’s version of comfort food. My first impulse upon identifying a phenomenon I want to study is to ask a question, and identify what measurements would allow me to answer that question.

I am on much less mentally comfortable ground in the humanities, though I value the fields no less than I do the social sciences. As a child, my mother and her parents instilled in me a love of reading that has never faded, and I became addicted to telling stories and writing poetry. Though my undergraduate years were characterized by an I-know-I-need-a-job-and-don’t-have-time-for-glassblowing turn away from the humanities, I was still nourished by the liberal arts education and general education course requirements. In my mid-20s after some personal blows and health issues,  I found myself trapped in my own psyche, and the only solution that satisfied was writing. I entered my M.F.A. in Writing program significantly less educated in BritLit than my peers, and learned much. What I truly learned, though, was not only the value of practicing my creative craft and the fulfillment of creative endeavors, but I re-learned the worth of learning in a field outside my comfort zone, where measurement is somewhat eschewed (a nod to the digital humanities here) in favor of interpretation, and in the value inherent in a multiplicity of interpretations where none is truly authoritative or privileged. Particularly for poetry, there is in infinite number of possible choices and combinations of subjects, words, languages, and combinations of words and space (in space itself and in the art of the line break). The individual, their experience, and his or her interpretations becomes so much more important; the poet need justify his or her methods to no one. Poetry satisfies a piece of myself that the hard and social sciences leave a bit cold, the piece that whispers that there is more to the world than what I can measure.

I’ve joked that I pursued my M.L.S. to get a job, and my M.F.A. as a personal reward. There’s slightly more to it, but that’s not too far off. The one was an intellectual endeavor I enjoyed, but it was certainly tied to my career aspirations. (You largely can’t be an academic librarian without the M.L.S.) I had no real professional plans for my M.F.A. other than to learn how to become a better poet, and becoming much more well-read in poetry and its craft under the tutelage of poets with many more years experience. The M.F.A. was a personal journey whereas my social science studies, while they reflected my personal interests, were more guided by professional interests and the idea of the degree as a vehicle-to-something. The M.L.S. was required for me to enter the ranks of academic librarians. The Ed.D. helped make me a better librarian and researcher, and also equips me with the terminal degree to move into a nine-month teaching faculty position, should I choose to do so; the Ph.D. I’m working on is largely for personal development and satisfaction, though I would also like to leverage it to teach in that area.

Now I find myself nearly a year deep into the Ph.D. program. Again, I joke that my Ed.D. is really related to my work (which it is), and this doctorate is more a personal reward, like the M.F.A. I am learning entirely new ways of approaching academic work. This program is really designed as a journey through materials, and as a critical reflection on not just the readings and how they square with each other, but how personal experience informs the reading of the texts, and how the reading of the texts informs personal experience. I joked with Fabulous Husband that the school is a little woo-woo, and it might turn me into a California hippie. Alongside textbooks in the campus bookstore, you can also find crystals, healing runes, mandala coloring books, and various books on archetypes, gods and goddesses, living your own myth, Campbell, yoga, and Jung. In one class, many of our assignments centered around learning new ways to analyze, work with, or tend our dreams, and enter into conversation with those dream images. Our final papers are generally expected to incorporate both research and personal experience and reflection relevant to the course topic.

This makes me uncomfortable. Initially, I felt like my thinking and feeling experience in the world (as opposed to things-accomplished experience) was not really worth academic credit, and was out of place in academic assignments about mythology. I can write an academic paper on the myth of Demeter and Persephone and how it might correlate to the researched experience of barren women; inserting myself into the paper and making claims of my own experience and understanding of the myth based on my lived experience seems somehow presumptive. What could I possibly have to say that is authoritative, if it is based on my subjective understanding of the world? Why would someone want to know about my story, when it has not yet been measured against other stories to see if my life is wanting compared to theirs? The shield of objectivity (weak as that shield is) is shattered, and suddenly I am not just reading the mythology, I am in the mythology, and is this what is supposed to happen here? It has been a very long time since I have been uncomfortable in a classroom, from either side of the desk.

Reflecting on this, I realized that I have taught mythology to undergraduates, and asked students to write weekly reflections on the stories and what they perceived as meaningful in their contemporary lives, if anything. I wanted my students to engage the material, to reflect on its meaning and determine where or whether that meaning was relevant to the stories of their own lives or that of our society. This is an exercise in the humanities, and it was valid then–why, then, do I feel like doing this at the graduate level, as a student myself, is a form of cheating? In the social sciences, there would be a problem of objectivity and replication – how can someone replicate my interpretation given that they do not have my life experiences, my psyche, my feelings? They cannot. Why is this a problem? Well, it’s not, for the purposes of this study for this degree. It is a catching point, an area of cognitive dissonance for me because I mentally touch back to my social science paradigm, and that is not entirely appropriate here.

Further reflection on this point: I took a graduate English course in critical theory, in which literature (and any text, really) was examined through different lenses, of those not privileged, of those voices left out and cut from the stories and histories. I remember being very excited; this made sense to me, and I have always been fascinated by the idea of those voices silenced by more privileged interpretations¹. I am also reminded of the Latina development of testimonio² as a valid research methodology and paradigm–women articulating their personal experience, how that experience relates back to the whole of their history and that of their people, and how their understanding of their experience and history shapes the course of their lives, decisions, and repressions. I’ve read some of this research, and have never considered it anything but a rich addition to the dominant methodologies, which would lose these nuances of actual lived experience.

Last night, after drafting the first version of this post, I was reading Myth and Philosophy: A Contest of Truths³ and found a much more articulate explanation for the sort of cognitive dissonance I’m feeling between the idea of a semi-objectively measured world (semi- because the very act of deciding on a measurement is an act of judgment, and very rarely objective in the purest sense) and the more subjectively understood world of the humanities. The author posits that our current system of objectivity and rationality, of looking at the world as a thing apart and to be measured, is a later historical development, both methodologically and philosophically. In short, because Greek philosophy was rebelling against a mythical understanding of the world, Western philosophy and logic itself is now missing a crucial piece of understanding the world existentially and subjectively – myth addresses the meaning that exists in the world, while the Western philosophy and logic developed as a rebellion against mythic understanding addresses the meaning we assign to the world. The philosophy and logic we inherit re-presents the world, interprets it, abstracts and conceptualizes it; myth is pre-objectivity, and in Hatab’s words, it “does not ‘project’ the sacred, it finds the world infused with the sacred” (p. 26).

The more I read of the first few chapters in the book, the more I found myself nodding. This, I think, is what I am missing, a way of knowing that is not a projection of my understanding onto the world, but an appreciation that the sacred can (must?) exist outside of logic, and that this, too, has a great value. A value that the ways I have been academically trained to look at the world are not equipped to measure or acknowledge. Especially after getting sick, and as I’ve been re-evaluating what is important to me and what i want to spend my time and energy on, I find myself straining to reach more of this mythical understanding and way of interacting with the world.

And so I find myself a true student again, struggling with new concepts and applying them, excited as I learn new ways to look at the world that enrich my experience. I am out of my depth, as I should be–I am a novice again, in a way I cannot remember being since my undergraduate days. One of my colleagues recently mentioned that they employ a “pedagogy of discomfort” to get their students to think critically and not rely on established modes of viewing the world. My initial reaction was “Of course! How will they learn if they can rely on what they already know and are comfortable with?”  And oh, ho, the master has become the student again, and I am reminded that my discomfort is a good thing. I am learning things I didn’t know, I am learning to think in new ways, and finding more meaning, and new meanings, in the world around me.

Notes

¹My first book of poetry, God in My Throat: The Lilith Poems (Bellowing Ark, 2009) was an exercise in recovering a lost voice; the collection is a series of persona poems told from Lilith’s perspective and addressing her exile from Eden and Christianity in general. Persona poems are some of my favorite captures of voices of lost, unheard, or ‘minor’ characters from history and myth.

² For some great readings on testimonio as recommended by my colleague Dr. Jennie Luna, see: Bernal, D. D., Burciaga, R., & Carmona, J. F. (2012). Chicana/Latina testimonios: mapping the methodological, pedagogical, and political. Equity & Excellence in Education, 45(3), 363-372; Carmona, J. F. (2014). Cutting out their tongues: Mujeres’ testimonies and the Malintzin researcher. Journal of Latino/Latin American Studies, 6(2), 113-124; Chávez, M. S. (2012). Autoethnography, a Chicana’s methodological research tool: The role of storytelling for those who have no choice but to do critical race theory. Equity & Excellence, 45(2): 334-348; Latina Feminist Group. (2001). Telling to live: Latina feminist testimonios. Durham: Duke University Press.

³Hatab, L. J. (1992). Myth and philosophy: A contest of truths. LaSalle, IL: Open Court Press.

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