August 26, 2016:
With all of my sociologist colleagues heading to ASA, I’ve had serious FOMO this week. I’ve always loved to hate on ASA — the largess of the conference leads to many sterile panels full of papers-as-recent-abstract summaries. But, it was also the time I could connect with colleagues, friends, and mentors and expand my network of kick-ass intellectuals.
From August 20–23, Twitter became my lifeline. The medium might have distorted my perception, but there were some flashpoints of tension that reflect some of the positive and necessary shifts currently going down in my discipline. For example, I read along, and stood in virtual solidarity with my colleagues and friends as they documented the meltdown of one established white male sociologist over Aldon Morris’ The Scholar Denied. This book is a wonderful example of good historical sociology. It should be required reading for all in our discipline — as an example of method, and a foundational text that documents the development of the field. Morris disrupts the white-washed version of sociology’s American beginnings. He lifts the rock and exposes all the gross buggies of power and domination that worked together to marginalize W.E.B Dubois as a scholar, and in the process shelve his contributions and scholarship.
So far away, I hungered for critical voices and rabidly refreshed my feed. I read critiques of simplistic (and not very sociological) interventions regarding police violence and heard the next President of the American Sociological Society lament on the condition of minorities in the academy. “Scholars of color, wherever we are, are depressed, oppressed, lonely, and angry,” Eduardo Bonilla-Silva stated. Unfortunately, the medium of Twitter wasn’t able to capture his signature delivery, sarcasm, and quick wit.
There were also moments of live-tweeting joy, celebration, and togetherness, and I desperately wanting to be there. Following the #ASA16 Twitter feed became an act of masochistic regret. I wanted to be “in the room where it happens,” (sorry for the Hamilton reference). There’s a re-making and righting of the sociological cannon, and a serious discussion about pedagogy and practice, that I’m now not part of. The work my friends, colleagues, mentors, and heroes are doing is making space for marginalized voices and younger versions of me, and me-like beings. This has always been the work that gave me the most pleasure, and, as I sat at a hostel bar in Hamburg, after a 6-hour interview where the outcome is geared to help a large retailer increase their sales, I wondered, did I pull the plug on my academic career and life too early? In order to succeed in business, was I compromising my ethnographic and intellectual voice and moving away from the person I believe myself to be?
I’m sometimes drawn to seeing my life in sweeping dramatic binaries, but the reality of the situation is anything but. If my academic self is all that there is, then I’m a static and fully formed person, someone kiln-fired and brittle. That is not the way I want to live, and this is not how I see myself. I am curious, and I believe that by exploring and expanding my range of human experiences, I can become more pluralistic and move from feeling solitary to finding solidarity. It’s scary to see myself as always in the process of becoming, but I also find strength in this liminal space, and by taking this position and doing this work, I continue to challenge myself and find deeper ways to touch our shared sameness.
Doing the ethnography brought me back. At an 8-year-old girl’s birthday party in a rural town outside of Hamburg, I played. Without a shared language to easily bridge our difference, I found a more embodied bridge. I thought that without language competency, I wouldn’t be able to truly connect. I saw how easy it was for my translator — she was able to build a quick report, and by the end of our interview, the children felt comfortable draping their little bodies over her. I was jealous of her easy bonding, and worried that I wouldn’t be able to do my job. But that birthday party reminded me how significant a trust fall into someone else’s experience can be. I stopped worrying, and despite the fact that I didn’t have a bathing suit, I joined the girls as they chased each other with water balloons and splashed. I didn’t need to speak German to understand how to play or what was going on. I was the only adult in the fray at the time, I knew I would have a target on my back, and I welcomed it. There are many aspects to play, but the types of play that are participatory, physical, and elicit peals of laughter along with shrieks of surprise, are by far the best. I also didn’t need to speak German to understand the back and forth of tag, and the desire to run, yet still be caught and thoroughly doused in a plastic bin full of water (yep, I brought a Rubbermaid to a water balloon fight — bring it!). I forgot how much I enjoy the participant side of participation observation. I was doing my job, both in the practical sense, and in what Audre Lorde would refer to as the erotic, and it felt spectacular.
As an academic, I spent much of my time within the cloistered walls of the academy. I learned about the world through my students and found communitas in the classroom and with my colleagues. Academia is not pure, and for those of us at the margins, we spend so much time treading water that we forget to care for ourselves or delight in the pieces of thinking and research that brought us there to begin with. Ethnography drains me, but it also enriches me. I am so proud of the work my colleagues and friends are spearheading — and I’m working on being OK with stepping aside. I will always struggle with disciplinary FOMO, I miss the energy of the classroom and the activism of my colleagues like whoa.
I will always be there to champion their voices, and maybe I’ll get to a place in my career where I can serve as a resource and open doors for others. I’ve gone from expert to student, and, I’m delighting in the fact that I can still flex my intellectual muscles outside of the academy. It doesn’t mean that I’m always OK, or that the world of business is without its own systems of power and domination. I just feel a bit more free right now, which is not an easy or comfortable feeling, but that’s for another day.