transitional thoughts + genealogies


As I write this I’m sitting on a metal bench on a snowy West Yorkshire station platform. I have a bit too much baggage, too many books. Recently most of my weekends have been spent on trains, dashing from here to there, caught up between work and the various places that may or may not be home.

Today I’m trying to read Lisa Blackman’s Immaterial Bodies so that I can finish an article I’m working on and publishpublishpublish my way into a more permanent academic career. I flip back to the first few pages. Since finishing my PhD I’ve taken to reading authors’ acknowledgements and admonishing myself for the hash that I made of it in my thesis (mainly because there were far, far more people deserving heart-felt ‘thank you’s than I managed to name there). As I read I’m struck by something Blackman writes:

The inter-disciplinarity that was characteristic of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is one that I carry through today such that my own disciplinary location is far from settled. However, I have found an intellectual home at Goldsmiths, University of London in the Department of Media and Communications since 1994 . . .

This has a certain resonance for me, mainly because, like Blackman’s, my research does not fit into one easily-labelled discipline. I am far from settled in art as well as in life. In my viva the examiners asked me where I would shelve my thesis if I worked in a university library. I responded to their question with jokes about how I do work in a university library and I wouldn’t touch it with the proverbial sharp stick an argument that I would like to see it in the 780s (780.1?), even if some scholars might argue it doesn’t quite belong there. But this masks a sense that this is in fact a deeper concern for me. Like Blackman, I think I am the kind of scholar who will find an intellectual home in a particular department or research group rather than in any one subject as a whole.

Later in the book Blackman considers the idea of intellectual genealogies, and I’m reminded that sometimes it’s important to remember where I come from as well as where I’d like to be going. Thinking through answers to the question ‘where do I come from?’ is perhaps another way of thinking about home. Put like that, a sort of disciplinary family tree, then I am perhaps more aligned to musicology than a simple description of some of my current work might reveal. Though it’s also hard to forget that somewhere in my scholarly-DNA I’ve inherited more than a few attributes from my inter-disciplinary beginning at Dartington College of Arts.

DCA has gone, merged, changed. I’m still looking for home.  I hope I will find a similarly stimulating and creative intellectual home elsewhere, but I still feel the gentle tug of the tide in South Devon. No doubt like many aspiring academics, I’ve been wondering if there‘s a way I can have both. Over the past couple of weeks I’ve started to think more about how home and my desire for an academic job intersect, to consider whether I’d be willing to live and work anywhere for the elusive full-time contract. Increasingly the answer is, ‘no’.  Don’t get me wrong; I’d love an academic job, but it has to be the right one.

Until now I was too willing to write off the alternatives because of the widely-held attitude that anything less than a full-time lectureship or research fellowship is a failure, something that marks out a lesser mind. Of course, financial considerations have to be taken into account too, and I’m no supporter of the way the system seems to be shifting towards contingent labour (an excess of short-term, part-time, or even zero hours contracts can’t be good for either academic staff or their students). My career-making, I suspect, will be magpie-like; some leaves from here, twigs from there. I’ll do my best to steal the opportunities that will make it sparkle. Perhaps it’s worth moving back to a geographical home, too. Maybe my nesting would be better-served by the metaphor of putting down roots and then branching out.