This is a guest contribution.
A couple of years ago, a doctoral advisee was at the crossroads of what he could explore for his future dissertation. During the meeting, my brilliant Michigan State University colleague, Lynn Fendler, asked: “what kind of methodological lifestyle do you want to live? Do you see yourself engaged in talking to people? Do you see yourself analyzing images?” Lynn basically suggested going beyond the usual linear approach: reading the literature, developing a research question, and then choosing our methodology.
In the dominant research mode in the social sciences, knowing shapes our being. In other words, the methodologies or methods (ways of knowing) we choose in research tends to carve the lifestyle we are going to embody (our being) in daily life. Instead, Lynn recommended that we reframe the process and allow being (embodiment) to shape our ways of knowing. Answering the question, “how do you want to see yourself living everyday in research?” can also guide our future research journeys. This question followed by Lynn’s elaboration was like a welcome tsunami that swirled all my disparate research journeys into a coherent whole. Let me explain.
As someone who has lived a transnational life (embodying multiple citizenships), and interdisciplinary education from the medical sciences to social sciences, I never felt belonging in one field/discipline, theory, or geographic context. I often use the metaphor that I am a nomad. This nomadic lifestyle made me feel inferior for lacking the ability or will to stick to one topic, one theoretical perspective, or one geographic context as an object of study. I always felt I was a rhizome rooted in so many others, rather than a tree rooted in one place.
Lynn’s question helped me make sense of my research career so far, and here I elaborate on how and why, hoping that this would in turn help you, the reader, articulate or guide your own research journey. The following four ingredients have been pivotal to my methodological lifestyle.
I love writing. Writing offers me to “voice” the spirit within and an important way of knowing. At first I hated writing. But, my relationship with writing changed once I discovered the gems in the writing journey, and its outcomes. Scholarly writing, for me, is not an end-product or a means of communicating something in print. It is rather a journey to making sense of the world around me. I write because the very act of writing helps me discover and articulate the disconnections, the ambivalences, or resonances that I feel with the world, ideas and/or phenomena of interest. And, I like to experiment and hone on my writing skills to help me center my own voice.
Anyone who reads my work would notice that I write a lot of theoretical or conceptual pieces. I enjoy the daily grind of bridging different bodies of thought (e.g., time and shame in neoliberal academy), or grafting a certain theory upon an object of analysis (e.g. decolonial theory in globalizing higher education policy), or apply a non-normative research approach (e.g. visual cultural studies) to existing scholarly debates (e.g. unpacking Whiteness gaze or Asian campus gaze in global university ranking websites). I wondered, for instance, how would centering affect theory, or the concept of methodological nationalism, or lemonade metaphor, change the terms of our conversation, if we are to bring these theories, concepts, or metaphors, to our Higher Education scholarship (e.g. university rankings, or higher education research, or university access, respectively)?
Creativity, fun, and intellectual stimulation
Scholarly research is hard tedious work. But, what makes it easier is when fun, creativity, and intellectual stimulation can be injected into it. My scholarship is affirming when I am working with new ideas, new data, new geographic contexts, and/or methods. This helps to situate me at the edges of knowing and arena of learning. I am currently at my edges of knowing as I grapple with affect theory, or temporality scholarship, and/or making sense of the role of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in education.
As a qualitative researcher who predominantly worked with narratives and text, photographs became a breath of fresh air to tease out what they have to say in light of larger social processes. It felt more enjoyable and exciting, thrilling to look at images that seemed much more dynamic rather than printed words on paper or screen. Hence, visual studies became an entry point to “touch” or “feel” the world in a different way than the normative statistics, or heavy-word based research. Currently, I am critically examining social media platforms (e.g. twitter and facebook) or popular movies to expand my horizons.
A collaborative lifestyle
I enjoy collaborative work when there is intellectual stimulation. I strive for interactions with colleagues, graduate students, and practitioners, in writing projects. Collectively, they help me make sense of the objects of analysis, or theories we are using, along with how to go about writing up all our ideas. I look forward to such meetings, as we collectively plan, brainstorm, problem solve, inspire each other, hold each other accountable, laugh, and celebrate our achievements. I also get to witness the world of ideas through their standpoints. Hence, collaboration allows me to mentor and be mentored by my collaborators.
Close to home
As a father of two kids and as a partner, I strive to make sure family came first, and then work. This lifestyle has informed my epistemological and methodological choices. For instance, I refrained from engaging in big or externally funded empirical projects as I was concerned that they would stifle my family time. Empirical work, particularly grant research, also imposed spatial orders in our lives (i.e. travel to collect data, go to funding meetings, etc), and particular temporal orders (project time, deadlines) that I didn’t want in my life. Hence, I focused my scholarship on theoretical and conceptual work as it provided me the freedom to explore and write about topics from my home, or work office, without demanding time and space away from family. This does not mean I don’t engage in any empirical work, but tend to use non-obtrusive methods, collect data easily accessible via the internet (e.g. policy texts, visual media, social media and so on), so that I can maintain such a lifestyle.
I am aware that not all can afford or have the privilege of living these forms of methodological lifestyles based on one’s discipline, social positionality, and material conditions. However, no matter what your social positionality and discipline are, I hope my reflections remind you of the importance of process (and being), rather than the angst of taming one’s futurity through research outcomes (e.g. publications, promotion, graduation etc) driving your knowing and being (see time and shame in neoliberal academy). In my experiences, the emphasis on the former (though difficult to maintain sometimes) has helped me take care of the latter.
What kind of methodological lifestyle do you want to live? What do you envision in the name of writing or research? Amid a global pandemic, these are particularly important questions to reflect upon as writing and research may seem insignificant during these trying times. Yet ironically, if we can find our renewed purpose, meaning, or joy within the process of research now, then it can offer a generative outlet for our bodies and spirits amid such precarity.
I hope my reflections have opened up vistas for you to make sense of your ways of being in research.
The post has also been published on Being Lazy and Slowing Down.
Riyad A. Shahjahan is an Associate Professor of Higher, Adult and Life Long Education (HALE) at Michigan State University, USA. He is also a core faculty member of Muslim Studies, Chicano/Latino Studies, Asian Studies Center, and Center for Advanced Study of International Development. His areas of research interests are in globalization of higher education policy, temporality and embodiment in higher education, cultural studies, and de/anti/postcolonial theory. He is also a certified Faculty Coach for the National Center of Faculty Diversity and Development (NCFDD) and co-editor of the blog: http://lazyslowdown.com/