Much like a painter or a sculptor moulds their soul onto a project, so does a doctoral candidate lay their very essence into a document that would forever be laid bare for others to admire or admonish. As Africans, across the colour spectrum, we often get bombarded with statistics about how South Africa, and Africa in general, does not produce enough doctoral candidates. What all these statistics and policy laments seem to forget is the human element in producing a doctoral thesis. Living in a social context that has dual expectations of its emerging academics: put your nose in your books and figure out solutions to the countries problems; on the other hand, always keep your mind on the fact that you’re expected to plough back into your community sooner rather than later.
My journey as a black African female PhD candidate has been a very interesting one. The very nature of being black and female already socially locates you in your interactions with colleagues, and your community of practice. There is an unspoken pressure to conform to “rules” that nobody ever voices out loud: be confident but not seen as aggressive; be well read and articulate but not appear arrogant; and, take initiative but do come off as bossy… amongst other ridiculous unspoken rules.
Certainly, all women, regardless of race, have undue pressure placed upon them but the weight of the pressure is made more acute by their intersecting identities. Some identities have a heavier burden than others.
My other identities are as wife and a mother of two children, each identity with its own pressures and complications. What does this have to do with completing a thesis? A lot. Writing any piece of academic work entails you wearing two hats simultaneously: a researcher hat and that of a writer. The work you ultimately produce is a reflection of your skill, labour, spirit and how much you have been able to translate your knowledge into a piece that is capable of impacting your reader in some way. Putting it differently, there is a constant tension between the creative and the academic.
All these unspoken pressures have a way of either spurring you on to produce something worthy or pushing you completely off course. In the Atlantic’s Creative Breakthrough Series, Ta-Nehisi Coates, an author and journalist, provides profound advice on writing. I would like to share two gems, put in my own words: innovations come from pressure; and, to become better writers we need to write more. This truth is the same for academic composition- at least in my opinion. Every thesis chapter that I write, revise, and rewrite, has made me a better writer. The academy, at least in South Africa, is pretty good at teaching research and data mining skills but not how to write. Yet, the art of writing is one of the most powerful tools of communication and provides a snapshot of who we are.
What does your snapshot reflect?