Finding the asset behind a stammer

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My past blog posts have covered the topics of the lengthy wait for my PhD outcome, having to undergo the process of revising and resubmitting my thesis, and the challenges in looking for work after submission. I want to use this month’s blog talk about the experience of undertaking my first academic job interview in my mother tongue, German. This happened after 10 years of only speaking German once a week on the phone with family or during their visits. I have barely any experience using the academic jargon of Anthropology in German.

Admittedly, I already had some jitters days before my interview for a postdoctoral position at a University in Germany. I suppose that comes with the nature of job interviews. Performing well when knowing I have a limited time frame to showcase my skills and knowledge has never been my strong suit – which is why exam season was always a time of suffering for me. I got better with these kinds of situations over the years. Now, I feel at home enough in my field, Social Anthropology, and my areas of expertise (among them digitalisation, identity and migration as well as sexuality and gender) to be quite comfortable speaking at conferences and having critical discussions with both experts and those new to the topic.

It is a confidence is something that was slowly and painstakingly cultivated over time and mostly during the last 10 years of my life. Central to it were supportive key figures like my first supervisor, Dr Divine Fuh. These pivotal years I spent in Cape Town – working, studying, exploring and loving, being encouraged and discouraged. Along the way, as I often felt, my German mother-tongue became second character. Even when casually catching up with family and friends in German, I find myself lacking eloquence and stumbling over my words. The phrase ‘what is it called…’ is well-used in those conversations. Well, so far so natural. It is an unsurprising side-effect of moving to a place where one has to adapt to a different language. Mobile, linguistic implants of this sort are an expanding global occurrence. For the most part, wrestling for the right word is simply something that makes me feel a little frustrated in certain moments, especially when I am trying to explain my work and share what I have been engulfed in all this time. After the interview (which I will return to in a moment), I started thinking about this as more than an occasional verbal hiccup.

Enthusiasm turned heebie-jeebies the closer the interview date came and the more I prepared for it. My dad, who has experience in interviewing people, asked me some well-intentioned so-called ‘soft skill questions’, which he finds to be the most important. This was when I started getting tense: if I stumble over my German words trying to answer these questions, how badly would I come across when translating academic concepts in my head? After all, I had done pretty much all of my university studies in English. ‘I just have to get into the groove of things’, I told myself and started writing down the answers to all the questions that I could think of in German and then read through my mini-essays over and over again. Chatting via WhatsApp with a friend of mine who is very familiar with my academic work and journey a day before the interview, she sought to motivate me and said all the right things. It’s normal, she assured, to have gone through many shifts and changes after such a long time, and for these to include my language. Yes, I responded with a half-convincing laugh, it really is an asset hidden behind a stammer. Yet, language in its broadest form can be an immensely powerful resource. It can be potent; it can tremble with desire. As Roland Barthes puts it ‘language is a skin: I rub my language against the other. It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of my words.’

When the big morning arrived and I had set myself up in front of my laptop with a coffee and smoothie (my stomach did not welcome solid food in my excitement). I was ready for a brief report and introduction. The online meeting finally started, and I briefly tried to check out the little squares on the screen with each person’s face in them, all of whom I had previously googled. There was not much time for this as my interviewers rushed to introduce themselves in one sentence each and, seamlessly, asked me to move on to the presentation of my planned project. I was completely thrown off. I was, of course, more than prepared to go through my five-minute pitch, but that seemed to have limited relevance, given that I had already provided a written version of it in my application. Most of my more soft-skill oriented notes that I had hung onto the days before the interview and that were meant to help smooth over the introductory stress were of no use. As scholars interested in human conditions, I was certain that my interviewers would lead the conversation perhaps not by asking about my well-being, but at least about the situation in South Africa during this extraordinary COVID-19 lockdown times. I have found small talk (cynical though as I had initially been towards it upon moving to SA) to have a comforting effect and to add casual feel to otherwise somewhat solemn academic settings.

Trying to read into the little faces in the little Zoom windows, I felt as though my well-practiced presentation itself had no room to offer an impression of myself as a scholar and person. My answers felt superficial and overpowered by a sense of being removed from my element to an extent that I had not anticipated. Words wobbled out of my mouth without real intent. Listening to myself, I felt acutely aware that most of them lacked traction. About 20 minutes into the 1-hour-interview, I was disillusioned and had internally resigned. I responded knowing that I could not bring across what I had set out to and was wishing away the digital disconnect of the computer screens between myself and the people evaluating me. It seemed as though direct access physical ‘access’ to my interviewers might still let my expressions and body language speak for myself with some veracity. My skin would, perhaps, be better able to communicate my desires.

Woman touching virtual screen futuristic social media cove… | Flickr

When it was all said and done and the window on my laptop screen had been closed, I just wanted to cry out my frustration. After going for a walk and calming down (and a phone call with the person who knows me best without me having to use any words, my mother), I told myself that it was a worthwhile experience anyway. Not just because telling oneself that every experience has some kind of worth is comforting, and also not merely because I believe it prepared me better for interviews that might still come, but mostly because it was an opportunity to think about what I want, where I want to be and what that may mean. Not least of all it is an inspiration to think about what the last 10 years in South Africa have meant for me.

On academic detachment and relational research

A few months ago, I started a postdoctoral position at the University of Cape Town. Becoming part of an environment of active and supportive(!) scholarly exchange made me realise how much I had conditioned myself to work independently so far in my still rather pubescent academic life. While that is not a bad thing per se, I firmly believe that research is inherently relational. It is a form of knowledge production that requires a stimulus beyond stoically practicing data collection and writing in the ways we have learnt to be academically sound.

I have technically been working ‘from home’ for quite some years now. Doing my Masters by dissertation meant that I was only on campus for departmental seminars and irregular meetings with my thesis supervisor. This was after I had done a six-week qualitative research project on refugees in Cape Town and practices of dreaming for my Honours degree, which had given me an appetite for more in-depth research. I missed being part of academic life during my Masters but was really excited to conduct my first long-term ethnographic fieldwork. It allowed me the time and space to immerse myself in a topic for much longer – this time doing research on suburban neighbourhood surveillance groups. I would get a degree for spending my time observing, interviewing and writing – I was thrilled! And it really was a great experience at the time, even if not without ups and downs. I established my routines and enjoyed being able to do so without being impeded by class schedules and other academic obligations.

After embracing my degree certificate for my work, which, thankfully, had not felt torturously laborious for the most part, I worked for a health research organisation for three years remotely. Even though the topics I got to research interested me, my junior status and the fact that the project I was hired to work on did not materialise had me working on bits and pieces of other peoples’ projects. There was therefore no substantial, stimulating exchange with colleagues beyond brief Skype updates. When the situation did not change and funding became even more limited, I pursued my PhD on Tinder dating – another opportunity to spend A LOT of time talking to people about a topic that fascinates me.

I have always embraced a sense of independence. As a younger girl, I envisioned myself growing into a journalist when older, travelling around the world, covering all kinds of exciting topics. The anthropologist I grew to embody instead has roamed the world much less than I would have liked – mostly for funding reasons. I have, however, still managed to go out and explore the very themes I felt strongly about. It has taken a moment, but I feel like I’m getting closer to positioning myself in academia and thinking of myself as a ‘digital anthropologist’ – whatever that may actually mean. Especially through writing many an application in search for a postdoc, summarising my interests concisely over and over helped with that.

Having my first ‘proper’ (as in, fully paid) position pursuing my own research interests and now being part of a lively even if still remotely operating academic environment makes me feel the last years of academic detachment. Particularly so after the past 1.5 years of COVID-19-enforced remoteness. I am hungry for fieldwork and even more hungry for exchanging ideas with other scholars. Scholars, that is, who harbour a collaborative rather than a competitive sentiment – something that is not to be taken for granted.

I got a strong sense of what a collaborative spirit can do when attending my first hybrid workshop on UCT campus the other day. The big screen was not working and the five of us who were present in person were all still looking at our respective computer screens with our facial expressions hidden behind masks. And still, it was a very different feeling from following the same meeting from my kitchen table. The workshop went on for more than three hours, but I felt enlivened by the mere physical proximity of colleagues with whom I could exchange thoughts on our projects located within the same research cluster. It may have been the combination of the ability to share our progress and insecurities within this space, working on a similar research topic and having been deprived of unmediated support for a long time that made for this animating effect.

For me, the takeaway from these experiences is to, yes, embrace the autonomy research allows me when it comes to going to a certain field and approaching a topic in an exploratory manner – even though this autonomy in always also impeded by funding, institutional expectations and the pressures to fit moulds in academia. And the way things have panned out for me also cautions me to value not just my relations to the people I work with when conducting research but also academic environments that offer me space to develop frameworks to think with. Even if it is sometimes hard to admit, at the end of the day, none of it can be done alone.