A year of pondering ivy

I’ve been postponing writing this final blog for SAYAS. Why? For one thing, I’ve always been bad at goodbyes. Although in this case, as our fabulous editor Jennifer Fitchett aptly said, ‘it will never be goodbye, just less contact’. Even parties I usually prefer to leave quietly without drawing attention to my exit. But writing for SAYAS was an experience that warrants at least an attempt at finding some recounting words. Also because I find the blog’s mission of creating a platform for genuine stories, shared by young academics, imperative to creating an environment where support and openness trumps the overwrought image of the academic as a stoic, objective, singular figure. At least, that’s my own interpretation of the platform. 

Blogging for SAYAS spanned quite a few significant experiences for me: from submitting my PhD thesis, via having to revise and re-submit it after that, to finally learning that I will receive my degree. I also got to share my thoughts while searching for work, figuring out which of my interests to focus on in the process, and starting a postdoctoral position. This all transpired during a time when academic life is still almost exclusively happening online (due to COVID-19), providing an additional spin to grappling with the social and political fundamentals embedded in academia.

Overall, it was a period of really pondering whether academia is where I envision myself for the foreseeable future. In my introductory blog for SAYAS, I said that it is ethnography, the immersive research method in anthropology, rather than the discipline itself that I feel at home with. But what is increasingly relevant for me is the institutional dynamics within which I can apply myself and whether they can form a place of conviviality. The latter is a concept that has been developed and dignified by the works of my PhD supervisor, Professor Francis Nyamnjoh. It has been significant in how I think about being human, being a scholar and imbued in the webs of power of universities. For the moment, I suppose, you will still find me at one of those institutions – as difficult, hierarchical and frustrating as they sometimes are.

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An ivy-covered door to a building at the University of Cape Town. For me, quite symbolic of the elitism (like that of the US-American so-called ‘ivy league’ of hight-status colleges including Harvard) that tends to get reproduced through academic conceptions.

My decision to apply mostly for postdoctoral positions after the PhD also had to do with attending various events that were accessible for free due to in-person conferences, symposia and seminars being moved online throughout the pandemic. Apart from interesting content, I picked up the gist that there is more desire for invigorating exchanges than I had thought. There are always people who seek to reimagine what seems unshakable. My hope is that such spaces for conversation will be made more accessible, even after restrictions on global movements are eased, as many scholars won’t have the luxury of access to the lavish funds that are needed to attend. 

Writing and thus creating some coherence to the messiness of being human is a practice that can be very calming for me. It has been for long, yet I spend most of my writing time writing for something – for a degree or for being published. Rarely do I set time aside to write for just myself. Which is a pity! If I were a person to make new year resolutions, this may be one. 

So taking ‘writing time’ to just think through all the things that were happening this year, the ordeals and moments of relief, was rather curative. However, sharing my thoughts and vulnerabilities in this blog was not always easy. Publishing quite personal reflections is still quite new to me and has, sometimes, put me out of my comfort zone. But it did encourage me to advocate for (and practice) a less varnished form of academic communication. And I believe that it takes this openness and putting one’s guard down to really achieve a more approachable, companionable scholarship. One that illustrates some resistance to creeping ivy coverage – as presentable as it may be.

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.