Thoughts on Academia

As the most junior member of the CARE team, I find myself in a unique position. I’m both trying to earn my wings while trying to soar alongside wonderfully talented, eager, and intelligent colleagues. Frankly, I feel blessed just to be able to keep up with them, and I still have so much to learn about being an academic, a hard-earned profession that puts you in a position of great expertise and authority. This semester, I’ve been attending a graduate research seminar. In this course, I get to hear from many different academics who have been invited to speak to us about the rigors of their work, the process of graduate school, and the struggles and rewards of academic life. After sitting through what must be the sixth or seventh guest speaker, I’ve began noticing a common theme – these academics, who have been through the baptismal fire that is the doctoral degree program and have lived to tell the tale, tend to come with the same cautionary tale: it’s going to be much more difficult for you than it was for me. Specifically, and eerily I’ve heard almost the exact words from two separate speakers, it’s going to be a lot more difficult for you to find a job than it was for me ten years ago. More often than not, these talks both inspire me and fill me with dread. For one thing, these people are living witnesses of how it is possible to succeed in the cutthroat world of academia. At the same time, we, the graduate students dying to be in their shoes, are being told the bar has been raised, often to impossible-sounding standards. Journals are being more stringent. Colleges are being more picky of who they hire. Conferences only select a tiny fraction from the hordes of eager entrants. A fresh doctoral or masters graduate is more than ever expected to have a modest body of published work under his/her belt. On the one hand, I find myself wishing that I’d been born a decade or two earlier. After all, it’s so much more difficult to find something original to say, when most of it has already been said by a multitude of other faceless intellectuals. At the same time, I wonder why so much is being expected of us wanting so hard to leave our mark on the world, and to, in clichéd speak, make a difference. After all, how fair is it to raise standards far beyond what current academics could have achieved in their early days? What is the goal of academia: to safeguard the value of knowledge? Or to further strengthen the boundaries of what constitutes “true” expertise? Does that mean those who make it over the wall are better than those who’ve been on the inside for decades upon decades, and who in themselves have been adding layers upon layers of brick and reinforcement to the surrounding battlements? I know I could be so easily accused of naiveté, but when I signed up for my graduate degree, I always envisioned academia as a space where ideas flow freely, where voices freely engage in debate for the betterment of Mankind. More and more, I find that my voice is constantly being told it’s not up to par, that it needs to conform to a mould far beyond my control before it is even worth listening to. I find myself wondering, if my ideas need to be poked, prodded and massaged to meet the ideals of those set before me, then what of those whom my own ideas are meant to help? Is their knowledge not legitimate? What is the point in me trying to intellectually raise myself far beyond the capacity of those I’m meant to be helping? Does a graduate degree make me more “capable?” Or less, because I no longer converse in the same way they do? What is the expertise of the academic? Elevating mundane, common ideas to an intellectual playing field where the rules are so strictly defined and enforced to safeguard the legitimacy and authority of the players, which at the same time, shuts out those who actually produce these “mundane, common” ideas? Are they not experts for being the originators of knowledge, no matter how “primitive” they are deemed to be? Where will I be in ten years time? Finding myself helping others, or struggling to make myself understood by the people who most need help? I’m sure there are many views regarding academia, and I in my junior position, who’s still attempting to scale a wall that keeps rising, fail to see. For now, I eagerly await the day when my ideas will finally be judged as worthy of being listened to and good enough to help others.

Sometimes we mistake what LISTENING truly is…

Listening does not always (and should not always) result in the listener offering his or her idea of a “solution.” Instead, authentic listening should allow us to hear first-hand the reality of how others’ experiences shape their understanding/behaviors/decision-making while being honest with ourselves about what influences the way we interpret the experiences of others. Listening can only be achieved through “acknowledging the humanity of the other by creating spaces of their voices” (as Dr. Dutta told us in our meeting today). I learn so much from my team members at our CARE meetings and today was no exception! We discussed how we often “listen” with the intention of solving, making judgments, and we must even acknowledge that frequently, we are not really listening to others at all. When we listen with the goal of imposing of our own agenda or preconceived biases,  we will miss the uniqueness of every person’s story. And if stories are lost to our assumed homogeneity, conclusions of comparisons, and restrictive structures, we also lose such a large part of understanding who communities are. It is essential to acknowledge how our own past experience, education, power, and worldviews can affect how we listen to the stories of others in order to truly engage in authentic listening. Kang (a Postdoc on the CARE team), so beautifully illustrated how our interpretive filters are dynamic, having a constant effect on our perceptions. He gave this example: The first time you see a new landscape, like walking to work for the first time and seeing a unique building, perhaps you have the urge to take a picture of it, to capture its essence. However, maybe the next week, that “new” landscape becomes commonplace to you, and you don’t have the same urge to photograph it or note its significance. What you once saw as captivating you now see as usual. This is not inherently a negative process, but it does remind us that our perceptive process is constantly changing and thus the way we engage in and interpret the narratives of others changes, too. We must always remember to bring ourselves back to the inspiration for the CARE center, PARTICIPATORY research aimed at developing community-driven health communication solutions. At the very heart of this dialogical exchange is learning to engage in authentic listening to the powerful stories of disenfranchised populations. Rephrasing Dr. Dutta’s charge for our team at our last meeting: When we are listening to stories, we must enact mindfulness and suspend judgment. We must remember humility which is what I hope for all of us at CARE. Only when we start with humility can we embrace being authentic.

The door to the new home for our CARE lab[/caption] I have been so inspired by the discussions with my fellow members of the CARE team. Here’s to the start of us practicing authentic listening through discussions in our new CARE lab (coincidentally(?) labeled the “Inspiration Room” by NUS).