In year four of my Ph.D program, doubt sets in. I’ll be plain about my studies: I’ve done terribly with my benchmarks, those milestones of progress that should pace me through “normative” time to earning the doctorate. To be clear, the demands are by no means unreasonable. I should at this point have completed my oral exams after finishing my position papers. I’ve drafted my position papers, one a review of research, another an empirical study, and a third paper that serves as a draft proposal for my dissertation project. Only one of those has completed the review process, and the other two have gathered varying degrees of dust on a digital shelf, having already garnered valuable feedback from my advisor and classmates, awaiting my attention like starved offspring. Also, a paper I was invited to submit to a publication, the not-yet-ripe fruit of a long collaboration with some very willing and thoughtful research partners, also sits and waits. I believe in all these projects. They are rich with data, with conceptual relevance, well-articulated methodology, meaningful findings. They sit and wait. I can’t bear to revise them. It is grinding and grueling work for me, combing through my own writing, re-writing and seeking clarity, making the judgment of Solomon for concision’s sake. I need to approach it with freshness, stamina, and expanses of time. The first I find from time to time, the latter two elude me, and always have.
I admit I feel at this point like I’m languishing, my scholarly career in a prenatal ICU, caught in the contradiction between not having enough funding to focus on the work and not having focused on the work enough to be competitive for funding. My first semester was a sunlit backstroke on a Maui beach, and then my daughter was born and time disappeared in a diaper-shaped vacuum. Stints of teaching, working at my church, family and family and family, all those local and familiar attachments of not having moved away for graduate school, and then the scholar-related chances at teaching, publication, research projects… all have left no margins for the clean, well-lighted place and the uninterrupted time to apprentice in the rigors of fifth drafts, peer review, lengthy reading lists. I read, read constantly, read widely, read promiscuously, read fruitfully… but in scattered bits, like a desperate prisoner squirreling away illicit bits of food and sunlight. Meanwhile, by day, I keep hustlin’ for fatherhood, for meaningful labor in schools, for these other facets that I cannot divorce from myself, the million yeses I could not no, rows of doors opened for me or that I’ve pried open that I cannot shut.
So much dissatisfaction in a life that should feel satisfying makes me question whether to continue trying to become a scholar. An analogy: my spotty bilingualism. Mandarin was my first language, the earliest language of my consciousness, the first reservoirs of culture, the primal sounds of intimacy. But moving to the US, my literacy in English soared and my literacy in Chinese dissipated, and with them my access to the productive capacities of those language structures. Yet, even though as a ninth grader, I routinely read 19th century British literature, crime novels, and dramatic theory, I did not know the difference between what was called a “stove” and an “oven”. I could distinguish regional accents of Mandarin but forgot how to write “dog.” Gaps. Glaring gaps. The side effect of inhabiting multiple worlds.
My formation as a scholar, divided as it has been with all these other obligations, is riddled with gaps. I haven’t done any conference presentations. Haven’t even written a proposal for one. I’ve written hundreds of pages but can’t get myself to turn in twenty-five. I have not served on any committees– I have to be home by dinner time. I’ve joined all the organizations but contributed to none, not even attended their meetings or conferences– I have to take mom to the doctor. I’ve accumulated repositories of journal articles and books about my research areas, but can’t pull together my orals list– I lost a whole summer selling our house, renting another one, and moving. It goes on and on like this.
And I have to question my readiness to enroll in scholarly work as a whole-life endeavor. Research engages me, especially the kind of research I get to do, the horizons of research that are humanizing and decolonizing and reflexively rigorous, the possibilities of what research can introduce us to and how it can engage practice. I appreciate critiques and the opportunity to refine my work. But I have insufficient space and capacity for them in a hard drive and CPU so tasked with being a good dad, and drafting rubrics, and expounding Scriptures, and maintaining loyal friendships, and keeping up with my cherished former students. I don’t know that I really want to sacrifice those, whether that is even a possibility. Even leaving aside for a moment the extra-professional spheres, I don’t know that I want to give up chatty lunchtimes and teacher collaborations and curating educative experiences for lectureships and grant-writing and checking citations.
My ambitions have always been that I can have it all, the opportunity to study, to speak to the world, to remain a teacher for equity and justice, to be a family man, to be a follower of Jesus. What I did not count adequately before, what I always fail to account for, is the unavoidable costs of such a division of self. No matter how integrated my vision, no matter how productive the cross-pollination of identities and roles, each day still only has 24 hours, each month only its 35 days. Oh, wait.
A professor who I have not worked closely with but whose advice I cherish once challenged me with a hard, direct question: do you really want to be a researcher? Do you really want to do academic work? My enthusiastic yes at the time is now wavering under the strains and the tradeoffs. Usually, such tensions feel right, necessary, appropriate. Today, my fingers reach for the white flag.