Thoughts on TAPRA and Academia In General…

Yesterday, I presented my paper at TAPRA and it went down pretty well, I think. Presenting it to an audience of 8 or 9 people and having only a few brief moments of discussion about it, though, has made me really think about the impact of academic work on the wider world and about what I’m even doing here.

Maria X presenting her paper.

For many years, I was super suspicious of higher education (and particularly research at higher education institutions) because I perceived it to be exclusive and exclusionary: the ‘Ivory Tower’ metaphor seemed apt to me. I have a highly unusual background with expertise in all sorts of different spheres of life, including working in corporate America and in non-profit fundraising for arts and culture organizations. I also learned my craft as an artist by interning, volunteering, working for free and eventually building a sense of my own artistic interests through a process of trial and error (often public error as in one of my first shows in NYC…). I thought that this experience of doing was somehow more valuable than what I perceived to be the distant and theoretical domain of higher education. It took me a long time to revise that opinion and eventually decide to get an MA and then a PhD. It was not an easy decision nor really a confident one: I came back into higher education still suspicious of it.

What I found when I did my MA and PhD, and when I started teaching in a more regular way during my studies, was that it was not as black and white as I had imagined it. My experience at Lancaster University, where I did my MA and PhD and at MMU where I was an Associate Lecturer for a few years before taking my current post there, was that although imperfect, higher education offered a unique space to be indulgent in the production of ideas and new knowledge. And I really enjoyed that indulgence. I discovered that I knew a lot more than I thought I did about theoretical perspectives relating to performance and theatre – much of it gleaned organically over years of working professionally. I also discovered that I loved interacting with students and developing new models for expressing my ideas to them.

I also had a number of my suspicions verified – higher education can be extremely closed and really disconnected from the stuff that happens in the world outside of academia. The number of times I’ve had to defend my practice as research is slightly astonishing, especially considering the number of people who teach practical courses without ever having had a practice. I remain suspicious of people who are entrenched in academia and who seem certain of their ideas without ever having tested them in practical situations. I am also always reminded of my own limitations as someone who can be impatient and irritable when faced with institutional structures that force us to work more like pieces of Lego and less like real people with real ideas, emotions, and perspectives on the world. I’ve been frustrated by being used to plug a hole in a curriculum as opposed to being able to bring my particular skills to my teaching. This might be partly my own problem – I fight for what I believe in but often I give in or give up because sometimes it is too exhausting fighting all the time. And of course, there is only so much flexibility in the UK’s rigid curriculum system (as opposed to in the US where you can create new specialist units quite regularly). I’ve also come to value those colleagues who know their limitations when it comes to teaching particular areas (be it theoretical or practical); I try to remain aware of my own limitations as a teacher, although I am often forced to do things I don’t agree with pedagogically (like give big lectures – which are proven to be ineffective ways of conveying information).

When it comes to research, I’ve found the institutional structures where I work to be completely antagonistic to conducting great research. In order to be research active, I work 90+ hours a week and am still always behind. And then, after an enormous effort, I come to a conference where there are 8-9 people to hear me talk. It is utterly depressing on one level to think that my reach is so limited. Is this because I don’t have a ‘name’ yet and I don’t work at a red brick institution (the hierarchy between ‘new’ universities and ‘research’ universities is uber-apparent at TAPRA)? Is it because I was scheduled on the first day when a number of people had not yet arrived? Is it because what I was talking about isn’t interesting to people? Is it because the abstracts and bios for this conference where not provided to any of the delegates for some strange reason? Is it just the nature of these kinds of conferences where there are eight sessions happening in parallel? I’m not sure – it is probably a mix of all of these things, but it really depresses me to think that my work (and the amazing work of the other people in my working group who have also presented brilliant papers) is not reaching very many people. Why haven’t the sessions been recorded, I wonder? Is ‘reach’ in this sense not that useful of a distinction/requirement to be making?

I know that part of what happens in academia is that those of us doing research play around with ideas, prototypes, and performance projects that eventually find another audience or have a secondary impact – they bleed into the world outside of academia through our students as well. Although my paper had a limited audience, I’ve given a version of it a few times now to students in the states and in Canada and I’ll probably publish it. It is also on this blog for anyone who happens to follow it (for some reason). I also know that the work I talk about in the paper (Fortnight) has a much bigger impact than my paper about it. But somehow, I can’t help but feel a desire (perhaps this is just my ego needing feeding?) for an engaging conversation, and a wider reach.

This is probably a slightly rambling blog post; I think it is symptomatic of larger feelings I am having that are causing me to really wonder about what I’m doing in academia. In the moment of teaching I often feel like I’m really doing something good (although less so now that I teach almost nothing that I’m specialist at), and when I see my students graduate I get a bit teary eyed. But at the moment, at this particular moment, I’m feeling really unsure if I’ve found the right way to have my research heard or the right way to cut through the petty politics of university rankings and academic egos to get truly interesting ideas on the table for discussion. Idealistically, I just want for there to be space and time for good research and teaching to take place and for it to matter to people. And I really want conferences to be inspiring (like the brilliant Getting It Out There Symposium at Lancaster University). Perhaps as I spend more time here at TAPRA, I’ll find a way to feel more confident, more valued as a member of a (supposed) community of thinkers who have paid to be here. I hope so…

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