A little in love with Laurel

When I was doing my PhD, one of the doctoral students in my research programme said to me one day that she was uncomfortable with the kind of academic she felt she was being forced to become. It was a novel thought; I had not stopped to consider that along with the reading, writing and discussing was also an identity formation programme, a subterranean idea of what a doctoral candidate should be, how this person should behave and what she should aspire to.

Since then, I’ve been way more attentive to this idea of an academic identity and how the choices you have to keep on making (get involved in that research group, put an article into that journal, collaborate with that person) shape this identity. And if you sit, as I do, in a department like journalism and media studies, then it’s easy for all the different fields and people you relate to (journalists and editors on the one hand, theorists on the other), to make you feel equally illegitimate no matter who you are talking to at the time!

It can be hard to hold on to your hard-thought through commitments when your identity is on the line.

I’ve been using Laurel Richardson as a bush-clearer, path-maker, sense-giver because of these very dilemmas and difficulties. Richardson is emeritus professor of sociology at Ohio State University where she is in the graduate faculty in women’s studies (so a feminist too; tick). I first encountered her brand of honest trail-blazing in that bible of qualitative research edited by Normal Denzin and Yvonna Lincoln.

Her chapter in the book “Writing a method of inquiry” (page 923) makes the fairly radical claim (radical because I ain’t heard nobody say this before Laurel did) and one that is music to the ears of people like me who are writers before they are researchers or academics, that writing IS research. It isn’t just the necessary bit you do to pull the research together, it isn’t the packaging after the questions are all asked and the answers all sewed up, it is the very engine of the process, the means, the way to figure things out. The mechanism to understand how you the researcher/sense-maker and the material you are working with relate to each other.

That idea rearranged my head in terms of doing research. But it also rearranged my thoughts about how to carve out an academic identity for myself by putting at the core of what I do my commitment to writing as a creative, useful, valuable activity of discovery AND communication.

For years I survived just on that one chapter and strangely enough didn’t go looking for more of Laurel. But just recently I discovered that she had put her own thoughts about carving our her own career on paper, in the book Fields of Play: Constructing an Academic Life (Rutgers University Press 1997).

RIchardson works hard to interweave the personal and sociological in this account of her experimentations, she begins by telling us that she is applying the “sociological imagination to the act of writing” (page 1) and she asks: “How do the specific circumstances in which we write affect what we write? How does what we write affect who we become?” Her text is constructed through a process she calls “pleating”: “an interplay of essays and papers [and] writing-stories about their production” (I love the back story about how something came about and especially about the research final product which is often presented as new-born without a flaw). Richardson says she is also looking into her claims to knowledge, her sense of self within her discipline’s politics, the constraints that have caged her in and the “longings” that has induced.

The resulting book is fascinating and wades into tricky territory. But particularly interesting are the experiments in delivering and communicating knowledge she embarks on, for instance presenting a series of interviews as a set of poems, allowing the interviewees to speak the truth of their own lives in an elegiac way. My favourite (and I’m still aghast she had the courage to do this) is the call and response session she involved conference participants in instead of delivering a paper and taking questions (see “Resisting Resistance Narratives page 75).

Richardson shows me processes and choices that are often totally opaque in the published/delivered work of most theorists and researchers and she helps me figure out a way to be a researcher with a core identity as a writer.

  • Her other books are Writing Strategies: Reaching Diverse Audiences, Last Writes: A Daybook for a Dying Friend and Travels with Ernest: Crossing the Literary-Ethnographic Divide.

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