Post-Graduate Thoughts: Finding My “Voice” Again

I lost my voice while I was in graduate school. No, not the voice generated by my larynx, but the “voice” on the page.

My “voice” is a strong one- perhaps too strong for academic writing, which is better suited for obscurantist conclusions drawn from the empirical. My “voice” is one that cries out for clarity at all costs- even at the cost of the writer’s credibility. Clarity now, clarity always- cite your sources, cite your inspirations, and most of all- do not forget to be transparent.

My “voice” is an urgent one which asks, “What use can be made of this? How can this improve someone’s life?” rather than “What does this add to the academic debate from which most people have been priced out of by a credentialist/classist/faux-meritocratic system?”

Alas, that “voice” was ‘corrected’ and ‘critiqued’ away in graduate school. It had no place in rote examinations on Marxism, structural functionalism and rational choice theory. The theory and the methods were devoid of the urgency that drove me to come to graduate school. They appeared to me as infertile ground, plowed over and over by scholars in search of the leeched nutrients. Analytical approaches, theoretical frameworks and methodologies presented as apolitical were fundamentally political in their situated use within academia and other centers of knowledge production. There is nothing apolitical about knowledge production. Knowledges shape our ways of seeing, being and doing in ways that we do not recognize precisely because they are banal enough to be rendered “apolitical.”

My “voice” was deemed too “journalistic” for academia. I cited my sources in every other sentence, quoting directly from the sources in an attempt to center the voices of the marginalized communities, rather than rendering them as “objects” of knowledge. But that was critiqued as me using them as a “crutch.” I hadn’t yet learned that what matters isn’t truth or the centering of marginalized people and voices- what mattered was my contribution to the literatures. “What we are looking for is a counter-intuitive, non-obvious contribution to the literature. Surprise us. Bring something we haven’t heard.”

I lost my “voice” when I tried to be “original” in search of leeched nutrients in a well-plowed field. What I should have done instead was immerse myself in materials produced by the “subaltern” subjects of my inquiry. But would I have lost my “voice” in centering theirs? I do not know. I still feel acutely that any scholar who inhabits a position of relative privilege within centers of knowledge production must be cognizant of the ways in which their voices are centered and amplified over the voices of the communities and persons that constitute “objects of inquiry.” The Self/Other, Scholar/Object, Expert/Object binaries are hard to overcome and bridge, especially in a context where “objectivity”  (little more than the subject position and ways of being of White/middle-class/Westerner/usually masculine subjects) is a tacitly coveted position.

I lost my “voice” when my Black feminist standpoint theory analysis was denigrated as “derivative” or “subjective” in the context of Eurocentric, masculinist political theorists. My “voice” wavered in a paper on Sara Baartman, which drew upon Spivak, Sara Ahmed, and Chandra Mohanty to theorize the construction of the “3rd world woman” as subject, even before the geopolitical binaries of the Cold War.

In my final quarter at the University of Chicago, I lost my “voice” in a seminar taught by a famous scholar of Security Studies. The topic was Nationalism in the Age of Globalization- and my Thesis concerned statelessness and deterritorialized nationalisms, while his clung to a nation-state system predicated on hard and fast boundaries and “hard-shell sovereignty.” He silenced me- literally. I’d raise my hand and answer his question correctly, but he’d still say I was wrong and repeat what I said word-for-word. After 3 weeks of this, I could not raise my hand, let alone my voice. It was enough being the only Black person in the class, watching the (white, male) professor value the voices and viewpoints (often dead wrong) of my white, male classmates (note: mostly International Relations students more interested in hypotheticals than real-life case studies).

Now that I’ve graduated, I think I will spend time to recover and refine my “voice.” A good friend read a prose piece of mine and her first comment was, “This isn’t an MA Thesis!” Indeed, “academese” is not good writing. It just isn’t. Academic writing is more effective at engaging a specific audience- an audience that differs from my desired audience (is that even the right word?).

So I will be sharing some poetry and prose on this blog as I practice the craft of writing and regain my “voice.”

(Apologies for my over-use of the word “voice.”)

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