Inward struggles of an academic researcher

I am in one of my pre-creative stages of academic writing. Unless you are one of those horribly prolific academic authors – in which case, stay away from me because I will be unable to control my envy – you know what this means. I have data from a pilot qualitative project that I conducted in Lahore during 4 hot and frantically busy weeks of teaching and advising at a public university. Since the methods were exploratory, the data are, naturally, messy. I know that as a qualitative researcher I should relish the messiness of data, knowing that life is messy and complex and that if the data were tidy and immediately classifiable, red flags and warning bells should go up/off. Still, when I am trawling through transcripts of intense conversations that are widely dissimilar from each other, I do sometimes wish for a closed-ended survey. When you’re grading a large stack of papers, the closed-ended exam is what you’d have, ideally. But it tells you little, unless you know exactly what you’re looking for, and the survey effectively targets that goal. Hence the pilot study.

So at this time, I am staring, through my data, at a variety of paths leading out in a variety of directions. It is also difficult that I am doing international research and that I am woefully ignorant of the work that has been done in Pakistan on the reforms in Pakistani academe. A lot of such work is government documents which is, let’s be honest – yawn. There is so much reading between the lines to do in government documents. And when I come across Pakistani officialese, I find myself completely befuddled. Maybe my training in informal American academic-speak has left me grievously inadequate to the task of formal jargon. This is not to say that I am, like – stupid or linguistically impoverished. I think.

I am looking forward to doing another round of interviews and observations at the university this summer. But since life is complicated, and I have a family which won’t accompany me this time, I cannot spend more than two weeks there. I do sometimes wish I was one of those fiercely independent academics who deal, efficiently and productively, with long periods of time away from their families, and build their research careers on such stints. I am told that when my child is older, this will become easier. As of now, my daughter gazes at me in relief when I return home after a couple of hours’ absence. So the guilt is overwhelming.

The mothering guilt is another problem with the pre-creative stage of academic writing. When I was immersed in finalizing my book manuscript (it is on its way, thanks for asking), the work was simple (well – I mean -), I knew what I was doing, by and large. Actually, I had so much to do, I had no time to feel lost. Right now, I am stuck, staring at the different paths. I am at risk, while productively contemplating my choices and the literature, of wasting (well – “waste” is an ugly word) wasting abundant quantities of time wandering in directions that will ultimately prove worthless (another ugly word). I know there is no such thing as waste in the research process. After all, as I stroll into studies of academic climate, and then gaze over into studies of work-life balance, I can only benefit from a wide-ranging appetite for contextual knowledge. But there is no category in my resume that says “Academic Appetite” or “Desultory Wanderings.” If they didn’t result in a tangible artifact, they don’t really count for much. When I am a tenured professor, I can be the expert whose musings and wanderings will be of value – someone who scatters academic value on her way as she ‘wastes’ time.

1 thought on “Inward struggles of an academic researcher”

  1. A lot to relate with you on all accounts, except that fatherhood is obviously not even nearly comparable to motherhood in terms of underlying challenges. The whole definition of ‘right’ balance changes in patriarchal societies like Pakistan. In the end, most women end up sacrificing their careers or wannabe careers (sometimes simple desire for higher-education) for children. May Allah bring ease to our lives. Hope to see you when you are here this summer, in-sha-Allah.

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