Lessons for Life in Academia: Learning to Defy the Dominant Discourse (or at least taking the first few baby steps in the right direction)

[a post started in December, that I am just revisiting and finishing up now]

In class last night, one of my professors (a man who has been teaching the same subject at the same institution for over 40 years) imparted some wisdom upon his students at the end of our last two hours of the semester together.

He explained that when he sees “liberals” in the media defying the dominant discourse in this country and pushing back on issues that subscribe to and perpetuate our hegemonic ideologies (for him, particularly in regards to conversations about Israel, Palestine, and/or Egypt due to personal ties and work), he thinks to himself, “Yes! Finally. Someone else to add to the small existing group who get it!” This was not meant to sound arrogant or elitist, nor did it come across that way. My professor was trying to make the point that it is often incredibly difficult to speak out against the dominant discourse, particularly if you are part of an important, stoic institution such as an esteemed university.

After providing this typically longwinded, yet profound example, he said, “If you feel this [what I’m saying]…I mean, feel it, deep down in you. If this moves you [the rarity that people in academia have enough courage to challenge the status quo] and elicits a reaction that you almost have no control over…that means that you are on your way to understanding how these hegemonic ideologies are inbred in our society…”

Before he even got to the “…what this means,” the hair on my arms was standing up and there was a pull in my stomach. As he uttered these words, putting his emphasis on feeling the real effects of social ignorance, of misinformation provided by the media, of the injustice of preventing citizens and intellectuals from expressing opinions outside of the mainstream, something in my very being was moved by his words and his call to action. His message greatly resonated with me. It mobilized my  internal gears and cogs, causing them to turn and repeatedly interlock with one another as they began to grind away. I felt my drive begin to whir deep down and the passion that I am all to often challenged to articulate to others and put it all into complete, but concise sentences–about what it is that I want to do, how I am going to do it, and why it even matters–surge throughout my body.

Returning to graduate school and reentering the complicated and political world of academia for the second time last fall, my professor’s jarring words resonated with me more than ever before. And for an older, white male, who has been at the Ivy League institution since the late 1960s (he did his undergraduate, masters, and doctoral work and then became a professor here), it meant something to me that he was acknowledging the ease at which such an institution can create and perpetuate a rather warped reality, but label it as ‘normal’ and continue living life (this is what hegemony is/the role that it plays in our society). Now, I’m not ignoring this man’s racial and gendered privilege, but for the sake of this post, I’m choosing not to deconstruct one man’s positionality and how it has ‘enabled’ him to voice his opinion above; rather, I’m choosing to focus on my relationship to his message based on my own experiences and observations at two different Ivies in the past two years.

Amidst the thick, grey fog that I often feel I am fighting my way through when I hear about the politics and bureaucracy of the academic world (i.e. applying for faculty positions, the expectations of publishing, the competition for grants and funding, the pressures of tenure), my professor’s reassuring words provided a small, but guiding light–a possible path for a way out of the fog, or at least the reassurance that there is something on the other side of the blurry mess that I too often find myself in.

I’m now realizing that this post is still rather vague as to what I mean by hegemony and the dominant discourse, as well as what my personal experiences and subsequence understandings of academia have been thus far, but there are more posts and more time for the that, and I’m sure they’ll come sooner than later as I’m gearing up for the second year of my doctoral program. I know I’m going to need multiple outlets to let off steam, express excitements and frustrations, and share interesting/thought- provoking/troubling/inspiring articles, memes, and other social-networking-related activities in the months to come. So gear up, I hope you’re ready, and I hope I’m ready too.