Fordham GSAS: Grad. Life: Life/Scholarship

Tuesday, August 9, 2011


 The words on either side of that forward slash are more closely linked than you might think. What we study while we're in Walsh has everything to do with who we are outside of it.

Fordham professor and novelist Christina Baker Kline has a fabulous blog on creative process and craft called Writing/Life. She taught a class at Fordham by the same name about the lines between memoir and fiction. As writing students in her class, we investigated the relationship between life experience and the narrative decisions we make about our work in fiction and creative nonfiction.

I'm fascinated by the way life experience -- from the big moments to the seemingly insignificant ones -- define so many of our choices as writers and scholars. I wonder why my peers in graduate school as well as my professors and mentors have chosen their fields. What about our pasts draws us to a particular field of study?

For example, why does one become a Virginia Woolf scholar? A mathematician? A classicist? Why does one choose to dedicate her life to the study of black feminist poetics?

To say that we study what we study because we love it is true, but a bit opaque and incomplete. "I love Mrs Dalloway," and "Math is the universal language," are straightforward answers. "I've always been good at Latin," and "I believe in the power of black feminist expressive culture," might be honest answers too, but they do not get at the deep personal roots of scholarly passion. I would contend that even if we do not fully understand why we have chosen to work in our fields, we are not grad students merely because of our proficiency in a field or a coincidental interest in a text. Our motivations are profound and intimate. Why else would we devote our lives to scholarship, research, and writing?

I decided to pursue writing for many reasons. The more surface reasons are because I loved it and it was fun.  I enjoyed the process of discovery in writing. I feel a rush when I imagine a whole world and whole people. I am exhilarated when I'm writing and I feel my initial plan begin to shift. The story takes me somewhere unexpected, or to a place I had expected to go but by an entirely different route. This rush and exhilaration is part of why I write.

I was an avid reader as a child, and I became obsessed with words and the meaning they could convey. This childhood love persists and has grown to include my love of editing. Re-envisioning an image, reordering sentences, and cutting extraneous words are puzzles and brainteasers that fully absorb my attention. When I make strides in a revision, I feel a satisfaction that is so visceral it could be described as "a tingly feeling."

But these reasons explain why I like writing and why I am good at writing -- not why I am drawn to it, why I have chosen to pursue it in grad school and beyond, or why I must keep at it. This reason is deeply rooted in my own personal experience of my family and my community, and my own place in both.

As a girl, I adored hearing stories. I learned so much about the world and life from listening to women in my family speak. Sometimes they spoke to me, and sometimes to each other. Sometimes they were intentionally telling stories, and other times they were doing it without noticing how much they were disclosing. I loved the way I could fall into their experiences and their way of seeing the world. Their words transported me to specific moments in time and to regions of the Dominican Republic, where they were raised, that I had never been. I felt their loss and ecstasy and reality although I had never lived them.

As a shy child, writing and storytelling became a way for me to connect to others. I not only accessed the memories and consciousness of other people with pen, paper, and my imagination, but I learned to express my own inmost hopes and ideas, which I found difficult to do aloud. (Being shy ain't easy.) I knew firsthand how telling a story, or hearing one, could change a person. This power made me want to spend my life sharing other people's stories and my own.

I imagine the same is true for the poet interested in the sacred in Gloria AnzaldĂșa's work, or the scholar interested in Anglo-Norman saints' lives. We want to contribute to our fields because we have seen and known their power intimately. We choose to do what we do because of who we have been and who we hope to be.

As we move forward in our fields, our personal lives and our scholarly lives may seem to diverge. Life might be partners and parties and travel and bills, maybe children and families. Scholarship might be what we publish, the universities where we teach, our paid work. But I believe there will always be synergy between scholarship and life, an inextricable relationship between who we are and what we pursue.

What about you? What experience in your personal life has inspired your course of study? Was it a particular event or a series of moments? In short, why do you do what you do?

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