Slowing down

I wrote this post in June, and just found it in my drafts. Thought it would be nice to share these feelings!


I finished my PhD at the end of 2016, and started a research and teaching fellowship right away, one that is now coming to an end. I’m starting a new lectureship, which has meant moving to a new city and getting to know a new institution. The past six years, then, have been a whirlwind of reading, researching, writing, presenting, teaching, supervising, mentoring, discussing and defending. This whirlwind steadily intensified, and it’s not an exaggeration that the past year in particular has been the most intense out of the six. The pressures of publishing, teaching, understanding how higher education in a new country works, and applying to jobs has meant that the past 12 months have gone by just like that. At times it felt like all I did was work – and not always the nice type of work. Marking, going to conferences, filling out job applications and dealing with bureaucracy have dominated much of my life recently.

Emotionally, anxiety, worry, stress, and exhaustion have seemed to increasingly be where my head and heart space are. This particular month, with conference after conference, has brought up all sorts of insecurities around my research and where it is going – and no surprise there; presenting your research more than five times in one month – laying everything bare that often – is nerve-wrecking! On top of that, things in my personal life have been affected too; because of the stress of this past year, I ended up making decisions that had horrible effects on my life more generally.

What has made me reflect on all of this is a book I just finished – Knot of the Soul, by Stefania Pandolfo. The book looks at psychoanalysis, Islamic healing, colonialism and postcolonialism, and how people and societies deal with political violence. What struck me about this book is how much time it took her to research and write it, and how much care and thought she puts into what she writes. The project spans over twenty years, and is largely based on ethnographic work she did in Morocco. This ethnographic work, however, takes place over very long periods, and is done consistently over the twenty year period. Ethnography, in many ways, is such an important research methodology because of how well it captures complex dynamics and changes (when it’s done carefully and critically of course – too many examples of it being done wrong).

But more than the ethnography, there is a thoughtfulness in this book that touched me. You can sense that she took a lot of time and care in writing every single sentence, and that what you have in your hands is a piece of work that was lovingly crafted. All of these reasons make this book such a brilliant and important intervention. Indeed I found it one of the most challenging books I have ever read, and felt that reading it was an intellectual, emotional and spiritual experience.

All of this made me reflect on my own research experience, and the way I write. I often feel that the tempo of modern-day academia makes it very difficult to get settled into long, thoughtful projects. This is especially the case if you have just finished your PhD (which is the closest you get to a long project) and are on fixed-term contracts. I have felt that the pressure to publish, to present, and to engage in ‘impact’ means that I am always writing and publishing pieces that I feel aren’t where they need to be. This goes beyond just individual pieces; it is also about the broader questions I am interested in. I feel that what I want to do is stop researching and writing and presenting, and just take a year or two to think and read. To figure out what I want to say, and how, and why. To let things sink in, and to just sit with what I’ve done so far.

I find myself telling friends that maybe now I’ll have the space to do just that, since I’m not longer on a fixed term contract. More often than not, I’m met with: “No, it never really ends.” The pressures continue, even if they are different. So I guess that leaves it up to us to navigate these pressures and somehow produce thoughtful work that contributes to knowledge and that doesn’t leave us burned out, while at the same time playing the academic game. Easier said than done, of course, and I am very aware of certain privileges I have that make this easier for me than many others. Academia by design is easier for those privileged in terms of race, gender, class, sexuality, and ability. But still, I wrote this post in an attempt to remind myself ow good it felt reading Knot of the Soul, and how much I would love to one day write a book like that.


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