Several days ago, I had a conversation with the professor who supervised/signed off on this project. I did not receive much supervision, nor did I ask for much supervision. In fact, I somewhat avoided it.
It was a difficult project for me to work on. I didn’t know what I was doing. Rather, I knew enough about what I was doing to know that I wasn’t doing it right. I could conceptualize – with a sense of almost gestalt clarity, totality of detail – a quality data analysis methodology for a project such as this, but I could not carry out the methodologies that I could imagine.
In this work, I confront my current limitations in producing quality academic work, and consider my experience of anxiety in relation to these constructs of desirable formatting and conveyance of ideas within rubrics of measurable relevance.
So, I mostly kept to myself, muddling through the significance of my difficulty in producing quality, coherent academic work, drowning in a sea of self-produced narrative data and grandiose intentions, humiliating evidence of previous selves and worldviews.
I didn’t quite know what to expect in the conversation, though was calm and able to speak fairly confidently and with relative ease, remembering names.
The call came in at exactly 4:00pm, on the dot.
“Hello, Faith…” A man’s voice, that I connected with my recollection of his face and posture, his gray hair, a kind countenance, standing there in the preposterous lobby of the Westin, of all places to go to a school conference. Drinking strawberry lemonade, talking about autoethnography.
“Hi, Dr. _____.”
[brief small talk, how are you?
hope you’re well, etc.]
I sounded overly confident, “So, how do you want to…”
I stammered with the phrase “use this time”…because it sounded like something a therapist might say.
“What…do you to get out this…are, um, there any, you know, particular things you want to talk about?”
“Well,” the man’s voice said, “I just want to address a few questions and thoughts about the project and talk a little about your…future…little things…”
I laughed a little, and was surprised that I did, “Oh, yeah, little things like my future?”
“Yes, yes,” the man’s said, sounding friendly, “so…first, I want to ask you why you chose to do this particular project, why this project?”
I was looking out the window, in the blue room at my parents’ home. It was sunny outside and everything was green and gold and blue, warm.
“I had considered several different potential projects, coming into this. I do a lot of community organizing and community building type…work…here, and so I thought about maybe putting together a participatory action research type project, and went so far as to design a potential project around organizing mental health dialogues as part of the National Dialogue on Mental Health.”
I paused, remembering what the question was.
“I didn’t even learn about autoethnography until maybe this past Fall, Fall of 2014, just a few months before I started this project. I learned about the methodology through…a community group that I have been a coordinator of for the past couple of years…well…the group has been working with a researcher, Erica Fletcher, from the Institute of Medical Humanities at the University of Texas, who is doing ethnographic research, and using some autoethnographic methods in her process of analysis and reflections. I learned about the methodology through her and…when I learned about it, I felt a strong resonance, an inspiration.”
I stood at the window, and looked at the woodgrain of the sill. “You know how when you come across an idea or a theory or a practice and it just…resonates…?”
I remembered that, in the project, I written quite a bit about my relief when I learned about autoethnography, and that I had spoken with the professor about how powerful it was for me to learn about these methods of inquiry. In fact, I had written about this relief by relaying that very conversation.
I didn’t need to go on and on about it.
“I don’t know why I didn’t just do an expanded literature review or…I really probably need to do an expanded literature review, that would be a good thing to do. I need to spend some time reporting on the formal literature and developing stronger skills in referencing and citation…I…I think I might look into learning the Chicago Manual of Style method of citation, as I think it would be more compatible with how I interact with information. I have a difficult time working with the American Psychological Association style of referencing…”
“Don’t get into it, Faith.”
I told this to myself as I walked back over toward the window.
“I wanted to experiment with using autoethnographic methods, and I found myself compelled to address this particular topic of personal experience because…well, I wanted to honor the experience, and – also – I work as a peer and have been involved in…human rights and mental health advocacy movements…and I know that a lot of people experience what could be clinically called psychosis and…everyone’s experience is different…but, I…have a personal and professional interest in this topic and as an area of lived experience, it felt important that I spend some time with it….and, you know, I have all this…self-documentation, all this data…so…I wanted to explore autoethnographic methods and…”
I was pacing in the room. It was easier to talk if I was moving around, standing up.
I paused, “So…”
[unrecalled portion of conversation. I was standing at a bookshelf, looking at the spines of my son’s old fantasy novels, colorful and shiny…]
I paced a little bit.
“What’s your motivation for getting an MA degree? Career? Are you interested in…what? What are the benefits of getting this degree for you?”
“Well, I work as a peer in a state-funded setting. I’m certified as a peer and as an Associate Mental Health Professional, according to state-criteria. If I get my MA, I might be able to be a Qualified Mental Health Professional, and that would give me a bit of a pay increase…which would be lovely. Also, I have – ever since I was pretty young – respected higher education and been interested in…I just have always wanted to earn an advanced degree. It’s just something I value for some reason. I actually have a little bit of a…this showed up some in the project…a little bit of a conflicted relationship with the idea advanced degrees…and there might even be some resentment toward…”
I made myself stop talking.
“So,” the man’s voice asked, “why did choose to do this degree at _______?”
“I appreciate the Humanistic tradition as a branch of psychology…and_______ was actually recommended to me, by Dr. Michael Cornwall, who is a private practice therapist, but who is involved in advocating for alternative approaches to psychosis. I know some people who went there, Dr. David Lukoff and Dr. Paris Williams. I knew that I would be most successful in an interdisciplinary program, than a…hardcore empiricist…”
I fumbled, “I don’t know the words for it…” I realized that I had just said “hardcore empiricist” and that I did, in fact have the words for the sort of program that I knew I would struggle within.
“I’m interested in qualitative research and methodologies like autoethnography and narrative analysis. I felt like ______ would be a good fit…”
I walked across the room.
“I, you know…I am a little bit of a non-traditional student. I think the first graduate program…yes, the first graduate program that I was enrolled in was in 1999-2000. My education has been…um, disrupted by various life events, and so…I am learning a lot as I go along, and have some significant growth edges as a student…but, I feel like I could potentially work well in interdisciplinary programs, and in certain methodologies. I mean, my life trajectory was…derailed a few times and so…here I am at age 38, still building some occupational stability.”
[I may have added some there at the end, now – as I recollect the conversation.]
I waited for him to speak.
“I’d like to share some thoughts with you about your project, the project, and…”
“Okay,” I said, feeling suddenly nervous.
“Okay,” the man sounded good humored enough. I listened.
“Your project has a lot of different…pieces…there’s a lot in it, and…some of it stronger than other parts, but it’s…remarkable in many ways.”
[I am struggling to remember exactly what he said. It is easier for me to remember what I said, though I recall the basic gist of what was said to me, mostly in segments.]
“Your project could be cleaned up, and edited…parts of it could be published…it’s not in a format that is publishable now…but, you could continue to work with it and refine it.”
“Yes,” I interjected, in a slight pause, “I’ve already begun to think about how I could approach refining parts of this project and have done bit of editing already. There is a lot that could be done to strengthen it.”
My voice felt quiet, “It was a very difficult project in a lot ways. There a few different approaches I could have taken.”
“This concept of neurodiversity…you really could have spent more time on that…I mean, I think I have heard the term, and I have a vague idea of what it means, but…in the table of contents, you have this section that is about 10 pages long, but in that, you don’t spend much time on the idea of neurodiversity…”
“Yeah, I know…I caught that. I was like, ‘Wow, I didn’t explain that at all.'”
I looked down at the grass outside of the window, a full story below. I saw a cardinal fly into the bramble at the edge of the yard.
“The term came out of the autistic advocacy and activism movements…the idea that some people have different styles of cognition and sensory integration, but that these differences aren’t necessarily a disease.”
“I’m interested in exploring how that idea intersects with the experiences of people who are diagnosed with…what would be called severe and persistent mental illness.”
“Yes, well, it would be good to say more about that, to look at some of the existing ideas and…use those ideas to strengthen this project. The idea of neurodiversity is presented as being a big part of the project, and you need to spend more time on it.”
“I’m excited to work on it more. The project ended up being a bit of a…process…and working on it helped me to identify what I need to research and what I need to…develop more skill around…”
“In addition to expanding the theoretical basis of the project, and connecting it to existing work, existing theories, you need to spend some time learning more about…autoethnography as a method, and different approaches to it. Now, you seem to have some idea about different ways that autoethnography can be approached.”
I walked out of the room, listening. I was going outside. “There are lots of different approaches…some people may take…now, you take a more evocative approach, maybe drawing on the work of Ellis and other…”
I walked down the wooden stairs from the porch, a long flight of stairs, down to a juniper that cramped the walk, thinking about the passages that had most inspired me, that had most reassured me of the legitimacy and purpose of this work.
“Or you could take a more analytical approach…and people interpret these approaches in various ways, and sometimes make up new approaches…and that’s how all science works, how things grow.”
[I am growing weary of reporting on this conversation as a series of exchanges and orientation to my physical surroundings as I talked with the supervising professor. So, I am shifting to a different means of reporting on the conversation.]
The woman sat in her car, a late model import, hatchback and black, banged up a little and covered in pollen. She found the ignition key in the cupholder by the gear shift, with a cigarette lighter and a plastic fork. She turned the key to roll down the windows, and then put it back in the cupholder. It had broken off of her keyring over a year ago, and she still hadn’t lost it. Rolling a cigarette, she listened as the man spoke about the potential for her to get a Ph.D. “Some students, they are able to apply some of their MA coursework to a Ph.D. and come into the program at essays…it might be worth
It to explore what your options might be to continue this work.”
“I might take a little time off…the August residential conference…it comes at a bad time, every year. Both my children have birthdays around that time and they start school…and maybe when they’re older…I mean, they need me less now, but my youngest child is starting middle school this year and…”
“Yes, well, the RC comes at a bad time for students who are getting their Ph.Ds and teaching at other schools and, for years, we just haven’t found a way around it.”
“It’s not a good idea to take too long of a break, because you know…you take a break and then life…happens…”
“It’s possible that a Ph.D would offer you a lot more in the ways of opportunities to teach and publish and, sure, there are a lot of different ways to go about anything, and you’re going to be a lifetime learner, no matter what, it just doesn’t stop, but academic work could offer you a…sort of container in which you could pursue your curiosities and also contribute to literature around your area of interest.”
“Yes,” the woman said, getting out of the car and sitting on the grass, “that makes a lot of sense.”
“So, are you familiar with the work of Gregory Bateson and double bind theory?”
The woman made an affirmative sound: “Um hmmm…” She felt herself get excited, “Yes! Of course, double bind theory. That had something to do with all of this. This whole thing could be looked at in terms of double binds as a driver in my experience. Yes…”
She listened. “Well, when I was doing my dissertation…Gregory Bateson was my mentor and I spent quite a bit of time with his work and…are you familiar with…probably not, it’s a small book, among his first, and it’s…it’s called Percival’s Narrative and it’s the work of this man…back in the late 1900’s, who experienced what we would now call a psychotic break and he basically wrote his way through it…and…”
“That’s sort of what I did…” The woman said this quietly, feeling – suddenly – a little incredulous that she was having this conversation, with this person who seemed to understand what she was saying, what she had been trying to say. She sat in the grass beside the car and jammed a stick into the ground, digging up under the grasses.
“Yes, yes…well, Bateson looked at this man’s work and narrative and then wrote about it. You should look into getting that book…”
The conversation began to take on a lively feel, her own excitement blooming in her mind. “I could read that book and think about how it connects to this work, and write about that. I want to read that book. I want to see how Bateson approached this person’s narrative. I want to read this person’s narrative.”
She thought about how long ago the late-19th century was. “Not so long ago.”
“So, yes, you need to spend some time reading some of the work that is out there around this topic…and other people who are doing memoirs and autoethnography. There are a number of people who are doing writing about, you know, their experiences of being in the mental health system and what not and people approach it differently. One of my favorite writers who talks about their experience with, I think it was mostly severe, really tremendously difficult depression, is this person, who is a therapist and who does clinical work, but who also writes about their experience, this person Lauren Slater, who is I think in the Northeast, and she really does a wonderful job of writing about her experience. I have all her books…I’m looking around, what is the title of that one…anyway, there are a lot of people writing about these sorts of things and you can just find the styles and approaches that make sense to you, that you enjoy reading and…”
He paused, “You’ve really devoted quite a bit of attention to your experience and have spent a lot of time considering your own experience and…it’s good that you have that record, that’s something you can use and also something that other people can make use of and potentially learn from…but, it’d be good to spend some time with some of the other work that has been done in this area.”