Barefoot at the defense or Call of the Torchbearer

If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.
~Audre Lorde

I was reading a book I’d checked out from the library about women of color in academe. I could tell it was one of those books I wanted to read immediately and without interruption, and I could also tell that it was a book I would need to constantly stop reading and make notes about. I was ready to dive. On the introductory page written in italicized letters was the word “Fuck”. I knew then that I’d been very right about this book.

I interrupt myself to add a bit of context. Today I went to the dissertation defense of one of my classmates and pseudo-cohort members. I internally and externally–as evidenced by my lack of critical questioning–cheered for her successful defense and all the while deeply considered the pending arrival of my own.  I studied her body language, her notes, her slides, would my slides be the university standard Torero blue? I made a mental note that prior to my defenses I would need to buy a wireless clicker to maneuver my slides. I wondered what type of suit I would wear and I got down to her heels and I asked myself what type of shoes would I wear? It was then that the words that first began my initial doctoral class rang deafeningly though my head, “How would you like to begin?” Before I  could think about it I answered myself and said, “By telling people exactly how I felt, acknowledging whatever emotion was there and I would like to be barefoot.”

As a read the second story of From Oppression to Grace I came across a metaphor introduced by Menthia Clark but derived from work by Smith ((sidebar, I tried desperately to find the whole name of this author but unfortunately the citation only lists Smith, D. and the internet isn’t too fond of ambiguity.  I see this as a major flaw in the system, APA….major flaw)).  Smith states that, “I work hard at staying in my mind and not allowing spirit to visit me as I speak about critical education theory, womanist/feminist theory and pedagogy or qualitative/ethnographic research.  It is the dis-dancing with myself that creates a kind of distancing from the southern Black girl/woman who enjoys spirit-filled conversations that push the boundaries of a different kind of intellectual life.”  When I read it my breath left me, temporarily.  I felt this way. About spirit and particularly about art.

Much of my research is about connection, authenticity, feelings of belonging, vulnerability and all of that for purposes of facilitating innovation. AND much of my degree has been running through mud trying to make space for both my artist and my academic selves. I’d long sense surrendered a battle I foresaw with my department over doing a non-traditional defense. Partly because I was not sure the fight would create more heart-ache than hedge-way and partly because I conceded to do both the traditional defense and a nontraditional option.  However, in completing research on facilitating innovation, everything in me scoffs at the traditional defense with black words on white backgrounds and an hour of intellectual hazing.

Get me get me out of this box I feel so claustrophobic in here...

Get me get me out of this box I feel so claustrophobic in here…

How far can I push the boundaries, I wondered? Again, I answered myself lamenting that if I were going to dare to buck against tradition, I better damn well know my shit.  How is it that the sole purpose of the doctoral degree of philosophy is to promote new ways of thinking, and being and yet the process by which we go about it is, to some extent, archaic and riddled with binding rigidity?

Clark recalled a story where she asked a classmate what she, a Black woman, should wear to assert power. He laughingly responded “a power suit.”  She pointed out the illustration of westernized patriarchy in the subliminal suggestion that a woman must wear a “power” suit in order to assert power as if she could not any other way.  And the very fact that for women it is called such supports the social construction (and thus, to some–large–extent the consciousness) of such a remark.

I struggle with idea that I am working within the confines of a system that was not designed with me in mind.  And for as much creativity, forward-thinking, innovation, and imagination that we (the academy) claim to foster, there is only but so much the system can handle before it begins to reject it entirely.  It is kind of like what I’m studying.  In explaining my research earlier to a colleague I wrote to her the following: If the leader’s vision is not in alignment with the values of the group the leader will quite literally be destroyed like a parasite or a virus.  The group acts like a body and each individual is a white blood cell working for systemic stasis.  If a host upsets that stasis then it is attacked. However, my understanding is that what they call the leader I also see as this intermediary.  It does not make the leader a person, but a role, literally then the one exercising leadership in the moment and the person who is holding both the “human community of individuals” and the “greater collective system” at the same time. However because of the danger of any such group requiring this of one person, and repeatedly, that model is not sustainable over time.  In this sense, sustainable leadership requires individuals to each hold a piece of the leadership responsibility.

Herein lies both the problem and the solution.  If I chose to throw out too much of the tradition, the process, the standard way of going about my dissertation I would be treated like a parasite, a virus and the body of academia would destroy me.  However, if I am able to work within the system.  Both sharing the responsibility of creation and connecting with others who are working towards the same end, the perhaps I might survive.  In either case, it just won’t sit will enough with me to go along to get along. That has never really been my style. Fitting as such, my current facebook cover photo is from a professor in my program that perfectly summarizes exactly how anyone willing to fight against convention must do so…

Screen Shot 2014-08-11 at 7.09.05 PM

Such is the task of a torchbearer.  “Jessica.” I think, almost daily, “You have to just do it your way and forget how hard its going to be or how much longer it will take.  You have to go with your gut.”  It is a gift and a curse  to have such a vocal and ardent inner voice. But she has gotten me this far and we have many more miles to go.

Brene Brown and the entire kitchen sink

I have mini panic attacks that my advisor is going to me angry with me. I keep finding elements that have to be a part of my dissertation. Right now it feels like I’ve got all these extremities of work and yet I sorely need them to be a body. So far I have:

  1. Spirituality
  2. Leadership
  3. Creativity
  4. Grief
  5. Decision Making

While that does not seem like a lot…it’s a lot. What is even more frustrating is that I have become increasingly more patient through uncertainty, despite myself really.  I have developed the ability to sit and wait for things to unfold rather than force them or manipulate them in any way. So, I’m waiting, and in the meantime I think my advisor is going to kill me.

Very few writers, researchers, “storytellers”, have influenced me in the way that Brene Brown has; mind you this is an extremely recent thing, too.  The way that she talks about her work, the way that she conducts her research it does not seem like work! It looks joyous, and fulfilling, and there is so much passion in that work–she’s inspirational on different levels.  And while I realize that she has been researching for many years, it appealed to me, and I cannot do it any other way.  Again, my advisor…

When I think of what I want to do, the outcome of my own work, I want to understand the role that spirituality plays in the decision making process.  In that, I believe I will find themes of guilt, grief, creativity, and self-care practices along with many others–I am open to being surprised. I also assume that as people are more developmentally mature, they will experience and describe spirituality in very different ways. I definitely find that where we are in life greatly shapes the perspective we have on it.

My work is on the individual, but it is about a collective. Are “we” recognizing that “we” are connected to one another? Do I consider this connectedness when I made decisions? Do others? My guess here would be that if there is an external consideration that it is likely family, or if its a professional decision, the system or organization.  However, how many people are thinking globally? Jung describes the presence of a collective unconscious and I wonder how many people not just know about it, but live in constant awareness of it?

Spirituality is recognizing and celebrating that we are all inextricably connected to each other by a power greater than all of us, and that our connection to that power and to one another is grounded in love and compassion. Practicing spirituality brings a sense of perspective, meaning and purpose to our lives.”
― Brené Brown,The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are

When I heard Brene speak about her work, specifically her experience with her research topics, I felt like I was given permission to be present in my own work.  Honestly, how could you not be? There is something in us all that draws us to our passions, our vocations.  I loved that her cognitive aptitude did not excuse her from the very human experience of shame that she was studying.  I love that she admitted that.

If I sit back and think about what got me to this topic it was literally a moment sitting in Terri’s office crying thinking, “How did I get to this place? How did I arrive here?” My answer, that came later, was that a series of very spiritually governed decisions led me here.  And an idea was born. Brene says to “dance with the one who brung you.” And for me it is going to be those two things: spirit and choice.

Perhaps it’ll be as “simple” as this: Understanding the role of Spirituality in Decision-Making: A Comparative study between Student Affairs Professionals, and Tenure-Track University Faculty.  And perhaps it won’t.

One last thought, Brene mentioned that shame will often try to make us question ourselves by asking, “Who do you think you are?” I experienced that earlier this week, and earlier this month. Those moments where I call out my audacity, and side-eye myself.  WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE.  My mind answered in a small tiny quiet faux-humble voice and began, “I am just…” and my heart said with great certainty, NO. You are ANYTHING but “just”.  And I liked that answer. I told it to shame and I haven’t heard anything since.


Sincerely, Jess, “Anything but Just” J.

Words unsaid part II, and the never-ending degree program

“I am going to be in school forbleepingever.” That was the thought I had yesterday in class as we considered how this conference we attended has changed our research and/or our career path. It was one of those things where I was shown the power of creativity and I know the impact its had on my own life, so I had to ask myself where it was in my work? Then I repeated, “I am going to be in school forbleepingever.” My dissertation keeps getting bigger. There just has to be this piece about developing the spirit, and of course I can’t leave out how that relates to leaders…and now its like but what about art?! While the practical me, which lives in the dungeon of my mind and only comes out to do my taxes, says, “bitch…you need to graduate!”

I had just finished a reflection paper for class in which I wrote about stepping into power and not being fearful of my own potential. I’d just submitted this body of work dedicated to thoughts of self-authorization and the importance of perspective and vision; knowledge that it is not about me. And with these words fresh on my mind I turned the page in my journal and saw this picture.


I chuckled. Then I said, okay okay…noted. The God’s honest truth is that academia is my safe haven, and while I may research here and even reside here, my work will be bigger than the university I teach at, and transcend my field. What I have to get over is…myself. Girl, this is not about you. Get out of the way of this blessing. That’s what I feel right now.

More than ever my thoughts have surrounded grief. I made a claim in my Masters that all work is grief work. I teach to that claim. I used it in Terri’s class, often, to make sense of the overwhelming emotion that lived in the executive classroom. Even today, when I walk in that room I feel the presence of a million mental models laid to rest. You know how Brene Brown researches shame and vulnerability? I want to research grief and possibility. Taking a sweep over the things I write about anyway, its those things. Almost always. And while I see that “coming soon” I still wonder, well what about right now?

I need a thought partner. I need to talk this out, and through, and figure out where in this matrix I fall. I can tell you that, I’m close. And I know because my world has nearly stopped spinning.

If I lay in bed and look up at heaven, dreaming of what my life looks like…I see published books. I see a cherry wood office with three degrees in coordinating frames and a big photo of Neyland stadium. I see black and whites of my husband, children and I scattered throughout. I see a home filled with questions and books and artifacts from a life wholly lived. A kitchen with fresh flowers and fresh fruit. A living room with magazines, coffee table books, blankets, and a sofa that lovingly welcomes your feet upon it. A kitchen table wrapped in prayers and gratitude. A yard with jump ropes and bicycles laying to rest, temporarily. A closet full of clothes for life’s many occasions. A silver frame holding in it a picture of my best girlfriends and I. A jewelry box containing the locket and earrings from my mother’s wedding day. On my fridge, each of the invitations to my sisters’ graduations. And in the cabinets, the cast iron I bought to make my grandmother’s Thanksgiving dinner for the first time. And nowhere in my dream exists fear or trepidation, just love. Love and love’s residual.

And so, to get there I must say the words that burn my throat and cause my palms to sweat. I must be disheveled and imperfect, and everything else that scares me. I have to do whatever I can to get closer to love. And I suppose if that takes another year of graduate school, so be it. Its my own grieving. For “the plan” and the shoulds, and the defense that follows, “oh you’re still in school?!” Yes I am. And I absolutely love it.