Can I make this joke?

Is it ever OK for an academic to make jokes? I would like to think so, yes.

Is it ever OK for an academic to make jokes using phrases she tries to fight against in her work? I don’t know the answer to that. I want to say yes, that everything should be taken in its context, but I’m not sure. As I am not sure whether it is ever OK, or when it’s not OK, to make racist or sexist jokes.

I believe in the power of words and narratives. I don’t think words come out of a vacuum, I do think history and power dynamics are embedded in most words we use. And I also think choosing certain words over some others influence how we perceive the exact same thing those two different terms are meant to designate. This is why we are continuously cultivating a Politically Correct culture, and trying to change our perception from ‘less developed countries’ to ‘developing countries’ or from ‘queer’ to ‘gay’ and back to ‘queer’. Most of the time, there is a dominating group and an oppressed group represented in words we use, and almost all the time, we tend to follow the narrative of the dominating group. Unfortunately, we also focus so much on the PC culture that we forget about the bigger system that makes the PC culture necessary in the first place. But that’s for another discussion.

Yet the world and our lives are riddled with subtle and not-so-subtle expressions that betray the inherently unequal system we are living in, and which, as a person and as an academic, I try to speak up against, one way or the other. What I want to believe is that a word has power only as much as we intend to give it. And that this power changes over time and place. There was a time when the word ‘Oriental’ was used in both academic and daily settings to designate the ‘non-West’, and the word was not just a jumble of alphabet letters but also a betrayal of the different and the exotic the ‘non-West’ represented. Today, rare are the instances when that word is used to describe what it intended (or at least by the people I personally know – whether or not these people have had that word thrown at them by others, I can’t vouch for). Instead, I would be OK to use it to make fun of a system and time period that came up with that word and concept in the first place. Power was given. But I choose to take back that power and treat it as the nonsensical word it should have been. I think the same can be said for the word ‘queer’. Although I’m not an expert in Gender Studies and Sexuality, the word ‘queer’ in its dictionary sense, means ‘weird, strange, unusually different’, and was used to designate the LGBTQ population. Today, the power given to the word ‘queer’ is different. Because change happens. We change ourselves, our norms, our values. There are no rules as to how these things change and who has the authority to change them. But I would like to believe I have the power and perception to be part of these changes. To take back the power that the oppressing group gave and turn it as a joke against them and why not, against me, since I also have privileges others don’t. To make a joke without fearing the backlash from other ‘intellectuals’ and ‘academics’ who assume they have the monopoly on what is right or wrong, without realizing that by doing that, they are only giving back power to the word, power that I had taken away.

So yes, maybe, I’m allowed to make certain jokes using ‘offensive’ words. Or maybe not.

I would also like to think that as academics, we are first and foremost human beings. And as human beings, we live with other people. We learn how to be social. Do I, perhaps, feel a teeny tiny speck of discomfort when my friends make fun of Asians? Maybe. Sometimes. Do I stand up to them and tell them I’m offended and I’m the only one that is allowed to make these jokes? Certainly not. I love making ‘That’s what she said’ jokes. No, I pride in making them when they’re least expected. Does that make me less of a feminist because by making the joke, I do not question how it is based on a purely sexualized version of the woman? I don’t think so. Life would just be too sad without ‘that’s what she said’ jokes.

Academics are so engulfed in their perspective of what is right and wrong in the world that they often forget their complaint about ‘not reaching out to the rest of the population’ is on them. I mean, yes, our indignant cries about how climate change is real and how racism is real fall on deaf ears, and that may not be solely our fault – there are stupid and irrational people everywhere. But academics can take on the responsibility of ‘educating the world’ without necessarily being a jerk, using some humor and there appropriately. There is a reason so many people love Jon Stewart, Trevor Noah, Stephen Colbert, and the likes, and so few people read our boring articles filled with jargon and fixations on less important things.

I believe in making this world a better place and in changing people’s minds, however little my contribution may be, all the while still managing to be somewhat ‘human’. The other day, I was talking to this very nice European woman who shares my Airbnb about intercultural experiences. When she mentioned about the ‘negative effects’ of colonization – which revealed that she also assumed there were ‘positive effects’, I didn’t express my indignation, although I firmly believe whatever so-called ‘positiveness’ there was through colonization, it all becomes meaningless in face of the destruction it left. Why? Because I knew her grandfather was in Africa and worked as a colonizer and I didn’t want to tell her that her grandfather was a horrible human being for complying with what was happening at the time. Because we were having a nice conversation and I knew we would be seeing each other fairly often, for quite some time during my stay. Because I didn’t think it was my place to stain her own experience and family history. I thought that I did enough by not reinforcing that, yes, there were indeed positive effects. Did that make me a bad academic? Maybe. But I would rather be a mediocre academic than a jerk of a human being.

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PhD: How to be a successful extroverted nerd

What does a PhD mean? 

A door I should probably not open, or that I should have opened way before I actually applied for one and came to do one. My first motivation when I decided I wanted to go for a PhD was simply and purely, my love of studying. Yes, I know it sounds extremely nerdy, even for a phd student, or too vague, but the simplest answer is often the most obvious. There is nothing more exciting and invigorating than reading a paper about a topic of your interest, or discovering new areas of potential research, or comparing different countries/cultures/populations/systems.

Like many others I guess, my idea of a phd program was spending most of my time in my special spot and reading on my own, taking notes, going to classes, engaging in debates that made me feel smart and stupid at the same time with other fellow students and brilliant professors.

But a PhD program, just like any “Job” (yes, no matter how much others don’t want to buy it or accept it, it IS a ‘real‘ job), involves more than just yourself and your own, personal work. Worse, you have to spend as much time ‘networking‘ and ‘out in the real world‘ as any other ‘real job‘ and still manage to find time on your own to come up with your creative idea that apparently generations of much smarter people and scholars before you somehow managed to miss. Considering it’s mostly nerds that go on studying for years and years, it is quite surprising how much of extroversion is needed from the academia.

Don’t mistake me, I do enjoy going out, meeting new people (to a certain extent) and ‘having fun’ in general. But when it comes to ‘selling/marketing myself‘, engaging into small talk with people to whom I feel obligated to look and sound smart, all the while looking and sounding totally confident, outgoing and easygoing, pretending to be genuinely interested in someone’s area of research I just have no fucking clue about, it’s just… EXHAUSTING.

Discussing topics outside my field  (source: http://whatshouldwecallgradschool.tumblr.com/page/10)

Discussing topics outside my field
(source: http://whatshouldwecallgradschool.tumblr.com/page/10)

The idea of finding myself alone at a reception, even for the few seconds you ‘shift from one group to another’, or of having nothing to talk about with the one person I somehow found myself with from the beginning, even for seconds, is daunting. Have you ever stopped yourself from going to get some food at the buffet when your stomach is clearly sending you signals and when the cheese and dip have never looked more inviting, just because you were genuinely scared of finding ‘your’ group scattered to different places when you came back with your food? And then, god forbid, you would have to eat by yourself while appearing completely at ease with yourself, when you’re simply dying inside, wishing somebody would come and talk to you and save you from misery.

Even though I may be all smiles (which I usually am), these are the thoughts and fears going through my head all the time in these situations. Two hours end up feeling like an eternity and I’m emotionally and physically exhausted until the next day.

But I know that’s what I have to do. I have to let my petty existence on this earth and at this university be known to other students and professors. I somehow have to come up with a clear research idea I am forced to ‘pitch‘ every time I’m in such a setting. One positive side of that is that I end up saying aloud my very vague research idea to so many people with as much ‘smart bullshit’ as I can muster that I actually start believing in it, and above all, in its feasibility. I have to go to professors and ‘talk’ to them, tell them the kind of research I would like to do in an intelligent manner when really, all I want to tell them is how awesome I think they are, and that’s about it, so could they please allow me to do any work for them, pretty please?

Engaging a professor (source: http://academicats.tumblr.com)

Engaging a professor
(source: http://academicats.tumblr.com)

And these are the good ones. Most of the time, they’re just professors I am plainly scared of, but that I have to talk to because they’re ‘important’ and to let them know I’m still here, hello, and yes, I’m dead serious about this whole thing (which I am), so please tell me how to live my life.

I mean, yes, it all makes sense in a way. I study because in some weird narcissistic and egomaniac way, I believe my ‘research’ and my thesis, which only a handful of people on this earth will end up reading, will contribute to making this world a bit better. So although I would like to spend most of my time being inspired on my own, I have to tell other people, especially those who will buy into the lie I tell myself and tell them, so that they can fund me to save the world.  And this is all before I actually write my dissertation and go into the job market, which is apparently worse than the Hunger Games.

And of course, this has to be done all the while I convince myself and others that really, when I have humanity’s stake in my hand, how could I possibly think about getting married and having a family of my own? That would be so selfish, psht.

Beauty is truth; truth, beauty

For the purpose of this post, see: Two Sides of a Same Coin
For the ‘other side”s take on this topic, see: What if my science doesn’t save the world?

(A simple background explanation: the topic of this post for the November ‘challenge’ is explaining what our ‘science’ is in our own words. Since we are in very different, almost opposite fields of ‘science’, we thought this was another way to show, once again, our differences, and perhaps, with a little surprise, similarities we might not have known about. Also, due to technical problems from my sister who is currently in Malaysia, her post is on Blogpost and not her usual WordPress.)

This was supposed to be a passionate advocacy for what has now become, basically, the purpose of my life. It should have been a beautiful plea and a moving manifesto of how Social Sciences are awesome and “rock the world”. Instead, struggling under a mass of readings every week and indecipherable numbers and math symbols, with the haunting fear that just one day, a half a day of relaxation and peace is sufficient to bring doom for the following week, I am, for a lack of a better word, disenchanted. I vowed myself that I would never take this for granted, that I would always be grateful for being here, studying for a PhD in Political Science. I wrote posts about the near-ecstasy that the idea of studying in the States had brought me, and posts about how I would always remember I am lucky to be here.

But reading about multipatism, pluralism, the relationship between political regime and welfare in developed countries, and what I can only describe as a petty quarrel and immature bickering among political theorists about who understands the ‘world out there’ better than the other, I am done. I don’t care how Proportional Representation leads to a better coordination and cooperation among firms than the Majoritarian system. I roll my eyes at Morgenthau, Waltz, Wallerstein, Marx and co who furiously write about why they are the right ones in their vision of the world from the safe cocoon of their offices. What is the purpose of all this? How is learning about all this going to help me ‘change the world’? How is reading (barely, rather, skimming) more than 400 pages every week going to help me contribute to stopping world inequality, wars and all that is bad in this world? Surely, helping make i-phones or conducting research that would eventually lead to the elimination of cancer would be much more rewarding and practical?

phdcomicshit

As I helplessly try to make sense of countless scholars whose names I forget the moment I see them, only wishing that they would write in a simpler style, easy to understand and not act as a sleeping pill, I am struck by various flashbacks and memories.

Like how excited I was to write a paper on a web cartoon and its soft power and role in promoting social awareness and political participation in Korea. How inspired I was by Paul Krugman and his diagnosis of the financial crisis. How writing a paper in my class for Feminism allowed me to discover sides of my mother I had not been aware of. How during a class I would get sudden inspirations of future paper topics (which would die, soon enough, but well, it’s the thought that counts). How I discovered certain prejudices I had about Africa I didn’t know I had.

And I realize, perhaps with a sigh of relief, that the reason I keep persevering in this field is because a small part in me still believes I can make a difference. It may not be a concrete one like getting rid of AIDS or formulating the ‘right’ and perfect policy to deal with North Korea (is there one?). But it’s what everybody I believe in Social Sciences has, and what keeps ‘us’ going: passion and hope. It’s that flicker of light in our eyes when theories written in papers and books finally start making sense in real life. It’s that glimmer of hope that we can somehow bring a change in the way people think that will eventually lead to actual changes in policies and reality. It’s that brazen certainty that while Social Sciences may not be ‘practical’, it certainly is ‘essential’. The focus doesn’t always have to be on the practical usage of science, sometimes, science just ‘is’. And as it is, it helps shape who we are, our beliefs, our perspectives, our ideas, our hopes and our future. When we shed the ‘what we are for’ and are stripped down to ‘what we are’, that definition of ourselves is shaped by Social Sciences (and Humanities). Especially living in an era where things that can’t be quantified are often discarded as useless and meaningless (and Social Sciences, with its frequent emphasis on quantitative methodology, is not immune to it either), Social Sciences allow us to enjoy and appreciate that which is not measurable.

Please... let's not...

Please… let’s not…

It is often believed that people revolt and desire for change when/because they have nothing to lose. But it isn’t so (and of course, I forgot the name of the scholar who actually argued this). Those who have nothing to lose live day by day with what they are given because they can’t think of an alternative. It is those who have the faintest gleam of hope who fight for change, for the better. And I believe that Social Sciences provide that very gleam of hope that constantly pushes people to seek for something better.

Or maybe this is all just my illusion. It doesn’t matter. This is all I need to keep going for the next 5 years and plus. 

“Beauty is truth; truth, beauty; that is all

Ye know on earth and all ye need to know”

– Keats –

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