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When it is not just a fable: the life of the mind and scholarship

July 17, 2015

I went to bed early-ish today as I developed a headache that made me thought I might have taken ill. As it is, whenever I go to bed at a certain time, I always find myself waking up at least twice at particular times, but would usually fall back to sleep within some minutes. This time is different, because someone decided that 2 am was a great time to get some fireworks going. Even when it all subsided and was all quiet again (or as quiet as is possible when one lives in a part of town that never sleeps), I found myself lying awake – with thoughts of past and present mingling, jigging, and calming down as I tried to process through where I am now and my current aspirations, and how they reconciled (or not) with choices of my past.

I have been doing quite a bit of reflection ever since I returned to Malaysia last year, even if that was not always possible to do regularly since resettling (and the annoying bureaucracies involved) took up quite a bit of mental space. Moreover, I am currently employed in a demanding professional as a private university lecturer (though I will be a full-time postdoctoral researcher come September 2015) – this past year has been filled with transitions and changes at all front, and there is a lot that appears to bode well, even the things that did not seem to go according to one’s desire. It is important to reflect because, it is just about 3 months to the first anniversary of my return to Malaysia. Also, this July marks the first summer I had been back since 2012 – and that summer of 2012 was not a happy homecoming for me. But because I was in the thick of so many responsibilities and obligations, there were many issues I never properly dealt with until now. But as I was still trying to make sense of a country that is mine yet had become so alien to me, much of my inner resources had been channeled towards surviving, making sense, and making connections old and new. Obviously, I returned a very different person from the one who left in 2008.

Maybe it is the holidays, or that psychic mark on the calendar, that caused certain memories to penetrate onto the surface of my consciousness. Some of my relationships to these memories were ambivalent, but I realize I must confront them so that I could understand why the me of the past did the things I did, made the choices I did, and even embroiled myself in some of the turmoil that would shadow me for periods of time. It is in making sense of that, that I could then make sense of myself, of my insecurities and motivations, and most importantly, of what had been most faithful and constant in my life regardless of the detours. And the one thing I finally recognized about myself, and which I believe, is important as I chart my way forward, is my lifelong relationship scholarship. I don’t mean academics – hell no. I mean scholarship, in all its purity and dedication to the betterment of the mind, soul, and body. A life of the mind that is not built upon the sandcastle dreams of academia, but one that is more akin to Virginia Woolf’s “A room of one’s Own” – where one has the freedom to think, experiment, and feel the world of ideas and knowledge free from the corrupting influence of ego, necessity, practicality, and commodification.

Since my twenties (and I am now in my thirties), the darkest period of my life (outside the death of loved ones) had been separation from scholarship, as was what happened to me in 2007. Back then, and for many years, I thought I was unhappy because I was facing professional and personal crises – perhaps the crises were contributory factors, but I realize that much of these crises was exacerbated by the growing distance, and estrangement, I felt to that one thing that had been formative of my identity since I was a child (though I did not, obviously, knew it at the time) – that is my relationship with scholarship and the life of the mind, all because I was too engaged with firefighting, solving problems, and going after things that, in hindsight, were misguided, only because I refused to acknowledge my inner voice.

I have been through periods when I felt like I am going nowhere or have felt bereft; but I realized, what had sustained me and kept me from going down the path of destructive behavior (even when faced with the temptation of doing so), had been the succor and comfort I found in scholarly work, even when nothing else seems to be going my way. When scholarship appears furthest from the minds of those fighting life battles, being able to continuously engage with scholarship, even if only minimally at certain times, had kept me going in a stronger path of understanding and enlightenment than any religion ever had. In a way, scholarship is like that abstract therapist (or psychoanalyst) through whom I find clarity in life’s problems.  Scholarship had also weathered me through guilt, heart-breaks, disappointments, regrets, and uncertainties.

After completing my PhD, during which time I was effectively in a ‘long-term,’ yet somewhat dysfunctional, relationship with scholarship (in the form of ‘academia’), I had contemplated a complete separation from a professional engagement with scholarship – perhaps, the increasing disenchantment I felt with the academy and what I perceived as the self-serving tendencies of those who were supposed to uphold scholarly and intellectual ideals – was pushing me towards considering seriously to find a good paying job that will provide me with a balanced life while doing scholarship on the side, such as I had been doing in my twenties from the time I graduated college. Perhaps, that way, I could rekindle the fire I once had for scholarship.

During that crucial moment of decision-making, I was reminded of my foray into the commercial and corporate world in my twenties, during a time when I was teetering between becoming a professional scholar (read academic) and building my career so that I could be comfortable positioned by the time I was in my mid-thirties. I confess that being in academia was an afterthought, as I was not brought up in an environment that encourages one to choose academics as a possible career choice – in fact, during my time in the industry, I noted a distinct contempt for academia and academics by industry practitioners. But scholarship, which at that time I had not quite properly associated with academia – during my time in university, the forces around me were more concerned with making me employable for the industry than in helping me consider a potential career in academics; with the exception of a very few, many of my peers who did end up pursuing advanced degrees were doing so for non-academic career advancement.

Further, I had given such a big part of my youth to my studies that I am professionally far behind those in my age group, and even those younger than myself (you will find this familiar refrain if you have been reading the ‘quit lit’ or laments of those deciding on a #altac, #postac, or #whatchacallitac careers) and had not gone on to do a PhD for six years or more (or even those who decided very early on that their life-calling has always been academics, but with the precarious situation of academia now, such a calling is losing is luster). While others are already gaining professional standing and recognition, and have become rather established in their chosen fields, I am but an ‘early career’ researcher, who gave up whatever little professional credentials I was beginning to gain (and be recognized for), when I decided to take up the PhD, though I never regretted doing the PhD, which had enriched my life thoroughly. Yet, I also realized that many of my professional decisions, including when I thought academics was not my calling, had always been driven by the need for me to make time for research, writing, and thinking (even when I did not think to refer to these activities as scholarly pursuits).

Finally, I ended up in academia – largely because, upon my return to Malaysia and through the informational interviews I’d conducted with various individuals, I realized that, to continue to do the scholarship I love, I need academic affiliations.  I pursue a position in academia so as to be able to engage continuously with the life of the mind in a land that appears rich in some ways, but sterile when it comes to accommodations and facilities for an independent scholar. Of course, being in academia (especially the kinds one finds in Malaysia) is a hell lot of drudge work, hack work, and form-after-form fillinh. If there is anyway to kill your love for academia, all one has to do is work in the private education sector (though, as many would tell me, things are no rosier in the public sector). For one, those with the most control in dictating the direction of a university/institution of higher learning academia have no love for scholarship or the intellectual life – for them, scholarship is a ‘necessary evil’ that must be accomplished for reaping profits and recognition (and branding) through university rankings. Even many of those they hire as cogs in the machinery (including the ‘academics’) are there for reasons that have little to do with scholarship.

I had asked myself then, many times, as to why I am willing to work for such crappy salary in an industry that is exploitative and often unrewarding (and honestly speaking, I still ask myself that). It was then that I remember what scholarship had done for me, and what it had meant to me through all these years. I realize that what kept me going had my ongoing dedication to my scholarly work (even when there seems to be almost no time to engage in that) and the happiness/satisfaction I find in both the engagement and dissemination. Scholarship takes both the form of researching into new ideas as well as talking about them with my students and peers. Perhaps I will not stay in academia for ever, or I might have to find another path to fulfill my goals and dreams. But whatever may happen in the end, scholarship will always remain my first and true love.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. baoern permalink
    July 24, 2015 8:23 pm

    Hey Clarissa, I am currently based in Melbourne but missing Malaysia despite the craziness. I really enjoy reading what you’ve written, and your writings have also inspired me to think about how Malaysian groups in Melbourne here can be more effective (I first read your work in the New Mandala about Malaysian intellectual communities).

    It heartens me that people like you are in the Malaysian system, and I know it’s really tough on you. But do know that there are some of us who have noticed what you’ve been doing and please keep up the fantastic work! I am learning a fair bit from you 🙂

  2. CLee permalink*
    July 25, 2015 8:45 am

    hello Boern,
    Thank you for writing and also for reading my writings. 🙂 I would certainly like to hear more about what Malaysian groups are doing over at your end. I think it is certainly important to build more bridges from the Malaysian educational establishment for reasons beyond the profit motif to counter the isolation in which I notice much of research in Malaysia is conducted under, in all fields.

    • baoern permalink
      September 4, 2015 10:55 pm

      Trust me, we are working on this and will get back to you 🙂

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