Time to Focus

A few weeks ago I played with a cousin’s four-year-old daughter.

“Look at the map!” she cried, laying out a Lego theme park map on the ground. “First we have to go through the ninjas, then we have to go get Hercules.” We ran around the park, her one-year-old brother wandering as we zipped by. She kept yelling out commands, and I’d ask her what we had to do next.

Suddenly, this morphed into a game of whales and humans. Namely, we kept being turned into whales and needing to turn back into humans. We did so by “eating” ice cubes that we had dumped on the ground. Every time she pointed at me, I bellowed like a whale.

Eventually, another child joined in and this turned into a game of house. We each claimed a tree and rushed back and forth, bringing each other cakes and omelettes and turning into superheros and stealing each other’s cars.

Preschool age children are full of energy and love make-believe. Engaging with them can be exhausting, but I found it freeing. I could say or do anything and she’d run with it. I declared we’d found a safe zone, I taped silly glasses to my face, I made strange noises, and she took it all in stride.

A few years from now, she’ll outgrow this tendency toward fantastical exuberance. She’ll go to school and focus on learning how the world works and managing a social life. I won’t be able to run up to her and say, “Bloooooooop” with pink flowery glasses taped to my face. In Deleuzian terms, her attention will be territorialized — marshaled into familiar, conventional, and normalized ways of thinking.

I feel myself making a similar transition from doctoral student to ABD. Since advancing to candidacy in May, I’ve been excited to write my dissertation proposal. Finally, I get to focus on the whole reason why I entered the PhD program in the first place. But writing the proposal means I have to focus. The floodlight of my academic gaze must sharpen into a spotlight. And that makes me a little sad.

I now look back on the past year and see it as a period of academic fantastical exuberance.

What’s epistemology? What’s ontology? What did Foucault and Latour and Haraway and Barad say? What’s my theoretical perspective? I’m an interpretivist. No, maybe I’m a critical researcher. Ooh, what is post-humanism. What happens if I drop terms like assemblage and actant and materiality into conversation? Do I want to do ethnography? Is my work content analysis or textual analysis? What discipline am I in? I’m in social computing. No, computer-mediated communication. Ooh, what if I call myself an internet studies researcher. Maybe I’m in media studies.

Hey, look at all these citations! What’s that? And that one? And that one? Let me download the article right now. And these books, let me get them from the library. Oooh look, these other books seem relevant too; let me check them all out. Here’s some sociology, some anthropology, some communication, some feminist scholarship, science and technology studies work, some cultural studies, ooh, political theory, whoa, I didn’t expect to go there, but OK, sure.

What has agency? Hmm, I didn’t think that was relevant to my research, but alright, let’s do that. Oh, you want deconstruct binaries. Fine. Subject/Object. Nature/Culture. Human/Thing.

And I’ve loved it. Loved it, loved it, loved it. But I can’t possibly read everything I’ve downloaded and checked out before writing the dissertation proposal. I can’t trace the history of all the theories I’ve started learning about.

Yes, the reading and the note-taking and the conversations will continue. But if I want to stay on track, more of that work needs a clearer purpose than simply, “Oooh, that sounds interesting.

I’m hitting a new academic stage, and it’s time to focus.

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