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The courage to just do it and laugh

February 27, 2018
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By Lisa Ndejuru

Photo by David Ward Photo by David Ward

“Difficult knowledge is what one makes from the ruins of one’ s lovely knowledge.” (Pitt and Britzman 2003, 766)

I wanted to finish my dissertation by end of year. December 2017 was going to be it. I didn’t need for it to be defended yet. But at least to hand in a first manuscript for review to my beautiful committee. I would be done and as a reward I would get to visit my family in Rwanda and start looking for ways to connect practice, teaching, and learning here and there. It was my phantasy, my lovely knowledge.

Have you ever done that? Thrown a goal date out to yourself like a bone, hoping to get yourself to run and fetch it and make it happen? When I first thought up the deadline, it wasn’t entirely unrealistic in terms of workload. But I didn’t review the date when I kept missing my milestones.

Oh, I did so out loud to other people. I would throw another bone and say, “Hmm, I think I will need the winter semester as well.” But inside of me, I kept hoping for a miracle. On January 1st I was still hoping to make it, even though the year was done and the word count had not consistently made it onto the paper (or at least the screen).

There is no secret to dissertation writing. It just needs doing. That simple, that hard.

"I didn't laugh. I could not do it yet."

Some of my colleagues have graduated and defended brilliantly. In the meantime, I have done all kinds of other things I cannot recall at this precise moment.

Don't get me wrong ...
I have thought about my chapters quite a bit.
Like the one I am working on right now, for example.

It starts with this story of being at a conference. A true story that took place nine years ago at the beginning of my research journey.

I was presenting my learnings and insights as a community member in a community-university research project. During Q&A a young scholar in the audience had asked whether any methodological or epistemological contributions were being made to the discipline beyond the apparent heuristic dimension of the project. This all took place in French. And even though I am fluent in the language, I did not know how to begin answering.

I went through so many feelings: hurt (didn’t my findings count?), ignorance and shame (what did he mean by epistemological contributions to the discipline?), helplessness (I don't know how to think about it), outrage and anger (how is it that community voices and concerns have little or no currency in academic spaces?), and righteousness (how dare he discount me!).

Over the years the young man’s questions bothered me like a sore tooth. So much so that my supervisor teasingly asked them of me for my comprehensive exams. “You’ll laugh,” he said, speaking of it before giving me the question.

I didn’t laugh. I could not do it yet. I engaged with the question in a very earnest and risk-averse way, addressing each element of the question with appropriate literature. I discussed the question somewhat, but it did not release the emotional residue in the way thinking something through in writing can.

Photo by David Ward Photo by David Ward

Inspired by ideas around difficult knowledge

I started chapter three of the dissertation with the story, to give myself another kick at the can. As I started writing about it, two more stories or incidents came to mind. Both took place in the US and in English. All three incidents have to do with presenting my learnings as a community member in academic institutional contexts and feeling that I was treated with derision, contempt, or accusation. Inspired by ideas around difficult knowledge, I have titled the chapter “Working Through Difficult Moments.”

I started the chapter by unpacking power relationships in knowledge creation and dissemination through a critical lens. Engaging questions about legitimacy, positionality, and apparent objectivity allowed me to revisit events and come out swinging instead of curling into a ball.

Today I understand that words like ontology, methodology, and epistemology carry different meanings in different contexts (in the English- and French-speaking worlds, for example, epistemology means different things: there are clearly two traditions). I’ve learned about western research paradigms and can recognize different conceptions of knowledge and the ways in which it is made. I appreciate the politics of knowledge creation and dissemination. I can analyze a question, ask where it is coming from, and assess whether it is meant in good faith or not. I know that community and university actors rarely, if ever, carry the same questions, and I have good sense of why. I know I won’t have the same kinds of difficult moments in the future. Different ones, probably, but not the same. I can defend myself. I’ve learned.

The critical lens was satisfyingly vindicating, especially to the righteous part of me, but in some ways, I feel as though I have lost my initial questions. I literally lost the presentation I made that first time and instead acquired and analyzed the young man’s papers on meta epistemology and, more recently, his dissertation. I don't ask the questions from the same place anymore. I am in a funny transitional space, no longer firmly rooted in the questions of my community of origin, but not yet entirely academic.

"The losses that compose the force of learning"

The other day, sitting in a board meeting at Concordia’s centre for oral history and digital storytelling we were discussing research funding from the provincial funding bodies with some of our French-speaking scholars. It led to a conversation about the differences in academic culture between the French and English traditions.

It’s made me think about the incident again. Having read the young man’s paper multiple times, and, more recently, his dissertation (he defended his in 2014!), I knew where he was coming from and that his question spoke mostly of his own concerns. It had very little to do with me.

Not being able to speak his language (or to his research) was not a reflection on me. And feeling ashamed because I thought I should know where he was coming from when I was the one who had presented was an unfair expectation. Much like my deadlines. Not so lovely knowledge, phantasy.

In a brilliant paper, education experts Pitts and Britzman highlighted “the losses that compose the force of learning.” When I hold on to ideas of how and what I should be and do, and resist what I find, it actually makes learning harder than it needs to be, and it makes the process longer. So this dissertation may well take me beyond the winter semester. Laughter and the courage to just write and accept where I am at should make it easier, but I’m not there yet.

To be continued…

Work cited:

Pitt, Alice, and Deborah Britzman. (2003). Speculations on qualities of difficult knowledge in teaching and learning: An experiment in psychoanalytic research. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 16(6), 755–776.


About the author

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Lisa Ndejuru is a 2017 Concordia Public Scholar. She’s also a core member of the Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling. Lisa aims to make sense of her research and complete her dissertation later this year. 


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