Literacy and Identity – That’s the Easy Part

In a convenient confluence of thoughts and events, I’m coming up on my Fulbright term in January at the same point that I’m ready to start off on another big project. You’d think I’d planned it that way.

This is the stage at which things always seem to get a bit fraught, though. Possibly even dicey. Because I’m getting to the point where the big, amorphous idea needs to get significantly less blobby. I’ve been saying for a while, to myself and to others, that my next project is going to focus more on “literacy and identity.” Fair enough. Also accurate to say that it will take place on Earth and be subject to the laws of physics. All of that will be true, but it’s all so broad and general as to be of no use. Understand, I am a big proponent of the blobby, amorphous stage of research. For about four months I’ve been doing a lot of note taking/noodling on the page, talking with friends, pondering on walks, about the possible contours of this project. These wanderings and noodlings have been useful in helping me run out various tracks of thought to see which ones continued to be interesting and which, in the end, ended up in the high grass of boredom or impracticality or incomprehension (the latter being stored away for further, later exploration). In many ways, exploring the blobby-verse of an idea are some of my favorite times. Everything is possible. Everything is potential.

Still, there comes the time where a path needs to be chosen, a die cast, a choice made (no metaphors here I really like, by the way) etc, etc. With that choice, there is the thrill of progress. With that choice, there is also the regret of the other choices not made, as well as the anxiety that I’ve made the wrong choice. I’ll head down my path, happy enough. But could I have been happier down the other road? What if the other item on the menu that I didn’t order was really what I wanted? Or, even worse, what if the path I chose leads again only to high grass? And, to be honest, the six-month window of the Fulbright at the University of Sheffield brings with it a certain pressure as well as an amazing opportunity. I don’t want to squander this amazing opportunity and the chance to work with people I admire so much by chasing down the wrong road, setting sail in the wrong direction (still no good metaphors, but you get the idea…) In general, I’m not a person given to regret. Nostalgia, perhaps, but not regret. But at moments like this….

Maybe the image that captures it is Michael Caine, teetering with his crew on the edge of the cliff at the end of the The Italian Job, trying to assure everyone that, “Hang on, lads; I’ve got a great idea!”

It helps me empathize with the graduate students I work with who often talk of feeling a similar anxiety when about to commit to a dissertation idea. What I tell them is true enough: That any idea that intrigues them and yields no easy answers is an idea worth pursuing. I know that too. And I know that a focus is emerging out of the noodling and talking and wandering. I know that I have enough of a focus now to help me start with conversations and observations and work in Sheffield. And I know that, not knowing too much now will help me be surprised and let me follow what I find, rather than shaping my experiences and encounters to fit a pre-fabbed idea of what the research should be. I know that.

So I should trust my process, trust my interests. And that clearer focus will be the subject of future posts. Hang on, lads. I’ve got a great idea!

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