A lot of people attending talk about having found their academic ‘home’, or about having found their ‘people’. This is understandable: AoIR is an eclectic space, full of amazing, interesting people who are tackling important new problems (and often having to create new methodologies in order to do so).
It’s not my home, though. Except insofar, perhaps, as there’s often a significant gap between idealised images of home and many places in which I’ve actually lived. I’ve gone to quite a few different conferences, across a number of different fields, and I’ve never found ‘home’. I’ve always felt a little out of place, a little unsure about where my work fits in, a little like everyone else seems to know each other and I’m the one standing awkwardly at the edge of groups at social events wondering if I should just give up and go home.
Conferences are a challenge because of this, but still valuable. I’ve met a lot of good people, heard about interesting work that is mostly a few steps away from my own, and occasionally prodded other people’s ideas in the direction of new approaches that I think are important. I think a lot about cross-pollination.
AoIR felt especially hard this year. Part of that was the fact that I’m at a low ebb in terms of energy. In the last few months I’ve moved house, had a rather intense teaching semester, and had some health issues that left me feeling more exhausted than I can ever remember being before. The couple of years before that already depleted my reserves: they’ve been tremendously difficult on a personal level. But part of it was also the strangeness of feeling out of place amidst this narrative of AoIR as home, as ‘our people’. It’s especially jarring to feel my usual awkwardness as so many other people are talking about their sense of belonging.
And in academia, belonging is important. I’ve helped build some collaborations with other early-career scholars that I’ve found tremendously valuable, but I haven’t found mentors to help with some of the tougher aspects of navigating academia. I do okay at publishing, I think, but grants are hard to navigate when you don’t have more established scholars to include you on their projects so you can get your own track record.
I’ve had some very generous advice provided by older academics, but because they’re not quite in my area, it’s not always easy to implement: ‘Believe in your work!’ (I do!) ‘Try applying for grants x and y, they’re low-hanging fruit!’ (Their terms specifically prohibit the kind of research I’m most excited about.) I’m still trying to make these connections, but it’s hard to continually approach more senior academics with a lot of demands on their time and ask: can you help me?
I don’t know if there’s a place in academia that would fit me in the way that AoIR seems to fit others. Much of the work at AoIR is very close: there’s a significant concern with critiquing power structures and creating change in the world, albeit often coming with a different set of assumptions to my own. I met many wonderful people who I hope to stay in touch with, even if I often felt like I was getting in the way of them talking to people more important for their work. I also missed a few chances to meet and talk with others working in similar areas – perhaps in other, less exhausted years, I will be better at finding these connections.
But for others who might have felt the same way as I did at AoIR, worried that we weren’t belonging in the ways that others seem to, I wanted to write this. To remind myself, too, that it’s okay if there isn’t already a perfect home for me in academia. To remind myself that it’s okay to be at the margins. That sometimes even though it would be good to have a place already waiting to accept me, I just have to keep working at building communities where I can fit. Finding people, stitching networks, helping others who also feel out of place, questioning the assumptions that other people are working within. Sometimes, perhaps even often, remaining awkward, and doing my best to make the most of that space on the edge.