Authorized to speak

What my SSHRC Standard Research Grant has given me is the authority to speak. This was unexpected.

I was at a conference recently where it happened that many different people asked me about my research: What are you working on? Are you writing this summer? What are you researching? Are you going to any conferences next year? Strange to say, I answered them easily, happily. I had a two-sentence answer that summarized my big project that just sort of rolls off the tongue. I also, if they were interested, told them about the current set of ideas I’m trying to think through about a specific problem. I asked them for book recommendations, to respond to my ideas, to suggest publications venues.

This is all new.

Used to be, I’d talk vaguely about an overarching research interest without clear plans attached to it (“I am interested in questions that relate to how regular people use technology.”). Or about my dissertation (“For example, my dissertation looked at how computers used to be for experts and now they’re for toddlers.”). Or about an article I’d published a year or two ago (“Um, in 2004, I did something similar with videogames and movies in an article?”). Or deflect the conversation to teaching (“Isn’t it hard to get a lab set up for multimedia instruction?”) or to the profession (“I think service is underrated in the evaluation of faculty work”), topics I felt much better able to speak competently and confidently.

I don’t remember, even while writing my dissertation, ever being able to talk about research in progress as though I had any agency, or control, or authority. But now I do. It’s not that my articles are getting through peer review any more easily, or that I’ve become a ton smarter. So, what?

Recently, I was corresponding with another academic about something or other, and it came up that we had both had our projects funded–that we had ‘won’ our SSHRCs. It was she who first gave me the idea that, beyond the funding for a new computer, a graduate researcher, and conference travel, the fact of ‘winning’ the grant seemed to convey … authority.

It’s true, I think. I find myself talking about the project like a living thing that exists, even while I’m at the stage of … just thinking about what I’m really going to focus on. But the project still feels real, and I still somehow feel like an expert on it. Having the grant–the government is funding this research!–also makes me feel like I have a duty to talk about it, to make it known.

Above the financial capital associated with the grant, I think I might have underestimated the cultural capital it would bring.


Have you ever experienced anything similar? I think I felt a version of this surprising competence when I won my SSHRC doctoral fellowship back in the day, and definitely earning tenure did something to the inside of my brain.

5 thoughts on “Authorized to speak

  1. Interesting observation. I wonder if there are ways to feel confident about the research even when you have not (yet?) secured funding. Given the level of competition for funding and the oft stated notion that much excellent research in the humanities and social sciences can be done without it, it seems we should be finding ways to help people assume that authority.


  2. Jo, I agree absolutely! I guess that's one of the things that was so startling to me was that I didn't realize how un-confident and un-assertive I felt/acted about my research until suddenly, the SSHRC 'win' gave me the boost. I hope that by articulating that change, we might all begin to think about how we understand ourselves in relation to our work, and if there's another way we can get that confidence.

    There are not enough SSHRCs to go around, but I didn't really need money to change my attitude … but what was it? Peer approbation? What? Can we distribute that more broadly? Do you have any ideas?


  3. I think it's interesting, Aimée, that you use the word “authorized” given that your research involves bloggers who have often taken to the web to write because they felt they weren't “authorized” to speak in more traditional venues. How does one become authorized as a blogger (a question that kept coming up at World Views 2011)? How does one become authorized as a scholar? Am I less authorized because I never won a SSHRC, nay, don't have access to them because I no longer live in Canada? In fact, in my position as an Instructor, and not on the TT, often automatically disqualifies me from winning awards/grants that work to legitimate my work. Or, even if I am eligible, there still are hints that there is a bias towards TT professors, because they have achieved a higher form of legitimacy already.

    These are all excellent questions you pose Aimée. I think we need to have broader discussions about what it means to be a successful academic. I don't have any answers about what we can do (sorry). But just talking about our research and the richness of the work we produce can help to reframe the discussions.


  4. Lee: yes, I use the word authorize advisedly, but maybe also problematically. I want to be clear that what I'm discerning is mostly a mental trick I'm playing on myself: that is, SSHRC doesn't actually 'authorize' me; rather, the fact of succeeding in getting a grant leads me to consider myself in a different light.

    Like fancy underpants, or a neon green pedicure hidden inside snowboots, I receive a real and tangible boost in confidence, without anything looking any different to any one else.

    It may well be that some people think my scholarship is more valuable now that I have a SSHRC (and that would be an interesting post) but what I'm trying to address here is how it really changed how I saw MYSELF.

    I discover that I was labouring under an imposter syndrome with respect to my research that I didn't realize I was suffering.

    Your post, Lee, raises questions of institutional, structural limitations on who can speak, about what, and to whom, and under what legitimating mantle. Care to write a post about that? I would LOVE to read it.


  5. Well … you refer to it as a mental trick, but you might also accurately think of it as updating your beliefs in the face of new evidence. The people who evaluate your work in the SSHRC process are at arms' length from you, and they ranked you in the top 1/3 in a self-selected pool of people who already are probably having some success as scholars. That's pretty good evidence that you're up to something worthwhile.

    It's by no means foolproof, but one of the good things academia has worked out over the years is the process of peer reviewed funding decisions. [Academic-political aside: we should save some of our energies for fighting against moves to undermine that process, too.] So you *should* feel more confident in what you have to say. It's one thing to have your thesis supervisors, etc., say you're great (and that's who wrote your letters for the doctoral fellowship), but now people with nothing to gain by your success are saying you're pretty good, too. Well done.

    The real trick is to not feel bad when you apply some time and wind up 4A (recommended but not funded). With that 1/3 success rate, it happens to almost everyone, and the imposter syndrome never really goes away. I think the trick to the game is to recognize that justice has been served when you win, and recognize that there's a lottery going on in these competitions when you don't. Many more people deserve funding than get it, but not many get it who don't deserve it.


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