enter the confessional · notes from the non-tenured-stream · openness

On Doubt

Last Monday I didn’t write a post. I couldn’t. The tank was empty. The well was dry. I had less than nothing to say, and so I said nothing. No big deal, I told myself. It is March. Everyone is busy. Readers will understand a missed post here and there. Your co-bloggers will get it. It is fine. And it is fine. The world doesn’t stop if I — or anyone else — misses a post from time to time. But here is the thing: I missed a post not because I was tired for the first time. Goodness knows I have been tired for approximately the past five years. No, I missed a post because I am struggling with doubt. And despite my reticence to do so, I want to think through the function of doubt here.

Struggling with doubt over what? You may well ask.

I have written before — and often — about the affective bind of precarious employment. Most recently both Margrit and I have framed this feeling of inertia through Lauren Berlant‘s concept of cruel optimism. Berlant describes cruel optimism as one of the non-purgative affects that gets in the way of one’s ability to move forward in a positive and fulfilling manner. It is a state of suspended agency. Indeed, I came to Berlant’s notion of cruel optimism after having written a short piece on the importance of hope. My argument in that paper was that hope was crucial for the kinds of perseverance needed to survive precarious academic work.

More recently I wrote a companion piece to the hopeful paper that reframed the necessity for a particular kind of cynicism. Two years after the hopeful paper I found that the naivete of that earlier me had made room for a more critically-minded, still tenacious point of view. Moreover, though I still routinely struggle with the sense that being frank is risky when you’re precariously employed, I found I was less swayed by the inner voice that whispered ‘just smile and charge ahead.’ And so it would make sense that my doubt stems from the impossibility of predicting the job market and my own place in it. And while I am certain that precarity influences my own recent experiences of doubt, I am less certain that it is the central cause.

No, I fear my sense of doubt comes from the larger and more esoteric worry: what if none of this work in the Academy matters? What if? What if?

Doubt is one of those wobbly feelings that can keep your feeling stuck. It sneaks up on you when you least expect it. It chips away at the foundation of your sense of self until you’re left standing on a latticework of lace. Consider one of the final scenes in the 2008 film version of Doubt:

Look at the way Meryl Streep’s character collapses under the weight of unknowing. There is a pulling in and away from the context of her work that reminds me of images of controlled demolition: when doubt takes hold the subject implodes, folds in on herself.

Yet, doubt also offers a critical position from which to question the status quo. It is a place from which to strategically position yourself against dominant discourses that flatten over the kinds of work that can — and often does — happen in engaged classrooms, ethical and urgent research projects, acts of academic magical thinking, and those gorgeous moments of collaboration. So I suppose I find myself wondering how to reframe the potentially paralyzing experience of doubt (of self doubt, of doubt about the academy and on and on) in a productive and potentially empowering position of careful unknowing. In other words, in a month that has seen (more) massive cuts to education (courage, my Albertan comrades!) and seen the status of women in Canada stagnate to name but a few instances of doubt-inducing events, how can we harness the productive questioning power of doubt without becoming over-wrought, apathetic, or withdrawn?

Strangely enough, as I was thinking about how to answer my own question I thought of Ndidi Onukwulu’s version of “Maybe the Last Time.” Do you know it? In her pacing, her gestural performance, and her whimsical completion of the song Onukwulu embodies the kind of critical unknowing and questioning that I’m thinking towards:

Thoughts? How do you think through your own experiences of professional doubt?

One thought on “On Doubt

  1. “What happens to optimism when futurity splinters as a prop for getting through life?” (Berlant, Cruel Optimism, 19). Doubt, self-doubt, effacing self-esteem, or is it self-effacing esteem? Such a timely post, Erin!


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