Isabelle LeBlanc is a PhD Candidate in the Department of French Studies, Université de Moncton and Elected Graduate Representative – Association for Feminist Anthropology. Her dissertation examines ideological dynamics between gender and language in the Acadian community.
I’m in my 4th year of my PhD (time flies, they say…yes, it does) and although I’ve managed to successfully finish all the steps needed to get to the actual writing of the thesis (the first step being an imposed propedeutic because I committed an academic faux-pas, in conventional circles, and decided to switch from international political theory to sociolinguistics…oh and that also meant moving from Paris to Moncton. Yes, I know…what the hell was I thinking? Well, even Paris gets boring when one isn’t working on something that is passionate to them.
So, I changed cities, countries and disciplines.
The crossing of disciplinary boundaries wasn’t that new to me. I had always been a very interdisciplinary scholar, but slowly it became clear that I wasn’t in the same academic world anymore. In my program, there were less men and more women. Some women wore dresses, put makeup and did their hair. That was refreshing to me. I had been struggling with my performance of femininity for years in my political science circles in Europe and in Canada. I wore a lot of blazers and spoke with a frown. Yes, a frown. To seem more serious because when one speaks about international ethics and conflicts, bubbly personalities aren’t celebrated. I worked on ‘serious’ thinkers such as Giorgio Agamben and I didn’t want to hear about a feminist framework just because I was a woman.
I wanted to be a ‘serious scholar’ and working on feminist issues seemed too obvious, so I trailed away from it. And working on acadian identity also seemed too obvious, so I resisted it.
But here I was, in Moncton, as a woman and an acadian. I didn’t speak about political theory as much, which meant I also frowned less. I started wearing more dresses and less blazers. And all of a sudden, I found myself working on gender and language. And loving it. But it took some time and a lot of adjusting. And even if my crossing disciplines worked out for me, intellectually, I am still in an identity crisis, only this time it’s an academic identity crisis.
Where do I fit in? It has taken a lot of different academic experiences for me to come to terms with my own gender and intellectual ideologies. All I know now is that I want to discuss ideas around gender ideology, performing identity through language and the power dynamics involved.
That means I’m not considered a ‘conventional’ sociolinguist, nor a ‘conventional’ political theorist. And does anyone know what either one of those even looks like? I don’t feel like
I fit perfectly into any one of those fields, yet I also feel like I could contribute to both.
So, I am writing a thesis and I am taking it one step at a time. There is so much pressure to conform and produce knowledge in an already established disciplinary framework, at least at my university there is, and I don’t think that’s how ideas should be analyzed. I think intellectual curiosity is important. I mean, isn’t that how we get creative? By challenging ourselves and confronting ourselves to ‘otherness’ even when it comes in the ways of interdisciplinary research? I am an interdisciplinary scholar and I find it bizarre that I was ever expected to marry into a discipline like it was to be my one and only forever. I never married a discipline so why should I then be expected to divorce from one? I refuse to settle for an already existing way of being when I prefer to create my own academic process, which is ever evolving (isn’t that what research is about? Innovating and contributing originality?).
Many don’t see the coherence between my academic past and my academic present, but I do. Or rather, I find the lack of apparent coherence an invitation to go beyond existing structures. I find my background in political theory really enriches my analysis of gender and language and I find my work in sociolinguistics gives me an interesting perspective into political theory. So…here I am. I went from a closeted political theory feminist to an engaged sociolinguistic one and by crossing disciplines I didn’t abandon one for the other, rather I got creative with my work through my existing knowledge.
I wish there were more discussions in my academic setting around what interdisciplinary means to different people. I also wish we would discuss the importance of process. As Beauvoir brilliantly pointed out, I wasn’t as much born a woman, as I ‘became’ one. Beauvoir put the emphasis on the ‘process’, the ‘construction’ and thus problematized any sense of essentialization one could try to make out of the term ‘woman’. I wasn’t born an academic, and my becoming one is a process that cannot be defined or essentialized into pre-existing categories about what that should mean.
But as most of us already know, just because identities are constructions and processes with no real ‘aboutissement’, that doesn’t mean we aren’t confronted to normative discourses that threaten our sense of legitimacy in any “authentic” field. The more I travel, the more I expand my knowledge, the more convinced I am that the only way to go forward in an academic setting is to break free from existing moulds. The world is ever changing and the circulation of people and ideas also means we need to be more flexible in how we construct knowledge. In my perspective, universities should be spaces that encourage social change and creativity, not reproduction of norms. Idealist as it may sound, I think universities should produce independent thinkers, the kind who challenge existing structures. And scholars should see the notion of ‘interdisciplinary’ not as a collaborative efforts to exchange with colleagues, but more as a theoretical position that seeks to deconstruct the very fiction that boundaries exist.