This is a post originally published in July 2011.
[This post, parts one and two, is for Allen. Allen asks for advice on staying motivated as he completes his thesis.
I have been thinking about this since he asked. And I’ve come to the conclusion that I can only write about what has kept me motivated in my writing. There are many excellent sources for writing advice, which cover writing methods and ways to get through writer’s block and “the slump.” These are often useful. One piece of such advice was certainly valid for my own dissertation and book experience: write every day, even if only 100 words.
But, this advice is about writing, not about motivation. And about motivation, well, I only know what worked for me.
Rage motivated me. It motivated me all the way through my dissertation, and it motivated me all the way through my book. Losing connection to my rage (scholarly rage—I was overflowing with other kinds!) played a large role in my ceasing to write and publish. Getting back in touch with my rage has fueled the writing of this blog.
So how is rage a motivator?
Two ways. The first is personal, the second is scholarly.
Today, in Part One, I will discuss Personal Rage, and its connection to academic motivation. Next Tuesday, in Part Two, I will discuss Scholarly Rage.
Those of you who read my bio know that I did not apply or win funding to graduate school to study Japanese women who picked up white guys on the beach. No, I had a “proper” research subject. But things changed almost as soon as I arrived at the University of Hawai’i, moved in to the East West Center, met the Japanese man who would eventually become my ex-husband, and took up surfing.
As the white girlfriend/fiance/wife of a Japanese man, in Hawai’i in the early 1990s, I was something of a joke. At that time, Asian men were the universal laughingstocks of the American sexual hierarchy. Where Asian women were reaching a height of fetishized glory as the ideal partners of white men, Asian men were objects of mockery. Things have changed a lot in the intervening years, and now the sight of a white female-Asian male couple is not that jarring. But it is hard to overstate the dismissive looks and rude comments that my then-husband and I received in those years, on a campus and in an environment that was absolutely dominated by Asian female-white male couples.
Simultaneously, in the course of my surfing at sunset, I had discovered the pick-up scene in Waikiki between Japanese women tourists and local (mostly) white guys. I started doing interviews and fieldwork, wrote a seminar paper on it, and began to understand it as the tip of a much larger iceberg of discourses of desire (as I called them) produced by Japanese women, in Japanese, about a white male fetishized imaginary. I was intrigued, and decided to make it the topic of my Masters thesis, which developed into a doctoral dissertation on the white man as fetish object in Japan. Over the next several years I interviewed a large number of Japanese women and white men in Hawai’i and Japan on what I called the interracial erotic imaginary.
And thus, the origin of my rage. My status as a white woman married to a Japanese man was under constant attack, both directly and indirectly, in my research. The narratives of my Japanese female and white male subjects were fairly simple at their root: the Japanese women I interviewed held that it was “obvious” that white men were “better” than Japanese men. And the white men held that it was “obvious” that Japanese women were “better” than white women. They didn’t just state these truths, they took these truths to be self-evident, organized their lives around them, lived exclusively among others who shared them, and never considered the possibility of any contradiction.
The upshot of this was that both I and my then-husband were overtly, unapologetically dissed, at every turn, in my dissertation research. This would make a body angry.
Rage got me out of bed in the morning. Rage kept me in front of the computer. Rage illuminated, shall we say, my relationship with my advisor, a Japanese women whose husband was white.
I’m not saying this is healthy, by the way. I had to go into therapy to deal with my rage, ultimately. But I sure was motivated. I got that thing DONE. I got it funded. I got it published. I got it presented. I was on a fucking mission. I’ve never been so motivated. I was so motivated I, the ultimate night owl, got up every morning at 5 AM, as an assistant professor, to fit in 2 hours of writing time on my book before my new baby woke up.
So, aside from a possibly interesting story, what is the takeaway message here?
I’ll tell you a truth rarely acknowledged in academic circles. Rage fuels a LOT of research.
Granted, most people aren’t being systematically insulted by their own ethnographic informants.
But people who work on the environment? on cancer? on sustainable energy? on extinctions? on threatened languages? on the fraying social fabric? on the decaying school system? on neoliberal capital? on war crimes? on violence against women? on homophobia?
Rage. It is rage that fuels this work. A righteous rage. A good rage.
Academics are generally a timid lot, and tend to fear and reject intense emotion. Your rage might frighten your advisor, and you might have to keep it quiet. My rage profoundly offended my advisor, to the extent that by the end she sought to negate my work as “polemic” (it wasn’t) and prevent me from being awarded my Ph.D.
You can’t generally speak or write overtly from the place of rage as long as you write in academic genres. It has to be sublimated to some degree. That’s just the way it is in academia. I do not ascribe to the belief that that means the academic system is completely oppressive. It’s just academic. Academic inquiry strives to attain perspective and a certain degree of generalizability. It is not meant to be polemic. That is a different genre. Analysis requires a certain distance and coolness to be analytical.
But that can be a white heat. A calm at the center of the storm. You don’t have to write, “I am angry!” to allow your anger to expose lies, injustices, and truths. Your emotions, your rage, are the source of your power. If you channel them, they produce earth-shattering results.
So allow your rage, if you feel it about your subject of study, to motivate you. Don’t suppress it. Just channel it. Learn when and where and how to express it. Of course it’s frustrating when others don’t share your rage. But let that frustration fuel you further, to try and persuade them. Or failing that, to expose them! Just always be the manager of your rage, so that it serves you, rather than you serving it.
Now, I am aware that many in academia are working on projects that really aren’t motivated by a personal rage per se. And that’s fine. In Part Two, I will discuss the second way that rage can keep you motivated, even when your project itself is calmly benign.
But before I sign off, I’d like to ask—do you have any stories of rage fueling your research and writing? Did you ever feel like your rage got you into trouble in your academic career? I would love to hear your experiences.
Sarah Says says
Karen, it’s interesting to hear how your rage really kept you burning! I suppose I can see how that would work — when something is seething under the surface, you need to get it out of your system before you can rest. I actually come from Eurasian descent and 20something years ago when my parents were contemplating marriage, they were cautioned against it. Nowadays, interracial marriages are everywhere.
Sarah, thanks for your comment! I’d like to think that if scholars were more up-front about the anger that fuels their work, they might be less mean in their execution of it! Hope springs eternal….
I suppose my research is motivated by “teaching method Y is way better than dominant teaching method X.” I’d call it a feeling of superiority more than outright rage, but it is a good place to find motivation!
Fair enough! That’s a good way to put it!
And here I have been trying my best not to let my rage influence my research! (Actually my philosophy has been to research stuff that pisses me off rather than researching stuff that I love.) My question would be how to keep your rage channeled in productive ways and not let it escape at inappropriate moments? For example, in your research you had to talk with lots of these people who were insulting, but in order to get interviews and get them talking openly I imagine that you had to suppress to a certain extent? I have trouble negotiating my personal position and my role as a researcher.
Great questions, Lori. (and I’m glad to see this post getting some attention! I think it’s a really important issue!)
I absolutely had to suppress my rage in the moment. You can’t really go into ethnographic interviews spoiling for a fight (!). And to be fair, my rage was really not against the women themselves, but against the wider systems of white male privilege that turned these white guys into the “heroes” of “feminism”! Where the rage really, really helped me was in the dreaded writing stage. I was REALLY motivated to write.
The trick is learning to compartmentalize, and to retain a steely-eyed commitment to instrumentalization. What I mean by that is…. the thesis/diss/research is not the core of who you are. It is simply a means of attaining a thing that you want—which is a credential (Ph.D.) and a type of job (tenure track work).
I should say that my frustration at the way my advisor and others in that sub-field were conducting their research got me through my masters research. Then it was actually very difficult to submit my thesis. So if your frustration is a little too close to home that can be a problem.
Lakisha James says
Im glad you posted this. I was starting to feel like I was wrong to use rage for motivation…at the end of day I just wanna get stu
Lakisha James says
I just wanna get stuff done!!