This article is going to be a bit different from my usual storytelling. Because I'll be sharing some writing with you that is as academic as it is deeply personal. And it very much connects to my rebel approach to life as a gifted person. It also answers (in part) a question I often receive about my PhD from people who know how much I love travel and adventure: 'Won't you get restless staying in one place for 3-4 years to do a PhD?' The decision to apply for a PhD was not an easy one. A few years ago, I even swore to myself that I'd not give in to the temptation to dedicate myself to such scholarly endeavors until at last 10 years from now. Because I was afraid of getting sucked into a life of reading, thinking, writing, and repeating. And the problem with that is, while my mind thrives when doing those things, my body feels stuck. Useless. Lifeless. Just sitting there, hunched over a desk all day long. I don't feel that I'm alive. I don't feel that I'm present in the Real World that's out there, waiting for me to be explored. So I've decided to rebel against this distinction that existed in my thinking between Body and Mind. Because I felt like a split personality: the scholarly Simone that is turned inwards, to think, ponder and reflect. And the adventurous Simone, that's turned outwards, to explore, experience, and express. It's a story that I've had to overcome (*not-so-subtle virtual wink to the people that attended my masterclass STORYTIME*). And changing the narrative here has been quite a challenge. But I've since started rebelling against standard, traditional ways of doing research. I've begun to use spoken word and not just written word; and creative, embodied practices including podcasting, music production, poetry, and performance to close the gap between the duality I sensed. To bring Simone the Scholar and Simone the Adventurer closer together. I hope you can see how a PhD in Polar Studies focused on Antarctic exploration through sonic methods is very much is a culmination of my efforts to bridge that gap. I hope this also allows you to see the extent of the intentionality with which I design my projects, career and life.
The excerpt of writing I'm about to share with you was published earlier this week as a chapter in a book titled 'Doing Rebellious Research in and beyond the Academy'. It's written in the form of a dance that I perform with a senior Cambridge academic, Professor Hilary Cremin, in a lecture hall. It's a piece that is incredibly dear to me, written from a state of pure flow. Ideally, it should be performed - spoken word with lots of movement - but I hope you'll enjoy it in written format too (perhaps read it out loud yourself and imagine the dance). I've highlighted one of my fave paragraphs I've ever written in color. My writing had captured the attention of The Guardian, so last week I gave them an interview about my rebel work as an academic. Here's the link:
Movement 1: Hope
Spreading my arms wide open Palms turn up towards the sky Chest and chin lifted, Calves raised on the tops of my toes I bend and stretch, shrink and expand
What do I hope to find here? What am I doing in this space and where am I going? When I first arrived at Cambridge to start my MPhil in Education, I’d never seriously considered an academic career. Quite the opposite: I’d made myself the promise to steer clear from academia, however tempting its career prospects might be. Although Cambridge has shaken the foundations of that resolution, my past experiences prevent me from shielding behind naivety. Even as an academic newcomer, I am no newbie to its World Without Weekends: the past few years I’ve already been on an academic rollercoaster by doing three Bachelors degrees at once, in just three years’ time. I’ve spent enough time fully immersed in a world dominated by laptop screens, tight deadlines and an absence of work-life balance to readily recognize visions of my potential future self reflected in the passionate and knowledgeable (yet sleep-deprived and overburdened) academics around me. It is easy, perhaps too easy, to imagine a similar life for myself.
I clasp my hips, which begin contouring, connecting, contextualizing That inner hunger That endless curiosity That doomed blessing That terrific gift
What I am feeling now is by no means a new experience, for I have been here before. I know the impact that intense intellectual labour has on me: my mind thrives amidst all the new ideas, theories and concepts, yet my body complains about being forgotten. My undivided focus on ‘Knowing’ gets in the way of my unanswered curiosity for ‘Being’. I try to suppress, ignore and deny the frustrated energy squishing my lungs, until I can no longer contain my body. Restlessness kicks in, books are stacked away in boxes, walking shoes get freshly waxed, Google Maps tabs are opened on my browser; clear signs that it won’t be long before I take off. I go looking for my next dose of Real Life, like a drug that keeps me going. Visiting the edges of my thoughts, pushing the horizons of the possible. Kicking against limitations, going on detours, I take my seat right at the margins of my knowing (Derrida 1984), in-between Mind and Body to oversee the order, the chaos, the emerging ambiguities, like a true Derridean. Finally, I remember. Finally, I come back to life. Finally, I exist. Here I am, here we are, dancing in the disembodied territory of the Mind. Perhaps it is possible to mind-fully embody ourselves as academics after all? For perhaps, if I allow my body to rebel right here and now in this empty lecture room, I can
Jump! Turn around Speed up Fall down Break the walls And the ceiling too Crash (onto) the floor Claim space for Body and Mind Without compromise?
Movement 2: Fear
I like to kick my long legs Straight into the sky, Shaking my feet to frantically Throw off the reservedness, To rid myself of self-awareness, To explode together with the ball of energy Tumbling round and round in my belly
Restlessly, I run back and forth between literature and life. I exit the stories I read to enter stories I tell. I bring my body to sail the Drake’s Passage, to dive into Antarctic waters, to cross Saharan deserts. My body brings me back to its worldly home, wind in hair, eyes spread wide in mystical marvel. Yet I know it won’t be long before my mind longs back to its desk. Paper and pen in hand. Forehead resting contemplatively on my fist. When I am in my mind, I miss Being-in-the-World. When I am in the world, I miss Being-in-my-Mind. If what I’m hoping for is to recognize within the contours of the university the outlines of an intellectual home, my biggest fear is that this home will lock my body up. If my hope is to nurture my lively mind, my fear is that my lifeless body will slowly become erased. While my mind expands with all the knowledge I consume and create, my body feels increasingly constrained. I fear my hips will come to carry imprints of the chair’s edges pressed into my thighs, my fingertips will have keyboard letters glued to their tips, my shoulders will be permanently drawn up, my back hunched over my desk, my eyesight irrevocably fading. When I momentarily remember to look up from my screen and gaze towards the horizon of the possible, all I see is blurry shapes surrounded by blue light, becoming increasingly hard to distinguish.
Sudden uncertainty it hits me A stream of cold air Enters in-between my arms Ribs quickly closing in I sink down to the floor Arms wrap around my shins Face rests upon two knees
My gaze drifts to the back of the room, where the classroom chairs are piled up. They are of the kind with a little desk attached, where you can rest your books on. How could my body possibly fit into that chair? How can I remain seated when my body threatens to burst through the cracks of my new-found home, looking for the way out? While my mind discovers untrodden territories, my body gets stuck in this claustrophobic grip. As I dance this dance with Hilary, I wonder if she too sometimes feels like her body doesn’t fit the demands of this mental world. Does she ever fear not being able to stand back up, after having been seated for so long? Does she recognize the feeling of resembling a puzzle piece with an awkward bend – not allowing itself to fit neatly with the rest of the pieces? Does it become easier when you’ve lived inside this World Without Weekends for longer? Does anyone else fear that by choosing the academic path, they risk forgetting that one crucial act: to be – and feel – alive?
Softly, I feel the touch of Hilary’s hand extending out Gently resting on my shoulder I was seated for a while but now it’s time to get back up
Movement 3: Rebellion
Breathing deeply in and out Grounding myself back down Pressing heels – toes – heels into blueish carpet Without thinking, simply feeling I close my eyes and start to listen
I listen to my tensed midriff telling me to run. I listen to my throat demanding me to shout. I listen to my chest begging me to expand, to deepen my inhales. Once I allow my body to rebel, will I ever allow it to be pacified again? Trapped in a binary opposition between Body and Mind, is it not all one big deceit, one big illusion? Is Being-in-the-World not supposed to be a unified form of sentir-pensar (Mignolo, 2015)? I often feel far removed from feeling whole as a thinking, feeling, sensing and acting Being. At times, my own body responds to my academic endeavours by refusing to collaborate, by rebelliously blocking my mind, as if to say ‘enough is enough’. My mind orders my body to type a new essay yet my hands simply refuse. My mind orders my body to stay focused on the screen yet my eyes make all the letters dance in a disorganized jumble. My mind orders my body to stay immobile while staring at endless amounts of text yet my feet itch and my knees shake impatiently, unable to bare their own uselessness.
Thighs and fists clutching, ankles trembling Elbows lifting falling lifting falling I slow my movements down Until I stop doing and start standing Finally, Standing there
Standing there, I pause to reflect. I stop trying to make myself fit and wonder instead: if there is no space in academia for embodied practices, how can we make space for it? How can I make space for my own body in this academic future I envision for myself as part of that blurry, yet still visible, horizon of the possible? How can we make use of senses other than our vision to engage with ideas, theories and concepts, with knowledge production? What can an academic future sound like, feel like, smell like? Perhaps to rebel means to depart radically from normative expectations around if and how to write, research, speak, exist as an academic? Or perhaps it might mean to decide not to pursue an academic career at all? I am still undecided. Surely to rebel means daring to choose a different route, a different timing, a different rhythm. It might mean to stop doing, to start standing there instead. To put the mind on stand-by. To make the body stand up and force the mind to stand down. To take a stand against the hegemony of thoughts over feelings, immobility over movement, literature over life. To stand, sway and swirl; to tumble, twist and turn. Just like in this dance. To create space, without seeking approval or permission, for the
Unimaginable Unapproved Unseen Unheard Unlearnt Unconforming Unexpected By dancing to the counter-beat?
These excerpts come from a book chapter, published as:
Eringfeld, S. and Cremin, H. (2022) ''Don't just do something... Stand there!' Two women dance their academic trajectories.' Pamela Burnard et al (Eds.), Doing Rebellious Research in and beyond the Academy, Brill-i-sense.