How do I feel about my research? It’s complicated

The work that we do as academics comes wrapped in a tangle of emotions from elation to guilt to disgust, says Aoife Monks

November 5, 2015
Emotions on the faces of Lego heads
Source: iStock/Ekaterina Minaeva

When people ask me about my current research, I tell them I’m interested in mid-19th century Irish theatre. But the word “interest” doesn’t seem adequate to describe the complicated feelings that this topic provokes. I find the eccentricities and flamboyance of the artists of the period fascinating and seductive, but I also find myself repelled and disturbed by the racism of Irish blackface minstrels on the American stage, and unnerved by Irish artists’ plundering of the news of Fenian terrorism to create sensational spectacles in London theatres.

My “interest” also comprises myriad complicated feelings about the act of doing research itself. The Enlightenment emphasis on disinterestedness suggests that the experience of research should be a disembodied one, with temperaments, passions and personalities left at the library or laboratory door. When academic scholarship is depicted in popular culture, it tends to jump from this solitary monasticism to the elation of the eureka moment. But in reality doing research is far messier, more personal and more richly emotional than either of these pictures implies.

I am an Irish migrant myself, and one whose career has followed the traditional travel routes from Ireland to the US and now London, so the fact that I’m writing a book about Irish performers who took the same path is not altogether coincidental. The ambivalence I feel about the material is a means for me to examine the complicated feelings that migration provokes, illuminating my own (rather more privileged) experiences by the light of historical difference and distance.

To recognise the problematic role that 19th-century Irish immigrants played in the formation of the racial hierarchies of the newly emerging US class system, or to scrutinise the strategic ways in which Irish performers employed stage-Irish stereotypes to capitalise on the English appetite for nostalgic depictions of a pre-modern Ireland, is a means for me to reflect on my own position as an Irish scholar in London. A close identification by academics with their research projects is a prominent feature of arts and humanities scholarship, but anecdotally, my scientist and social-scientist friends suggest that they too feel highly identified with the work that they do, making research a form of indirect self-expression.

But the penalty for emotional identification with our projects is the attendant anxieties at the prospect of failure, the terrible guilt when a project is being neglected and the fear of being uncovered as a charlatan. In my own field, writing seems to provoke the greatest anguish and pleasure, veering from the tedium and frustration of writing itself, to the guilt and anxieties of failing to write, to the satisfactions of having written.

As the convener of an upcoming panel discussion on academic feelings at Queen Mary University of London, I invited the speakers to name some of the emotions that doing research invoked. These ran the gamut from excitement and elation to despair, terror, boredom, incredulity and disgust. Their relative prominence doubtless varies according to disciplinary cultures. After all, we don’t experience our feelings about our research on our own: we locate them, through passionate discussion with colleagues, within particular conversations in our field.

Indeed, it’s worth pondering whether doctoral training partly constitutes the disciplining of a scholar’s curiosity and passion, to make it legible within particular disciplinary traditions. We are trained to feel in particular ways about our scholarship, and to express those feelings through inherited vocabularies, locutions and styles. In the classroom, we help students to shape and express the emotions provoked by their objects of study in the correct ways.

In the end, it may be a source of some solace that, when racked with guilt, or plunged into the melancholic boredom of a half-finished project, we are not alone. Feelings are ever-present in academic work, and make themselves known between the lines of every book, article and presentation we produce.

Aoife Monks is a reader in drama, theatre and performance studies at Queen Mary University of London. Her event, “Academic Feelings: How Do Scholars Feel about the Work that They Do?”, takes place at Queen Mary on 11 November. 

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