Self-reflective study: the rise of ‘mesearch’

Emma Rees investigates research where selfhood and scholarship are intertwined

March 19, 2015

Source: Getty

I was worried I had ruined my chances at my dream job due to choosing to be so personally involved in my research subject and exploring it with my body

It was one unassuming sentence that caught my eye: “In 1997, after a week-long stint as a cleaner in a Dutch care home, I lost my fingerprints.” It was a weekend and I was reading through the abstracts that had been submitted for the University of Chester’s biennial Talking Bodies conference. The quality and range were exciting, and many proposals had made it on to the “yes” pile. But this proposal was different. It was personal. It was stunning. And then I began to notice other abstracts that displayed a similar openness and honesty.

I’m a literary scholar by training. I served my academic apprenticeship under the supervision of an emotionally cold but intellectually brilliant Leavisite, so auto-ethnography came as something of a revelation to me. This particular theoretical lacuna of mine was confirmed when yet another abstract (this time from Mark Edward, senior lecturer in performance at Edge Hill University) spoke simply of “mesearch”.

The continual dismantling of academic master narratives is hardly news, but more abstracts than ever this year quite naturally took an auto-ethnographic turn: there are an awful lot of “mesearchers” out there. Auto-ethnography goes quite beyond a process merely of inscribing the “I” into the research. It is also – crucially – about how that research comes to inscribe itself into us. Intrigued, I contacted a handful of the 100 or so delegates due to speak at the conference to ask them how self and study can become so utterly intertwined. What does “mesearch”, defined in 2014 by Vinh Nguyen, a doctoral candidate in English and cultural studies at McMaster University, Ontario, as the “intimate and inextricable connections between my life experiences…and my academic research”, mean to them?

Aoife Sadlier is a PhD candidate in the department of culture, media and creative industries at King’s College London. She vividly recalls feeling “heartened” by a moment in Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (1929) where the writer “argued for the blurring of boundaries between different forms of writing, and called for writing oneself into one’s texts”. And it is an argument that powerfully informs Sadlier’s own research. “I would describe myself as an autoerotic woman, tentatively asexual,” she tells me, adding, “but one who develops strong relationships with many people, and who is a creative individual and feminist.” Woolf’s thoughts on the meditative life (“I hope that you will possess yourselves of money enough to travel and to idle”) also spoke to Sadlier. “Allowing myself to be idle and open to new cultures and people during my PhD enabled a shift in how I perceived identity and sexuality and opened me up to the limitless possibility of various relationships,” she says, mentioning a recent trip to Puerto Rico, where she stayed on for a 10-day break after delivering an academic paper, meeting people and soaking up the local culture.

Her work into female asexuality resists any kind of simple causal relationship between self and research, to the point where that resistance becomes the very point. “I feel that the only way truly to explore my topic is not to think of myself as an ‘asexual’ writing a project to and for ‘asexuals’,” Sadlier tells me. Rather, she explains, she thinks of herself as writing about the uniqueness of her experiences and articulating them through her body, which she feels has been silenced by patriarchal culture. “For me,” she continues, “an asexual identification offers huge potentialities and allows for the flexibility I need to articulate my sexuality on my own terms, as well as calling other women to the same action, if they consider it fitting for them.”

Sadlier’s research, then, enabled a significant shift in her sense of self. “I have gone through many periods in the research process when tears flowed,” she says, “when I had internalised images of myself as an ‘asexual’. This had negative psychological consequences, especially as for the first six months of my research I hid my identification from my supervisors. The tension built up and I found myself burnt out and demoralised. Finally I confessed, so to speak. Yet, in each of these ‘confessions’ I felt like an impostor. Am I really this thing, this ‘asexual’? I know now that I am not, as an identity category can never fully capture who I am in all my multifaceted glory.”

Just how resistant the academy still is to such “multifaceted glory” was made very clear to Chloë Hynes during her postgraduate certificate in education. Her then head of department told her that her practice-led research into burlesque, a topic about which she was eventually to write for her MA, was inappropriate. “I was instructed that under no circumstances was I allowed to perform while doing my PGCE,” Hynes says, “and I had to remove all information about my burlesque persona from the internet. I felt like I was being told to deny a massive part of myself; the creative part.”

What struck me most about Hynes’ account was that the initial complaints about her burlesque alter ego, Daria D’Beauvoix, came not from the institution but from her fellow student-teachers. “Some said I could never be a professional teacher with such interests. As someone who has wanted to teach and lecture since I can remember, it made me really sad. I was worried I had ruined my chances at my dream job due to choosing to be so personally involved in my research subject and exploring it with my own body.”

Young female dancer dressed in feathers

It was only having revived D’Beauvoix, after the PGCE, that Hynes’ MA thesis could really take off. “I was at my most vulnerable,” she says. “The realisation that I could let go of the idea that self and study were two polar opposites helped me mature significantly. The process of undertaking practice-led research helped me realise my worth as an academic and as a researcher.”

When I speak to PhD researcher Emma Sheppard, of Edge Hill University, she has just returned home after a sedate walk with Potato, her ex-racing greyhound. Sheppard researches the experiences and understandings of pain in chronic illness and BDSM (bondage-discipline, dominance-submission and sadism-masochism) and merrily tells me: “I’m disabled, but focusing on my diagnosis rather than naming my condition is potentially disempowering because it shifts the focus from me as a whole person.” As it was for Hynes, so for Sheppard the realisation that self and study were inseparable was an epiphany by stealth. “Acquiring disability partway through undergraduate study forced a lot of reflection on me,” Sheppard says, “sometimes unwelcome reflection, as thinking about what I did in terms of what I could no longer do was (and still is) painful and emotional. I saw the work I did as very personal, in a way I hadn’t been encouraged to before becoming disabled. That’s really continued ever since.”

Her honesty is both disarming and sincere: “I don’t think I’d have been interested in pain and dis/ability if I hadn’t been in pain and disabled, but I don’t know. There definitely tends to be an assumption that you need to be disabled to explore disability, which is balls.” Sheppard also found that her research made her more critical of the care she receives from medical professionals, and unquestionably more self-reflective. “I am more aware of my own pain,” she says, “in that when I’m sitting writing a transcript, or reading, or whatever, I can’t not think about my own body, my own self. It’s quite, well, painful. It has fed back into my research – helped me understand some of what my participants have been telling me – but also helped me stop fighting the pain quite so much, be more honest with myself when it does hurt, when I do need to stop and get away from the work for a bit.”

Pain is also at the core of Lithuanian-born Irena Loveikaite’s PhD research. A doctoral student and lecturer at Waterford Institute of Technology in Ireland, Loveikaite interviews teenage girls about their experiences on social networking sites, locating their responses in relation to media representations of “appropriate” femininity. Loveikaite describes herself as always being “in the research: in its design, methods, analysis, interactions, decisions and ‘aha moments’.”

But that complex interplay of research and researcher was not always easy for Loveikaite. Two years ago, interviewing – and unconsciously strongly identifying with – a “fragile” teenage girl led to a sleepless, anxious night. When Loveikaite awoke, she recalls, she had an intensely painful, debilitating headache. “It was overwhelming,” she tells me. “I couldn’t open my eyes fully as the light seeped into my brain and initiated intense pulsating noises. It was if my body took a decision to save me from going to my next interview.”

Loveikaite believes that participants’ disclosures during interviews need to be somatically experienced as well as intellectually processed, and it’s the attempt to force a distinction between self and scholarship that is ultimately incapacitating. Not acknowledging that her research is “mesearch” caused physical pain: “The duality of research as, on the one hand, a process of engagement led by rationality, and, on the other hand, a disavowal of me and my irrational and unconscious emotions and senses, evokes bodily responses. These responses have no rational explanation, but at the same time they have a physical manifestation.”

Sonja Boon, an associate professor of gender studies at Memorial University (St John’s, Canada), is similarly fascinated by bodies and embodiment. Formerly a professional musician, she is now a full-time academic, whose second book, Telling the Flesh: Life Writing, Citizenship and the Body in the Letters to Samuel-Auguste Tissot, is due to be published later this year. She is vocal in her defence of “mesearch” as a means of exposing what she calls “profound silences and erasures in the academy”. (She is also the scholar whose “I lost my fingerprints” abstract had so caught my eye. “I mislaid my gloves,” she recalls, “and the industrial-strength cleaner meant I literally lost my fingerprints, bearers of identity-‘truth’, too.”)

Boon’s personal experience of high-risk pregnancy in 2005, when she was a PhD student, crystallised her thoughts on the reproductive body. She observes that previously simple research questions “take on a new urgency when you’re the one living them. But many of these questions also require new methodological lenses in order to answer them. It’s not enough just to ‘add women’. The whole conversation needs a different starting point.” Furthermore, that slippage between self and study enabled not only scholarly research but also personal healing: “Turning to feminist theory and the history of motherhood, and reading my experiences through these lenses, was integral to my own ability to process the profound grief I experienced as a result of my permanently compromised health.”

Newborn baby in hospital delivery room

Many of these questions require a new methodology. The whole conversation needs a different starting point. It’s not enough just to ‘add women’

Boon’s current research also resonates deeply with her sense of self. In working on slavery abolition records for the small South American country of Suriname, she knew, before her arrival at the archives, that members of her family were in those records. Emotionally, though, she was unprepared for “seeing the names on crumbling 19th-century paper, and handling the paper and tracing my fingers over the ink. It’s overwhelming to realise that these are not just anonymous names but that these are family. This isn’t just an anonymous history; these are real people. And I know this not only because the documents say so, but because I exist.”

Motherhood is at the heart of Dawn Llewellyn’s research at the University of Chester. Llewellyn described to me trying unsuccessfully to resist inserting herself into her research. “But I can’t quite escape from the fact”, Llewellyn says, “that if I am committed to reflexivity, as a feminist researching women’s religious lives and their narratives around motherhood, I am going to have to talk about myself: in short, my maternality matters.”

She describes feeling initially ill-prepared for “the impact my maternal body, particularly my voluntary childlessness, and previous choices and decisions I’ve made about the extent to which I think about my body as a maternal body, had on my research”. It was when reviewing the transcripts of interviews with her research participants that Llewellyn noticed herself doing what she describes as “unconsciously explaining away my own voluntary childlessness in a way that women often do: ‘I’ve been a student for a long time’; ‘My partner and I lived in different cities for ages’; ‘I’m commuting between London and Chester’”. Llewellyn became “a little embarrassed that I felt I should have a better reason. Moreover, I was ‘fudging’ my status to protect my maternal body. While theoretically I was wedded to self-disclosure, in practice it was failing.”

But practice makes almost-perfect, and Llewellyn reports more recently having stopped trying to think of apologies for not having children: “Probably because of my age I’m being asked even more frequently. I have just started saying politely, ‘No, we don’t have children.’ I really want to respond with a similarly personal question: in my daydreams I sometimes imagine saying, ‘No, I don’t have children. But tell me, when did you last have sex?’”

The complex interplay between research and teaching in universities has long been debated. In Times Higher Education just last month the University of Cambridge’s David Oldfield boldly stirred things up in his claim that teaching is what “government money should be funding – not research” (“You’re here to teach. Save the trainspotting for the weekend”, Opinion, 12 February). “Mesearch”, with its core holistic principles, presents a timely challenge to Oldfield’s claims, for if “I” engage in research that impacts on me, and then “I” go into the classroom, then “I” am engaging in an intricate, tripartite negotiation with myself, with my research and with my undergraduates. My teaching will be better, more meaningful and more engaged, because “I” research. And I think that the challenge to which “mesearch” gives rise is a crucially important one: we should, as my interviewees repeatedly reminded me, be moving away from a coldly detached, compartmentalised paradigm (such as Oldfield seems to be advocating) in our universities.

In planning Talking Bodies, in conducting these interviews, and in feeling increasingly angered by Oldfield’s rigidly “either/or” worldview, I returned to bell hooks’ glorious, forceful manifesto, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (1994), and I was brought up short by the realisation that it is now 20 years old. Of course I know quantitatively where that time has gone – in Transparent Approach to Costing (Trac) returns and in the reports of annual appraisal meetings with my line manager, I have a paper trail that documents precisely where the time went. But the really important, emotional and intellectual changes wrought in me and by me in my writing and praxis over those same 20 years remain resolutely qualitative. I’ll always be something of a Girl Number 20 in the face of Gradgrindian fact.

“Learning is a place where paradise can be created,” wrote hooks. “The classroom, with all its limitations, remains a location of possibility. In that field of possibility we have the opportunity to labor for freedom, to demand of ourselves and our comrades, an openness of mind and heart that allows us to face reality even as we collectively imagine ways to move beyond boundaries, to transgress. This is education as the practice of freedom.” As educators, we need to aim for a didactic holism where the “I” is a vital component of who we are and what we teach, because who we are and what we teach, if they’re to have any meaning or utility at all, are entirely and rightly inseparable.

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Reader's comments (3)

This is what the death of humanities and social sciences looks like. The descent into a vortex of feminised bourgeois solipsism. The middle classes talking about themselves. The recent exposure of Foucault as a sniggering neoliberal apologist says it all. Not with a bang but a whimper.
This article was written beautifully, yet that is part of the sorrow. The subject matter didn't seem worthy of such a clear, detailed exposition. I am inclined to agree with Incubus. Carl Jung's words come to mind, paraphrased: The modern fell off the roof of the medieval cathedral into the abyss of the Self.
I agree Lisa. Misdirected talent. Ted's comment is quite funny. To be accused of self-absorption when you're complaining about self-absorption indicates a pretty serious misrecognition. I worked in the real world for 22 years before I became an academic, Ted. Everything from lorry-driver and building-site labourer to night-club doorman. That's where I think we should focus our attention - the world 'out there', rather than the world 'in here'. The new speculative realists philosophers are talking about 'the great outdoors'. Very exciting developments. A paradigm-change in philosophy. The objectivity-subjectivity dichotomy is old hat.