That was the recurring thought running through my head as I fussed over my PowerPoint presentation slides for the Social Research Social Justice (SRSJ) and the Women’s and Gender Studies (WGS) conferences two weeks ago. Reading and re-reading my slides and papers to check the coherency of my writing, I felt the weight of presenting bearing down on me more acutely with every additional hour that I stayed back at the library.
I spend many nights like this at the (usually empty) library, slogging through readings, writing papers, sifting through research databases. More often than not, I find myself wondering why I consign myself to this hermetic existence as I watch my friends and other KU students leave to hang out with friends, watch a movie, or party the weekend away, essentially to “live the college life.” Some days, when the work has been intellectually rewarding, I am able to counter the appeal of this alternative lifestyle and offer justification for my choice to go the extra mile; other days, on the other hand, when the readings and research are particularly tedious and frustrating, I become irritable and cynical, internally echoing some of the common grievances I’ve heard my peers lob at the enterprise of scholarship:
“What’s the point of theory, anyway? What’s the point of research and research conferences when they have nothing to do with the real world?”
And so, I found myself increasingly lamenting the pointlessness of my scholarly endeavors in the week leading up to the conferences as the stress of the semester took its toll. Thus, it was with the specter of these doubts about the utility of scholarship that I came to approach the conferences with a tinge of indifference, apprehensive about their ability to speak in any meaningful way to my learning experience.
I am glad to say that I was emphatically proven wrong.
On Friday, April 8th, I presented my research paper titled “The Doctrine of State Responsibility: The Case of China in Sudan” at the SRSJ conference at Muhlenberg College. Written for an international law course I took last spring, my paper examined the extent to which the Chinese government was culpable for the acts of its national oil companies (NOCs) in perpetrating human rights abuses in their oil investment ventures in Sudan. Dr. Clemens, my faculty supervisor for my independent study on postcolonial theory this semester did a fantastic job moderating my panel, allowing connections to be drawn between my research regarding China’s international presence and the other panelist, Kellie Dietrich’s research on China’s one-child policy.
Despite the seemingly vast divide separating our projects on China’s international and domestic issues, a common theme that emerged through the Q&A session is the lack of foresight that plagues governments worldwide in carving out viable policies that are politically, economically, and ethically sound. In China’s case, what seemed like a very straightforward, no-frills, business-only investment model for African countries has revealed itself to be more complex in practice than on paper. With civil strife raging unabatedly in places such as Libya and Sudan, China is increasingly finding itself inevitability embroiled in human rights issues as a result of turning a blind eye towards despotic regimes in the service of facilitating economic goals that not only mars its international reputation, but impedes even its initial goals of economic gains. Likewise, its domestic policies on population control show a similar trajectory of producing more immediate, short-term gains but reveal a set of unintended and problematic blowbacks such as a severely disproportionate male to female population ratio in the long-term.
These policy-execution difficulties are not unique to China and illustrate the complexities of establishing clear cause-effect relationships in the vast tangle of socioeconomic, political, and cultural factors that contribute to whatever issue a policy is designed to ameliorate.
The following day, I presented again at the LVAIC WGS conference at DeSales University, this time on a paper entitled “The Bride Price and Children of the New World: Liminality and the Fate of the Postcolonial Female Subject.” Written for my Women Writers around the World class with Dr. Clemens last semester, my paper examines the consequence of occupying a liminal space for the female postcolonial subject who is caught between her native and Western colonial cultures. Once again, I had the opportunity to make connections between my research and those of other students. It was especially invigorating to be able to talk to people from other universities who were also invested in their scholarship and to be immersed in an atmosphere that promoted the exchange of intellectual ideas. Marlana Eck’s keynote speech served as a much-needed source of encouragement to persevere in the field as a young female scholar despite the challenges, and a reminder to be thankful for the many “womyn-fluences” (as she calls it) who have helped to inspire and build us along the way.
Throughout the two days I spent at both these conferences, I got the chance to witness abstract theory translate to very real and material issues across the globe. As I listened to presenters talk about ethnic discrimination in Russia largely due to an insistence on a monolithic “Russian” national identity, and the complications faced regarding the integration of Russian minorities into the Baltic States (i.e., Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) at the SRSJ conference, I recalled the readings earlier this semester regarding the difficulties of creating and maintaining a unified, homogenous “national identity” in a postcolonial milieu. At both conferences, LGBTQ struggles resulting from the insistence of imposing unyielding male/female binary norms were also highlighted. A presentation on the use of Snapchat as a possible means of reducing stereotypes through exposure to other cultures according to the Intergroup Contact Theory (IGCT) allowed me to see the potential for social platforms to be utilized as a means of exposing and undermining the myth of the other.
In short, theory has everything to do with the real world. The fact that it does not vociferously announce its presence in the realm of practical, everyday life experiences does not mean it is not intricately woven into its fabric, its true nature concealed. What struck me as a common thread running through these various presentations is how easily we forget that history and reality as we know it has been constructed, and thus heightening our susceptibility to conflations of the socially engineered as “natural.” It is this amnesia that is arguably to blame for a large proportion of the issues we observe in society today. Maybe this is the hopelessly naïve scholar in me speaking, but I think theory has a place in unveiling these cognitive fallacies, providing tools for critical analysis from which to mount a plan for remedial action. Don’t get me wrong, theory is not an adequate substitute for action; in fact, subsequent inaction renders it pointless. Nonetheless, theory is a necessary prerequisite for the birth of corrective action, providing a common framework and vocabulary for the inception of critical discourse.
But even without all the intellectual stimulation provided by these conferences, this one encounter I had at the WGS conference alone made it all worth it. A lady came up to me after my panel was over and said: “I thought I was the only one who felt this way.” I found out that she was born in Uganda and had migrated to the U.S. as a child (if I remember this correctly) and had also grown up experiencing the push and pull of her native and adopted Western cultures. She had heard about the conference after recently moving into the area and decided to check it out. Being able to say “No, you’re not alone, there’s a whole bunch of us out there and an entire field of scholarship on this topic!” was one of the most profound instances of connection I have experienced. The opportunity to share that moment of connection with someone else was made all the more priceless having personally experienced the relief in being able to relate to the concept of the postcolonial liminal subject and the vocabulary it accorded me to articulate the inner tug-of-war between my cultural identities.
All in all, I am thankful to have had a platform to share my voice and the opportunity to be reminded that my work belongs to a much broader community of scholarship and scholars. I am especially thankful also to Dr. Clemens, who first sparked my interest in the postcolonial in her Intro to World Literature course during my junior year, and who has since been integral in helping me find my voice through subsequent classes and this independent study.