You Contain Multitudes

Is there room in academia for the wandering intellectual? The freelance ponderer? The uncertain speculator?

As academics and aspiring academics, especially in history, we are always seeking to substantiate feeling with fact. As graduate students we take pride in communicating our passions through well formulated, aptly fortified arguments. Our research interests and goals must be constantly re-articulated and ever in sight.

In the greater world of thought, conversation, intervention, and understanding there certainly is room for those who are slow to boil, but when it comes to the competitive arena of the academy it is important to know what you’re trying to say, how you feel, and what has been said already. However, I submit that there is nothing wrong with evaluating and re-evaluating your goals.

What you believe to be your most passionately pursued and burning desire today, may not always sustain you. I often feel a pressure to pick one of my research interests, parcel it very neatly in academic-enough sounding language, and offer it humbly to anyone who asks, “So what are your research goals?” or “Now tell me, what is your primary focus?” Perhaps for some people this is easy, but for me it never is and I always feel fraudulent offering just one of many disparate interests that are darting around in my head as representative of the whole.

When it came time to apply to graduate school I chose one thing, like I had practiced doing for years, and offered it in place of a more complete picture of who I was as a student. How do I fully explain that I am a lover of books and of stories, but also of language and syntax, history, the visual, and the auditory? I didn’t know how to say that the sensation of history was as engaging to me as the facts. I felt that to be a good academic, I needed to be rigidly, doggedly, consumed by one topic; I felt that I needed to commit absolutely. In talking to other people engaged in this work I realized that more people were like me than were not. I realized that more people took a long, non-linear path to a sustaining research interest than had not. And as I talk to and observe professors I have come to understand that they are still changing, evolving, re-evaluating, burning to ashes, and completely reconstituting their goals, interests, and methods.

In the preface to Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman addresses this quandary much more succinctly than I. He says, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.” If we endeavor to be aware, but also open—if we pursue academia with rigor but not rigidity, then we will doubtless contradict ourselves in time. That is, however, an important part of the journey—finding that you are large and that you contain multitudes.

Naeemah Kitchens, GRS ’13
August 5, 2013