Tag Archives: synergy series

Synergies and Satisfaction: Performing my Professional Self

Exactly one week after finishing my exams, (and a celebratory dinner of pho), I enjoyed a spontaneous fancy-dinner, went home happy, sleepy, and full of delicious wine and beautifully arranged small plates. I was deeply grateful. And also full of dread: I knew I had, at best,  a mere 3 hours of sleep ahead of me before my early, early morning airport shuttle. I had a 5:20 AM flight  to Denver.

I did not know that flights took off that early.

There were many things that could have gotten me down about this trip, but I felt quite eager to get on route to Boulder, CO. I was attending the 20th annual Critical Geography Conference, with keynotes by Richa Nagar and Alvaro Reyes. I also was going to catch up with two old friends: one of whom is working on her MA in human-environment relations at CU-Boulder Geography, the other, a previous roommate, co-worker, co-conspirator, and fellow educator.

From a professional standpoint, this conference allowed me to explore my new research direction. The talk was not an argument, not an explanation of empirics. I presented a theoretical framework for critical geographers to engage with the nonprofit sector outside of a limiting, negative, critiquing framework, and instead encouraged a perspective that is more open, more interested in learning rather than judging, and that performs a politics of possibility rather than limitations.

I felt nervous to give this talk, initially. Drawing on the work of Gibson-Graham, I knew my work might draw criticism that it wasn’t political enough, not grounded enough, didn’t have clear enough methodology, or wasn’t going to be relevant or scalable. Not to mention, I only had one week in which to prepare this talk, practice it, and feel confident speaking about my work.

Lucky for me, it turns out my committee and I were thinking on the same page. One of my exam questions dovetailed nearly perfectly into the substance of this talk. I had previously outlined the talking points (months ago!), but didn’t know how I would populate it.

And then, a moment of synergy. Whooosh! Snap! Shhhhhwop!

I had written about applying Gibson-Graham to my dissertation project, and what I might learn through that application. I wanted to prepare a talk about how geographers could theorize the nonprofit sector in new ways. I decided to outline how geographers have theorized the nonprofit sector, what a Gibson-Graham inspired analysis would include, how I’m envisioning mapping that engagement onto social justice philanthropy, and what other parts of the nonprofit sector critical geographers could engage with.


I only had a few days to prepare this talk (because, let’s be real, my brain was 60% mush for 4 days after my exams. I didn’t get started on this until Tuesday, and I left for CO on Friday). I started writing out a scripted paper to read in Boulder.

Except that this supposed stress-reliever proved to be anxiety-producing. I do not read papers when I give talks. I talk. Conversationally. To engage the audience. To translate outside of academese. Reading from a paper would have confined me to, well, reading. If I go off script, what then? I’m lost.

So I took a deep breath and reminded myself of my strengths. I know this stuff. I just wrote about it for three days straight, and have been thinking about it deeply for months. And I like presenting and talking, and making audiences feel engaged and at ease and curious. I scrapped the working paper and went back to my roots. Bullet points, talking points, images. I blocked off conference rooms at Office Nomads and practiced the talk a few times. I wore high heels. I paced around and performed my professional self (to an empty room).

Fast forward to Saturday, when I gave my talk. The whole weekend, I felt an immense sense of satisfaction with my professional identity. The Critical conference marked the first conference I’ve presented in since realizing that I can be (and am) more than a graduate student. I’m a professional interested in creative philanthropy, a politics of possibility, and  re-politiczing the nonprofit sector.

Being able to represent myself in this multi-modal capacity was so… liberating. I wore my multiple hats proudly throughout the weekend. When people asked what I did, I thought, “Yeah, you know what? I do a lot of things. My graduate work is but one aspect of how I engage with these things.” When fellow grad students asked what is on my horizon, I said, “You know what? I don’t know. And I feel comfortable with that. Because I love to teach, I love to research, and I know I have skills that transfer across multiple paths. I will probably end up designing my own hybrid career, but I know I will continue engaging with the nonprofit sector and hopefully teaching and researching as well. Maybe I’ll end up consulting.  Maybe I’ll teach. Maybe both!” And when I responded to questions after my talk, it was with a confidence and clarity that I haven’t quite felt before in academic settings. People asked me things because they were genuinely interested in what I had to say. And I had things to say, because I’ve been living and breathing this for years! It’s not to say that I’m an expert. It just felt… comfortable. For one of the first times (and hopefully not the last!)

When I say ‘performing my professional self’, it is, for the first time, a positive thing. I wasn’t miming or pretending. I was performing within a  comfortable role, albeit it a new one. I felt like an understudy to my own professional life who finally got the chance to take the leading role and expand into it. I added my own creative flair to a role that had previously been modeled to me, but never felt my own.

What a huge gift. A relief. I am filled with gratitude for having the space to think deeply, try on and perform this professional self, and find a deep satisfaction with the ways I’m choosing to engage, share and act.

Synergies and Satisfaction: Finishing my Exams!

To those unfamiliar with the process of academic qualifying exams, they go something like this:

1) figure out what areas of [your academic discipline] you want to specialize in (i.e. moving forward, what are the subject areas within [discipline] that will most inform the dissertation project?)
2) write up a big ole’ statement about how those 3-ish areas inform your work
3) give said statement to your committee (usually 3 faculty), who each generate a question for you to answer. the questions are based on a gap in the statement, or an area the committee wants to push you towards
4) write fully cited essay responses to said questions in a short amount of time (for me, it was three 10-page essays in three days.)
5) sleep for days.
6) at some point, have an oral defense with your committee for an hour and a half of very hard, direct, on-the-spot questions.
6a) sweat bullets. say awkward things. watch committee cringe and try and help you along.
7) with any luck, PASS exams, and become a PhC (candidate for the doctorate)
8) go out for drinks with all of your academic friends
9) then research and write a g-damn dissertation. oof-dah.

As of today, I’ve done parts 1-5, but am waiting for parts 6-infinity for another week (+beyond). My statement detailed my interest in exploring the model of social justice philanthropy (SJP) through three lenses:
1) state restructuring: with the rise of nonprofits, and the simultaneous shrinking of assets, how is social justice philanthropy mobilizing for social change? how is it similar or different than existing models of philanthropy and social service provision?
2) critical poverty studies: what assumptions and beliefs does social justice philanthropy practice that challenge dominant, individualized and pathologizing discourses about poverty? In other words, how do SJP organizations understand poverty, and what do they believe they can do to change it?
3) political geographies and subjectivities: who are the people engaging with SJP? at what scale are they enacting politics? how do the practices of SJP challenge or contest more national level beliefs about the ‘best practices’ of new philanthropy?

So I got questions back that loosely fit into those narratives and questions. I was encouraged to think about my own epistemology (how I see the world), my methodology (how will I look at ‘discourse’? how will I remain open to engaging the possible rather than critiquing the limits?), and about the contradictions and position of *any* philanthropic engagement (i.e. the fact that philanthropy, by its very nature, relies on unequal distribution of wealth as a means to try and solve the problems created by unequal distribution of wealth…)

So I donned my coyote hat (one of my birthday gifts from a friend), hoisted a hefty backpack with my laptop, wireless mouse and keyboard, and lots of books, and I split my 3 days between Office Nomads and WeWork. I packed good food. I got good sleep. I made sure to exercise and not work more than 8 hours a day. I watched an episode of Sherlock every night. I wrote sitting down, I wrote standing up. I wrote while dancing. I took some naps, and I texted and g-chatted with fellow PhD students near and far. I called my parents with updates and posted at least one self-congratulatory facebook post.

And you know what? I had fun with it all. Really and truly. I think this is a testament to the fact my program is an extremely good fit for me, and that my committee knows me well. And that I am a huge nerd at heart.

I also think I was ready to be pushed, to truly develop my ideas. To dig deep and think hard. The questions were incredibly productive. That said, by the end of the three days, my brain was mush. It took me at least a full week to recover my thinking capacity.

But when I woke up a few days later, I thought, “huh. what was all the fuss about? one day I woke up and started writing, and 3 days later I was done.”

The tendency is to build this whole process up SO MUCH. To stress about all of the reading to do, the work to prepare, the elusive ‘readiness’ that one should feel before writing the exams. However, I decided early on to try and avoid this stress. To just read in an incredibly focused way, and to take thorough notes. I decided to start writing the statement, and that if I came upon an area that I needed to read more deeply, then I would pause and read. I trusted that my adviser wouldn’t let me take the exams if it was clear I wasn’t ready. Lo and behold, she gave me the green light immediately, and I saved myself an enormous amount of stress.

Because here’s what I realized: I was always going to be ready, because this is the stuff I’m living and breathing. I’m not only thinking about social justice philanthropy in the context of school, I’m thinking about it as an activist, as a long-term project, as a writer, as a nonprofit manager, and as a participant. I am not only thinking about poverty politics through academic papers, but through my own discourses, through twitter feeds, through public policy, through the ways my entrepreneurial peers approach social inequalities. And politics? It is part and parcel of how I see the world, how I think about every day actions and larger strategies. To clarify, I don’t mean electoral or governmental politics. I mean the actions that people take that put them in a position to live their values, to stake a claim, to push for change, or to say something challenging. For scholars writing on politics in this way, see Lynn Staeheli, Stuart Hall, Tracy Skelton, Gill Hart, Vicky Lawson, and J.K. GIbson-Graham. 

So I turned in my exams and sent them off in a 36 page PDF. I then proceeded to have a dance party to some very loud pop music in the lobby of WeWork, to eat an enormous bowl of celebratory pho, and then go home and make myself a strong hot toddy. And then sleep for days (kind of).

This was not a process I would elect to undertake again, but it was incredibly positive, productive, and not-that-painful. I look forward to hearing from my committee during the oral defense. And I am so pleased to have had the chance to think deeply about my research, to write it out, and to remind myself that I am ready and I will continue to be ready. Bring it on, dissertation! You’re next.

Mini-Blog Series: Synergies and Satisfaction

February. What a whirlwind.

After my fair city of Seattle dominated the Grammys and the Superbowl, I began a week-long birthday celebration with friends throughout the city.

The following week, I wrote my qualifying exams. And then tried to recover.

I then quickly prepared a talk and hopped on a plane to the Critical Geography Conference at CU-Boulder.

The afternoon of my return from Boulder, I was back in my relational poverty seminar. And I just applied for the Numad program at Office Nomads.

At some point in the last three weeks, I noticed that it all just kind of came together. A great synergy. All of the tendrils I’ve been testing and floating out there came zipping back in and went shooooomp!

This coalesced during my exploratory talk at Boulder, which discussed how I was going to engage critical feminist theory in my dissertation research on social justice philanthropy.

I am one who processes through writing. So, I’m designing a short blog series on this synergy and finding satisfaction with my professional energies. I will post a few short reflections in the coming days that help articulate and capture the energy, intentionality, questions and ideas that have been generated in the last month. I continue to develop my identity in the world of creative philanthropy: as a scholar, a writer, by planning events, through speaking events and as a community connector. I believe this is going to be the basis of my life’s work for the next little while. Hang in there with me while I start to put all the pieces together.