On Not Having a Discipline

Something that fellowship applications love to say is that applicants must be adaptable, able to work under shifting circumstances and able to handle ambiguity. This warning always annoyed me as much as it tantalized me; as if only the highly-evolved shapeshifter students are sophisticated enough to tackle solo work in the field. As if you must be one of the elite, one of the emotional stable and remarkably resilient, to last out there on your own.

I’m discovering with some dismay that they were right. They as in all the grants that are in the style of mine: an extended period of travel-based research, alone and usually in a foreign place.

A question I’ve answered a lot in my 5.5 weeks on Christmas Island has been “How did you come here all the way from the U.S.?” My answer is roundabout; I essentially learned about Christmas Island’s fantastic crab migration and complex history through a pretty goal-directed effort to find a project for the specific grant I’m under. I came here not knowing anyone (like, anyone at all), which is unusual (and honestly not the most ideal way to do effective research, as you can probably guess). In this sense, my journey here has felt like the most extreme case of what grant-description-writers so fervently warn about: I am very far from home (close to as far as is physically possible to get while remaining on the planet, I think). I came here very alone. And I am working on a project that is very, almost dangerously, interdisciplinary.

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Over the past few weeks I have sent out a not insignificant amount of desperate emails to my advisors back at Stanford, essentially saying one thing: Help. I came to Christmas Island to produce a podcast. My plan was simple: collect audio recordings of interviews from key informants, write a script, edit the podcast, and publish. And if I had time, take some field notes (in anthropological style) to create a short write-up.

It was this last part I got (/still am) hung up on. I took an anthropology field methods class the quarter before departing, learning techniques like participant observation for ethnography. During my time on the island so far, I’ve had anthropology in the back of my mind, wondering whether I should be taking notes on an interaction, whether I should socialize during an event or sit back and observe it from the sidelines. In the process of speaking to people for my podcast, I learned more about the history of the Christmas Island Workers’ Union and the affect it had on island race relations in the late 20th century- this racial history is one with striking parallels to American Jim Crow laws that was resolved (to the extend that you can say that) in quite a unique way. I discovered archived documents, scholarly papers written on the island, crumbling buildings with immense history that just sit, unmarked, for the public to explore. I was given a flash drive loaded with anthropology and history papers on the island and magazine articles written about what it’s like here. I felt like it would almost be irresponsible to not take a more rigorous, scholarly approach to my work here and my newfound interest in its racial history.

The old CI club- a primarily white-only social gathering place for the island’s British elite- in its current state of damage from humidity and abundant starlings

But where to start? For one thing, I’m not a historian. This was my first cry of help- to my primary mentors, who both are. And then there’s anthropology. While I do have one class under my belt, that’s hardly enough, I’d say, to create a systematic investigation of present-day Christmas Island life with a refined research question. What I’m missing, I realized in the middle of a text rant to a friend, is a discipline. A method of gathering data to answer a question that I am well-versed in and in which I am familiar with the literature. Social science is something I only very very recently dipped my toes into. My major is unapologetically interdisciplinary; with cores in computer science, psychology, philosophy, and linguistics, I realized that the only academic rigor I knew coming into this project was how to debug code and how to read and understand papers on brain imaging. (Okay, and a few other things, in fairness to my major. But still.)

What I’m missing, I realized in the middle of a text rant to a friend, is a discipline. A method of gathering data to answer a question that I am well-versed in and in which I am familiar with the literature.

This is actually advice I got a long time ago, during new student orientation. During literally one of my first days at Stanford, I attended a talk about choosing a major. The professor who spoke was a chemistry undergrad who later completed graduate degrees in history and wrote a book that somehow combined her two interests on a specific topic. “Choose a major that will give you a discipline,” she urged us. “A discipline is a way of thinking.”

Clearly I didn’t follow her advice. And part of me is still yelling, “You can have more than one discipline and still know how to use them all! You can learn to do historical research!” But more than anything, I feel like time is running out. By this point I’ve conducted enough interviews to make several podcasts, but I still feel like I’m not done; that I’m just beginning to scratch the surface of questions that beg for rigorous investigation, that I owe it to the people who have shown me secret spots in the island and shared their vulnerable stories and spoken of dark pasts to do something more, that I’m not close to being done. Maybe it just means I need to come back.

Last night, after sitting hunched over my computer in the same position for five hours reading everything from a paper on conservation advice for the endemic blue-tailed skink to the biography of a recent professorial contact (sorry Mark) in a continuation of my desperate attempt to wrest some scholarly direction from my time here, I came across these lines from Rilke’s Letter to a Young Poet:

“Try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or book written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now.”

In my third week here, I found a copy of The Miracle of Mindfulness at the op shop (aka thrift shop) and began reading it in earnest. The book’s gentle urgings and exercises are designed to cultivate mindfulness- an idea of living in the present without rushing on to the next bite of tangerine while your mouth is still full. It made a remarkable difference; for the rest of the week I ate all my meals in a kind of rapture, slowly, deliberately, completely focused on the food. I walked more slowly, breathed as I did. After I had gone through the book and was removed from its gentle reminders, these habits faded a bit, around the same time that my project anxiety escalated. Rilke’s reminder is a striking return to the same thing Thich Nhat Hanh urges us to do: to live everything, even the questions.

taken after waking from a nap in a seaside park

To live the post-laptop exhaustion on my unmade bed as my ceiling fan churns the night air. To live the pink-bellied geckos that scale the kitchen walls. To live the sheer limestone cliffs, the full thudding surf crashing down under a rain-ready sky. As Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us,

“Your being there is like the tangerine. Eat it and be one with it. Tomorrow it will be no more.”

Edit: I recently heard back from one of my cry-for-help emails, this one from the professor of the anthropology class I took. Her response to my long-winded, desperate message opened with this: ” It sounds to me from this email that you’ve become a truly professional researcher who holds deeply into finding out local practices with intellectual honesty.” This was some source of comfort- that being confused, as uncomfortable as it is, is part of the research process. That it might even mean I’m doing something right.

2 thoughts on “On Not Having a Discipline

  1. Marcia Follensbee

    I. Can’t. Even. Imagine…..all the thoughts swirling in that magnificent brain of yours! How do you ever sleep? Continue searching, experiencing, questioning, but most of all living!
    Mrs. F.


  2. Natalie

    You are amazing!!! I also can’t imagine what it must feel like. Overwhelming. Exciting. Exhausting. All of the things. With your wit and earnesty I’m certain that whatever comes of this journey will be meaningful and fruitful. Also love the tangerine references. I have been delighting in eating satsuma tangerines daily 🙂


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