How to Find Your Voice

influential_booksI remember a little, meaningless social media challenge a while ago where people were sharing the top books that “stayed with you” how ever you would interpret that idea. For the curious, this was my list is 2013:

1. The BFG – Roald Dahl
2. George’s Marvelous Medicine – Roald Dahl
3. Waiting for God – Simone Weil
4. The Sickness Unto Death – Soren Kierkegaard
5. Purity and Danger – Mary Douglas
6. The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
7. Oryx and Crake – Margaret Atwood
8. Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
9. The Mountain of Silence – Kyriacos C. Markides
10. An Unquiet Mind – Kay Redfield Jamison

I was more religious then even though the more religious books I listed still “stay” with me to some degree. I was thinking back on this list because a personal goal that aligns with my professional life is to find my intellectual or academic “voice.” For most people with PhD’s this is supposed to be found with the process and completion of the dissertation. That first major contribution to your academic field is like the locomotive you have built to ride through your career. Except after I completed my dissertation, I hopped off the train.

My job supporting faculty teaching and my dissertation work have never seemed to match up in my head. I have degrees and background specifically in Christian theology, a theology to which I no longer subscribe, and my PhD is in higher education leadership, management, and policy where my dissertation focused specifically on evangelical higher education. I am not very comfortable with some of the conclusions in my dissertation today and more importantly, I have lost interest in making a counter claim or studying it further.

Finding a Voice

A personal goal for me this year is to figure out my intellectual “voice.” Part of my problem in finding that voice is not rooted so much in the fact that I lost interest in the particulars of my dissertation research. Maybe I am just ignoring it or minimizing it. I have had this belief that ultimately what goes on in my head is mostly useless, uninteresting, or unimportant. I am currently learning, through some of the writing of Brené Brown, that this belief is most definitely rooted in shame somewhere. I am starting to deconstruct the entire notion of the “impostor syndrome” as a bullshit concept we are learning to use as evidence for self-pity, but it is highly resistant to inoculation so we stay stuck. At least that is evident enough for me. Shame seems like something I can work with. This is why I have a habit of writing a little, reinforcing the belief that it’s all dumb, and then stopping.

Before I want to open the Pandora’s Box of shame I need a starting point to at least get a rough picture of what this voice looks like. That starting point is a sort of recalibration and I used that little, meaningless books challenge above to start it off. What are the books and ideas that not only shaped my intellectual framework and interests in my history, but what are those books and ideas that I seem to use as glasses through which I filter a kind of practical theorization about the world. More than that, how does this material shape the reasons I am doing the work I am still doing today? I did not go to school for faculty development. I didn’t go into any of my formal educational experiences with the idea that the scholarship of teaching and learning was going to be a career path. And yet, here we still are and I can’t imagine myself doing anything else. The question is why?

Collect Your Ideas

I set off to find those books that continued to shape my thinking, beliefs, and approach to my work even when I was not explicitly thinking of them. After I pulled them all off the shelves I started skimming each of them for the idea or ideas that continued to have a sort of force in my thinking about most everything. These are ideas and theories that are like an operating system for my brain. I skimmed each book, reading all of my underlined parts from years ago, paying careful attention to the pages that were still dog-eared, and finding the central idea for each summarized in just a few words or a sentence – one column for the book, one column for the idea.



The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force
Jeffrey M. Schwartz and Shannon Begley
Attention and behavior reshape the neurological mapping of the brain.
Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concept of Pollution and Taboo
Mary Douglas
Change is disruptive dangerous.
The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion
Peter Berger
The process of externalization, objectification, integration, and alienation is critical to understand what shapes human behavior.
Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy
Michael Polanyi
Knowledge is a function of personal commitment.
Simulacra and Simulation
Jean Baudrillard
Cultural symbols drop their referents over time and reality becomes hyperreal.
Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man
Marshall McLuhan
Technology is an externalization of human behavior and values that becomes its own object and is internalized by subsequent generations.
The Evolving Self: Problem and Process in Human Development
Robert Kegan
Intelligence is the outcome of adaptation where the subject becomes an object that is internalized.
The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity: Twelve Lectures
Jürgen Habermas
The lifeworld, the taken-for-granted stock of knowledge, is reproduced through discourse and can also be disrupted through it.

Find the Relationship

I’ve always known these have been important books and ideas for me. They pop up all the time in my writing and thinking through ideas. But I had always operated under two very wrong assumptions:

A) These are all interesting, but basically unrelated.

B) Even though they are all interesting, they are tangential at best to my career or what I should be doing with my life.

The last step was to find out how all of these ideas are connected in my thinking and disprove these assumptions. They have all been in my head to some degree for over 20 years now so the idea that they are not connected is simply false. Refusing to recognize that fact does not make it less true. So what is the connection? What is the interest that is holding all of that stuff together and how is all of that in turn shaping that interest? This isn’t about intellectual consistency. I am not worried about how well these ideas fit together in terms of any disciplinary standard. These scholars were talking about similar things, but from often very different and even contradictory places. I wrote the connection or throughline down as it felt, not as I could argue in an essay.

I’m drawn to teaching and learning because of how adaptations to experienced reality are at the very core of the process. We are asking teachers to introduce stress, disrupt boundaries, coach students to adapt to that change, and then create a different lifeworld over time. I want teachers to understand this process, become intentional agents of it’s development, and to invite the students as co-creators.

It sounds a bit like a mission statement doesn’t it. Maybe it is. Regardless it is the idea that I think now has been holding all of that material together and a central idea that all of that material helped form.

What Does it Mean?

I don’t really know what this means, but this is my intellectual voice and at this point it’s not about whether I want it to be or not. This is what my voice is as a result of about 20 years of thinking and working where the ideas in these particular books continued to come up and don’t seem to want to let me go. But if you are asking the same sort of question, this was a really helpful way to get closer to a picture of what it might mean for myself.

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