on being collaborative in a competitive world

Old College, University of Edinburgh
I've been becoming less competitive for a while, now.
Family trivial pursuit games at Christmas are, for me, these days more about encouraging others, enjoying the moment, and celebrating the near misses and successes along the way, to whomever they come.
As I play those silly games of Freecell and Solitaire on whatever device, I've gone from madly trying to better my scores and times, to enjoying a long run of successfully solving the puzzles.
I have lost any interest I might have had in competing in a poetry slam, the more I have attended open mic story and poetry evenings that encourage emerging and established artists alike in a community of creativity.
And I am done with literary competitions, submitting works only to see the same names appear on the shortlists time and time again. I wouldn't enter if I didn't need the money. I am much more interested in people reading and appreciating my poems than competing for whose poem is best. But I have to find ways to earn enough to live, enough to remove the stress of worry about money which is inhibiting my creative work so it's not good enough to win, or even be appreciated.

But is is an unsuccessful academic grant application that has me reflecting today, and I have just posed the question to myself, has my lack of interest in competition somehow influenced these negative results?
I am not sure how it would – perhaps there is not enough of an edge to my promoting of myself and my project in the application responses? Perhaps I am assuming the kind of mutuality of support and encouragement for my project as I find in the subject of my project itself, the letter to the Romans: a letter exhorting human mutuality and the valuing of the contribution of each member of a community. I don't know. Perhaps in the spaces between the lines the judges are sensing my apathy towards money, or my exhaustion.
Or perhaps I am simply not an outstanding academic, not an engaging performer, not a worthwhile investment.


I know that's not all true, actually. The number of people who have and are investing in me, who are intrigued by and supportive of the project are all external affirmations of the path I am taking. Which is necessary in these days of struggle with an academy that is not seeing what others see; the lack of value for this project I perceive in the constant rejections is causing me to doubt my internal conviction of a vocation that invites me to flourish.

Why does the academy not value the project? [I should note that the enthusiasm of my supervisors and particular department provides a stark contrast to the lack of financial support for the project]
For this latest grant, there were over 1,000 applicants - but then, of course there would be, when they extended the deadline and kept promoting it. I submitted an application early, after the first invitation, well before the original deadline. To be honest, I am a little annoyed that I may have missed out because the slackers were given extra opportunities. Why bother doing the right thing?
But, with a limited pot, not all of the applicants were going to be successful, anyway.

There's no way of knowing, really, who was successful, or why I was not. So I can only surmise.
The quality of the application itself might have been less than optimal.
Is Divinity not high on the university pecking order?
Are Biblical Studies less successful because of some resistance to the formerly dominant Christian whatever ... ?
Are performing arts not valued in the academy?
Or is the promoting of mutuality of humans and the fulness of human being too esoteric, somehow not a concrete enough endeavour?

How can I know?

But one of those questions reminded me of a statement I made after completing honours in English – Creative Writing, for which thesis I received comments that still make me mad, 15 years later: I said I would never submit creative work for academic assessment again.
And here I am, incorporating a creative element right at the heart of my PhD thesis. Trying to squeeze artistic, intuitive methodology into an academy that is inherently anything but.

It is almost enough to make me walk away.

For my whole life, I knew I would do a PhD. Perhaps it was because Dad worked in university administration supporting postgrad students? Perhaps it was my grandfather's name on the sports centre at that university? As a family business, a university is somewhat unique – both parents and all three daughters have graduated from and been employed by Flinders University, with one grandparent involved in the establishing of the student and sports unions in the university's earliest days.
I remember saying to one of my honours supervisors that I wanted to be part of the academy to bring back something of the old ethos about universities being places to encourage thinking, dreaming, ideas.
But the competition that is so much a part of the university culture, the pressure to be the best, rather than encouragement to be your best, is demoralising, debilitating, dehumanising.
In the end, I wanted to do this PhD not because it is a PhD, not for the piece of paper, but for the three years to explore an idea, to thoughtfully reflect on my practice for what it might helpfully offer to my community. With all the struggles simply to remain here, the project is suffering, the ideas are taking a back seat, and I am losing the will to continue with it.

I have no idea what else I would do – there is nothing else for me to do, because of that conviction, that vocation, leading me to the fulness of my being.

But the fact is that I am not competitive any more. I am collaborative, and I don't know how that works within the world of academia.
I am encouraged not to offer performance readings to other students, because it would give too much of my work away – and I need to protect it in order to carve out my place in the academy.
When I go to the conference I have to find other funding for now, I have to be careful how much of my work I talk about, so as not to give other academics a chance to 'steal' it before I have published my original ideas.
More and more, I am living into the mutuality that is at the heart of my thesis, my faith, my being. My first academic publication came through collaboration, and I loved the process. We have a reading group for the Pauline post-grad students, and it is so energising to meet and share ideas without them having to be fully formed and defensible.
When mutuality is resisted, is not welcomed, embraced or returned – when it feels as though your contribution to the academic community is not valued or even wanted – the relationship is not mutual (obviously), it is not life-giving.

So much is getting in the way of my academic path, I can hardly see my way just now. And if it wasn't for you, the ones who read this blog, those who are official or unofficial patrons and supporters; if it wasn't for my supervisors and fellow students; if it wasn't for my creative story collaborators in my multiple faith communities, I think I would walk away. Whatever I create here, you are woven into its fabric, in vibrant colour that brings light to my darkest days. Thank you.


Heather said…
So hard to see your way pastr these blocks.
- but we believe in your gifts; we really do.
Anonymous said…
I agree with Heather. As the days get short and darker here I pray that light will come to you. You speak so eloquently of where you are and my heart aches for you.

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