Writing about the Dissertation

As I prepare for dissertation workshops and fellowship applications in the fall, I am reminded of this important piece of mentoring advice:

Don’t just write your dissertation, but write about it and often.

Writing about your project can be frustrating, unnerving, and even painful, but I have found that it keeps me grounded- it forces me to think about the stakes of my work and reminds me of who I am speaking to, which can be incredibly energizing. In light of this, I have decided to share some of the writing “about” my  dissertation that Duncan Faherty (Associate Professor of English at Queens College and the Graduate Center, CUNY)  invited us to complete for the American Studies dissertation workshop I am taking this fall. As always, it took me longer than expected to complete (and is of course far from perfect), but it did get me thinking about my project and the challenge of communicating it to others who might not be familiar with my topic or areas of research.

Title: Animate Impossibilities: On Racialization, Knowledge Politics, and Alternative Humanities

Abstract: This dissertation identifies Asian American studies as an exemplary knowledge formation for apprehending and challenging the racialization that persists in the American academy. Despite the field’s historical commitments to social justice, it has also had to grapple with institutionalization and shifting conditions around the study of race in a putatively “post-race” era. This project is in conversation with the work of scholars like Roderick Ferguson and Jodi Melamed who argue that the rhetoric of minority difference, antiracism, and diversity has increasingly been used to perpetuate discourses that imply institutional racism has been or will soon be overcome. My dissertation extends their work by investigating how the university structurally reproduces social and material inequality through the disciplining of Asian American studies and Asian Americanist practices and pedagogies. It also explores what it means to undiscipline the field in order to push beyond the limits of identity politics and conceive alternative methods for enacting social justice. I argue that central to this process is an engagement with aesthetic and cultural productions, such as works by Karen Tei Yamashita, Charles, Yu, and Patricia Powell, which create affective imaginaries that not only depict material conditions of racialized inequality but  materialize timescapes that illuminate other ways of conceptualizing social, political and epistemic formations. This dissertation shows how attending to and experimenting alongside these texts enables the perception of what is rendered unknowable or illegible–the animate impossibilities–under hegemonic structures of knowledge that can facilitate efforts to mobilize the academy in the service of social justice.

Research Questions: Alongside efforts to diversify and globalize higher education in a purportedly “post-race” era, how might scholar-activists in fields committed to social justice and antiracism like Asian American studies, challenge persisting forms of racialization in the American academy? Further, given the limitations of identity and rights-based politics, how can we develop alternative conceptions of and critical practices and pedagogies for enacting social justice?

Exigency and Audience: My dissertation works in and through the field of Asian American studies to illuminate ongoing ways in which knowledge production is racialized in the American academy. Additionally, it engages with aesthetic and cultural productions to demonstrate how such works provide important points of entry for experimenting with alternative structures of knowledge and ways of conceiving justice and politics in Asian American studies and the humanities more broadly. As such, while the primary audience for this project would be Asian Americanists and scholars working in related interdisciplines in race and ethnic studies, it also speaks to critics from a range of fields who are grappling with questions about social justice, pedagogy, and the university.

Methodology: The methodologies employed in this dissertation are informed by a number of theoretical fields and critical practices that I believe will most effectively address my research questions. To understand and critique the ways in which knowledge is racialized in the American academy, I utilize a historical materialist approach, following the work of thinkers such as Michel Foucault, Lisa Lowe, Stuart Hall, and Achille Mbembe. My dissertation also engages with affect and aesthetic theory, in the vein of Sara Ahmed, Lauren Berlant, Mel Chen, and Raymond Williams, to demonstrate how feeling and art, that which is often perceived as immaterial, irrational, and removed from politics, can play a critical role in illuminating processes of racialization and possibilities for seeing, thinking, and acting otherwise. Perhaps the most important component of my methodology, however, is the way I treat aesthetic and cultural productions as theory. Rather than simply close reading these texts, my dissertation emphasizes how the affective imaginaries they create participate in “world-making,” both existing in and exerting a material impact on the world. Put differently, I am interested in the work that these texts “do” and the possibilities that might come from imagining and experimenting alongside them.

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