For the past two semesters now, I have been working on my honors project in Politics. In the Politics department, Honors is a yearlong program where you enroll in a seminar class, produce a thesis on a topic of your choice and then sit for a 7-hour written exam in addition to an hour-long oral examination.
I'm not really sure at what point I chose to do honors, but I wanted to do it for one real reason. At the time when I applied to the honors program, I was seriously considering applying to graduate school straight out of college, most likely to read for a masters in International Relations. Writing an undergraduate thesis was definitely something that I felt would really strengthen my application and provide substantive evidence of my ability to do graduate school work.
The thesis writing process is a long and arduous journey requiring a significant amount of dedication, creativity and commitment. The first step in the process is coming up with a topic to write about. I came to my own topic through a serendipitous encounter. When I was studying abroad, I attended a talk given by the economist Paul Collier, who writes a lot about economic development and is considered a leading "expert" on Africa. Collier and a representative from the Rwandan government were talking about how Rwanda had risen from genocide in 1994 to being one of the fastest-growing economies in the world right now. I found this intriguing. Coincidentally, I also was assigned to do a project on Rwanda in my international development class, and thus began the genesis of my academic interest in Rwanda.
Being a researcher, especially in the social sciences, involves placing yourself within narratives of people, places and cultures with whom you may not have real vested interests. Many social scientists, especially anthropologists, sociologists and political scientists, use places like "Africa" and the developing world as substrata for their research without properly asking themselves what their motives are, and how the power dynamics involved may reduce academic production into an act of cultural consumption. Although I enjoy researching and writing about Rwanda, I cannot help but think about my own complicated position place as an observer unpacking the fraught histories of a place that I have never been or experienced. As I write about this country--its colonization by European powers, and how that set the tone for the genocide that was to follow, and how the country resurrected itself, I sometimes question the act of academic research itself. Who does this research serve? For the most part, it serves me, not the people of Rwanda about whom I am writing. I get to have the title of honors on my diploma, I get to go on to graduate school and enroll in yet another institution of higher education and acquire more elite degrees and personal prestige.
In political science, there are certain dictates that must be adhered to for any piece of academic writing like the one I am currently undertaking. It has to have a "theoretical lens" (i.e. the work must be grounded in previous theories), it must have a thesis, it must provide evidence, etc. It is a surgical and methodical process, which, strangely, I find increasingly does not do justice to the diversity of narratives about a place or nation. The more I dig deeper into my thesis, quoting theories coined by people sitting in European and American universities, writing in clinical abstractions about the lives of people in Africa, the more I wish I could write a novel instead. I wish I could write something deeper, more personal and connected. Instead of quoting economists and political scientists in my footnotes and bibliography, I wish I could direct quote Rwandan women and boys and market sellers and farmers and members of parliament about how they felt about the histories of their own country. I wish that I could write a work that could exist outside the strictures of academic regulations, and write about people and feelings and thoughts and relationships and reality.
In my English class called Globalization and Diaspora, we are learning about what society considers legitimate forms of knowledge: books, scholarly articles, the opinions of "experts." But what about the tweets and facebook posts that say profound things but never make it into google scholar? What about my grandmother's oral histories? What if the history of Rwanda that my Rwandan friend recited to me in person could be used as evidence to support my argument?
One of the things that Oberlin teaches you how to do well is question. Ironically, I am questioning the very things that Oberlin and the academic establishment tell us are legitimate. I am questioning the role that I play as a researcher in perpetuating the consumption of a country, of people and their histories for my own personal gain. As I dig deeper into my research, I find myself wanting less to do with evidence and numbers and longing more for storytelling and emotion, and authenticity in the way in which I write about this place. I find myself seeking humanity in the often sanitized, disconnected universe of academic theory.