Saturday, January 23, 2010



Discernment and The Journal Project

I wrote in an earlier blog on discernment…from the top of my head, but knowing that someplace on my computer I had stored “the real” memo on discernment.  I found it, of course, right where I put it—in the NVivo container of the Journal Project.  (Described in an earlier blog). So here is some of that earlier, and I have to say, richer thought about the notion of discernment. 

Looked at Oxford English Dictionary definitions; discernment is a word that emerged around 1500
It collected meanings from the Ignatious tradition, and from the Protestant tradition
(Amish, Congregationalists, Quakers). 

What does it mean to discern?
-to find a life's path?
-to hear the call of your soul?
-to hear God speaking to you?
-to join in a community to make sense of direction for a group
-to be able to achieve clarity, make distinctions, see

Discernment can be imagined metaphorically
-trying to find a pathway in a forest
-seeking to see the way forward in a fog
-trying to come to an answer in a judicial inquiry in which each plantiff has a different view of the event
-a congregation struggling with the pivotal issues of an era (shall we oppose slavery?  do we support the rights of gay, lesbian, and transgendered individuals?)
-an individual struggling with a private gnawing need, looking for resolution about life's dilemma's

In each of these examples, individuals or groups must find a way where the way is not clear.  Discernment implies a systematic and probably wearying interpretive process in which information is gathered, sorted, sifted, reviewed, reshaped, and eventually used to recreate an understanding of events, beliefs, future direction, meanings, and possibilities. 

What is the signficance of taking up this question as the focus of my Journal project—a study of two-years of my personal journals, 2006-2008? (see earlier blogs on this topic).
Is this simply a memoir?
It is a memoir, and it is document analysis undertaken from a qualitative research perspective.
It is a self-study and it is an exploration of qualitative data analysis software applied to humanistic directions in qualitative research?

I am insider on this study:  I wrote the materials.  I lived this life.
And I am outsider in this study:  I have distanced the materials through commiting them to written journals, then redistancing them by re-entering them into NVivo and analyzing them there. Now instead of following the chronology, I find myself working within various categories of meaning that span the time; obcession, my family of origin.   All of which has brought me close again to the moments and time in which I wrote. 

I have a special challenge in serving as both writer of the journals and qualitative researcher.  I have pledged myself to stay focused on the materials in the context of the two years that they represent. Many things have changed since then, and I look at my feelings and struggles from a different perspective today, but I have to try and screen that out...or make account of it because my emphasis is on grasping the emic perspective of me in that two year period. 

I am examining my process of discernment...and that itself is an act of discernment.  Me at one time and place; me at another--trying to understand how I moved myself forward to the next place in life. 

The central question to this discernment is:  As a middle aged female academic immediately post-tenure...is life finished or beginning?  Are life's issues resolved?  How does tenure affect the post-menopausal? 

Why is discernment such a crucial issue to an academic?  We are people who are supposedly responsible for our own paths, and yet we come to this place of so-called independence after years of careful socialization where all rough edges are chipped away.  The socialization of being accepted in a graduate school, of serving under mentors, of attending conferences and hoping to catch the eye of the stars of our world, of mind numbing interviews in small towns across the country (places where those darn land grant schools were located), of servitude in the position of assistant professor--smiling and hoping we don't make any blunders, worrying about angry students and grading, and updating the vita over and over and over again--a set of white papers that seem to contain all of our life...that may seem more real than we are. 

We are heavily socialized to be this thing and the socialization process is grueling and long and yet we are also supposed to be doing this to be independent thinkers—intellectual kings and queens who have the skills and knowledge to shape their own directions.  Discernment then is core to our work.  To discern who we are and what we believe is what the work of an academic is.  To say anything about anything, we have to have struggled our way through an investigative journey of some kind to a new meaning.  But the discernment of our professional work is not separate from the discernment that is further from public view, the discernment of our personal life. 

How does the life that sustains us--the living, eating, breathing, loving, caring, hurting, sleeping--how does this figure into the discernment process of an academic?  Do these things exist separately from the brain that tries to work out social theory, critique a dissertation, or write a journal article? 

As a woman, how do the challenges of menopause, of realizing the end of childbearing years, of mourning the children one didn't have, of coming to grips with the childhood that shaped ones views of female self--how do these figure in the trials of academic life, where academic children come and go, where the elements of family can be seen enacting new dramas on the academic stage?  How is shaping a female self in this workplace, a part of shaping one's female self in all dimensions of one's life? 

How does the new creation of family, the acquisition of husband, step-children, in-laws, and the grandchildren that come along--how do these figure in the notion of female academic?  How does the presence of step-daughter and daughter-in-law create new possibilities for understanding my aging self, my gifts and losses, and the work that I engage in as an academic? 

What is at the heart of my process of discernment at this period in my life?  What is significant about the challenges I faced?  What could happen to me if I failed?  Where would I land? 

What are the paths or grooves that were created by the past?  How do these shape my abilities to see the problems, find solutions, and move forward?  Deeply grooved.  Like the wagon ruts from the Oregon Trail that still exist 100+ years later, marks in the landscape that remind one of the Wagons lurching along with their battered cargos.  This is like the self that tries to move forward, carrying a few belongings. 

Anyone who has ever worked in an office knows that the personal and the professional are hopelessly intertangled.    Much as we talk about "I am a professional" or "I can't believe that--it was so unprofessional" or "The professional thing to do would be to..." as if this realm were vastly separate and that we all understood it as the same thing...knows that the so-called personal is constantly invading our professional realm.  Just as in marriages and families, our models--family and ancestors that went before--walk like ghosts in the halls of academia.  The dead mother is with us at the table of a dissertation defense; the critical father makes himself heard in an angry rejoinder in a faculty meeting; a beloved sybling can be refound in a trusted colleague.  Just as at home, they are there walking among us, shaping the ways we work with students, answer memos, and respond to Deans. 

A part of discernment then must be coming to understand the ghosts, calling them forward, speaking with them and then sending them back to their world.  This work reminds me of the Japanese O'Bon festival, where once a year the ghosts come back to our world.  They are welcomed, celebrated, and then sent back with dancing and bonfires.  I have memories of the dancers winding their way through the streets of Kyoto, and the fires lighting the mountain of Daimonji, which loomed above my room in the North of Kyoto near Kyoto University. 

In the Catholic tradition, discernment evolved as a task of the individual--to separate good voices from bad, to sort out the devil's promptings from the voice of god.

In the Protestant tradition, discernment evolved as a task of the community--to listen for and to identify the true voice of god as it is speaking to the covenanted community. 

As an academic woman, I am positioned (often uncomfortably) between the two, I must listen for the voice that will be my individual voice of scholarship--the muse that I will follow and need to be true to.  I must also listen from within my community, as a scholar who participates in a community of scholars, we are committed to listening for the true voice, the path of our discipline.  We are like a covenanted community, meeting through journals, conferences, and academic departments--we must try to separate the chaff from the wheat--in the ideas that come our way.  This, too, is a kind of discernment.  Like the early Protestant communities (Congregationalist, Quaker, or Amish) that took up this challenge, communities of scholars are by their nature engaged in ongoing struggles of change--conservatism vs liberalism--

Discerning discernment through the lens of one's own journals requires a good dose of humor and a recognition of the exceedingly self-centered nature of journals.  These are the least objective of documents, and yet that is a part of their value.  These particular journals were not written to be shared.  They were written to note pain, absorb hurt, celebrate a personal joy, and to provide a means of interpretation--writing is thinking, as thinking is writing. 

As I thought about discernment, I tried to get at the intricacies of this notion. 
How is the nature of my process of discernment represented in the two years of journal entries?
What shape does it take? 
What seems characteristic of it?
What are the elements that I combine within this process?
How is it balanced between personal and professional?
How is family--family of origin--developing a family of my own; a central theme in discernment? 
What is the movement of discernment? 
Does it have familiar paths?  repetitions?
Are there techniques or tools that are uniquely mine?  Which ones do I discover and make my own along the way? 
What kind of growth do I achieve in my ability to discerrn? 
What are the major events in these two years that my discernment processes must address?
How does my condition--female, middle-aged, academic, barely tenured--affect the ways that discernment unfolds in my life?