This week I have been thinking about the role of personal passions and motivations in the pursuit of academic creativity. In the last week, I have read the accounts of several academic friends finding passion and engagement through the exploration of topics close to their personal background and experience of life. It occurred to me that this aspect of scholarly creativity is often neglected. Academics often seek the most objectively “interesting” or “relevant” piece of research, regardless of their personal engagement. It is common to read that PhD students should pick a topic that they are passionate about, but I feel that it is equally important for academics – at all levels of research – to engage in work that is personal, that brings them to a closer knowledge of themselves.
We should not be afraid to be creative by sharing that part of ourselves that inspires research, and fuels our hunger for answers. In the past there has been something of a disdainful attitude to this kind of “personal” work, but I am pleased to see it thriving. I have increasingly come to feel that researchers are nothing without their own story, and that research should enhance what is distinct about individual scholars. The process of moving into academia should not be a process of monastic-style oblation and initiation in which a rigorous process of training makes us into copies of our mentors or copies of each other. We are each of us at our most creative, engaging, and passionate when we share something that is close to us. Local historians and the “amateur” scholars that certain scholars demean understand this well: the power of scholarship, its root, lies in relatability. Nothing is more relevant or profound than something created by someone with a unique story to tell, embedded in a unique context, and articulated in a unique format.
Taking the self out of research, be it humanistic or scientific, is a great waste of creative potential. The marriage of scholarly methodology and personal experience is a potent blend. If all of us can take some time to speak from the heart and create work that is true to our emotions, lives, and hearts, then the world benefits. Running into a realm of impersonality and dry clinical diagnosis is the sign of a world that has ended, and yet lingers. To my mind, we should all fight to see it consigned to history.
Two points occur at this stage. First, for research to be personal, it does not necessarily have to be about a person. Something that a scholar has a passion for because it suits their temperament or skill set is also personal, for it defines and develops that person. It is a passion that is intrinsic to their identity. These things are just as important as issues that directly related to the particulars of a scholar’s life. Secondly, not all research has to be personal. The core need is to allow work that a researcher feels a personal affinity for, but also to branch out into areas beyond the self. Research should not be wholly self-reflexive.
Working with topics which bring us closer to ourselves has a transformative effect on our lives, and those of others. It is also true that issues of relevance to the researcher are likely of relevance to a wider audience, including the public. To be ourselves is to engage, the core mission of twenty-first century academia. If we do not define what is relevant to society, someone else with deep pockets and a more nebulous agenda will do it for us.
My message for today? Get personal! Find a path to creativity that is a path to personal development, and your benefits will be two-fold.