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Where Is The Love: Intellectualization of Personal Experience in Academia

On Campus

Where Is The Love: Intellectualization of Personal Experience in Academia

Radix Admin

By Dani Planer '19

I decided to attend Mount Holyoke College almost exactly a year ago.I was hopeful. I came here to learn, to create new experiences, and grapple with old ones within new relationships. I came here to offer support to those around me and to be supported in a new space.

I have been taught for some time to intellectualize my identity as a means of defining and describing it to my parents, friends, teachers, and others that I interact with in everyday life. Intellectualizing myself and my identity helps me cope with existing in a space where this identity is still misunderstood and disrespected even after I give all of myself to being understood.

Intellectualization of personal identity is undoubtedly necessary for survival. Our brains compartmentalize trauma as a means of allowing our bodies to function on a day to day basis. However, for me, this intellectualization has adapted into an authoritative coping mechanism. It has permeated all aspects of my life, teaching me to put my experiences into words that separate these same experiences from what I actively lived through.

I have become so disconnected with my identity and so adapted to separating my experiences from myself that these experiences have become someone else’s—something I see as a flash on a screen rather than an event in which I was present and actively existed through.

Entering college, especially one with so many people who, statistically, are more likely to be survivors of trauma, I hoped to reclaim my experiences and come to terms with my past in a safe environment that encouraged and supported me alongside others.

However, the intellectualization of myself and my experiences that academia has encouraged has resulted in a disconnect between my current self and my past that I cannot seem to undo. Through this intellectualization, my lived experiences and traumas have become abstract in their existence—there is no space for me to claim ownership over what I have lived through and what I have experienced.

In college, I find myself more confused and hazy about my future and my past than I have ever been.

Academia, as a space, encourages the intellectualization of not only identity, but also experience more than any other institution I know. Here, personal experiences and traumas are placed under a microscope, dissected, and rearranged inside big words that build theory marked with an academic’s name but composed of someone else’s lived experience. It reduces identities down to statistic values and projects experience as illusory and worthy of pity. Rather than encouraging empathy, academia promotes the objectification of oppressed peoples as subjects to be studied.

For academia, the ideal person is comprised of an all encompassing identity. This person is someone who fails to possess experiences centered outside of their identities, and is far from capable of  experiencing three-dimensional emotions including happiness, pride, and passion alongside humiliation and worthlessness.

Academia claims to empower through knowledge while the theory it produces reduces people of oppressed identities to the sum of their experiences rather than portraying them as people who are whole and capable of greatness. As an institution, academia systematically denies agency over experience to oppressed peoples while simultaneously rejecting this same systematic denial of agency in the theory it produces.

Concurrent with this denial of agency is the devaluation of emotion within theory.  

To retain agency over personal narratives regarding identity and experience, oppressed peoples who wish to produce theory centering their own experiences and traumas are required to deliver the same theory that other academics might: theory chocked-full of academic terms as a means of legitimizing their work in an already classist, misogynistic, white-supremacist, transphobic, homophobic, and ableist academic circle which institutionally denies oppressed peoples’ ability to produce scholarly works.

Academia views personal and emotional connection to topics of study as baseless, rejecting the lived experiences of anyone who does not fit the euro-american imperialist understanding of what it means to live.

By devaluing the use of “I” statements (other than to present empirical evidence and propose a hypothesis within theory) academia rejects the opportunity to present what writers know better than anyone—their own experience. It rejects the personal existence of a person within their academic and scholarly works, suggesting that the personal is not political.

The use of the “I” statement in academic theory—the placement of personal experience and emotion within scholarly works—is a reclamation of experience and identity. To produce theory founded in feeling is to produce something revolutionary.

This theory would reject the fundamentals of dehumanization—the systematic denial of the worth of certain peoples—and particularly within academia—the idea that oppressed peoples are incapable of telling their own stories best.

While sexual assault and harassment, rape, familial rejection, objectification, racial profiling, and any combination of these traumas, among others, can all be components of the lived experience of oppressed peoples, it is not all that oppressed peoples are.

The people reduced to statistics and big words within academic theory are people. They have found themselves on beaches and in water and surrounded by colors. They possess memory and they experience nostalgia. They feel the coolness of things in real and full ways. They are humans and they are complex and they are more than the sum of their identities and the experiences that systematic interpretations of them produce.

So what does it mean to be a person reduced to these statistics at a college that is supposedly built to empower people like you? How do we learn to navigate actively funding the devaluation of our own personal experiences?

I came to college to learn how to do things: to learn how to think as best as I could independently of the systems I am complacent in and simultaneously a victim of. To harness these learned processes and use them to support my personal growth and that of my friends and classmates. To navigate being told that my emotions and personal experiences are not worthy of the space they take up in air when spoken out loud or on the paper when written down.

After being disconnected from my personal experiences and traumas for so long, I came to college with expectations of developing meaningful relationships and agitating those passions that I had lost track of. I wanted to reclaim what had been lost as a result of the techniques of disassociation and intellectualization I had been taught to resort to as a means of survival throughout my life.

I have been trying more and more often to ask myself: how does taking away my past benefit this institution? How can we support each other and be present in meaningful ways while also studying the lived experiences of ourselves and our friends to the point that they are nothing more than intellectual -isms and theory?

How can I express agency over my past while remaining present with my passions now and in the future?