The Holloway Project

Yes, this project is technically my dissertation.  I’ll continue to tag it as such on the website so that it links to prior posts on my theory and research.  And I intend to defend it and complete the graduate journey I started.

But I also have plans for this piece that move it outside of the realm of the typical dissertation.

Namely, I want to make this a compassionate project, for me, for readers, for those directly affected by my research.

Here’s what I mean…


Over the past year, I realized that I don’t really want tenure.  I don’t want committee appointments, where I have to turn brilliant people down for funding.  I don’t want high-pressure research projects that divorce me from my students.  I don’t want to communicate in code.  And I am six kinds of over all the rambling conference presentations.

I recognize that some people feel empowered by these codes and systems.  I do not.  If anything I feel implicit.

So, my goal for this project is to think of it not as a dissertation–a strange bookish animal that you feed a very specific diet until it belches out a degree–but rather as an intentionally public-minded investigation that might earn me a job at a heavily teaching-oriented institution, or readers on a hybrid blog, or, hell, part time work at a community college with mornings open to write creatively and work in my garden and be a person.

As you can see, this investigative approach is partially for me and my mental well-being. Psychologically, I just can’t write a dissertation.  But I can write a neat book that has all the (easily removable) trappings of a dissertation, and the possibility of life beyond the doctoral defense.

Compassionate authorship:

This approach is also for my readers.

As part of my PhD Teaching Track, I took an eye-opening course on secondary literacy.

This class convinced me that things like audio books, online tutorials, games, videos, songs, blogs, you name it, count as texts, and that as educators we have the responsibility of preparing ourselves to teach students who grew up in a digital age.

This class also confirmed what I had been feeling all along: the best authors are interesting and considerate.

William G. Brozo and Michele L. Simpson, in Content Literacy for Today’s Adolescents, provide a list of the “factors that are involved in successful comprehension” with the intention of helping educators design meaningful instruction that connects with students.  But if you look at the list another way, it also gives academic authors a set of centering questions to ask in the process of writing:

  • How much am I assuming my reader already knows about this topic? What is the level of challenge I would like to present, and is it authentic to who I’m trying to reach?
  • Am I organizing my text in a way that will help my reader make sense of it?
  • Am I providing engaging material?
  • Am I providing entry-points for my difficult topics, making sure that my reader has the opportunity to access the joy that comes with making sense of things?
  • Will this book help someone? How?
  • Am I communicating a message, or am I just showing off?

Now, I’m not saying that you can’t write a high-level academic piece that meets these criteria.  There are books out there that function because of their precision, difficult conclusions, and demanding expectations, often because they are also patient and humble.

But these books are rare gems.   The majority of academic books, while they might self-proclaim as rare gems, are actually quite lazy.

Sure, you put in the time and the effort to learn the very specific ways of communicating within the academy, but so what?  If you only ever talk to other people who speak the same language, where’s the learning?  What’s the point?

The argument I most often hear is that this level of exclusionary expertise is required in order to progress human understanding, because we know best. Or, that if we didn’t have academic cloistering, we would never get any work done, because we would be spending all of our time talking to the public.*

But man…who is that work really for then? When does it become helpful to others?  Whose understanding are you really accessing?  Who are you ignoring in the process?  Is this really the humanities?

Wouldn’t it just be easier to start from an accessible position in the first place?

Or, at the very least, to stop demonizing academics who want to do so?

There has to be a happy medium where we are both rigorous and approachable.

[*The hard sciences are having this exact problem, where efforts to democratize information and get quick funding have massively backfired, resulting in bogus studies that pander false information to gossip rags.  Check out John Oliver giving a brilliant, accessible lecture on the topic. Just straight out of a Science and Technology Studies classroom.]

Compassionate research:

Finally, my investigative approach is targeted to reach those most affected by my research.

The historical: 

Every single one of the patients at Holloway Sanatorium deserve a chance to speak–to make their part in the birth of professional psychiatry known; to behave as complex individuals who didn’t ask to be wrapped up in the creation of strict gender roles; to be remembered.

It actually kills me a little that of the hundreds of patients I’ve met, only a handful will make it into the project.  It’s really difficult to reduce the majority to statistics, and it’s a lot of responsibility to select the patients that can speak for the group.

The happening:

Because of the lasting power of these 19th-century gender roles, psychiatric approaches, and silenced voices, too many people are hurting.  I want to make this connection more obvious–to make the narrative more accessible–so that we have a better chance of shared historical understanding when we talk about the following:

Too many men are afraid to get therapy because they’ve been raised to think less of compassionate work.

Too many men are loathe to step outside gendered boundaries or express a full range of emotions or care deeply about each other because someone might make fun of them or question their manhood.

Too many transwomen are being attacked or murdered or raped.

Too many male-identified folks live disinterested, or angry, or terrified lives in bodies that don’t fit.  Or they transition and find their emotional needs are erased by the old axiom that boys don’t cry.

Too many men resort to violence and misogyny.

Too many men struggle with suicidal thoughts or complete suicide.

I understand that I’ll be one voice among many, that the conversation is already raging.  And I understand that my chances of wide publication, even on a popular press, are pretty slim.

But if my choices are either to earn my credential and use it to contribute something helpful, while perhaps losing my long-term seat at the academic table, OR to spend my 30s playing the game, desperately slotting in student time between high-stress grant applications, and “winning” tenure…

Someone else can have my chair.


Historian, novelist, musician, and imagination professional.

One thought on “The Holloway Project

  1. In my (incredibly recent and not at all authoritative) experience, discovering that one wants something other than what they thought they did, or are “supposed” to desire is both frightening and incredibly liberating. Realizing that I needed and wanted to redesign my life has really changed the way I live both in the long view and in the day to day. This post has been a very nice read, and I’m glad that you are comfortable enough with what you want to do that you’re taking the approach that you feel is best. It’s far too easy to think, “but I’ve come this far, maybe I ought to just stay on this path.” Luckily, you seem to have found a direction where you’re not losing the time, work, and passion you’ve put into your work thus far!

    In other words, go get’em, tiger.

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