Living in Liminal Space
In teaching and in research I’ve been taught to pay close attention to the assumptions I bring to the contexts in which we create and re-create knowledge, and one aspect of my own perspective that I often take for granted is the fact that I’m more often present and comfortable in spaces that lie between one particular “position” and another.
In teaching and in research I’ve been taught to pay close attention to the assumptions I bring to the contexts in which we create and re-create knowledge, and one aspect of my own perspective that I often take for granted is the fact that I’m more often present and comfortable in spaces that lie between one particular “position” and another. The term that comes to mind is liminality, a word associated with limits and “intermediate stages” and deriving from the Latin limen for “threshold”.
The sense of being somehow outside and inside simultaneously has been with me for much of my life. I’m a blend of, and in a zone between, cultures and continents. Born in New Zealand to English parents and having now lived in Canada for over half my life, I’ve often had the sense that no matter where I am, I’m peering in at something (a social world) that isn’t “me” but is something I’ve adopted and adapted to through exposure over time.
The geo-cultural ambivalence extends to language, too, since my accent has morphed into an odd amalgam recognizable as multiple things and no-thing; Kiwis and Brits wonder if I’m from Anglo-America, and Canadians guess at Australia, England and South Africa, or occasionally even Boston or New York (covering almost all bases but the right one!). I still sometimes joke that I did a linguistics degree so I could understand why people perceive my accent the way they do.
I feel like I was born at a liminal historical moment, as well—at the tail end of “Generation X”, which is itself a kind of transitional generation coming as it does after the Baby Boomers and before the (supposedly radically different) “Millennials”. Our group seems sandwiched in between great demographic revolutions, a transition point, when the global economy tipped from post-war Keynesianism into neo-liberalism even as it became more tightly connected by new information technologies.
Aside from time, and physical and cultural space, I’m also living between socioeconomic classes. This is technically acceptable in a culture that encourages (and expects) us to be engaged in the long-term process of “climbing” to a better point in the economic hierarchy. But the actual process of the climb is not seen in its messy detail. For those of us outside the bubble of academic and/or economic privilege, education comes well before economic success, not alongside it; often we’re in the position of having multiple degrees, yet struggling to pay the costs of day-to-day living.
In the academic sphere, I’ve found that my interests lie at the crossroads of a number of different disciplines, including education, sociology, economics, communication studies, linguistics, and political science. I try not to be a dilettante dipping my toes into the various disciplinary deeps to add a splash of this or that to my work, but it’s hard not to create that impression when I haven’t formed the kind of strong connection to one definable area of study above all others that is considered desirable in academe.
Lastly, I know the “space” I take up at the moment is one between the position of an academic and that of student, one that PhD candidates know well, wherein we are expected to assume a high degree of professional autonomy even as we’re still considered incomplete as scholars and “knowledge workers”. As for what follows the PhD, it’s becoming more and more difficult to predict what we’ll “become” —or what will become of us—if and when we embark upon academic careers. More and more of us from all academic backgrounds may be finding ourselves between jobs or professions, trying to make sense of the shifting ground beneath us.
One of the positive effects of this bias of mine is that I’m usually not content to understand something from one angle only. I feel a need to inform myself about the “other side” of every argument. Thus being in “no place” has its strategic advantages, and I find I often act as a connector, a curator, and a translator between and among multiple groups or domains.
For most of the examples I’ve provided, I don’t know if I’ll ever find a “place” for myself that’s already named and recognizable. After all, these locations are in some ways just imagined—they are expectations we hold, but perhaps states that we never really reach—because there’s “no there, there”. All of this is about perpetual learning, and it’s usually when we don’t fit the categories provided to us that their limited nature becomes clear.
Hamilton, Ontario in Canada
Melonie Fullick is currently a Ph.D. student working on research in post-secondary education, policy, and governance. She is a regular contributor at University of Venus and can be found in virtual space on Twitter [@qui_oui] and at Speculative Diction at University Affairs.
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