On being an ‘expert’ away from home

Anyone undertaking a PhD will be told at some point – with the understated smugness that only academics can muster – that “by the time you finish your PhD, you’re going to be the world expert in your field”. We are expected to be gratified by this; after all, isn’t this what researching your field solidly for three or four years is all about? Indeed, the excellent PhD advice and discussion blog the Thesis Whisperer cites the moment where you realise you know more about your subject than your supervisor as one of the key landmarks on the journey to PhD-hood.

Every year, as I have progressed further into the depths of academia, I have sworn that this will be the last stage I will reach before I leave and do something else. And yet, I keep crawling back to idea of the academic career: the comfortable, book-lined office, years spent researching my fascinating field, the interesting conversations and the excitement of new places, new people, new discoveries.

Why am I so torn between the easy attractions of staying (were it even possible to get an academic job, which is a whole other question), and the nagging feeling that I need to get out?

At the heart of it is a deep concern about what it would mean for me to be an “expert”. I’m researching literature in an African country, in both English and an African language (I won’t be more specific here, in the hope of preserving a shred of anonymity). I’m British. (And just for added white Britishness, I have a distant ancestor who was a junior colonial officer in Nigeria and who, family legend has it, married a Nigerian “princess”).

For the last few hundred years, Europeans imagined ourselves to ‘know’ about ‘Africa’; we granted ourselves the right to represent Africa through our ethnography, research, literature, missionary reports, images in the news and charity appeals. No doubt my colonial officer ancestor was considered an authority on Nigeria by his family back home; maybe he collected some local songs, took photographs, learnt some of the language. And alongside him were thousands more ‘experts’ from Europe who ‘knew’ about what ‘Africa’ needed, how it worked, what its people were like and how they felt.

There has rightly been an outcry against the West feeling it knows and can represent the vast complexities of African countries in this way. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s short story ‘Jumping Monkey Hill’, for instance, is a barbed portrayal of this politics of knowledge. In Adichie’s only-too-true-to-life story, a British self-appointed expert on African literature brings African authors together to judge their work, and chides them for not being ‘African’ enough.

My fellow PhDers and I sometimes console ourselves that we play a complementary role, that our voices are not the final word, just a word, that we cite Africa-based scholars as our authorities, that the outsider perspective offers different insights from the insider perspective (leaving aside the impossible-to-resolve debate on who really is an ‘insider’ and who an ‘outsider’). A colleague from the country I research was nonplussed that I was even worrying about this. “I came to Britain three years ago, and last year I wrote my Masters’ thesis on the British elections,” he told me. “If I can do that, and do it well, why can’t you do the same about my country?”

But it’s more than this. If/when I finish my PhD, I will supposedly be an ‘expert,’ and yet, really, I know so little about the place I research. I’ve lived there for a few months, yes, and studied it for a few years, but can you imagine a British researcher of French or German literature spending only a few months in France or Germany, and that being academically acceptable? I understand the language enough to read the texts fluently, but not enough to hear its deeper nuances.

I know that my supposed expertise isn’t in the entire politics, language and history of the country – it’s in my tiny niche, and I suppose I do know about that, empirically, just by having put the hours in at the archive. But I’m not sure I really understand it, really know it. Every time I write a sentence of my thesis I feel sure there must be gaping holes in it, nuances I’m missing, historical and cultural significances I don’t even know exist. I don’t think this is impostor syndrome – I think it’s a genuine reflection of my ignorance.

So I guess I don’t want to be an expert partly because I don’t think I am one – and I’m angry at myself for taking part in this charade which tries to makes me one – and partly because I don’t think it’s the place of people like me to be an ‘expert’ in this field any more. We’ve said enough; now it’s our turn to shut up and listen.

But what if, after more years of reading and thinking and listening, I did start to know something about the place? Surely it’s still useful to teach British students about African literature (reactions on hearing I’m researching African literature are still often a surprised “Is there a lot of that, then?”) And, anyway, is it not the very essence of intellectual racism to think that African academics aren’t robust enough to speak up for themselves on the global stage, for me to patronisingly move over, with a touch of noblesse oblige? I’m sure the writers and academics I look up to are perfectly capable for speaking for themselves, whether or not I exist, thank you very much.

Meanwhile, in the ‘real world’…

The politics of knowledge is not just an academic question. A friend told me about a survey on livelihoods she conducted for a UN agency in Tanzania. Even she, straight from university, realised that the ‘knowledge’ she was collecting was useless; the survey didn’t mean anything in the local context, as her informants told her time and time again. But the answers to these meaningless questions were the ‘knowledge’ that counted for her employer, not the things the informants tried to tell her, not their silences in answer to pointless inquiries.

This isn’t just about the West and ‘the rest’; it’s about who has the privilege and power to speak about whom. The same politics underpins, for example, resentment among British working- and middle-class people at being told how to live their lives by the wealthy, Eton-educated aristocrats David Cameron and George Osborne.

All this has been said before, but I guess what I want to ask is how we make sense of this in our working lives. Maybe you have academic knowledge, but less understanding of how it plays out ‘on the ground’ (if we want to sustain that tired dichotomy between the two). Or maybe you are working in a country you know relatively little about, while you are perceived as the ‘foreign expert’? Can an outsider bring something useful, something different from the insider’s deep knowledge? And are there times when we just have to shut up, however much we think we know?

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About Rebecca Jones

Rebecca Jones is a Lecturer in the Department of African Studies and Anthropology, University of Birmingham. She is currently writing a monograph on Yoruba- and English-language travel writing in Nigeria from the late nineteenth century to the present day.

2 thoughts on “On being an ‘expert’ away from home

  1. To answer your last two questions: yes and yes! Speaking up “for” other people has brought about unspeakable damage in both domestic and foreign policies worldwide but that doesn’t mean that someone who has a certain distance from a situation can’t offer worthwhile opinions.

    I think the essence of being an expert is not that you know and understand everything, but that you CONSTANTLY seek to ADD to your knowledge and understanding, that you acknowledge the gaps in your ‘expertise’ and seek to fill them in from as open a perspective as possible. The fact that you’re asking yourself where your knowledge comes from and who you claim to speak for is a very good sign, I think, something that many so-called experts (Western or not) don’t even bother to do. Self-reflection and self-awareness, you would think, would be automatic in both academics and professionals working in cultures other than their own, but it’s sadly not the case. It’s hard for the ego to take but at some point you have to accept that there are some things you many never learn or “get”* and that people with less education than yourself can have far more to teach you than you have to teach them!

    There’s definitely a middle ground to be found between the White Messiah and White Guilt complexes and it sounds like you’re navigating it pretty well. At the end of the day (I really hate using this phrase but can’t seem to help myself), pretty much everything about a culture is learned, so there’s no reason an ‘outsider’ can’t learn too, even if their own interpretation is not considered ‘as valid’ by others. You have to have confidence that the efforts you’re making to understand something initially perhaps alien are worthwhile, even if only to yourself. At the same time, a little self-doubt is good if it helps you to constantly strive to BETTER understand and to give due consideration to others who may not be explicitly recognised as ‘experts’.

    (For what it’s worth, much as I love CNA (and I do LOVE her), I think her character of the know-it-all expert was a little too stereotyped to be truly believable. Some such people undoubtedly exist but most incarnations of know-it-alls are far more subtle, which is what makes them more dangerous. She does have a beautiful phrase in the same story, I think, about how people who love Africa too much have the same basic beliefs about the continent as those that hate it)

    • I agree with you on the Adichie story – it reads as if she decided on the point to make, and then made fairly superficial characters to help her do it. (I have twice encountered almost that exact circumstance in real life though! I agree, though, that’s maybe more of an ‘old guard’ attitude, which is giving way to more subtle, liberal manifestations instead).

      I often come back to Spivak when I’m thinking about trying to find the middle ground between ‘white guilt’ and ‘white messiah’ (as you so neatly put it!); she argues that maintaining a pious silence is “salving your conscience, and allowing you not to do any homework,” and asks instead, “Why not develop a certain degree of rage against the history that has written such an abject script for you that you are silenced?”

      I think, as well, the more I learn about the world the more I realise nearly everyone is bluffing their way through it, even (particularly) the ‘experts’…

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