Playing a Different Game of Ball: Postdoc Memories

29 March 2021

Friederike Landau

In this contribution, I trace the three years in which I worked, thought and changed within academia as a postdoc. Via a variety of poetic vignettes, I unpack feelings, thoughts and mo(ve)ments of irritation, growth, collaboration, success and failure within institutional structures of interdisciplinarity, intersectionality and different degrees of precarity. While these postdoc memories very much stem from my own lived experience, hopefully, they also stick and resonate with other academic workers such as postdocs-to-be, post-postdocs, or possibly postdoc supervisors. This poetic intervention gives insights into the working and living conditions of the many different postdoc positionalities, and aims to visibilize some of the stories, concerns and challenges that emerging academics struggle with. As part of my larger project #PoeticAcademic, I address some of the systemic challenges for postdoctoral professional development and long-term employment.


INTRO

I felt wrapped in roundness 
gently suffocated by pillows that would no longer prop properly
there weren’t any fireworks

            unless you lit up 

the scent of newness
the staleness of it, too
the label of new wearing off
beginnings becoming routines
don’t say it, starting all over
one book in a sea of pages

SHOVE

I already knew that academia was about shoveling. Shoveling a little bit of a seemingly invincible mountain; shoveling a little every day. What changed, at least temporarily, throughout my almost three years of postdoc existence, was to realize that I had a really hard time picking up that shovel on some mornings. The intellectual shovel leant against my bed, ridiculously close to me. But it seemed similarly close to impossible to ‘get up and get going’ as I used to boast during PhD days. PhD days are over, Florence and her machine whispered into my tired ear. The shovilemma took an unexpected turn when I realized I could shovel through those post-PhD days from bed. It was affect theory and me, intra-acting in bed, new materialisms and me, mattering on my mattress. Quite cozy a realization that the desk is a normalized space of compromised productivity. Get over and away from it, in beds, forests, clubs, queues to try on sneakers. Places matter with regards to how we think, but we do not matter more or less when we do not think in normalized places of academia.


BALL

Another memory I have from postdoc days. I felt like I had just gotten good at soccer when I was asked to switch to ping pong. Just as I had proudly knelt down in front of a goal, grinning at the camera with a beginner’s peace of mind, little cracking white balls flooded the field. I was confused by these tiny white balls – why was there a table and no grass, why did I need a racket and no spikes? I was now facing the precariousness of balling – balls cracking easily, clicking ball after ball, they wouldn’t stop. Trainers and co-player would just rip open another pack of tiny white balls to get out more tiny white balls, practice was not to be interrupted at any cost. They thought it was nice that I used to play soccer, but the tiny white balls did not care. Their rhythm, materiality, circulation went clickclickclick in my head longer after practice was over. My body encountered a new type of hectic, eyes scurrying over plates, screens, words, arms in need of adjustment. I wasn’t useless but I wasn’t equipped either.


RUIN

Doing a PhD is like trying to build a house. 
Doing a postdoc is like building a ruin. 
     stones always-already falling, failing
     flailing cutting hands
     sand in your fingernails   	dig away 
     yet
     how would you stop? 
     what is a stone when there are bricks to stack?
     every building begins with putting a stone on the ground, a  
     stone that is no brick 
     it is like veeery slowly moving tectonic plates hopelessly 
     wedged in constructive decay
     a ruin might pride itself on a glorious past or might be eager 
     to disappear
     it’s a not-quite-ending story

     postdoc life in the face of ruination 
     what ruins whom, and who ruins what
     ScholarOneManuscripts might always win, but wasn’t that an 
     attempt at building a house 
     once, too?

REPEAT ≠ BEGIN

Out of all this ballshove shoveball, ruinball, shovelruin mess, I am learning that a postdoc is not a trademarked label. It may protect you, it may exploit you, it may make you grow, flow, twist, scratch, fart. It may make you shrink, but you may also just have come through the eye of the needle. And then, it’ll be a whole new set of haystacks to deal with. Be proud to be a beginner because we’ll always be.  


Editorial note: The poem “Ruin” is best viewed on a computer, as the “mobile view” tends to distort the intended spacing in the verse.


Dr. Friederike Landau is a political theorist, urban sociologist and cultural geographer. She is the author of the book Agonistic Articulations in the Creative City: On New Actors and Activism in Berlin’s Cultural Politics (Routledge) in which explored the political organization of Berlin’s independent art scene(s). Friederike is interested in spatial and political theories of conflict, art-led activisms, politics of public art (esp. murals, monuments & museums) and the many forms, shapes and mo(ve)ments of ‘the political’. More information on www.friederikelandau.com.

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