Saturday, April 11, 2015

Self-Reflexive Adaptation: The Significance of "Mesearch"

I was intrigued to read a recent article in the Times Higher Education Supplement (19 March 2015) about the rise of “mesearch” as an academic field of study.  Created out of a desire to deconstruct academic master narratives, it can be best defined as a study of “the intimate and inextricable connections between […] life experiences […] and academic research.”  This requires individuals to write about the uniqueness of their experiences in terms of encountering literary and other texts and articulating them through their bodies, their psyche or other aspects of one’s personality.  Such approaches prove exceptionally useful in articulating one’s sense of self; but often they can be dismissed by one’s academic colleagues as “inappropriate.”  The attempt to force a wedge between self and scholarship can be ultimately incapacitating: “The duality of research as, on the one hand, a process of engagement led by rationality and, on the other hand, a disavowal of me and my irrational and unconscious emotions and senses, evoked bodily responses.  These responses have no physical explanation, but at the same time they have a physical manifestation.”  To deny the element of the personal in academic research can prove debilitating.  On the other hand, to acknowledge the importance of the “I” can enhance our practice at three different levels – with oneself, with one’s research and through interaction with learners.  Our teaching can prove better, more meaningful and more engaged, because we are researching at the same time – in other words, providing that crucial link between teaching and research that often seems sadly absent in contemporary academia.  bell hooks once wrote: “The classroom […] remains a location of possibility […] we have the opportunity to labor for freedom, to demand of ourselves and our comrades, an openness of mind and heart […] to move beyond boundaries, to transgress.  This is education as the practice of freedom.”  “Mesearch” provides that vital component of defining who we are and what we teach and research.

Since the traumatic experience of my cancer treatment last year, I have become more and more aware of the importance of “mesearch.”  Using the theories of Piaget and Jerome Bruner as a guide, I have come to understand how “adaptation studies,” is not simply restricted to the process of transforming texts but requires us to (re)consider the relationship between the self and the text.  How we view the text, and how we are transformed by it, is even more significant than looking at how the text itself is transformed across media.  The word “text” is also highly ambiguous; it doesn’t just refer to the written text used in film and television adaptations, but can apply to any object we encounter.  Learners can be considered as texts; so can other works of art such as paintings, music – even food.

Perhaps more importantly, I have come to understand that “mesearch” is not just confined to the academy, but can occur at any time.  It is part of a process of lifelong learning, based on the belief that we are continually adapting to changing situations around us.  Hence “mesearch” can be perhaps more precisely defined as the study of a continuous process of self-adaptation.

I became acutely aware of this process at work when I recently visited the Nev Gallery in Ankara to view the paintings of the Turkish artist Selim Cebeci.  The works were fascinating in themselves; the artist possesses a unique quality to capture people involved in a series of domestic tasks – cooking, conversing, or sitting by the window – with their faces illumined in a variety of light and shade.  He values the ordinary, and by doing so transforms it into the extraordinary.  As I considered the paintings, however, I became aware of how Cebeci asks us to enter into an unspoken conversation with his subjects (and, by extension, Cebeci himself).  We bring to mind similar domestic situations that we have experienced in the past, and use them to evaluate the subjects represented in his work.  In that process of evaluation, we respond at a visceral level to color, light and shade, the thickness of the paint, and other artistic techniques, as well as to the “stories” told in the painting.  This process of communication between artist and viewer is emotional rather than detached; we value the immediacy of our responses. 

As I walked round the gallery, I became aware of how Cebeci’s work stimulated me to reflect on my past experiences of similar domestic experiences and re-evaluate them.  Did I adopt the same poses when I sat by the window?  Was I as fond of spontaneous conversation as his subjects seemed to be?  And were the subjects of such conversations “important” or simply “trivial”?  Did it really matter?  By encouraging me to reflect in this way, Cebeci was helping me to continue the process of “mesearch”; to understand at a deeper level how I was redefining the narratives by which I make sense of the world around me, and hence performing a process of self-adaptation.  This process has been well explained in Jerome Bruner’s seminal work on adaptation studies.  Once I had quit the gallery, I wrote down some notes in my diary, which later encouraged me to listen more closely to what my learners were saying (or not saying) in class. 

“Mesearch” might be considered “unacademic” or “unscholarly” by many of our colleagues, but to me it is exceptionally liberating, forcing me to consider at a deeper level my rationale for doing research (am I doing it just to further my career, or can it help me to grow as a personality) and reconsider its relationship to my pedagogic practice.  It helps me to understand how and why adaptation studies is such an important area of academic inquiry – provided, of course, that we are prepared to move away from that rather tired nexus of literature-film-media.