When Research Gets Too Real, Too Soon

This past summer, my research made me cry.

At Princeton, academic research often felt extraordinarily low stakes. Even an argument with a strong motive could feel comfortably removed from the realities of my life. In the academy, we aim for empirical arguments, not personal ones. And though this presented challenges of its own, it was easy to forget how safe it feels to be merely an observer, the omniscient narrator to someone else’s story.  Last semester, for instance, my research focused on medieval history and African-American poetry, two topics firmly removed from my day-to-day reality as a white person in the 21st century.

My research focused on the history of Bears Ears, a sacred landscape in danger

Sure, I would invest parts of myself into my research: I chose questions I found interesting; I spent hefty chunks of time figuring out what I wanted to say; eventually, I exposed my thoughts to criticism. But ultimately, research questions were public, not personal – cerebral, not emotional. They concerned something external to me.

In my internship office this summer, that compartmentalization began to dissolve. Working at a small Native American advocacy organization in Providence, Rhode Island, I split my desk time between news sites and sluggish academic articles on Native American lands. At the start, I expected my research to be useful at best, not heart-wrenching.

But soon, it was near impossible to avoid the personal implications of my research. The articles I read not only had a function outside of the academy (we were preparing for litigation to protect Native American lands), but it also began to feel deeply – frighteningly – personal and real. Past melted into present, there into here, my subject into myself. The historical sources resembled the day’s New York Times stories and the potential stakeholders in the research were my friends and co-workers, not imagined interlocutors. Instead of considering questions in the otherworldly silence of Firestone, I was working in the din of reality.

My non-academic and academic worlds had merged, and it was painfully overwhelming.

So I cried… a lot. And it felt amazing. Even though it hurt in this case, the connection I felt with my research felt more whole and intense – a meaningful experience in and of itself, not just a means to a pedagogical end.

This semester, I hope to lean in further to what’s at stake for me – personally – in my research projects. Let what’s interesting to me reveal what’s important to me. Though I’ll be writing these from the air-conditioned safety of Firestone, I’m excited to feel afraid of what I might learn.