The Space Between Scholar and Practitioner

Today, I added the phrases “researcher” and “scholar-practitioner” to my social media profiles. I didn’t do this because I actually believe that anyone actually reads the little blurb below my picture on Twitter, but, on the off-chance that they do…I should really be putting my best foot forward. In all honesty, the foot that I’m putting forward is on constantly moving ground as I cover the spaces betwixt and between scholar and practitioner. The anthropological concept of liminality comes to mind–a state of ambiguity in which one has abandoned a previous state or identity as part of a ritual, but has yet to move fully into a new one. This liminality, this betweenness, is a constant in my life as a practitioner and PhD student.

During my doctoral orientation last fall, on a warm late-August day, I began my journey of betweenness. On this occasion, a well-meaning faculty member from another department presented a session on developing one’s identity as a researcher when transitioning to a PhD program. I was keenly interested in this, as I realized that this task was squarely ahead of me, and would likely be complicated by my role as a full-time practitioner. At the end of the session, I posed a question: “How might you advise that students like me, who are also full-time practitioners, negotiate being both a researcher and a practitioner?” The answer, in short was “Don’t.” I was advised that I would never be able to fully assume the identity of researcher while going to school part-time. That if I wanted to be a researcher, I would eventually need to quit practice. The two could not coexist.

This was obviously in front of a room full of people I barely knew. Thankfully, kind fellow students and faculty members made efforts in the moment, and afterwards, to ameliorate the impact of this exchange. But still, on Day 1, I was told, in no uncertain terms, that I was an impossibility. Of course, I rejected this fully and continue to reject it. I refuse to believe that I have to smother my old self to become something new.  However, it brought into stark relief the boundary-crossing nature of being a scholar-practitioner. It showed me that for many academics and administrators, the preferred, more palatable route is to be an “either-or,” not a “both-and.” People like putting others in boxes and categories to be easily defined. Scholar-practitioners don’t fit neatly into a box. Part-time PhD students span definitions. I exist in a liminal space in my university and within the field of higher education.

This space between is usually not an easy one to occupy. I have two different email signatures. I sometimes struggle to introduce myself in a coherent manner. Registering for conferences is a whole debacle in which I change my answer to “Please indicate your level in the field” multiple times. What is my level? My level is somewhere between mid-level and novice. My level is somewhere between supervisor and advisee. My level is somewhere between teacher and student. I sit at conference tables with my backpack at my feet. I wish my students good luck on finals and graciously accept their good luck wishes in return. My ID card has “Professional” printed on it, but it gets me student tickets to athletic events. I move, usually quickly, through multiple spaces at my university, casting the crumbs of scholar-practitionerness in my path. I sprinkle the abstract into the practical, and season the theoretical with the experiential.

Betweenness is simultaneously thrilling and exhausting, because it means having no comfort zone. I’m learning and growing constantly. Too often, I worry about being “not enough” of something and “too much” of something else. I know that I cannot entertain those worries, and that the time for politely fitting myself into others’ narrowly-defined definitions is long gone. I assert my scholar-practitionerness. I embrace my betweenness. I seek out others who are also somewhere between, because when you don’t know where you are, you can find a sense of place with company. Better than that is finding a sense of place within myself. I am exactly who I am supposed to be: constantly changing, constantly moving, and constantly between.

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