All the World’s a Stage: Process, Irony, and Trying on Shoes

When given this blog assignment, I was asked to discuss the process of my research in order that you might become a part of my “intellectual journey.” To that end, I want to share with you what it looks like for a nineteen-year-old undergraduate to be a religious studies professor’s  research assistant. While my next post will primarily deal with some compelling findings from the content I studied this week, I can’t help but share a little bit of it with you now. Otherwise, you won’t understand how amusing and deeply ironic it is that I’m being asked to focus on the “process” of my research.

My first book this week was The Human Condition by Hannah Arendt (try saying that last name five times fast). Arendt posits that secularization began when, frightened by Galileo’s discovery of heliocentricism, Rene Descartes began to doubt. How could we trust our senses when they had been wrong about something so significant for millennia? This Cartesian doubt ushered in a new era in which science, the way in which man replicates the processes in nature, but not nature itself, became the only reliable source through which to ground our judgments outside of the world. In order to be objective according to modernity, we must focus on the processes of fabrication, and not on the productions that tie those processes to this world full of subjectivity.

I hope now you understand why I can’t help but chuckle when asked to focus on the “process” that leads to my final “product”. Additionally, according to this week’s research, there’s also something deeply ironic about being asked to share more than meets the eye.

The second half of this week I studied Jürgen Habermas’s theory of communicative action (which I may touch on in my next post). Habermas builds on dramaturgical theory, which is basically a whole theory build around the Shakespearean notion from As you Like It that “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” According to dramaturgical theory, the actor leaves an impression of himself on the public by more or less purposefully disclosing his subjectivity. This theory disregards anything but presented appearances as irrelevant due to our inability to know them. Habermas critiques dramaturgical theory because he thinks that individual agents need to have some control over what role they play on the stage. According to him, secular modernity predetermines what roles we as individuals feel allowed to play. We may know and understand more of ourselves than we feel allowed to present, for the secular world polices us from sharing our deepest assumptions and reasonings. I share this because, as you accompany me on my intellectual journey, I hope to disclose to you a little more than the modern public sphere would invite me to as merely a player on a stage.

To the audience, my summer as a research assistant may just appear to consist of drinking lots and lots of coffee while reading lots and lots of books.

Reading Hannah Arendt while enjoying the summer weather

On Stage: Reading Hannah Arendt while enjoying the summer weather

I’ve only been doing this research for a week, but to me, it consists of much, much more than books and coffee. As I’m reading these intricate works, I feel as though I am daring to attempt to crawl into the authors’ minds with the hope of understanding what they seek to illuminate. This can be extremely trying, as pretty much everyone in academia thinks it’s their job to create their own vocabulary and (hopefully) to define it for their readers, and/or to redefine the terms of a previously revered argument.

Though I poke fun at these academics, I would be deceiving myself if I somehow thought that designing my own research project and ecstatically accepting an offer to remain in the world of academia for the summer didn’t make me somewhat of an academic too. The irony lies in the fact that, while dictionary definitions all find it necessary to emphasize that “academic” is the antithesis of practicality, I was drawn to this research by deep tensions that lie between the discipline of sociology, my identity, and my vocation. I’m willing to call myself a novice academic only if you’re willing to entertain the idea that academia can have some surprisingly practical implications. How’s that for redefining some important vocabulary for you all?

Through the three semesters I’ve spent in classes with Dr. Goodson, I’ve learned the importance of approaching others’ arguments with charity. As a result, no matter how much I may disagree with an author, I remind myself to sift through their work for the pieces of truth or for their helpful contributions. I am reminded of To Kill a Mockingbird, in which Scout, the narrator, says of her father: ” One time Atticus said you never really knew a man until you stood in his shoes and walked around in them.” An interesting aspect of full-time research is that I can’t seem to compartmentalize my life such that I’m fully present when I quit my research for the day. When I put a book down, I continue to play out the implications of the author and seek to sift through for the pieces of truth. It becomes as if our minds have joined and the author begins to walk through life with me as I tease out the implications each theorist has on the way I see the world, on the way I understand certain concepts, or on tensions in reality with which I’ve recently been struggling. A lot of the time this makes me appear contemplative and socially reserved. Some of the time it leads me to make really lame jokes that are totally lost on others.

My favorite part of my research is not the time I spend pouring over books, but the time I get to spend discussing these works with Dr. Goodson. He also shares my tendency to, in the words of Atticus Finch, put on the shoes of these theorists and walk around in them. As a result, I’ve been able to learn from him beyond the normal classroom setting. The authors we’ve studied during the past year and a half that I’ve been in class with him have jumped off the pages as I’ve been able to pinpoint which of their contributions he’s absorbed into his disposition. Recently, one of the most evident ways I’ve realized he’s learned from authors I’ve studied for his courses is through his disposition of humility. I’ve never met a more humble professor. It takes a lot for such a brilliant man to treat undergraduate students consistently as though they have something to teach him. I’m astonished when he is excited and appreciative of the connections I make when we sit down to talk about our research. Why would a nineteen year-old undergraduate have something to teach him? Beats me. Then again, he’s always seen more potential in me than I’ve been able to see in myself.

While you may only see me as a player on the stage, drinking lots of coffee and reading lots of books, I hope I helped you understand some of the reasoning present in the process of my research.


  1. Adryan Flores says:

    Hi Ally,

    I’m not really well versed in this area of study (being in a neuroscience lab) but the topics that you talk about, as I told my brother, “makes my heart beat faster.” I’ve only read your first two posts but I wanted to comment on how this theory of secular modernity “predetermines what roles we as individuals feel allowed to play.” How exactly does this theory police us? Who is enforcing it? And how come I never realized that this theory was controlling me in this way? Maybe all that we demonstrate on the stage of life entails all the hidden assumptions that we supposedly lose by being an actor on a stage. The drama that you portray in which you are rebelling against your role as an actor by disclosing hidden intellect may be misleading. The stage that we act is life, the script our own.

    I would also like to praise your method of reading. Ironically, the way that one SHOULD read is to understand the mind of the author, this isn’t a revolutionary new way of understanding the communication of thought through writing. Nonetheless, it is refreshing to hear you say it out loud. Dr. Goodson sounds like an amazing professor.

    One last thing: can you only be a novice in a practical act? Just because something is impractical doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a goal. Pencil twirling is impractical, but it still has a goal. And anything that has a goal has degrees of skill associated in reaching a higher degree of proficiency. So one can be a novice even if the goal is something that is impractical. Eh, this argument is pretty impractical haha. Anyway, I think your research is interesting and your writing is captivating.