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A(nother) Theory

I first heard of Dionne Brand’s Theory on what was then known as Twitter. I was

on my account promoting the upcoming release of my little memoir-novella about my own turbulent time in academia. In 280 characters, I tried my best to summarize the book, that it was somewhat an origin story of my relationship with a fellow academic partner and the many times I abandoned my Ph.D. studies across multiple countries and multiple programs. 

A kind, future reader replied to my shameless self-promotion, generously saying

that the premise of my book reminded her of Theory. Brand, too, had written a story about a character struggling in academia.

I felt somewhat frightened by the invocation of Brand’s name, an author whose

prose is deeply poetic, intellectually playful with form. Traits I don’t ascribe to my own writing. My writing is barely metaphorical. And it is because of academia that I’ve grown to hate puns. Donna Haraway’s writing comes to mind. Too many puns can obfuscate the politics of prose. Or perhaps too many puns hide the writer’s lack of a focused cohesive political project. Structure and form do not always correlate. The choice is an aesthetic one, but the prose, many times, lacks rigor.

Through the character of Teoria, Brand narrates three different relationships.

Within these relations, there’s one story about academia and the long, arduous process of writing a dissertation. Teoria begins their program brimming with enthusiasm and ideas at the age of 28. We learn this on page 36. 

Like the introduction of a research paper, the first page tells us what to expect. In

the present time, Teoria is soon to be 40 and has been in and out of academia for twelve years. They are disappointed that their dissertation is still incomplete. What then unfolds in Teoria’s stories is the cruelly cold bureaucratic structures in academia. Teoria believes that no one on the committee wants to work with them or even support them. 

What I find most compelling is Brand’s thoughts on academic writing. We see

glimmers of Teoria’s intellectual processes through brief drafts, footnotes that indicate whose work Teoria is thinking with and from. We see how their mind works, how arguments are formed. There’s a chance of something great, but we don’t see enough of this work. Teoria explains the reason. Their writing is interrupted by an unsupportive committee and supervisor. They ask how they are able to complete their life’s work when they are not allowed to have an original thought in academia. “At the root of the problem are the quotations and references.” A Professor Auer, their supervisor, believes in citational power and control, urging the narrator to cite his work. 

I can see why someone might think my writing and stories parallel Brand's novel. I

had told three different stories to signify three different locations and displacements. All three moves were triggered by academia. Only two of those moves were for my own academic opportunities. I had uprooted much of my life for my partner’s academic aspirations, hopes, and dreams. When I try to explain my academic trajectory, I cannot help but narrate my partner’s own, a decision that has caused many people to admonish me, that I am unfair to my own life stories.

How else to write a complicated story on academia where I’m not the only

character? And how else to write a story about violence in the academy when I’m one of many others who’ve chosen to leave rather than to merely survive? 

Teoria’s partners are not academics, but these relationships become a version of a

theory of life. Maybe to a reader, Brand draws a boundary between academic life and personal life. I don’t read it that way, perhaps because as much as I try to distance myself from the confines of academia, I’m also too enclosed in those spaces.

Teoria summarizes the university so well. They try to be strategic, “after all, what

could these antiquated senators of the dying possibly give to me?” These scholars have insisted on living a “violent existence” and confuse “privilege with intellect.” Teoria had ambitious dreams that their thesis would blow up the buildings.

But, as many of us know now, these confused scholars are experts at delaying their

students with requests of structure, citation formatting, theoretical framing, and evidence. Towards the end of the novel, Teoria again asserts the ugliness of universities, that “the academy is a policing institute” and “disguises itself with intellectual intention, but it’s both superficially and profoundly engaged in the surveillance of intellectual output and is ultimately the administration of thought punishment.”

How rich an observation. 

People who have been wronged can describe cruelty without understanding how

cruelty can arise in themselves. I try to be careful when I fault the ails of the university. I have returned unkindness to the universities and their statesmen. The only difference is that I had no power in the matter. I refused to be compliant. Instead, I complain.

When Professor Auer passes away, Teoria admits that his death did not move her.

I’m reminded of the time when I received news of a former supervisor’s death. I had abandoned my Ph.D. studies for the second time, at a different university. The supervisor had told me he didn’t believe that science was political nor normative, that he disagreed with my writing and that I would not succeed should I continue writing the way I did. I told him if he didn’t support my writing and my vision, we should just terminate the relationship. He quickly agreed, saying that I was too advanced. I didn’t mistake his words for praise. He followed up with “but rules have to be followed.” 

This man was known to be a heretic, a scholar who was brave and unique. He

wasn’t. He was just another white man who postured radicalism but didn’t know how to address actual politics. But he’s remembered to be radical in some niche fields. 

I was not afflicted by the news of his death. He was basically a stranger to me. I went

on with my day. But a peer from that university emailed me and sent me his obituary. 

I wasn’t sure how to respond. So I didn’t. But I felt more troubled by her email, 

that she associated my name with this person.


I had been living in Germany when I read Theory. While living in that terrible

country, I finally decided to abandon my dreams of ever obtaining my doctorate. I was 35. I was 29 when I started my first Ph.D. program. I didn’t want to plead or beg for a Ph.D. 

And it was also in Germany that I read Our Sister Killjoy by Ama Ata Aidoo. Like

Brand, the narrative structure does not adhere to one particular genre format. Aidoo alternates between verse and prose, all of which capture Sissie’s observations of the impacts of racism and European colonization through the realities of state-sponsored education trips abroad and everyday life. 

The first two stories, “Into a Bad Dream” and “The Plums,” are set in Germany.

When Sissie arrives in that strange land, she meets a fellow Ghanaian who expresses that she should feel lucky to be in Europe. Later, she meets a married German woman named Marija who falls hopelessly in love with her. Yet, Marija is ignorant about Africa and race, perpetuating stereotypes onto Sissie, who quickly realizes that the besotted woman finds her strange and unique. The reader enters a surreal state through Sissie’s eyes. It’s not a dreamy travelogue; it’s a nightmare where othering follows her.

There was a sense of teary relief when I read Aidoo’s stories. An utterance of racism

in Germany is usually met with incredulity. How can a great nation with great healthcare and great philosophers of democracy be racist? 

Even more harmful are the swift requests for proof of my existence and depression

in Germany. Empiricism is often the greatest contribution to violence. 

Leaving Germany for England, Sissie sees a similar pattern of inequality and racism.

In the titular story, she witnesses fellow Africans who have traveled to London in hopes of opportunities. She sees them living on the streets or in impoverished conditions with their kin. Most alarming to Sissie is that they are not truthful to their families in Ghana. And whilst in England, she eventually decides to leave Europe and return to Africa. The final story is a letter to a former lover, in which Sissie angrily ridicules her fellow African peers for choosing to remain in Europe after receiving their coveted education. They never return to Africa. They never use their degrees in education, medicine, and engineering in Africa, and instead advance themselves in a country that exploits and extracts from them. 

There’s a Fanonian lesson in Aidoo’s stories. Not only is Europe built from the

Third World, but it has maintained its lie about its prestigious universities and education. When I foolishly thought I could transfer a degree to a different European country, I was met with uninterested scholars who claimed possession of a so-called radical praxis. They’ve written books about their praxis. They must have, at some point, cited Fanon in their works. But they defer to a system that I’ve fought with too many times. They care too much about their own expertise and research programs to actually mentor. It’s the Professor Auer effect. 

Academia requires pleading and following an outdated but rigid system. There 

is no freedom in academia. 



I have since left Germany. I’m cautious of those hoping to study under the

European system, which many have claimed is more relaxed than the American system. No classes, just find a supervisor, they’ve been misled to believe.

No classes, but find a supervisor who will pass you, I correct them. Legibility

matters to these professors. I’ve seen too many students who have been abandoned in Germany. They are usually international students who don’t know the logic of the mysterious system.

More theories will be written about the university. More theories that recite old 

theories. No amount of theory will change a university structure. Its promises and allure are too strong. There are many who think they are the exception. 

At one point, I was probably like Teoria. I believed in something about my research

and brilliance. I continue to have some hope. But, like Sissie I’ve become too wary of fancy degrees. Reciting theory does not actually change our realities, nor does it protect us from harm produced by these academic systems. What is the purpose of theory, then, if not mere, empty recitations, recited into the void and of the countless unread papers?

Theory alone is not enough.

Anna Nguyen had been a displaced PhD student for many years, in many different programs and departments at many different universities in many different countries. She is the author of a humble memoirs in novella, Paperwork & Borders: A Marriage (Alien Buddha Press, 2022), about her time in academia and following an academic partner. She decided to rewrite her dissertation in the form of creative non-fiction as an MFA student at Stonecoast at the University of Southern Maine, which blends her theoretical training in literary analysis, science and technology studies, and social theory to reflect on institutions, language, expertise, the role of citations, and food. She also hosts a podcast, Critical Literary Consumption, which features authors, poets, and scholars discussing their written work and their thoughts on reading and writing practices.

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