Moving to England to start graduate school at the University of Oxford was a lot more difficult than I had anticipated. I spent the whole first year mastering the differences between the American and British versions of our common language, but I embarrassed myself quite a bit in the process. In the first month of school, I told a classmate that I had to go back to the dorm and change my pants before our next lecture, because the bottoms of mine were all wet from the rain outside. The look on her face at that moment made a lot more sense later, when I learned that in British English, the word "pants" means underwear, not trousers.
In that time of transition I often looked for comfort in food, but I met confusion there, too. At home I could have happily munched on a peanut butter and jelly sandwich any time of the day or night, but I couldn't quite wrap my head around the British equivalent of beans on toast. The totally alien flavor of the tomato sauce and beans was more curious than comforting.
As is custom at British universities, I spent my first year as a doctoral student planning my thesis research and completing the training and background reading I would need. I was designing and preparing for an investigation of how incarcerated men studying for undergraduate degrees while in prison used their college educations to make sense of, and move forward with, their lives. The literature seemed to agree, for the most part, upon a correlation between participation in higher education and a reduction in recidivism after release, but not enough qualitative work had been done to find out why that was the case. I wanted to conduct my research at a prison in the United States, the country where I ultimately hoped to work after graduate school.
I managed to arrange my fieldwork in my home state of New York. As my studies progressed and I finished my coursework, I started traveling home periodically. Soon, no matter which side of the ocean I was on, someone was always asking me when I'd be leaving again. "How long are you here for?" became the refrain of my family, friends, and neighbors in the United States as well as my classmates and friends in Britain.
The qualitative, flexible design of my doctoral study meant that I couldn't really give them an answer, either. I would be in the field until I reached the point at which none of the data I was generating or collecting were novel to me—and you can't exactly schedule data saturation in advance. Nor could I do much to get settled in either location, like signing a cell(er, mobile)phone contract, or better yet, a lease. Even at my parents' home, I was prone to the occasional gentle questioning: "So uh, when exactly do you think you might finish this degree?"
The project required so much time simply because it was a major undertaking, not only for its transatlantic qualities but also because of its fundamentally interdisciplinary nature. Although my degree will certify me as a doctor of philosophy in education, my research on American prison college programs left me with many more questions than my colleagues in the education department could answer.
No one from my small cohort had research interests that overlapped with my own. No one had ever "just read" an article they thought might be helpful to my obscure project. As we met to discuss our research proposals that first year, it was clear that none of my fellow students could relate to the methodological problems I was facing in my research. My supervisor helped me develop a strong background in educational philosophy and theory, but there was no getting around it: I was the only education student conducting fieldwork under maximum-security conditions.
Needing a doctorate's worth of background knowledge on U.S. prisons and penology, and having absolutely no idea where to start, I brought a second academic adviser into the fold, this time from the university's criminology department. With her expertise on U.S. prisons and prison research, my new co-supervisor showed me a mind-boggling amount of references (and an equal amount of patience) while I worked to catch up. But for all the gains I made working with a highly experienced and understanding criminologist, my theoretical framework still always seemed more at home in the education department, where it had emerged alongside my original research questions.
At first, the feeling that I didn't fit in either department was a challenge, just as it had often been difficult to live in two countries simultaneously.
To adjust to that state of academic limbo, I reflected on the strategies that had already worked for me in my many transatlantic moves. I knew that I had to put down some roots to help me feel at home wherever I was. In my daily life, that meant keeping up with my friends on both sides of the ocean, even if we had to shout because of a shaky Skype connection.
Each time I left England, I also got better at predicting what I would need upon my return. I now know to stash a set of essentials with whichever of my endlessly gracious Oxford friends is willing to hold them: a pair of running sneakers, an electric coffee maker, my favorite fleece blanket, an umbrella and raincoat (it is England, after all).
The set of essentials that I put together for my academic life comprise a collection of what my education supervisor likes to call "critical friends"—people I could always rely upon for honesty and support. I found those friends in both education and criminology, but the collegiate system at Oxford put me in close daily proximity with kindred spirits from other fields, too. Sociologists, chemists, environmental scientists, and social-policy scholars became some of my most useful sounding boards for new ideas.
As we sat in our pajamas in the house kitchen, talking late into the night, they were willing to call me out on weak or implausible arguments or challenge me to consider my own research questions from totally unfamiliar perspectives. And then I always had my long dead critical friends—the forefathers and foremothers of thought in both of my fields.
I discovered early on that to feel like one whole person instead of two disjointed halves, I have to take certain habits with me wherever I go. I'm sure, for example, that one of the lasting lessons I will take from living in Oxford is how much I actually adore beans on toast. In addition to being simple, fast, and super-warming, it makes the perfect graduate-student dinner at about 20 pence a serving.
When I was in New York, it took only a few weeks to find a store that sells the right kind of beans—the Heinz version in tomato sauce, in the can with the teal blue wrapper. That familiar meal is now a comfort food I can reach for on either continent. I also work hard to maintain my own American accent when I'm abroad, no matter how much I wish I had that classy British lilt. It's important to me to recognize the sound of my own voice.
In my academic work, I strive for the same feeling of wholeness that I've learned to maintain in my personal life.
Regardless of which department's library I'm using, I try to incorporate all the parts of my thinking into one approach. The criminal-justice system is vast—much bigger than the one prison whose undergraduate program has occupied so much of my attention over the last three years. The time I have put into understanding the overall landscape of U.S. prisons has taught me to keep individual circumstances in perspective, always heeding the impact and importance of their greater context. Yet when I spend whole weeks immersing myself in criminological literature, it can be easy to lose sight of the people who make up such a sprawling social institution. My reading in education reminds me to inquire about the ways that inmates can make sense of and draw meaning from their experiences.
Sometimes it seems that having a foot in two departments might dilute my expertise in either field. That fear resurfaces whenever I glance at my unthinkably long reading lists; my education background could always use more Dewey, more Vygotsky, more Bakhtin, and I'll never be fully fledged in criminology without first reading more Foucault than I could possibly stomach.
But then, maybe being as well versed as I can be in two diverse fields makes me doubly useful. The ideas I have developed to bring undergraduate education back to the U.S. prison system are no doubt inspired by wonderful teachers and educationists I have been exposed to in my home department. Nor could I trade in the reading that, though unrelated to education, has exposed me to the realities of American prisons and the policies that affect them.
As long as I can treat my two fields the way I treat my two countries—equal parts of a journey that, with any luck, will end in a modest, but worthy, original contribution to knowledge—I should be all right.