“404 Not Found” is a series by Ashley Leung, an opinion columnist who studies education studies and English. These chronicles will explore the personal experiences of students and faculty who have juggled the triumphs and frustrations of academic research. As research often warrants endless questioning and reflection, this series seeks to uncover, if not alleviate, the existential fear of researchers and scholars in the humanities and STEM fields, as they inevitably cling to the value and the importance of their work. Based on the principle that there will always be unanswered academic and personal questions, readers are encouraged to build their self-esteem while navigating college and beyond.
The search is lonely.
The word “research” could mean scientists in glasses and white coats looking through microscopes. It could also mean surveys, interviews and focus groups or shoveling dirt and cleaning up fossils. For me, that means rummaging through stacks of books in the Powell Library and the Charles E. Young Research Library, re-reading sentences that are theoretically dense and paragraph long.
I call research lonely because the professors told me so, warning a group of English undergraduates eagerly concocting research projects we thought would change the world.
I call it lonely because I am now near the end of my project, and the experience has been nothing but lonely.
I often wonder why I find him so sad. After all, reading has always been my favorite pastime – the most peaceful way to experience the world and its people.
When I first discovered it in the likes of “Junie B. Jones” and “Matilda,” I felt every corner of my fourth-grade mind expand with images, vocabulary, and meaning.
Sense – that’s what I had lost.
Now sitting here, smugly pursuing a degree in English, I forget my industrious immigrant parents’ secret disapproval, condescending demands (“What exactly do you want To do? ) from my STEM-oriented friends, the belittlement of the teaching career I want to pursue, and the pressures of a capitalist, materialistic society to not only earn enough to support myself, but also to earn worthy luxuries. Instagram.
Well, I’d like to neglect them. Instead, I think of them daily. Even telling myself, “Kim, there are people dying,” in Kourtney Kardashian’s voice doesn’t save me from the self-centered magnification of my trivial struggles.
It doesn’t help that throngs of people on social media say English students become teachers or baristas, as if neither deserves a higher salary. Everything on Reddit is a slap in the face.
Coming to UCLA, I had no idea which branch of English literature I was going to end up loving. Shakespeare? And feed the major English stereotype? Austin? I love it, but I’ve tried to apply 19th century middle-class English romance to today’s social context. Melville? And engage in a life of whale metaphors?
Then I found: I discovered ethnic literature. Most surprisingly, Asian American literature.
I had read Amy Tan’s “The Joy Luck Club” in high school and liked it enough to do my current research project and honors thesis on it, but the concept of an English student studying something else that the work of the dead, or sometimes the living, white writers had flown over my head until my sophomore year at UCLA.
Granted, I love all of the aforementioned writers, but I felt a certain disconnect as an Asian American. I couldn’t see myself devoting the rest of my life to reading or teaching the work of these white writers. On the other hand, Asian American literature has sought to answer questions of immigration, identity, and generational trauma that I subconsciously longed to understand.
But if I loved my subject so much, if I loved reading so much, why did I find it lonely?
One night, during a three-hour research seminar, the whole class shared their fears with the professor. We talked about the daunting task of writing a 60-page paper, the meaninglessness of our research, the dire conditions in the academic job market, and the detachment we felt from the outside world as we sifted through book after book. I felt so heard, so understood and so united with these other students who are going through the same crises.
Then I got up, stretched, sat down to work on my thesis, and the loneliness crept in again.
I then realized that I wasn’t just doing what I loved. Instead, I was doing what I loved while desperately trying to ignore the outside voices that had gradually seeped into my love for my work.
In elementary school, I would have dreamed of being surrounded by nothing but walls and walls of books. I had imagined that adulthood would be sipping instant hot chocolate, buying fancy bookmarks, reading all day, and staying in my locked up library.
But in elementary school, I didn’t have to worry about my future. She didn’t know what was considered a well-paying job. A $5 reward for doing the dishes was enough for my annual income.
I can never return to that time of innocence and carelessness.
To deal with my loneliness, I could reach out to scholars in the same area of interest. I could treat research like a 9 to 5 office job and forget about it after hours. I can lead diatribe sessions with my colleagues.
But in the end, as I write and read, and think too much, I am finally alone with my knowledge, my ignorance and my confused thoughts.
And if there’s no choice but to push through the present, recharging and recharging our academic and existential questions just to encounter “404 Not Found,” then I guess I’ll have to do just that.
I don’t have to make a place for myself in this world.
Despite the dead ends there are, I can still find meaning in my work even when others deem it meaningless. I can embrace loneliness and share what is shareable.
These are reminders I will hold dear and I hope you will too.