December 2018

“Oh, How Specific!”: Explaining Your (Obscure?) Topic This Holiday Season

The festive season is a time when we’re confronted with the best and worst of ourselves as a society. But for academics, and particularly for those of us still toiling away in graduate school, the chance to reconnect with friends and family brings with it a formidable challenge—the perennial task of explaining, to the satisfaction of your interlocutor, what exactly it is that you study anyway, huh?

by Robin K. Crigler

The holidays mean many things to many people. For some it’s the company of loved ones and the warmth of familiar traditions. For others it’s the deceptive aroma of an inevitably disappointing turkey or the soft glow of made-for-TV movies that appear in such profusion that you half-expect to encounter yourself in the credits (“Allie Adjunct’s Tenure-Track Christmas—why am I listed as the sound editor?”). Yes, the festive season is a time when we’re confronted with the best and worst of ourselves as a society. But for academics, and particularly for those of us still toiling away in graduate school, the chance to reconnect with friends and family brings with it a formidable challenge—the perennial task of explaining, to the satisfaction of your interlocutor, what exactly it is that you study anyway, huh? Your answer, like a departmental Secret Santa gift, must be carefully calibrated.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be so hard. As graduate students, after all, we’re constantly asked to describe what we do. Most of us have multiple versions of our “elevator speech” at the ready at any given time—Professor So-and-So is going to crave more specificity than Aunt X; probably best to not even bother with Cousin Y—and so forth. But the truth is, the further along we are in our programs, the more likely it is that we’re working on something, for lack of a better word, “focused.” At least, that’s the word we’d use talking to our advisors, or amongst ourselves. “Focused,” in the context of your advisor’s office, is a wonderful thing. “Focused” means you successfully navigated the Scylla of mission creep and the Charybdis of impostor syndrome, settling on a topic that balances manageability, originality, and general academic sexiness in such a way that a real flesh-and-paper dissertation could actually result. If only Uncle Z understood what an accomplishment it is to be “focused”—to have forsworn, let’s say, the sirenic delights of nineteenth-century discourse on cougar predation in central Patagonia for the austere but trustworthy seas of interwar discourse on sheep mortality! But for folks outside our field and outside the academy, that same virtue of “focused-ness” often elicits bewildered and possibly backhanded responses: “What are you studying? History? What kind of history? South African? What kind of South African history? Humor and satire in South African journalism in the early to mid-twentieth century? Oh, how specific!”

You see, while “focused” is a compliment (or at least a tactful euphemism), “specific”—not to mention its even more backhanded associate “specialized”—can feel almost like a slur. The more arcane your topic appears, the more likely it is that you’ll be treated to an unsolicited lecture on the role of the taxpayer in funding such ivory-tower frivolity. Perhaps you will be told to attend a coding bootcamp. Once, in a 2 A.M. Uber from the East Lansing, Michigan bus station, my driver broke out in an impromptu review of F.A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom so passionate he actually wept. Such is the raw power of the humanities. One must tread carefully.

While “focused” is a compliment (or at least a tactful euphemism), “specific”—not to mention its even more backhanded associate “specialized”—can feel almost like a slur.

In anticipation of writing this article, I turned to social media to ask how other graduate student friends of mine navigate this minefield. Coming as it did in the days immediately following American Thanksgiving, my question conjured a minor torrent of replies. Many beleaguered colleagues told me about the practiced “hooks” they use to make their topic relatable (“I study prisoners’ rights,” instead of “I study §1983 claims,” for example—logical enough). Of course, in most cases, simply being able to convey your topic to another person is a necessary but not a sufficient step; why prisoners’ rights is the obvious—and more perilous—follow-up. Most of us, caught on a good day with grading under control and other stressful deadlines more or less at bay, can be trusted to extol our esoteric topics with genuine brio (“when people ask ‘what’s liturgy,’ it nearly always ends in either having an engaging conversation about Christianity or my having a ready-made opportunity to share the Good News,” reports one very good-natured aspiring liturgist at an Ivy League seminary). Yet there are also days when deadlines press and rejection e-mails menace, when personal mental health and the grim state of current events test both our personal resolve and our confidence in the value of our work. In the words of a friend working towards his Ph. D. in political science:

God I hate telling people what I do. No specific stories, it’s just nine times out of ten when I tell people, they just kind of go “oh,” and it totally short-circuits the conversation because it’s not very relatable.

I’ve learned to self-deprecate past it though. “People told me to stay in school, and I just took that way too seriously! HAWHAW”

The last bit of what he wrote hits me hardest. All graduate students in the humanities today feel the pressure of aspiring to greatness in disciplines generally understood to be in decline, at least from the perspective of funding and jobs. Judging from my own limited experience, few outside academia seem to understand the magnitude of the challenge we face here. Everyone recognizes the prestige of a Ph. D., but when they ask me “what do you want to do with that?” and I reply “be a professor”; well, I might just as well have said “be the greatest modern dancer New York City has ever seen,” because some days the odds of really making it seem so slim. What happens when I see them again in five years, destitute and psychologically worn down by non-tenure track instructorships? Will they think I’ve failed? But adjuncting is the new normal! Don’t they read the Chronicle?

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Captain Holt, speaking truth to power. Image courtesy of Brooklyn Nine-Nine.

What I’m trying to suggest with this ramble through junior academic life is that the question of what we do, as simple as it seems, lies at the heart of our whole enterprise. Explaining our topics and motivations to people other than colleagues involves justifying our professional lives (and perhaps much more) before a skeptical and uncaring world. Describing our work involves confronting not only the strengths and limits of our own knowledge but the fact that, for people in the early stages of their career, the so-called “ivory tower” feels less like a safe house and more like a fortress to infiltrate. Impostor syndrome is more than feeling like you don’t measure up to your peers as an individual. Feelings of resentment and disenchantment can lead to a much broader alienation: a sense that your field is unworthy of you. From unpleasant colleagues and unhelpful faculty to misgivings rooted in intellectual theory and the reality that (post)modern universities under capitalism pay lip-service to progressive ethical principles while hypocritically maintaining some of the most poisonous power dynamics imaginable, the twenty-first century humanities graduate student can go toe-to-toe with any armchair crank on a laptop about who can complain about universities longest.

All graduate students in the humanities today feel the pressure of aspiring to greatness in disciplines generally understood to be in decline, at least from the perspective of funding and jobs.

Heavy stuff, but it’s true. Maybe this is all that much harder because we, as academics, are naturally introspective and observant about these things. If we understand other people’s identities as complex and assailed by contradiction, how can our own be any different? As a historian, it’s deeply humbling and sometimes dispiriting to realize that, even though I spend time with myself literally 24/7, my own motivations and interests can feel even harder to parse than those of the people I presume to study—people I never met, whose upbringing and experiences sometimes seem world away from my own. When I say to my eagerly expectant relatives that, yes, I want to understand the South African past, and specifically the way both Black and white South Africans used humor to make sense of their lives amid the cruelty of segregation and apartheid, how ridiculous am I truly being? On a bad day, it’s like saying I’m building a time machine so I can teach Napoleon’s cat how to speak Zulu—no matter how much I know about Napoleon or how great I get at Zulu, the task is still silly on its face. Maybe I should’ve gone into the hard sciences after all.

I’ve spoken mainly about family and friends here, since it is the holidays, but some of the toughest elevator speeches we have to give come from people in the communities we’re actually studying. There’s a lot of brilliant scholarly literature out there that considers the question of how to carry out research conscientiously as an outsider, but far less attention is given to the myriad of more casual encounters one has in the field, and the ways the very act of conducting research changes your positionality. In high school, where I was a nerdy white kid with a passion for acting and a surrealist streak informed by Monty Python, South Africa entered my life as a novelty. I remember seeing a music video of Robbie Wessels, the Afrikaans novelty singer, dancing around in a safari suit with Crocs on and thinking, my goodness this country is bizarre. For the first few years of my obsession, knowing so little about what I was looking at, my gaze was exoticizing by default. My hermaneutics were kitsch and absurdity, though it should be said that my morbid fascination with all things South African at that embryonic stage stands out only as one bright shining star in the vast galaxy of things about my high school self that embarrass me today.

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Robbie Wessels being Robbie Wessels. Image courtesy of YouTube.

Blessedly, I moved on. My tastes became more sophisticated as my knowledge of South Africa deepened. I started branching out from the gateway drugs that hooked me (Nando’s chicken adverts and more derivative Afrikaans pop) to following South African news websites and reading more about the history of the country. Goaded on by a heady mix of the familiar and the unfamiliar, and enabled by the ever-expanding scope of the internet, by the middle of my undergraduate career South African culture(s) had moved to the top of my list of interests. Despite the obvious facts that I was still an outsider who had never been to the country nor spoke any of its languages (besides English), I had become a real novelty in my college milieu; I had developed a discerning palate and an increasingly encyclopedic command of the media that I’d been exposed to. It was then that I decided to embark on a thesis project—U.S. activism and rhetoric during the South African War—that allowed me to continue pushing my boundaries while allowing for the fact that I didn’t have enough money for a trip there—not yet.

Since those halcyon days I’ve spent two summers in South Africa, and each time I go I feel stranger and stranger. Even as my language skills and contextual knowledge continue to improve, my face and voice betray me as a white American—part of a group expected to know basically nothing about South Africa beyond elephants and Nelson Mandela. This is the paradox: no amount of dedication and study is going to make me South African, but at the same time my work serves to distinguish me more and more profoundly from the person I started out as. This can, and often does, produce situations that are confusing to family, friends, and strangers alike. This is part of what makes the humanities so special: our work shapes us even as we shape it, leaving plenty of room for triumph as well as error on both sides of the equation.

We should never fear being too “specific” in our work, if our work helps clarify the specific ways we can do good in the wider world.

It’s a long-winded way of saying that, while our research topics might seem extraordinarily obscure, the deep and too often unsung thing about graduate school and academic life as a vocation in general is that the experience of it can really change you—it’s not all or even mostly about the arcana. As junior scholars who take seriously the call to activism partly as a result of these changes, the holidays mark a time to reconnect with those we hold dear and also to think deliberately about where to direct our finite time and energy in the new year. We should never fear being too “specific” in our work, if our work helps clarify the specific ways we can do good in the wider world. No amount of passive aggressive comments from Great Aunt Z, on that count, can ever make a lick of difference.

This essay wouldn’t have been possible without the gracious participation, advice, and support of friends. Special thanks are due to Amber, Kyle, Eliza, Hannah, Rosemary, Grace, Nicol, Mitchell, Catherine, and Nora, who volunteered their personal experiences in the trenches of specialized fields. As if I wasn’t already in your debt before, my gratitude only stretches deeper.

RobinCriglerTAHRHeadshot.jpgRobin is a Ph. D. student in his fourth year at Michigan State University specializing in African history—more specifically, the history of South African humor in the Union Period (1910-1961). Originally from McLean, Virginia, Robin received his B.A. in history and religious studies with Highest Honors from the College of William and Mary in 2014 after writing a thesis on American opinion and activism during the South African War (1899-1902). His article “No Laughing Matter: Humor and the Performance of South Africa,” which compares humor and national identity in the work of the white satirists Stephen Black and Leon Schuster, appeared in the April 2018 issue of the South African Theatre Journal. Robin has presented his work at conferences in both South Africa and the United States, and in March he will be starting eight months of dissertation research in the Johannesburg area. In 2017 and 2018 he was also involved with designing a Center for Research Libraries-funded project to index rare and marginalized academic journals from the African continent.

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