So ... What Do You Study?

Shifting from graduate student to professor, Alex Golub thinks about how one answers a common academic question.

January 12, 2007

"So ... what do you study?"

This question has become harder for me to answer now that I am a professor.

Graduate students on the job market must know how to answer this question. There are a lot of graduate students out there, and not a lot of jobs. As a result, convincing a department that you are a good "fit" with them is vital. When it comes to fit, what you study is important. But even more important may be how you tell people you study it. Are you the kind of person who can describe their work quickly and succinctly? Are you aware of how much "stretch" is built into your project but unwilling to profess to be an expert in whatever it is a department is interested in? Are you the flame, or the moth?

As a graduate student I had an answer to the question of "what do you study?" Several, in fact. In professionalization seminars and over beer at parties, my fellow students and I practiced the art of "telescoping." We carefully honed our intellectual lives into one-sentence sound bites. (Mine was "I study mining and indigenous people in Papua New Guinea.") I have entire paragraphs -- both academic and for "regular people" -- ready to go on autopilot in case people wanted to know more.

We had other versions as well: the one-page cover letter we sent out for job applications. The 10-page summary that served as the base for our grant applications. The 45-minute talk that was meant to be delivered on a campus visit. But the most extended, un-telescoped answer to the "what do you study" question was, of course, the dissertation itself.

The dissertation is the holy grail of "what do you study." However, none of us are Sir Percival. Writing the perfect dissertation is not the process of obtaining the unobtainable. It is the process of learning to settle for the dissertation you've got instead of That Big Dissertation In The Sky. Remember the scene in Indiana Jones And The Holy Grail where Indy is on the edge of a chasm reaching backwards to the grail just out of his reach, but is gently persuaded by his father, Sean Connery, to let it go? Writing a dissertation is like that.

An intensely narcissistic document, the "what do you study" of the dissertation offers a psychological knot that can never be particularly untied. Isn't what I'm saying obvious? Is it possible for me to say anything new or interesting? Is there an article out there I've missed that has already explained all this? Is my work any good at all?

Now, it's true that some of the old grad student tricks still apply. No one on my dissertation committee coddled me, but none of them were so insane that they revealed to me the heart-breaking truth: The dissertation is actually just the rough draft for your first book. So when asked "what you've been up to" as a young faculty member, you always have the option to just tell people "I'm working on my manuscript."

However, if the life of the mind is a peanut M&M, then the dissertation is undoubtedly the nut. Now that I am a professor, however, I find my intellectual interests have been coated in a thick coating of rich, delicious chocolate. Whereas people once cared about my specialty, they are now much more interested in all of the extra stuff I learned along the way.

The role of the student, I'm learning, is to produce specialized knowledge, while the role of the professor is to pass on general information. People used to ask me what my dissertation was about, but now they want to know how broadly I can stretch in my teaching and advising.

There are many reasons that people are interested in the periphery, rather than the core, of a new professor's stock of knowledge. The first is the inevitable responsibility of all newly-hired profs: teaching intro courses. After five years of extremely dedicated research I find myself teaching intro courses in which I am explaining stuff I last thought about when I was 19. Being thrown back to anthropology 101 is not a bad experience, but it is disconcerting to have to zoom all the way out to the big picture after so many years of illuminating one particular corner of it.

Other teaching responsibilities, while close to the "nut" of what I study, are still definitely in the "chocolate" realm. As a result of my dissertation work I think I could reasonably pass myself of as an "expert" in one or even two ethnic groups adjacent to the one I wrote on. But as a professor, people look to you to teach more general courses. No one wants a course on "Comparative Ethnography of Enga Province." They want courses on "peoples of the Pacific" or "political anthropology" or even "ethnicity". How does living for two years in Papua New Guinea license me to teach a class on a concept that began in archaic Greece and now includes phenomenon as diverse as the Harlem Renaissance and Borat? I feel competent? No. Having focused for so long on the hard center of what I study I have trouble teaching in "my chocolate zone."

I'm not complaining -- I realize that this is just a hang-up that new professors have to Get Over. The ironic thing about the situation is that even as new professors learn to feel comfortable venturing into their "chocolate zone" they must also find its limit. For indeed, every professor must eventually admit that there is a hard, sugary shell beyond which their knowledge does not reach. This is the strange dilemma of being a new professor -- you are simultaneously mindful of the limits of your knowledge and yet always tempted to move beyond it.

People give professors respect. It's amazing. As a graduate student you get no respect. People consider you locked in a state of arrested development, a sort of career limbo. There are many reasons for this, the foremost being, of course, that graduate students are locked in a state of arrested development that forms a sort of career limbo. Moving from this lowly state to that of a professor can be mind-blowing.

Professors are respected and -- most amazingly -- believed. They can opine on topics about which they know absolutely nothing and people will believe it hook, line, or sinker. Or at least they will appear to, since the other feelings associated with professors are fear and boredom. The first inclines students to please professors who have control of their grades, while the second leads everyone to avoid disagreement that may force them to extend a conversation they would prefer to skip.

The intoxicating feeling of being taken seriously is something that the new professor has to take into account. It takes a lot of self-discipline to be modest in one's claims after years and years of not being taken seriously. Are we ever successful? Probably not. And yet it seems to me that we can't do anything else but try.

Beyond teaching there are other situations that force us to find the hard candy shell of our knowledge. Advising graduate students is a good example. By definition, none of your grad students are ever going to write on the topic of your dissertation. They may study topics similar to yours, but not often. Even when they do, advising students requires you to stretch the limits of your knowledge and imagination. What is the role of biomedicine in Brazilian favelas? What forms of subjectivity does obsession with your credit rating generate? Helping students answer these questions requires a willingness to venture outside your area of expertise.

Sometimes you end up working with students for a reason. Since joining my department, for instance, I've been told by a couple of people that one of my areas of expertise might be "youth culture and identity." The reason, I gather, is that I am the faculty member who most recently identified as "young." I thought this pigeon-holing a bit unfair until a female professor reminded me that female social scientists have been labeled as "gender" experts from time immemorial (because "they have it") and if she could take it so could I.

While advising students who don't study "what you study" was weird for me at first, I quickly came to appreciate how much advisors learn from their students. If the transition from graduate student to professor is one from specialized to generalized work, then there may be no better way to increase your general stock of knowledge than to advise others who are writing dissertations. As you learn more about their own specialized projects, your own knowledge grows. Suddenly you know a little about early 20th-century shopping malls in Korea, conservation projects in Kalimantan, and medieval heresies in France.

Moving outside the "nut" of your own area of expertise can be disconcerting. But having some sense of the entirety of your knowledge of the entirety of that M&M of knowledge in your head can also be a welcome relief after years of working on the dissertation. It's a transition that all faculty go through, I suppose, and one that, in some sense, you never complete. Is the answer to "what do you study?" one of these 'journey and not the destination' sort of things? Let me know what you think.


Alex Golub is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa who blogs at Savage Minds.


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