Friday, August 26, 2016

A matter of definition

"So...what do you work on?"

"What's your area of research?"

"What do you do?"

And there's a pause, a wait, barely a few milliseconds, for me to gather the disparate threads of what makes my academic self, and compose an answer that sounds suitably confident and meaningful. I usually end up saying something that I want almost immediately to qualify, to explain, to fill out, to extend, and even, to retract. But the opportunity for introduction has passed, and I am left having painted myself into a corner with a phrase that lacks substance, is incomplete, vague.

My answers are either too broad, or too specific, and either way, fail to capture the questions that drive my curiosity and interest. More often than not, a more fitting answer for that specific context shapes itself in my head many minutes after that opening (and limiting) question, and I kick myself, wishing the words had made the cut sooner.

Trouble is, my questions are in fact all over the place. I can see something that connects them all but that binding cord slips out of reach when faced with the quiz time of an introduction.

Define yourself in ten words or less. 

What are the keywords that index your academic profile? 

Which section of the library will you slot your name into?

I envy colleagues who can, with aplomb, mark their place in academia with a sharp-edged index card, fitting neatly into the Dewey decimal system for future generations of scholars to find and cite. The two or three word phrase that describes their research theme has programmatic legitimacy of the kind that builds knowledge in a systematic, incremental fashion.

My academic profile, on the other hand, resembles scattershot. I have many questions--about life, about learning, about relationships and identity, about our bodies and how they acquire meaning, about perceptions of self and community and the ways in which these messy questions intersect in an increasingly mediated world. One year, I spend months looking at blogs while the next, I'm talking to young people about their ideas of a health and risk. Just as I seem to be getting those dots to line up and connect to form what seems like a research trajectory, a new idea strikes that moves me in a different direction. Or one of three or four  (or five!) different directions.

As a result I constantly feel like a non-specialist, that I can never really lay claim to a specific area of scholarship or expertise. Yesterday, for instance, at a really informal meeting of digital culture scholars, we went around the table introducing ourselves.

"I work on crowdsourcing."

"Digital labour."

"Participatory culture."

"Dating apps and relationships."

"Racism on the internet."

And me? I couldn't find a neat phrase that could sum up the stuff I do. I study social media, community and identity. That's way too broad. Through a feminist lens. Oh...okay. I study adolescent health. So what does that have to do with digitality?  Doctor-patient communication. That's old stuff. Science communication. Oh so you're an STS person.  Journalism pedagogy. What does that have to do with any of the above? Umm..., interdisciplinary conversations. What does that even mean?

But really, I'm not complaining (even though it sounds like it). I am quite happy to be pulled in all these different directions. It keeps life interesting, and allows me to interact with a much wider range of ideas and people than I might otherwise. It also presents interesting connectivities that are otherwise invisible, given the silos people work within.

The only time I feel a bit at a disadvantage is when I am asked to introduce myself to a group of people who are themselves so clearly defined.

And maybe the answer lies in contextual definition. Choosing a label that works with a particular group, in a particular situation. This allows specific nodes to light up, offering possibilities for collaboration. Too vague a definition, and you loose this opportunity. But too specific can also cut out possibilities.

I find it interesting that while the foundation of good research is a healthy acceptance of uncertainty, the growth of an academic profile seems to depend so much on certainty of interests. Perhaps my lack of self-definition borders on dilettantism...but I would beg to differ. There is for me something that does connect everything I do. I just haven't found the word for it yet.

1 comment:

Suroor said...

That's the problem with modern academics--people often specialize so much that's it's relatively easy to define their area of research in a short sentence. You're right to be happy to be pulled in different directions, academically speaking. It's gives you a wider perspective and a richer body of knowledge.