As you may well know, I am currently in the process of working toward a PhD in English. It is a great way to, you know, get smarter and stuff. Along the way you get to become an expert in some sort of specialized field and you will likely be consulted by others who have not spent the better part of four or five years boning up on a topic you may have invented. Hence, you are the expert. I see this as both a good and a bad thing.
First, the good. It is good — nay, great — that I will someday be the go to guy in my field (or at least one of the go to guys). Generally speaking, I will be an expert in Victorian literature and specifically speaking, an expert in the history of obscene publication and sexuality studies in the late Victorian period. As I progress, I find myself getting more and more caught up in minutiae of the latter field since it is the thing I call my own or my research. The Victorian literature in general is a broader expertise that will influence the subspecialty while allowing me to teach normal topics at the university level, should I be one of the lucky few who land an academic job. I’ve noticed something, however, about folks going through this process and others who have completed it: there is such a drive and need for the PhD student to carve out their own niche and become so subspecialized that they sometimes can forget how to just talk about regular things or sometimes find it difficult to even talk about their field to other colleagues who are experts in other things. This is bad.
So, second, the bad. Now, look, it’s not perhaps so bad as I’ve made it out to be. I mean, I’ve never met somebody who was completely unable to talk to others if they weren’t discussing their tiny individual crevice of academic expertise. What I have seen, though, is a number of people who have forgotten that not everyone shares their level of interest or expertise in their topic. I’m talking about those profs whose lectures you dreaded because they may have simply been bored with the level of material that they were expected to teach (I personally had a couple of these in my undergraduate days, probably the reason I didn’t stick with Philosophy) or those with that crazed look in their eye at all times because they’re on the brink of some major discovery in their field. I have been guilty of the latter, I will admit.
This post isn’t an admonition for people who are passionate about their work. Quite the opposite, in fact. I believe that the successful scholar will be just as engaged with their work and specialties but be able to communicate it to as wide an audience as possible without much hindrance to being understood by a less specialized audience. I am thinking, of course, of undergraduate students. It would be great if everyone’s work were accessible to an audience of the general public as well, and much work likely is, but the reality is that a lot of scholarly work is uninteresting to a general audience unless, of course, you can find a way to turn it into a TED Talk. I think the TED Talk is the epitome of presenting one’s work to a wide audience. Regardless of your opinion of the talks it has to be agreed that they do a spiffy job of engaging with a large audience. I somehow can’t see me ever turning a lecture on Victorian porn into one, however. Maybe someday.
What it all boils down to is this: I am aiming to, in my own work, be able to speak with authority to others in my field. This includes questions and discussion at conferences, with colleagues, and students. I am also aiming to be able to have others understand my work, albeit in a less detailed way, so that I do not become the caricatured crazy professor who hasn’t spoken to anyone outside his pipe smoke-filled office since the early part of the century and has precisely one tweed jacket with a family of possums living in the sleeves. Rather, I’d like to be able to retain my ability to speak with people about my work and be approachable about it and other stuff too. I am always remarking to my wife how I get asked for directions everywhere I go (I’m not even kidding) and I would like to keep whatever it is makes me seem like a trustworthy authority to strangers and colleagues alike.