Tuesday, November 30, 2004


What We Talk About When We Talk About Work

Or don't talk about it, as the case may be. You see, I should be doing work right now, but my brain is fried and so I've decided instead to begin this whole meditation on talking/not-talking about my work.

I'll begin first with a theory of Jerk's (for just because he's married it doesn't mean I can't write about his ideas when they serve my purposes- hehe!) which I think may be where the whole embarassment or protectiveness about one's work might begin. According to Jerk, the problem for smart people of our generation is Brainy Smurf. You see, Brainy is the asshole of the Smurfs and everybody hates him and makes fun of him because he is smart. Thus, we were socialized very young to believe that one has to hide one's intellect in order for people to like us. This is further reinforced by the Mike/Carol Seaver dichotomy on Growing Pains, as well as in countless other 80s cultural texts.

Dumb theory? Maybe, but I think that I did know from very early on that I couldn't talk about things I was thinking about or how I was thinking about them with a lot of people. Now, part of this is because I am one of the rare academics that does not come from college-educated parents or relatives. My dad worked in a steel mill, my mom worked in a bank, lots of relatives did construction work or factory jobs.... you get the picture. And the neighborhood I grew up in as a little kid wasn't exactly college-educated suburbia. (Someone asked my mom once after she told them where we lived: Is that the area where there are wild dogs that run through the streets? I am not joking.) Not exactly an environment conducive to deep discussions about ideas. That's not to say that my family didn't support me - they did - or that I wasn't encouraged when I did well in school - I was. But at the same time I also knew that the people closest to me would never really get what I was doing (with the possible exception of my little grandma, who was an avid reader all her life and who I think might have done something really spectacular career-wise had she not been born in 1921 and had she not had 10 kids).

Coming from that background, I learned early to keep my mouth shut about what I do. Up until I received my Ph.D. my father (as well as other random relatives) referred to me as a "lifetime student" - as if I hadn't gotten my B.A. and M.A. by the time I was 22-fucking-years-old. As recently as the summer before I started my job I had people (family, friends, random people in bars, etc.) asking me what I was going to do with a Ph.D. and why I hadn't gone to law or medical school because what I do is meaningless in the world.

Finally, there is the culture of my grad school dept. All PhD students were equally funded and so the atmosphere wasn't a particularly competitive one, but nevertheless, at Fancy University the done thing was to talk not about what one was actually working on (for fear that others would glare at you in derision and talk about how you were stupid behind your back) but rather to talk about what you weren't getting done. Basically the performance was one of "I don't ever do any work and I'm a stressed out slacker" - a kind of competition for who sucked the most. Was it our faculty that inspired this? Hearing about what the next generation in the department is like, I don't think so. I think it was just the way that we dealt with the pressure-cooker of knowing that probably we wouldn't get jobs. It seems like the next generation is much more about over-achieving rather than appearing to under-achieve as a kind of escape hatch for when things would (inevitably) not work out. (Though of course things did work out for me, and for many of my cohort, who who knows.)

Oh, and one last thing: I've noticed that other scholars - mentors of mine, VIPs, whatever - also seem reticent to discuss their work unless the situation demands it (like after a conference presentation). So perhaps in part I model my behavior on theirs because it seems like the "done" thing.

When I do talk about work, though, usually it's along the following lines:
  1. I meet a guy in a bar. I tell the guy what I do. He asks what I work on. I tell him that I work on literary porn (not exactly true, but a racy version of what I really do work on). Basically, I use my work as a pick-up line.
  2. I talk around my work in conference situations when the situation demands it. Sometimes - if I think the person is really interested - I reveal more; most of the time I'm fairly superficial in the way that I talk about it.
  3. I talk about my work in formal settings like the one today with colleagues.
  4. I talk about my work with my closest friends from graduate school, though not often about the research side of it - more often about teaching and service.
  5. I talk about my work when I'm teaching, even though I fear I come off like a pompous ass. It's just I do think that students get a lot out of knowing that I face the same challenges with research/reading that they do, and I think they should know that I'm not just a teacher.
  6. I talk about my work with my suitors. Sometimes this goes really well (like last night with Freud. He was totally interested. Unbelievable, as I still am not entirely certain what he does) and others it does not (and generally those times it's because the boy acts like I'm the smartest girl in the world and like he can't understand me or like I'm being condescending or like I'm on some kind of Braniac Pedestal that he could never even approach and thus I am not a real person).

So yeah. And it's crazy that I talked at length about my research to Freud last night because I've never done that in the months that we've known each other. And it's crazy that I liked it and it caused a strange kind of intimacy between us which I'm sure affected the events that transpired following my confessions about my work. So these are my preliminary thoughts about these things - although they are scattered and really make no point. Must think further and perhaps post more when I'm more clear-headed and I'm not avoiding a mountain of work which I now only have one hour to complete. Dammit.

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