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Quote of the Day
Tuesday, May 16, 2006
On Relevance
As I was making dinner yesterday, the doorbell rang and an acquaintance of ours, "Susan," stood outside. She had come to drop off some papers for T, who is assisting Susan and her husband with some Important Business. I don't know Susan very well, but I do know that she's incredibly smart, witty, and is about to move to a new city five hours away where she will begin her dream job. Her husband is already there, having found a job in the new city several months ago.

I talked to Susan for a few minutes about her work, and about her impending move to the new job. Susan is an oncologist at Doctoral University Medical School. She does breast cancer research and is apparently very, very good at it; she's won several fellowships, has done research everywhere, and she was heavily recruited for her dream job. After chatting with her, I listened in a bit as she and T discussed the details of her Important Business. It's always interesting for me to listen to T when he's in "professional mode," using language reserved for the office and sounding so confident and knowledgable, answering complicated questions with ease.

Later that night, I retreated to my office to finish up revisions to a chapter I'd been working on and collecting important bits for my conclusion. I labored over a few paragraphs and re-did some of the figures to make them easier to read, and then I just stopped and thought, "What's the point of all of this?" I couldn't work anymore after that. I went to bed, feeling hollow.

I've always wanted to be the type of person who makes a difference. I've always wanted to help people, to make a contribution. And sometimes, as I sit in front of my computer and type up the results of my research, I feel like I'm not making a contribution at all. Sure, I'm making a contribution to my field, but it's not like I'm helping alleviate the horror of breast cancer or resolving complicated financial, legal, or business problems. No one's life (except mine) is going to be measurably better because of what I do. At least, I won't be able to point to a group of people and say, "These are the ones I worked for all those years."

I'm a social scientist. I study a small sub-group of people and the effects those people have on the lives of others and on the institutions of social life. (Those of you who actually know what my research is about realize that this is and incredibly vague statement!) I have friends who are social scientists about whose research I feel the same sense of emptiness: their research will have little impact on real life. And then there are social scientists like my friend Jared, who does amazing, policy-relevant research that has the potential to get to the heart of a major world problem (HIV/AIDS). After this dissertation is completed, I feel like I have to shift my research focus to something with a few more policy implications instead of pure academic implications.

Don't get me wrong: I like my research. I think it's important, and my advisors do, too. I'm sure there are implications for it that I cannot see; indeed, Prof. G. continually has to remind me that what I'm doing is relevant, that what I'm doing is a continuation of what he has spent his successful career doing. But right now, the research feels a little self-indulgent. I'm hoping that next year, when I have dozens of students waiting to hear from me, I'll feel like I'm actually contributing something real.
Posted with care by Prof. Me @ 5/16/2006 09:30:00 AM  
9 Words of Wisdom:
  • At 10:38 AM, Blogger La Lecturess said…

    No one's life (except mine) is going to be measurably better because of what I do. At least, I won't be able to point to a group of people and say, "These are the ones I worked for all those years."

    What about your students' lives? Whenever I start to feel as though my scholarship only matters to a small group of people, I think about my undergraduates. Hopefully, my teaching has introduced them to new ideas, taught them to write better and think more critically--or in some cases, just made them believe that they and their ideas matter and that they can succeed in college. That's improving someone's life, I think, even if it isn't curing cancer!

  • At 11:04 AM, Blogger ArticulateDad said…

    First things first: the fact that you care is significant. The fact that you doubt, means you're alive and aware. Sometimes in doing foundational or basic research it is difficult to see the end, the applicability, the relevance.

    Sometimes... what we do really does lack broader implications, except, as La Lecturess pointed out, in teaching our students, and in teaching ourselves how to ask questions and find answers. That's no small thing, however.

    We live in an age where we have the leisure to work slowly through things, over time, to spend weeks, months, years, investigating some question, that in the end may wind up where we started. But... I think of Thomas Edison: each bulb that didn't work was one more thing to check off the list of possibilities. Eventually he made some great contributions.

    You will to. Keep working. Keep questioning. Keep challenging (especially yourself). Find that task, at each turn, that seems right. But don't be afraid to abandon it, just like highlighting and cutting paragraphs of text in your dissertation that just don't fit.

    Years ago, I was a volunteer Big Brother. I remember talking with the agency's counselor about my relationship with my Little. I didn't feel like I was doing anything, that I was contributing to his life, teaching him anything. She said You're there, that's enough. You have no idea how much difference that makes. It's like raising our beautiful children: sometimes our actions, our words, our presence has an impact far greater than we might be aware.

    Trust yourself and your scholarship. You're there, asking the questions, seeking the answers Don't stop doubting, don't stop refining the questions, and the means toward finding answers... but every now and then, just let it be. It's worth will rise.

  • At 11:07 AM, Blogger lost fish said…

    Maybe it's just that I sort of have a liking for obscurities and slightly odd things. Subjects and things which may not be or seem quite practical in the larger sense or big picture. But I've a bit of a thought train strolling by that is saying, or trying to justify it by saying, that that's good in it's own way.

    The Big well known Major problems and obvious things are easier to see and many will flock to them. The littler things are often the things that are missed. Less interest lies in them, and/or they are passed off as insignificant. They are no less "important" I'd say. Maybe just different. Subtle too. Perhaps in a way that makes them special. And perhaps that should be shared or drawn attention to. And maybe then again that's just me not wanting to get caught up in bigger more important issues. Heh.

    But like La Lecturess hopes that her teaching has introduced her undergrads to new idea and done any or all of the things that she's mentioned - by the way, that's exactly what I think a lecturer or teacher should strive to accomplish, and I wish more were like that - it isn't just tackling the Big Major World Problems that improves life, life's made up of a lot of little things too.

  • At 12:41 PM, Anonymous Billie said…

    Sometimes we know how we have impacted others, but sometimes, we'll never know. It's a certainty, though, that we do have impact on other people. Know that you do, too. It might not be in a huge, earth-shattering way, but it could be in some subtle way (or a way that could seem "small"), but you could be impacting the person who goes on to revolutionize the entire world, with a cure, with a platform, with something we have yet to consider. . . .

    You do have impact.

  • At 9:04 PM, Anonymous Peri said…

    What they all said!

    And one more thing, Prof. Me, there's ST and T to think about and your worth there is infinite. In addition to the scholarship, you are raising a little boy who will be a wonderful and amazing man someday. I'm counting on you to raise one I won't be afraid to send my daughters out with. ;) I'm serious about that, too. I need you raising ST to be his fabulous self so his peers will see a well adjusted and intelligent young man someday. It's not a cancer cure, but it's pretty damn important.

    Remind me I said this someday because I will be EXACTLY in your shoes sooner than I'd like to think.

  • At 9:56 PM, Anonymous Dr. Shellie said…

    If your vision is to shift toward research with more real-world impact, go for it! Develop your vision...

  • At 12:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Hi, I work in the research information community (think libraries and reference tools) which forms the basis of what I want to say. You may not think that the work you do has impact, but you are adding to the overall knowledge base in a particular field. At some point in time, those who follow after you may need exactly that piece of information that you have contributed in order to make progress on a larger social issue. No, you may not see any impact from your work but that doesn't mean it's not there. One person's "dull article" may be the next person's key finding. We each contribute an infintesimal bit to the world's progress, but it IS a contribution. As a previous poster noted, you are more than the sum of your research; you have a child to raise and a partner to care for. Don't sell your contribution short.

  • At 11:48 PM, Blogger Daniel Nexon said…

    We do what we do, I think, because we believe in advancing human knowledge and because we enjoy being educators. If you want to do more policy relevant work, that's great. I suspect I'm headed in that direction as well. But I'd still take *good* 'obscure' work over *mediocre* policy relevant work any day. And, let's face, a lot of policy relevant work is just that: relevant. It doesn't necessarily lead to good policies.

  • At 11:38 AM, Blogger App Crit said…

    Just saw the link to this on IHE.

    Great piece! I feel the same about my own research since defending. Before becoming a professor, my research was all about getting the PhD and taking my place in the field. Now that I am in the field, I see my research as being of immediate interest to about 200 people worldwide, all scholars pigeonholed away deeply within the academy.

    Undergrads need great teaching. I see research (pre- and post-PhD) as something that helps us become great teachers. But, I don't see the product of my research really impacting my teaching. My research, which of course is the most important inquiry ever posed by mankind, is relevant to very few in the greater scheme of things. But because I know how to do it, and continue to do it, I am a better teacher for it. If I didn't do it well (and if we are doing it at this level, we must be pretty good at it), I couldn't imagine getting on my hind legs in front of a room full of undergrads and pretending to be expert.

    Maybe the question should be, "What kind of effect do you want to affect?"


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