There’s a specific difficulty in communicating the significance of research in the humanities to those outside of your field. Much of the material I’m reading for my project could be perceived as overly academic and simply irrelevant (perhaps rightfully so in the case of the former). Biology or genetics or neurology may not be widely intelligible to a lay audience, but it seems to me that they’re at least widely valued: the average person off the street may not understand much about, say, epigenetics, but explain to that person the possible implications of your research in understanding a certain disease and you’ve justified your work. You’ve provided a motive for that person to try and understand your research. You have the weight of the data table, the gravitas of the mathematical model, the visual component.
Confronted with explaining the significance of my research, I have a different task. I have no numbers or images of cells. Aside from the possible aggravation of dyslexia, my work has no impact on any affliction. Perhaps it doesn’t help that I’m still trying to justify the importance of my research, in many ways, to myself. Literary academia is haunted with ideas. I can’t stop thinking about a ghost story my uncle told me, the kind of ghost story that writers and literary critics and English professors might tell around a campfire, holding flashlights under their faces and sitting with their elbow patches resting on their knees. It goes like this: many years ago, before the internet and JSTOR and EasyBib had gotten so popular, a friend of my uncle writes an allegedly brilliant doctoral thesis about Milton or Eliot or some other serious and important giant of the English language. Like all PhD candidates, this friend is a masochist, so he slips a crisp twenty dollar bill between pages ten and eleven of his recently defended thesis (which gets stored in the university archives so other brilliant young scholars can enlighten themselves with the fruits of about five years of labor). He returns some fifteen years later to the archives, digs up his thesis, flips through ten pages he poured his blood, sweat, and tears into, and finds the face of one Andrew Jackson staring up at him, mint condition, looking like he just popped out of an ATM.
My research fascinates me. Considering I hope to teach for my career, I hope that my interests overlap with at least a small portion of the schoolgoing public. These are the people outside my field, and I have the rest of my life to convince them to find the same things I do fascinating.
(Pictured attached: the Bodleian Library at Oxford contains about 13 million printed items, though by most estimates only about eight of these books have ever actually been read. Of the eight, an overwhelming majority are volumes in the Harry Potter series)