Communication is Key: Translating “The Point” Across Disciplines

When it comes to my research, I’m well aware that, for people outside of my field, it’s all too easy to miss “the point.” The value of some forms of research are simply more obvious. While the average person may not understand the intricacies of scientific jargon, it’s simple to grasp the why: that is, why someone would spend the time studying cancer cells, or dinosaur bones, or rocket science.

In contrast, when most people hear that I’m spending my summer delving into fantasy literature, they smile and say, “Oh, how fun!” And don’t get me wrong: it is fun. I love what I do. But what many don’t understand is that I’m not studying The Lord of the Rings just because I find the battle scenes awesome, or because I think Orlando Bloom looks good as a blond. I’m studying it because I believe that the text is a valuable tool in untangling actual, serious, real-life issues, right down to topics as serious as euthanasia. So how do I get people to understand how LotR contextualizes the right to die?

In our seminar last week, we spoke about using metaphors as a translation tool. I found this incredibly helpful, and when we split into our breakout rooms to put this idea to practice, it really forced me to confront which areas of my “project pitch” were lacking. I am also lucky to have an excellent group of cohort members who really push me to think about why I’m doing what I’m doing, and to explain it to them—which usually ends up clearing it up for myself in the process. Here’s what I came up with:

When you’re delving into complex topics like, things like human nature and fate vs. free will, those are vast. If you don’t have a grounding point, you’ll never get anywhere. So for me, I chose something fantastical as my grounding point because it’s easy to relate to: everyone knows The Lord of the Rings. And it’s not just a grounding point but a lens, and looking through it is like looking through that little machine at the eye doctor’s office, where you have to keep shifting your lens until you find the right context to bring things into focus. Fantasy has historically been considered a non-threatening space to push the boundaries of accepted social thought: this goes back pretty much as far as literature does, to the classics and to medieval texts like the Canterbury Tales, where Chaucer would use religious lenses to make secular points and vice versa. Tolkien intended LotR to be consumed as a lost English mythology—actually our world a really long time ago—so I hope that studying it by the same rules as we study actual historical mythology will make it possible for me to draw deeper conclusions from it.

Now, I don’t think my metaphor about the shifting lenses at the doctor’s office is perfect, not yet. But coming up with it was a valuable mental exercise, in thinking of other scenarios I could compare my research to and frame it in more digestible terms for others. I needed to find a way to get others to see why they should care about what I’m doing.

This will also be valuable experience for me in the future. After graduate school, I hope to become a professor of literature. I know that not every student I teach will be an English major, and certainly a large portion of them won’t be as passionate about it as I am. I hope that by translating things in different ways for different students, I will find a way to show them the importance of literature as a field of study, so that even if they don’t fully understand, they are at least able to appreciate its value.

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