on being interesting

A while back, lmw posted about the importance of being interesting in one’s scholarly work. I commented at the time that being interesting was really important, for if your work was not interesting enough for people to want to read it, then you were wasting your time even doing it. She then clarified that to her “interesting” was about making a contribution to everyday issues rather than totally shocking the sociological world with some very wise insight.

I am now facing this dilemma, and it’s particularly stressful to me. I’ve recently finished a project that is on a topic/issue that is relatively “interesting,” meaning that other scholars probably find some inherent worth in pursuing. There is the opportunity to continue working on this project and contribute to knowledge in an area that has massive public policy implications. The topic is related to who I am as a person as far as group status goes.

There is another project, however, that is not as “interesting” as in it’s pretty low status and does not have public policy implications. But it’s much more personal than topic 1, as it’s related to a core part of my identity. I am getting a lot of joy out of this project, while topic one stresses me out every time i think about it. Topic 2 is illuminating how I think of my identity in some very profound ways, but may not be as interesting to a wider audience. Topic 1 is pretty much confirming something I already know but that is very interesting to a wider audience. There’s also the issue that topic 2 is ethnographic while topic 1 is not. We all know the relative low status position of ethnographic work versus that that is more quantitative.

But I cannot devote time to both of them. And as much as I want to be interesting, I also came to graduate school with an ideal in mind that I could work on what I wanted to work on. The more I become entrenched in this culture, I realize that academia is as much about pleasing others and proving your legitimacy as are other professions, but maybe in a more relaxed way. Pandering to what others think is interesting (and marketable, both in the publication and job markets) is just like other jobs. I am obviously naive, but this is very disappointing to me.

So what do I do? I’m asking although I know what I will do, which is what I always do. I do what I want to do. But now that I have kids, and think about the importance of supporting my family one day, I wonder if being a bit more diplomatic and practical is worth sacrificing my ideals. I wonder that if I continue with the ideal of doing things that are interesting to me but not necessarily interesting to others if I’m setting myself up for even more disappointment, and ultimately, failure.

5 thoughts on “on being interesting

  1. I’m no expert, and I should certainly take my own advice, but I think you should do the research that you want to do and that is stimulating to you. I honestly think that if it’s interesting to you, then plenty of other people will find it interesting. Who knows, maybe it’s something you’re meant to do and one day it’ll drift into the hands of someone whose life you’re really meant to touch. Probably multiple someones.

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  2. it’s hard to know what to say without knowing the projects (and it turns out you and i have similar “interests”). To what extent is the more interesting project a bigger idea? Is there something real here you’re missing? Probably not (but you might ask yourself this); that said, you should always go with what excites you… research is great, but some part of it is always tedious/boring/will drive you crazy so you ought to go in with the most excitement possible.

    That said, I’m less sure about things always having to be personally meaningful (or about public policy but that’s another discussion). I tend to shy away from doing stuff where I see it as having a lot to do with my biography — it sullies the science/objective part for me but I also figure I’ll run out of research projects pretty quickly if that is the main criterion. On the other hand, I tend to find meaning in projects after I begin them; it’s probably not a coincidence that I was studying parenthood while becoming a parent.

    I’m saying too much but… there are tons of projects out there, it isn’t your dissertation, and if it doesn’t work out, you have time. Stop stressing and do what you want to do! That’s the luxury of grad school — this is something I’ve only recently become aware of… 🙂

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  3. I have not responded to this before because I was not sure what to say. But then I remembered that I did my dissertation on an abstract theoretical topic that was not interesting to any faculty member, and I had a lot of trouble toward the end of graduate school because I really had no faculty advocate, and I was also very badly socialized professionally because I was not working closely with any faculty. I got a less good job than would have been expected from my other credentials, but it was a job. Then, as an assistant professor, I found the academic network that found my work interesting, wrote a theoretical article that got an R&R and was eventually published in AJS, and was invited to apply to the job I have now on the basis of that article. So it actually all worked out ok. I did need mentoring, but I got it from people in my area in the field, and from my senior colleagues at my present job. And it would still have been OK if I’d stayed at the first job, which I did not hate. I don’t want to be against taking the advice of faculty seriously, because lots of times it is helpful, and mentors are important. But as an academic, you have to do work that you believe in and can commit to.

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  4. thank you for your advice. i knew i was pretty much going to focus on what was most enjoyable to me, but i wondered about the backlash to that. not that anyone probably particularly cares this early in my career, but just thinking forward as this is a topic and approach that i think suits me very well.

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