Feet in (At Least) Two Worlds

Every discipline has its subfields…and subfields of subfields. This is very much the case in Anthropology where the Cultural (and Linguistic) wing is a completely different world from the Physical (and Archaeological) wing. Of course there is a shared history, but they have diverged considerably over the years. In a tiny (reductionist) nutshell, the cultural wing focuses on understanding modern humans through the lens of culture, whereas the physical wing emphasizes biological features of modern humans and our ancient ancestors, such as the study of human origins. But I come from a four-field Anthropology background. “Four-field” means that I took courses in all of the aforementioned subfields, especially Cultural and Physical, and I always get a little thrill upon finding intersections where culture meets biology, such as in Medical Anthropology.

This appreciation for both the Physical and the Cultural has recently come to the forefront of my academic studies. Up until last fall, I studied the hominin fossil record. After about a year of hair-pulling and soul-searching I made the decision to switch my dissertation topic in my fourth year to the study of how we teach evolutionary theory. This switch means that now I will do my dissertation with real, live people! No more fossils for me (though I hope to visit them now and then). I am diving headlong into the world of interviews, surveys, and participant observation. Yet I am still grounded in evolutionary theory since that is my topic. This puts me in a rather unusual situation. I am still in the Physical Anthropology wing of my department, but I am also a little bit in the Cultural wing. In fact I will have committee members from both wings. As my advisor said, I’m a hybrid.

What will this mean once I finish? It could place me in a kind of disciplinary limbo, but I am choosing to look at it differently. Instead of focusing exclusively on tenure track positions, I will look beyond academia, whether it is in the realm of curriculum consulting, policy-making, or creating educational materials. The point is that taking this risk was worth every moment of anguish and anxiety leading up to the moment when I told my advisor what I wanted to do. He and others in both wings of my department have been incredibly supportive. Most importantly, what I am doing now is something that I will always be passionate about.

Lesson learned? While a big dissertation change can have its logistical drawbacks, if it will enable you to do what you love, don’t be afraid to switch direction even when you are halfway done! Graduate school is extremely challenging…emotionally, intellectually, and even physically. It’s only worth the immense effort if you are doing something that will drive you beyond the completion of that coveted PhD.

Media Mouthfeel

Who am I? I thought I dispensed with such philosophical wormholes after the teenage angst years. My first year as a doctoral student at Rutgers has proved me wrong. Although the angst has mellowed now in my late 30s, I still dread the ubiquitous wine and cheese filled inquisitions about my research interests. I will confess to a degree of envy when my colleagues in other disciplines succinctly explain what they study. Math, in particular, tends to shut people up. The study of media on the other hand sparks loads of questions. Everyone has opinions about it. For those who embrace the postmodern world (I myself am suspicious of the adjective), everything is a text filled with gaps available to be read, even the cheese cube in your hand. I actually like this everyday quality of media, yet it encourages my “shiny object syndrome”—my habit of knowing a little about a lot, a kind of epistemology of distraction. This mindset seems antithetical to the scholar, the learned one able to pontificate on the political economy of toothpicks.

So I must focus at least in time for my qualifying exam circa the start of my third year. I have roughly 6 courses left of my traditional student life. Scarcity breeds abject terror. As a 16th grader, the paranoia of making them count looms large. I also have the awesome opportunity to take two courses outside of Rutgers through the research consortium. I need a plan, yesterday.

Of course, I have talked to my advisors. They are ever so patient with me. I tend to ask enormous questions such as “What makes media more or less democratic?” I get cranky thinking about techno-evangelists, those who have Internet technology saving the planet, as if cyberspace were free of race, class and gender. Would we even want such a place if it were possible? This is why I like science fiction novels. Maybe I should have chosen English. Disciplines are mere fabrications, artifacts of university politics. Do you see why my professors are so patient with me?

If you pass me the pinot noir, I will tell you that I want my research in media studies to convey hope—hope for our global liberty expressed locally. I told a colleague that this was a corny idea. She disagreed, suggesting that theory leads to anger (at the disconnects?), which eventually gives way to a longing for hope. This has a truthy ring to it, one that harmonizes with my conviction that culture is what we make it; culture is essential to freedom. Media are cultural channels, spaces carved out with rich striations and sediments for study–cultural terroirs. I tend to focus on who made the channel, when, where, why and how. Media production is my bailiwick, and I am developing a fondness for ethnography—minus the transcription part. My kind of work is open to interpretation. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Spring Break as Conference Prep Time

When I was an undergrad, Spring Break meant a whole week to do absolutely nothing. Some years that meant traveling to a warmer locale with friends, others were of the “staycation” variety, but in both cases Rest and Relaxation were the name of the game. 

As a graduate student, things are a little different. This year, Spring Break meant a week of not needing to commute to New Brunswick from New York City, catching up on episodes of The Walking Dead, and starting the research process for end-of-semester seminar papers. Mostly, though, I spent this week putting the final touches on a paper I will be presenting at the American Comparative Literature Association (ACLA) conference at the end of March. 

As the name suggests, the ACLA is the national organization for scholars doing comparative work in the humanities, and the director of Comparative Literature here at Rutgers encouraged us graduate students to apply. This year’s theme is “Collapse/Catastrophe/Change,” and so I dusted off a seminar paper from a few semesters back and jumped at the chance to put myself out there and see if something stuck. And it did! I’ll be presenting a paper on two unconventional war movies: Ari Folman’s animated documentary Waltz with Bashir and Katherine Bigelow’s independent film The Hurt Locker (both great, highly recommended). This will be my third conference presentation, and while I still have much to learn, I thought I would share some of things I know now but wished I’d known earlier about applying to and presenting at conferences.

What is a conference? A conference in the humanities is typically a meeting of scholars who convene over one or more days to present papers on a particular pre-determined theme. Some are local and run by graduate student organizations (these are a great entry for your first conference); others are larger and run by national or international organizations (these are often held on university campuses or large hotels). There are often keynote and plenary sessions open to the public where notable scholars in the field offer some thoughts on that theme, concurrent sessions of panel presentations, as well as a reception to allow time for mingling. Other formats exist, but I’m not familiar enough with those to comment (though if you can, please do!).

Why attend a conference? Participating in conferences is a key part of professionalization in the humanities. They offer opportunities to meet other scholars whose interests you share, and allow you to keep up with current scholarship in your field. And while we’re being honest, it is actually quite fun to spend a few days with people who are just as obsessed with interested in the kind of work you are doing as you are.

What do you do there? This certainly came as a surprise to me when I first learned about conferences, but what typically happens is that a panel of 3-4 scholars is allowed 15-20 minutes each to read a prepared paper. That’s right — they read their papers to an audience. A Q&A session follows the presentations, and I consider this one of the highlights of conferencing.  During this time, I have been offered helpful suggestions on additional sources to consult and new angles to consider in my work. Thinking of your paper as a solid work-in-progress really takes the edge off the experience of public speaking, and allows you to share your ideas while also opening yourself to feedback. Depending on where the conference is held, you might also get to travel to a new city, so why not take some time to get to know a new place?

How do I apply? Organizations put out what are called “Calls for Papers” (CFPs), which are a few words describing the conference theme and the kinds of papers they are looking for. In fact, you need not have written the paper when you apply (though having a clear sense of what you would argue is key). Most CFPs ask for a short abstract, about 150-300 words, summarizing your main ideas and how your eventual paper would fit the theme. Once your abstract is accepted, you will either be asked to submit the paper before the conference, or simply show up with your paper in hand to present.

Where do I find Calls for Papers? While this list is certainly not exhaustive, you’ll find a wide range via UPenn’s English Department Call For Papers website. Scholarly associations such as the ACLA and the Modern Language Association also post Calls on their websites. Department administrators also do a wonderful job of circulating Calls via email, so keep your eyes peeled!

Fun Fact: Searching CFPs is also a great way to come up with a paper topic for the end of the semester. Just knowing that other scholars are thinking about the same topics and themes can help motivate your research, and that strong end-of-year paper can become a great conference paper (and possible future publication). 

So what are some of your best conference strategies?  What is the most surprising theme you’ve come across? What are conferences like in other fields?

Share your thoughts in the comments!