Sunday, January 11, 2009

More about whether "your field" is your field

Several people wrote to me privately about the last post. Apparently there is a good bit of personal anxiety out there among many academic professionals about whether or not they're in the right field. I wish some of them had posted their thoughts in the comments, but in these days of Eternal Internet Footprints, many are shy about doing that, and I certainly understand. Still, my e-mail was lively.

Beyond the case of the assistant professor with the mashup disguised as a specialty, there are those who enjoy what they do, but don't quite know how they got there. They feel as though their careers are some sort of cosmic accident -- that they are experts in one thing when it could just as easily have been something else.

And then as if the universe were in some sort of secret accord, this quote came from Steven Pinker in today's New York Times Magazine: During my first book tour 15 years ago, an interviewer noted that the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould had dedicated his first book to his father, who took him to see the dinosaurs when he was 5. What was the event that made me become a cognitive psychologist who studies language? I was dumbstruck. The only thing that came to mind was that the human mind is uniquely interesting and that as soon as I learned you could study it for a living, I knew that that was what I wanted to do. But that response would not just have been charmless; it would also have failed to answer the question. Millions of people are exposed to cognitive psychology in college but have no interest in making a career of it. What made it so attractive to me?

He goes on to try and analyze it, and you can read his thoughts at the link above, but I consider his question more interesting than the answer. What, indeed, made any of us turn right instead of left, or this way instead of that way? I remember the moment I decided to study the 18th century. About eight of us were in a scholarly editing class at the University of Virginia with David Vander Meulen, and we sat around a table in the rare books room at Alderman Library. He showed us the University's copy of the Declaration of Independence. Sitting there, seeing that hand-printed document, and realizing that the 18th century was one of the fields my particular graduate program was best known for, made it fall into place like a puzzle piece clicking. Perhaps I should have known what field I wanted before entering grad school (many people do), but I was fortunate that one of UVA's best offerings happened to be a perfect fit. I wouldn't change it if I had it to do over again; rather, I would have begun earlier and studied even more deeply.

But if that day hadn't happened (and if I hadn't grown up near Alexandria, Virginia, an 18th-century port city), would I have been happy doing something else? Of course, or at least I think so. Would you?

Above image from an optical illusions website.

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