Buffy The Vampire SlayerA 13th-Century Buffy ?
Wednesday 12 July 2006, by Webmaster
It’s fall, and the first meeting of the Junior Faculty Roundtable on Tenure is about to start. You and 18 others relatively new to the tenure track are seated around a hard plastic conference table.
You recognize some of the faces from the faculty lounge, the gym, the bike path behind the food-science building. Most are slouched in their seats, glassy-eyed and inert. A flat-headed man to your left is talking animatedly to his neighbor in a modified British accent about why you simply cannot use MathLab for matrix applications anymore. To your right, a woman is doodling what looks like a tree on the margins of her writing pad.
You sit up and analyze the table surface: Is it scratch resistant, stain resistant? The room is getting stuffy. Suddenly the roundtable coordinator brightly announces, "Before we begin, let’s just go around the room and introduce ourselves, say a little about what we work on, OK?"
Immediately, the temperature changes. People sit up straight in their chairs, fidget with their fingers, clear their throats. A tight gastrointestinal wave of anxiety passes from person to person, acrid and mildly electric. It’s time to show that those last four or five years of your life spent on gnomic author X or enigmatic problem Y were real contributions to the discourse.
In other words, like all good performers, you had better have a punch line.
The ritual begins two people to your left and is moving counterclockwise. First up is an applied econometrician with a trim beard. He says he works with regression analysis on national spending. "Even my wife doesn’t know what I do," he adds with a well-rehearsed shrug. "It’s hard to explain . . . but basically I look at economic modeling the way a chronic gambler looks at horses: as a proposition worth investigating."
There is a mild murmur of approval from the group. He has passed the test, the rules of which are not clear but seem to involve a short description, a mild self-mocking gesture, and an outlandish analogy.
Next up is a small woman dressed entirely in black. She begins by saying she works on genome stability in eukaryotic microbes. "That’s yeast to the rest of you." She looks around the room with a smile. "I know that sounds boring, but believe me, for a unicellular fungus, yeast is extremely enterprising." She pauses, like any good storyteller. "I like to say there’s a rising interest in the field." A wave of happiness and love flows toward her from around the table. No doubt about it, she’s a pro.
And now it’s your turn.
You know very well that your own work has often proven resistant to such efforts at condensed wit. In fact, every earlier attempt of yours to lighten up your work at graduate-school parties had been greeted with such confused and awkward pauses that, for a while, you stopped trying altogether.
Now that you are a junior faculty member, the trauma of having to entertain and inform has become a job requirement. "I work on women’s social groups in the long 18th century," you start, adding quickly, "the desperate housewives of the 1800s."
You notice some frowns among the women gathered. "Well, they’re not desperate desperate. Just ordinary women trying to create a salon culture where they could discuss aesthetic and political concerns." There are a few wobbly grins amid squints of concentration. Someone smiles over at the econometrician.
"One of the women writers I work on is kind of like a tarty Jane Austen," you start to explain. "Anyway . . .," you hear your own voice petering out. "Basically I work on early chick-lit, before the nannies and the shopaholicism took over."
You’ve done it! Entertained. And only at the small cost of trivializing the last three years of your life.
Like a bad nightmare, it will happen again, at the inaugural committee meeting on curricular development, the Friday evening dean’s reception, and the obligatory cocktails and dinner for the visiting speaker.
That night you write to your friends, new hires at colleges and universities across the country. You ask them how they negotiate this ritual question. Here is the consensus:
Give a striking or even funny example of your work. Say you work on tax law: Find a loophole or detail of your work that would interest others in finding out more about your research.
"The audience always perks up with a lurid detail," one friend wrote. But you want to be careful. That same friend discussed the intimate hygiene issues of pre-revolutionary French aristocrats at a job interview, only to shock the assembled panel.
Deliver your synopsis in a serious, dead-pan manner. This is a winner every time, from Bill Murray to Jon Stewart. And the technique seems to work insofar as it demonstrates a certain academic seriousness as well as an acknowledgment of how strange what we all work on is.
Translate your work. Whether you’re in the field of Bayesian statistics, computational biology, linguistic anthropology, religious revivalism, macroeconomics, or asset pricing, find a way to make your work relevant to others. You don’t want to be speaking about "constitutive contradiction" and "interrelationality" to an applied physicist.
Remember that you too had to learn the language of your field. Your audience may know little or nothing about 13th-century vampiric narratives and their relationship to political decadence, but who knows, they may have heard of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s worth a shot.
If all else fails — if you are still greeted with stony silence after describing your research — just remember the words of the late Wilfred Bion, the famed British psychoanalyst and expert on the primitive mental processes of groups: Only after each individual has been humiliated are they truly accepted by the group.