Do you think graduate students have a responsibility to the people in their lives to bridge the gap between their own academic interests and the current popular trends of knowledge in their field?
My question of the day stems from a kind of dilemma I have been enduring during the last several years as an English Literature PHD student developing my dissertation. People in my life associate my line of work with reading books, and thereby the said people in my life expect me to know and be up on all the great new novels and biographies and poetry collections as they are published and released. I always feel terribly guilty and ineffectual when I have not yet read the book that they want to discuss.
The despairing truth is, though, that it is very difficult to read anything at this time in my life except my dissertation materials. I can barely get through journals in my field let alone check out the latest American novel from my local library. My friends and family look at me with shades of disappointment, skepticism, and even disdain when I say, “No I haven’t gotten around to The Marriage Plot,” and “No, I haven’t read the new Abraham Lincoln biography,” and “No, actually I can not intelligently comment on the Pulitzer Prize board’s decision to not award a prize for fiction this year. The sad fact is that I haven’t read any of the nominated books, and I wouldn’t be able to tell you if there were other ones that were better this year anyway.” Sigh… and the saddest part is, for me, the disdain or disappointment I see when I explain my lack of current literary prowess mirrors my own feelings. It just seems wrong.
Partly, it’s obviously a problem of time. I just simply have such a limited amount of time in general, and so the first thing that goes out the proverbial window is reading for pleasure.
Also, I have come to think of this problem partly as an effect of specialization. As a graduate student gets further and further into her program, she is working to narrow her scope, to focus on a topic, to become a specialist in an era, a topic, a set of authors, a region. It seems parallel to perhaps what would happen if you asked the attorney in your family to look over your new employment contract only to be told that her specialization is bankruptcy and so no, sorry, she can not really help.
I wonder if students across other disciplines in the GSAS have the same problem – do biology students who are studying the ecology of the wood turtle in the Delaware Water Gap feel badly when they can’t provide informed answers to Grandpa’s questions about the flesh-eating bacteria cases cropping up in Georgia? Do psychology students studying the psychological adjustment in pregnant orthodox Jewish women have to find ways to explain away their lack of intimacy about the various treatments for autism that their Aunt Sally keeps emailing them about?
I’ve found a small way to cram in some popular literature into my life—on my commute, I listen to audio book recordings that I’ve checked out of the town library. I love a good story, but part of the reason I am doing it is to try to stay in the conversation surrounding popular literature. It feels like a good use of my time as a scholar – since I can’t exactly study or research in my car, at least I can do something to contribute to my perceived role as a mouthpiece for the literary world.
And so, with real no solution in sight, I want to circle back to my first question – is it a responsibility of mine as a literature scholar to stay current with the works of literature that my friends, family, New Yorkers, Americans, etc, are talking about today? As graduate students, is it not only our responsibility but also part of our jobs to serve as interlocutors between our subjects and society at large? Do you face similar issues? How do you view these problems, and how do you view our role in society at large?