Thursday, April 21, 2011

Dilettante, Generalist, or Unfocused? Teaching and Research Tensions

Conference season is upon us academics. I'll be going back to Sherbrooke in a few weeks to present a piece of my dissertation, investigating how a translator and editor worked together to produce a collection of translated poems. I just presented last weekend on Dany Laferrière's practice of rewriting his novels, specifically looking at the transformation of La chair du maitre into Vers le Sud. This summer, I'm working an essay on how Nalo Hopkinson uses the female body in her speculative fiction. 

Oh, and I teach writing. 

I've recently become more acutely aware of how my "research output" reflects my image of a scholar (both a teacher and researcher). Should I be moving more towards presenting and publishing on teaching writing, as that is where my professional career seems to be heading? Should I try to find more English authors to study and write about as I teach English? Can I indulge my growing interest in digital humanities, with the limited resources at my disposal (time and money)?

The question of resources is not a trivial one. I do not have a great deal of travel support, and it is expensive to fly anywhere from where I currently live. I teach a 5/4 course load, all of which are writing intensive. I had to cancel going to THATCamp, an experience I had been particularly looking forward to, because it was hard to justify the expense. My past training, publications, and current teaching don't scream digital humanities; why do I need to change directions, yet again?

I get bored very easily, and I like to have lots of ball up in the air, mentally. When I get burnt out from writing about the middle-aged menopausal body as magical, I can move to how and why an author rewrites his life story. And then, if I can focus on either of those topics, I can comb through the new thoughts related to my dissertation in an effort to change it into a book. And then, on a break, I revise and refine my writing courses.

When I was hired for my (brief) tenure-track position, it was as a generalist, a role I felt well-suited for. Intro to lit or world lit? A PhD in comparative literature certainly prepares you for that. Postcolonial? Got it. Immigrant writing? Got it. Minority? Got it. Popular? Got it. Teaching experience, especially with non-traditional student populations? Yup, got that, too. While looking for my first tenure-track job, I was most successful with the generalist jobs I had applied for. I can imagine that my research and interests were either too diverse (or, too focused on one or two authors) for a more specialized position. 

There is a thread that connects all of my interests, however, and that's the process and results of writing. If it be translating, rewriting, or imagining, it seems to always come back to writing.  Even my MA thesis, concerned with magical dystopias, is essentially about books that are making clear arguments about the (possible) future. How do we shape and reshape ourselves and the world around us through language? I suppose this is what we are all doing in literature, but I wonder how many of us would describe what we do in such general terms? We are often sent the message in academia that our research and teaching be hyper-specialized, or at least unique. I know that what I am doing is unique, but perhaps I haven't stuck with any one subject long enough to become hyper-specialized, and thus well-known, in order to become a "successful" academic.

I expressed my thoughts and apprehensions on a recent post on Dr. Davis' Teaching College English blog. Her thoughtful response:
I figure, I may never be “the” expert on a field, but I can have multiple important contributions to a number of disparate studies.
This, ultimately, is what I aspire to. I might never be an expert in any one area (although I'll wager there are few other academics who have devoted as much time and mental energy on Dany Laferriere as I have), I want to and can have multiple contributions in a lot of different areas. It might not ultimately benefit my career, but I'm doing what I love. For that, I am grateful, even if I do look a bit like the academic equivalent of a flake.


  1. I love being a generalist. That works very well at a CC. When I was on the non-tt at a SLAC it was a good thing too.

    When I was interviewing for SLACs on the tt, though, even when they said it was a good thing, they didn't like it. They want someone who will teach comp, because everyone has to do that, but they have certain specific needs they want filled (n=2). One chair even said I was a "true generalist" and then talked about hiring me ONLY for my rhet/comp and not at all for my lit stuff, stating frankly that "I don't want you to teach literature."

    So, I've been there and done that.

    You can read some of the posts I have on this topic (or the general topic) at TCE:

  2. The blog "Creative Generalist" is quite affirming for this :-)

    I understand your points here. All my degrees are in different areas (Communication, Linguistics, Education), and I even started with a degree in a completely different discipline (that's the BFA in studio art that I never finished).

    However, to me there are obvious themes that tie together all my interests. Communication, mediation, and knowledge, are probably the biggest. I think from that perspective it's easy to see that I just followed paths that seemed to lead toward explorations of those themes.