Monday, June 18, 2012

Being a Generalist, Feeling Lost

Readers know that my first passion is writing, followed closely by a dozen or more other interests. From computer programming to typography, my interests are broad and lack a "disciplinary home" within most academic models. When I'm not writing, I'm trying to learn more about the dozens of topics that interest me. I am a writer, but I hate to be limited to one label as if that's all I can or should want to be.

Modern universities are discipline-based, with departments and programs hiding behind ivy-covered ramparts. The concept of a computer programmer and Web designer with a passion for creative writing isn't easy for the university model to embrace. You're supposed to have a narrow research specialty and a similar teaching interest. Few professors are fortunate enough to teach across the disciplines, even though many institutions market themselves as "integrated across the disciplines" and open to unusual mixes of talent.

In private industry (or within many non-profits), the more skills you have and can use, the more valuable you are. Certainly, some colleges and universities also value someone with an unusual combinations of skills, but the traditional academic model does not. More importantly, some colleagues don't accept the idea anyone is an expert in more than one field. If you spend 20 or 30 years studying one tiny slice of your greater discipline, you aren't going to consider a generalist to be that valuable or insightful.

Do I want to focus and conduct narrow research to earn tenure? Do I want to be a generalist and work within industry? Can you be a generalist and complete sufficient scholarship in today's world? I believe a generalist can be a scholar, finding unusual connections — but finding collaborators and publishing opportunities can be a challenge. Collaboration helps, too, because then you can have one "expert" to help navigate a specific discipline and its peer-review maze.

The research that would appeal to me might involve testing Web site designs for students with special needs. I might want to test adaptive technologies and language skills. Maybe there are some psychology/neurology questions involving the language of students with cognitive challenges.

I'm not interested in most literature and writing program research I've read. Much of the research is nothing more than a writing instructor crafting a defense for something he or she does in the classroom (or online). Yes, such articles might help other teachers and offer new ideas, but it doesn't seem like "research" to me. I read a lot of material on my way through a doctoral program, and the research on language education was "scholarship" but not what I'd call "research" in the way I envision research.

How do iPads or eye-trackers enable written communication? What are the unusual markers, if any, in writing composed with adaptive technology? Do students using technology produce writing that is identifiable? If so, in what ways is the writing demarcated? Those are some interesting questions.

Over the next nine months or so, I'll be in the position of many entry-level academics. During your first few years at many institutions, contracts are renewed year to year, until tenure or "non-probationary" status is earned. Not only does the university evaluate the professor, but it is an opportunity for the professor to decide if he or she "fits" within the institution and profession.

While I have made some basic decisions, larger questions remain.

Questions such as "If not here, where?" are complicated by the current economic environment; there aren't many "where" opportunities for professors. But, having a doctorate doesn't mean one has to be a full-time professor. Maybe there's a path that includes teaching as a part-time adjunct and working within industry. Maybe there are opportunities to be a consultant and freelancer, while also teaching from time-to-time.

There are many questions I will need to answer in the months ahead. Some are easy to answer, while others will depend on external circumstances.

No matter what path is ahead of me, I'll be writing along the way!


  1. Some words I hope might be encouraging, from Stephen Jay Gould, who did quite a bit of writing himself: "If genius has any common denominator, I would propose breadth of interest and the ability to construct fruitful analogies between fields."

    Tom Wright

  2. I agree, which is why I believe so many in the sciences were also philosophers, poets, musicians, and artists. Interestingly, there seems to be resistance to be a writer first and then the scientist. I theorize that some scholars in the humanities feel inferior to their colleagues in the sciences.


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