What We Do and Why
I have now spent eighteen of the last twenty years on college campuses, either working with or attending universities, often doing both at once. In some ways, it’s a pretty cushy life—the treed stretches and green spaces, the atmosphere of intellectual flexibility and innovation, and perhaps, maybe most of all, the shared sense of trying to unravel mysteries; trying to sift sense and meaning from a complex, often painful existence, but one that is also so often beautiful. We get to think for a living. It’s kind of a privilege.
Of course, how we go about this sifting for meaning varies depending in which corner of campus you find yourself. Some of us formulate hypotheses and then design and conduct experiments to test these conjectures. Sometimes they are designed to answer basic scientific questions about mechanisms underlying the world we see around us. Sometimes, this design is more applied, intended to answer specific human needs or pressing questions. Some researchers work in purely theoretical realms and create elaborate mathematical models to represent the underpinnings of natural phenomena. Some of us look back on the history of our species and try to piece together what we must have been thinking hundreds or thousands of years ago, and some of us try to speculate how this history will govern the future of our globe. Some of us feel intently, look at the world intently, and then make art that we hope will evoke connections with each other, with our earth, and with its non-human inhabitants. These are, of course, only examples. The diversity of what we do in the academic environment is, to put it mildly, breathtaking.
Nonetheless, our societal, and perhaps deeply human, tendency is to put things (and people) into categories. This helps us move through and process the world in a way we can manage, so we are not overwhelmed by its complexity and its nuance. However, an unfortunate side effect of this tendency is that at the same time we categorize, we often also compartmentalize. We say people are artists or scientists; introverts or extroverts; right or left-brained. We sometimes also push academic disciplines into similar exclusive categories. Here is the place where you work with numbers. Here is the place where you work with words. Here is the place where you work without emotional bias. Here is the place where you channel and try to understand human emotion. While I understand our need to bin things, I also worry that it places great limitations on what we might accomplish were we able to mix realms a little more easily.
I don’t think the idea that we can benefit from mixing disparate disciplines is a new one. But it is something I have been thinking about a great deal lately. This semester marks my own attempt at dividing myself between two worlds so I can begin to learn how to connect them. I now spend half my time post-docing as a plant biologist, and half as an MFA student in creative writing. It is interesting, to say the least, passing back and forth between these two worlds, and there are certainly cultural differences between the two. If somewhere, some graduate student in anthropology has not thought to do a comparative ethnography of science and humanities departments, then I would suggest there is a ready-made project! However, my purpose here is not to emphasize differences, but to note our common plights and goals.
It seems to me, all of us lucky enough to work in an academic environment share a need to understand the world around us. I think we also share the human need to be understood, and for the work we do to matter. What I find so mightily inspiring is the way in which scientific, artistic, and humanitarian worlds inform each other and help meet these needs. It is incredible to me, for example, the way creative writing can open up when it incorporates naturalist notes. I think this is because, as animals, we are not fully realized until we are integrated into our natural settings. We are our most complete, intricate selves when we are set against the air and sky and water and other organisms of our worlds (including fellow members of our species). Likewise, I am astounded by how much more the importance of science comes across when the author of a conference talk or journal article has taken the time to make their work into a narrative, that is, taken the time to tell the story of what they do and why.
It is my belief, though I know of both artists and scientists who would argue with me, that we, the privileged, educated, terminally academic people, have an obligation to fulfill in the world. It begins with teaching, researching, making art; and, of course, continues with communication to both our academic and larger communities about this work. The harder part, and the part that keeps me up at night, is how we might begin to get this information beyond the communities and the people who have the tools to access it. At my core, I am an optimist, and I believe that if you can cause people to fall in love with the world, you can cause them to try to save it. But if you grow up in a world where your tools are few and your needs are immediate and often desperate, it is doubtful such empowerment will come easily. And yet, for thousands of years, even in desperate places, there have been stories linking marginalized peoples to larger worlds. My gut tells me that these narratives are a way in. My gut tells me that weaving together the science and art of being human is a way in. But I think this also means that sometimes, we must leave our warm offices and familiar screens, and find the less comfortable, less privileged places of the world, to tell the story of what we do and why.