Yesterday evening I joined Professor Spouse’s colleagues at their monthly post-faculty-meeting gathering, a school-sponsored social hour with food and drinks. I had to pass on the drinks given the pregnancy, but the food was quite tasty and the conversation added much food for thought. I met many people I hadn’t met before… all of whom wanted to know what I did. Many seemed to guess that I, too, might be an academic. (One asked, “and what department are you in?” to which I had to respond that I wasn’t part of a department).
I found myself at a loss for what to call myself. A couple of times I referred to settling in and job searching, being in search. Other times, I settled on “roving academic,” delivered with what I regret was a self-deprecating tone. Even this phrase wasn’t quite right, since it conjured images of the pavement-pounding adjunct cobbling work together. They asked if I was interested in teaching, and what research I was working on? I had to stammer that I was in the working on alternatives to teaching, possibly with an interest in academic administration. I could feel the question marks rolling out of my conversation partner’s eyes. (You know the ones: why would she do that? What could be better than teaching?)
When it came to research, I didn’t really want to talk about the dissertation I finished over two years ago, and haven’t worked on substantially since, as my research. It’s hardly “what I’m working on,” as academic parlance would put it. I’ve never liked talking about my topic, except with people I knew would actually find it interesting — rather than those who offer the obligatory response of “interesting,” in the way they might describe a haystack or a speck of dust as “interesting.” Even at academic conferences, I dreaded those moments when a well-meaning professor in my department would introduce me to some longtime, important friend, and the friend would ask, well-meaning of course, “what do you study?” I hated saying my truthful response of what my area of interest was. As much as I do (did?) find the topic interesting, I was never one of those people who woulds start to either practically or actually jump up and down as if they’d just found the pile of gold at the end of the rainbow. In retrospect, this reluctance is telling.
One of my interlocutors last night could tell from my face that I wasn’t about to become an independent researcher, either. “Well, it’s rather more solitary than I’d like for a long-term plan,” I explained.
I was left wondering what I would rather have talked about, what answer I would rather give to the question “what do you do” that would show excitement, rather than fluster and mild embarrassment. I think I spoke enthusiastically about the digital library project I manage, but what excites me most about it – the challenge of getting the a redesigned site up and running, as well as thinking about collection development for the site – wasn’t really what interested this particular person.
Clearly, I need to work on my cocktail hour repartee, and come up with a snappier way to characterize what I’m currently doing with my life.