So I’m sitting here procrastinating over planning this talk I’m supposed to be giving next week. I’m giving a talk at the Globe Coffee Lounge next Thursday Feb 19th at 7 PM (if you’re in town, drop in!) on my time in Egypt and my research and so forth. I’m planning to read some of the funnier blog entries about flooding and fake dead bodies and so forth.
As I said I planned to devote today to finish planning, clean up my notes and slides, and generally get ready to actually practicing the thing. Instead I’m sitting here at the Globe, where I’ll be giving the talk, mooching about on the internet and listening to the radio. In a minute I might go get a brownie. But really–I’m supposed to be finishing this talk.
There are lots of different theories about why people procrastinate (when researchers can be bothered to get around to thinking about it, that is), but one major reason in my case is the fear of failure. In my head, this is the most brilliant, fabulous talk that anybody ever saw and everybody asks really erudite, encouraging questions, and the audience leaves feeling enriched by the experience.
Now clearly, nothing in my real experience can ever live up to such a golden ideal. I’m not saying the talk won’t be fun or that people won’t get anything out of it – but it’s impossible to expect that absolutely everybody in the audience will get everything that I want to convey out of it. I won’t even have enough time to talk about everything I want to talk about, let alone get everyone in the room to really understand (let alone agree with) everything I have to say.
My biggest fear (besides the obvious technological ones that the projector won’t work and I’ll just have to entertain everyone through sheer vivaciousness) is that, because of the nature of my personal experiences in Cairo, I’ll leave everyone with a bad impression of the place. I want people to leave curious about Egypt and wanting to learn more about it, not feeling like it’s a horrible place and there’s no point in ever trying to go there. Yes, Cairo was a confusing and difficult place for me to navigate, but in the end it was an experience that I will treasure always. I always knew it would be no matter what the details were.
My other big fear is that somebody will assume that because I do “something related to the Middle East,” this automatically means I’m qualified to answer questions on all the really scary stuff that happens there, like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Iraq war. I once explained to someone that I’m not familiar with the issues in Palestine so I felt I couldn’t make a constructive comment on gender issues there, and he looked at me in shock and told me I had a responsibility to make comments on those issues. (Before anybody gets any stereotypes in their minds about what ‘side’ of the debate this guy was on, he was an elderly British gentleman who I met at an Episcopalian church service.)
The other side of the coin is people who think my research is frivolous and completely lacks value because it isn’t a ‘hard science’. The annoying part is trying to respond to these people without telling them that they have an inflated sense of the importance of their own research (if they’re academics) and they’re missing out on looking at different forces that power the world.
Anyway, there are always going to be people who think what you’re doing is interesting and valuable and others who think it isn’t – doesn’t matter what your job is, that’s just a fact of life. Where it gets a little hairy is when people begin to think you have a responsibility to do one thing or another. I do think I have responsibilities as a person participating in the world of academia – this is why we have ethical standards, after all, to make sure we all know what we’re supposed to be doing. I still occasionally disagree with people outside my field about what those responsibilities include. I actually do think it would be irresponsible of me to make any comments on the situation of women in Palestine, because I haven’t done any research there and to suggest that I am an expert on the topic would be grossly misleading to anybody listening.
But it is important and necessary to share the research I am doing (it is important for all researchers to share their research), and not just keep it locked up in little notebooks just for my own enjoyment. It’s irresponsible to do research like that benefits nobody. I especially think it’s important to share research with the general community outside the ivory tower of academia – who actually reads all those journals besides us professorial types with the elbow patches? And how can you expect research to benefit people if you only share it with other people like yourself?
So this is why I am doing this talk at the Globe: so people will know about my research, even if they disagree with it or don’t understand it (though I don’t think it’s very complicated; it’s just that most people don’t spend all day thinking about the concepts that I do. They’re not difficult, just unfamiliar.) But before I can give the talk, I have to actually finish it. So I’d better end this blog entry.