A professor recently offered this advice in class: if writing a paper isn’t going well—if you’re feeling the notorious “writer’s block,” for instance—then try writing a letter instead. In his view, this needn’t be a real letter to an actual person. The main point is to try to explain what you hope to achieve in a different way to a different audience.
Though I’d never tried letter writing of this sort before, I immediately appreciated my professor’s advice because of how it connects to a practice I’ve implemented in my own life for quite a while. That strategy is to “talk it out”—to take a break from a task that’s frustrating me and talk through the problem with a friend. This is the first reason that I think talking about research is helpful for each of us: it helps us clarify our aims and work through challenges.
A second reason to share what we’re working on is related to the first. Conversations about research can provide inspiration and bring new ideas to light. Someone doing similar work might be able to offer advice on the specifics of an experiment or research issue (like working with particular primary sources or searching a difficult to navigate database). But getting a truly outside perspective—that of someone from a totally different academic background—can also be valuable. Like the letter writing strategy, talking to a non-specialist in your field forces you to think about how to explain something complex in a more accessible and logically straightforward fashion.
For the past several years, I’ve been fortunate enough to have a reliable research sounding board in my roommate Tom. He and I swap ideas, articles, and books back and forth, both related to what we’re individually working on and what we think the other might be interested in. Sometimes, our projects overlap in interesting ways. For instance, we’ve both found a lot to think about in the books Alienated America (on social issues and divisions in the contemporary United States) and Age of Fracture (an interpretive history of the United States covering the last quarter of the twentieth century). While he’s interested in possible reforms of federalism as implemented in this country, I’m looking into the ideological sources and mechanisms of our contemporary polarization. I won’t wade into it here, but these ideas relate in interesting ways. Nevertheless, our interdisciplinary conversations—he’s in Politics, I’m in Religion—often provide us both with a lot to think through.
This brings me to a final reason to talk more about research and our academic work: the ideas involved are important and should be shared with a broad audience. I’m about as far from a theoretical physicist as they come, but each time I hear from someone interested in the fundamental structures of the material world, I’m grateful for the experience to have my mind enriched by their insight and deep knowledge of the cosmos. Similarly, and more in tune with my own interests, another friend regularly broadens my literary horizons and sheds bright philosophical light on matters ranging from the nature of evil to the necessity of love. Our conversations have introduced me to different works than the ones that I normally study, and also increased my appreciation of the power of the poetic to express subtle truths about human existence.
Research can feel isolating, as we spend hours immersed in our own sources devising an original argument. But talking with others about those endeavors has real value. What is shared expands and evolves, and in the process so too does our understanding of what we and others are researching. To all who think that the transmission of knowledge and good ideas is a good in itself, this is something worth celebrating.
–Shanon FitzGerald, Humanities Correspondent