in transit

Apologies for the prolonged absence — I’ve been terrifically busy moving all my base to Singapore in preparation for a year of fieldwork, and apart from just about managing to squeeze out 140 characters a day for the past week or so, I have been unconscionably remiss in web duties. The current whether forecast (that is to say, whether I post or not) suggests great uncertainty for at least the next fortnight.

Just briefly, something I’ve been wondering about recently: as a graduate student, is there a tension between sharing too much about your research, and sharing too little? Cambridge very much has a culture of sharing among fellow students: we’re encouraged to network widely and meet people working in related fields or spheres of interest for coffee, and to widen our own narrow perspectives by partaking of another’s findings and viewpoints. Some of my most fruitful and stimulating ideas, and the most startling connections, have arisen out of conversation with grads who work almost entirely outside my field. On the other hand, especially when research topics have grated a little close, I’ve scented competition, protectiveness over one’s research topic and a chilly reluctance to be forthcoming with ideas, a jealous barricading of one’s little graduate niche — all this, while discoursing politely over coffee with a taut smile. How does one conduct oneself then, say, at conferences, where the two dispositions must collide somewhat: to share one’s research while simultaneously marking it decisively as one’s own? Surely the whole idea of academia is the vigorous exchange of ideas rather than jealously smuggling them into publication — a republic rather than an emporium (or a black market) of letters? or am I just being naive?

at any rate, I wish to leave you with the following exchange, which has no doubt made its gleeful rounds about the internet, though perhaps not with its masterful graphic accompaniment. Au revoir, and please don’t elect this woman.

COURIC: Well, explain to me why [Alaska’s geographical proximity to Russia] enhances your foreign-policy credentials.

PALIN: Well, it certainly does, because our, our next-door neighbors are foreign countries, there in the state that I am the executive of. And there…

COURIC: Have you ever been involved in any negotiations, for example, with the Russians?

PALIN: We have trade missions back and forth, we do. It’s very important when you consider even national security issues with Russia. As Putin rears his head and comes into the air space of the United States of America, where do they go? It’s Alaska. It’s just right over the border. It is from Alaska that we send those out to make sure that an eye is being kept on this very powerful nation, Russia, because they are right there, they are right next to our state.


3 responses to “in transit

  • Tim

    The trouble with academia is one of the general troubles with language. What do I mean? I shall try to say.

    Generally, you can count on the cooperative principle to prevail. We can engage in discussion or critique of a problem (one that may not be owned by anyone in particular) or the research work and arguments that are largely the product of a single person, with the implicature that someone will not unfairly monopolize ownership of a discovery, idea, or argument. If it’s common, it stays common, if it’s “owned,” it stays owned, if it’s borrowed, the terms of credit are clearly indicated or worked out after the fact.

    But sometimes the cooperative principle fails, and the person you think you are engaged in conversation with is actually a shit stain who is out to screw you over, either by prematurely dumping on your ideas or by stealing them and making them his/her own.

    The irony, of course, is that there is no way to claim association with a discovery, idea, or argument, except by sharing it. My own belief is that by sharing it as early, often, and forcefully as possible, you increase the likelihood that it is you who are positively associated with the idea and not someone else. There are witnesses and a paper trail, even if it’s really a trail of electrons.

    But of course, it has to be shared in the proper forum and with the proper expectations. If you dig up a great quote by someone famous and stick it on your blog, other people are going to link to it and someone else interested in the same topic will find it. Do you really want to have a firm monopoly on that? Maybe you do and maybe you don’t. The other problem is that there is no way to show that the discoveries, ideas, or arguments you’re trying to associate yourself with and further along in a scholarly community are interesting and worthwhile EXCEPT by making others aware of and conversant in them, and inclined to advertise that awareness to others.

    The last question is whether graduate students are more vulnerable to “bad” exposure of their ideas than others — either because they’re naive or mistaken about how they choose to reveal themselves, or because of their relative lack of authority to enforce punishments against bad behavior. I’m not sure about that. Obviously electronic publication opens up good and bad things on both of those scores. For good and ill, we have megaphones. People can hear when we whisper, and have a harder time ignoring us when we shout.

  • Simon

    I’m sorry, did you just make a Zero Wing joke? Shame on you!

  • Jeremy Young

    I think there’s a huge collision, and it’s the reason I don’t post about my dissertation on my blog or anywhere else. I’m not willing to risk having my idea stolen (assuming it’s even a good one, but there you have it). I also think I work best in isolation, taking my cues from primary and secondary sources and from my advisor rather than from other students.

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