Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Single-Serving Public Relations

Here's a fly-by-night post from the road:

I love that scene in Fight Club where Edward Norton explains the concept of a single-serving friend in reference to travelling on airplanes. From the perspective of his character (Bob, is it?), every experience on airplanes comes in single-servings including one's social relationships. And he's right. I'm currently stuck in an airport Santiago, Chile on a (::gasp::) 7-hour layover (don't ask) on my way to Rio de Janeiro and I've just finished with 10 hours of non-stop single-serving friendship-building that I liken more to public relations.

This friend was no less than an eager undergraduate off to South America for his first extended stay. He only spoke English (which was a little disappointing since I couldn't practice my Spanish or Portuguese) so free-flowing conversation was inevitable. But the moment when I was forced to pause was when he asked me what exactly it is that I do. For this student, nothing I said made any sense and I found myself faced with a completely different side of the doing-what-you-love / guilty-pleasures discussion that we've been having over here. That is, are we in trouble if we can't explain the merits of what we do to a college-educated citizen?

Giving the simple, "I study music" answer simply does not suffice for a 10-hour plane ride of mostly undivided attention. Nor does a mini-lecture rapidly culled from all of my first-day experiences in front of a room full of undergraduates. The big difference in this situation is that this single-serving audience doesn't start the conversation expecting to hear about musicology. Even more to the point, this person doesn't necessarily care about the humanities or social science perspective (or my feelings, for that matter). For this moment of single-serving public relations, I found myself without the crutches of GE requirements that normally force otherwise passive consumers of culture to listen and participate.

So what do we do when we basically have to defend our field(s) of study to people with very little patience for the academy, especially those non-applied "ologies" that have a very difficult time seeming relevant? Oh, you know you have faced this same quandary. This debate has been raging for years. Most of the time I ignore the starkness of this reality; I continue to study what I love without guilt and pick my methodologies with care all in the pursuit of doing good work and contributing to the academic conversation. I also teach with enthusiasm and hope that I engage as many students as possible. I try my best to forget those uncomfortable conversations with family or old friends who really don't understand how studying what I love could be a career. But these discussions are very much about about public relations and sometimes I wonder if we, as a group, couldn't be doing a better job at it. For example, maybe we should insist that those conversation openers not end with "I study music," but rather begin there. Such brief explanations rarely help.

I don't know. I am trying to not to read too much into one of many similar conversations I've had in the last few months (make that years). Maybe I'm just tired from not sleeping on a long, bumpy flight. Maybe I will take over that couch on the other side of the lounge...

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