Notes from the Road: What do you do?


Maybe it’s just a thing among academics, maybe everyone, but I’ve got a pretty well standardized elevator talk. The idea of the elevator talk is to be able to succinctly and meaningfully summarize my professional life within the duration of riding a couple of floors in an elevator.  Occasionally I’ve even given this monologue in an elevator, but that’s beside the point. Most academics I know have this because we recognize that few people have an idea of what we do  (much less each other when it comes to our life’s work and scholarship).

Sometimes I’ve  told people that I’m a “professor” and the quick response is “oh, a teacher.” That is both true and incomplete, especially since during my years as a chairperson teaching was about 15% of my responsibilities. Teaching is a great and noble profession, but it doesn’t really encapsulate my professional identity and feels like a poorly fitted pair of underwear (it doesn’t cover everything, leaves important things hanging). Sometimes I’ll tell people that I’m a “psychologist” which is always fun. For too many people that conjures up a Freudian couch, a therapy session, and the distinct impression that I am peering into their very souls seeking out the hidden truth of their thinly veiled psyche. When I see that expression start to enter their eyes  (the expression of “are you peering into my soul through my thin facade expression?” — that’s a thing and not something I invented), I often follow-up with a quick “but not that kind of psychologist.” Which I guess means I actually did divine some sort of hidden truth — at least the one I may have caused by naming myself a psychologist. For years, especially during my post-doc training, I called myself a “scientist” which was simple, vague, and mostly ended that particular line of questioning.

Of course I am a teacher and a psychologist and a scientist, but none of those particular monikers really give the slightest inkling of how I actually spend my time. They are things I can put on my tax form once a year or use in conversation to avoid talking about actual my work. Still, most of the time if someone is actually interested, I give the elevator talk. A good elevator talk is specific. It is intriguing to the point of inviting further questions and curiosity, while avoiding over technical, methodological, or jargonistic explanations. It is brief: ideally 15-25 seconds, but definitely under 2 minutes. And it is evocative, eliciting a sense of the phenomenology of that work. My elevator talk has changed over the years: I started working on echolocation (how blind people avoid bumping into things and how sighted people fill out those 270-degrees of azimuth are outside of their visual focus), later I emphasized sensory and cognitive aging (how our cognitive processes in late life are affected by losses in hearing and other senses). I worked with motion (how do you detect an ambulance blaring its siren while on approach to your position), speech and hearing, and most recently music and issues of timing (how does music affect your experience of time, i.e., being lost in music). I gave those elevator talks relating the big ideas of those projects  and others, quite frequently over the years. With that repetition, I’d learn to anticipate the ambiguities, address the technicalities, and anticipate the follow-up questions. It became simple and  almost perfunctory.

I don’t have a great moniker or an elevator talk for this year. I am still a teacher, but with no teaching responsibilities and no students. I am still a psychologist because my degree and my training in psychophysics, behavioral methods and statistics, and associated paradigms grant me a particular title and responsibilities thereto pertaining (so they said at my graduation), and also that doesn’t really address my current activities. I am still a scientist, but without a current working lab or active research projects at said lab during this year.

So, what am I this year?

A nomad.

An amateur journalist or hobbyist historian.

A social anthropologist of Psychology and its field.

This project continues to take shape as we progress physically across the country. As the project takes shape it also shapes me. The core of an understanding of my responsibilities, an understanding of my place in the world are now open and undefined issues. I don’t have an elevator talk, yet. Do I tell people “I’m on a year-long quest to talk to cool people” or “I’m journeying around the world meeting the most influential psychologists of the last 30 years, but only some of them will talk to me and others ignore me” or “I’m traveling a bit to create a more complete oral history of psychology?” Those are all reasonable depictions of my activity but also all sound a little ridiculous. Who am I to do this? Why do I get this time to ask these questions and meet these people?  How is it ordained that this is an appropriate profession for me (at least this year) but not someone else?  Notably, a few people have commented they hope to do something like this and wonder why we can and aren’t, you know, living somewhere.

As the custom’s agent at the border to Quebec asked me, “don’t you have to be somewhere to be, professor, …a university?” I am somewhere, but I’m also impermanent. Transient.  Am I making this collection of conversations and chronicles of oral history for posterity (as is the aim) or just for the tiny collection of people who seem to read this blog? Will that tiny collection of people with an interest in this work grow or diminish as the year continues, month after month?

It is easy for me to wonder but difficult for me to determine this year. There are a few cliches that I have been embracing.

All life is process,  there is no endpoint. 

Here I am on the road and changing personally, seeing change in my family (especially my rapidly growing son whose voice seems to have suddenly deepened), and experiencing changes professionally. Even when I don’t acknowledge it, the journey itself is real, critical, and constant — change in venue and location only marks the processes in motion in a more obvious way.

And, the cliche that my student used to wear on one of her t-shirts:

The way forward is through. 

Every journey has its obstacles that need to be acknowledged, assessed, and met. The most convenient path is not always addressing those obstacles directly, but real progression requires meeting them and working through.

So, what do I do?

I make it up as I go along and try to find a path along this journey. I fake it. I dive into research literature and people’s lives to find glimmers of understanding and moments of inspiration. I listen. I smile and nod. I hope that more amazing people will meet with me and be candid about their lives. I study and I pray. I eat foods in every town and try to better understand local cultures. I observe. I love.

Maybe that is enough.

(*Picture of trees or of buildings — not sure which is more important — at the University of Chicago).

3 thoughts on “Notes from the Road: What do you do?

  1. In addition to being that cultural anthropologist of Psychology, I think you’re also a narrative psychologist, eliciting the stories of lives and using them to reveal a greater whole. I find an increasing number of students who, when talking with professors about their work, say, “I couldn’t possibly do that.” Maybe your stories will give aspiring academics hope that they too could actually do this.


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