In my department, we give majors the chance to take on an individual communication project of their own choosing. The only requirements are that it be of professional quality and that it make a contribution to the world. I’ve always urged students to draw on their personal passions and pick something that really matters to them. But for some reason, they’ve kept coming up with generic projects to which they feel no particular personal connection.
Eventually, I figured it out: They’d made a habit of keeping their academic work and personal lives separate. They didn’t believe that mixing the two was allowed, and they’d survived school thus far by choosing safe, dull, doable projects. Whatever their passions were, they were safely walled off.
Consciously or unconsciously, many academics follow that same strategy when it comes to our own research. We tend to think academic scholarship should be impersonal and dispassionate, not personal and meaningful. So we play it safe. We choose a research area we believe will ensure professional success, and then we stay the course for consistency’s sake. Even post-tenure, when presumably we have the freedom to go in any direction we want, we may opt for generic and familiar projects that do little more than add more lines to our CV.
Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be that way. I’ve discovered a technique that helps my undergraduates find projects that truly engage them. I’m also using it now with colleagues who are unsure which research topic to pursue next. Whether you’re advising young scholars or charting your own academic path, give this strategy a shot: It might help you recapture and refine your focus when you (or someone you know) gets stalled on a big, long project.
It begins with the “lilt,” a quality of voice. Almost everyone’s voice gets musical and responsive when describing something that matters. And almost everyone’s voice turns flat and mechanical when describing something they “should” want or like, but really don’t. You can train yourself to hear the lilt when someone is talking. If you ask someone to tell you more about what they’re working on, you can wait for—and then follow up on—the lilt. This is how you identify which projects, or parts of projects, truly interest them. And which ones don’t.
Following the lilt involves a simple give-and-take between listener and speaker. The listener says something like “I think I heard a lilt when you talked about X.” The speaker is asked to talk more about X, while the listener asks more questions, noting not only the words, but also their tone. Most listeners can hear when the speaker’s voice sounds matter-of-fact, and when it sounds musical. By continuing to note and question, the listener can help the speaker pick out the parts of her project that he or she seems truly excited about.
In the first few weeks of my Senior Projects course, I require each student to come up with three different, but equally exciting, project options to present to the class. Sometimes a student will produce three legitimately interesting possibilities, but usually the best he or she can come up is two generic options, along with a fun or silly pie-in-the-sky third. We work together as a class to locate the lilt, and in the process the presenters identify their doable project, one that truly excites them, often combining elements from all three options.
This collaborative process is pretty amazing. Students begin not liking any of their three options, fearful that they are going to be talked into doing something hard and strange. And yet, for 15 or 20 minutes, they “follow the lilt” until—suddenly—they come upon a fourth project option that feels genuinely appealing. We refine it from there. Often, they can’t believe they get to do a project that is so interesting.
I think all of us in academic life could use this kind of collaborative guidance. Most of us still go it alone with our writing, trying as best we can to figure out what we “should” do, all by ourselves. We don’t always get wise counsel from our mentors, or sensitive feedback from our colleagues. We may not even believe we have the right to do projects that deeply interest us. Too many of us keep dutifully choosing projects that “make sense” and then feel bored and burdened by them. Like my undergraduates, we may not understand that we have the right to do projects that truly engage us. Instead of consciously choosing research we really care about, we return to the familiar, and the previously effective, and the already done-to-death. And then wonder why we feel unenthusiastic about our scholarly work.
We all deserve better, no matter what stage of academic life we are in. As graduate students, we should be addressing the questions that drew us to our field, the ones that keep us reading and thinking. As junior faculty, we should be excited about the scholarly community we are joining, eager to collaborate with others who share our interests and approach. As senior faculty, we should feel excited about what we’ve accomplished, and eager to keep contributing to the field and the profession.
If we don’t feel these ways, then it’s possible that, like my undergraduates, we’ve trained ourselves to bracket our personal passions and just keep doing whatever is required to get us through. The trouble with this, obviously, is that we miss the chance to do work we actually care about. The kind of work we will be proud of years from now, when we look back over what we’ve spent our lives doing.
So find some friends and teach them to follow the lilt. Let them help you figure out what really matters to you. And then do the same for them.