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Importance

As a PhD candidate, I am working on interesting, important, original research. I know my research is original: it's work that no one else has done. I'm the world expert on my subject. I know it's interesting because I think it is, and because various other people agree with me. But why is it important? Why is any of it important, other than the ambient cause of contributing to the knowledge of humankind?

My research won't cure cancer. It won't improve diets. It won't prove anything exciting about Shakespeare or Chaucer. It won't revolutionize the way we think about the Middle Ages. It won't cause a major tidal shift among iconographers.

It will make people think about windmills and hourglasses in a slightly different way, but how many people really want to do that? How many people care about these things? And if caring is such a specialty, then why is my work important? I don't just ask the question as it pertains to me personally. It's an issue many people in my field grapple with. Just because no history has been written yet on, say, the science of playmobil, doesn't mean it needs to be written. Fields are sometimes neglected for a reason.

I know that the history of technology, that the history of technology in the middle ages in particular, is an up-and-coming field. It shows us new and interesting things about the time period, for those who care about it, as I do. But what makes it really important? What qualifies as importance?

(This question was effectively posed to me this afternoon and I struggled with it. I'm still thinking, and since there are a fair many graduate students, academics, and other bright people who follow what I post, I thought I'd ask you for some perspective.)

Comments

( 30 comments — Leave a comment )
crustycurmudgeo
Mar. 4th, 2004 07:02 pm (UTC)
Wow.. My interest in tech history is mostly from a techies curiosity about how we got here in this hand-basket and why it's getting so hot? And I confess some interest due to my smith character on PernMU.

Primarily, I try to figure out how the craft could do something complicated, using a devolved tech history, instead of an evolving one. I get puzzled by what lack of resources might force reversion to processes and procedure known long ago, but modified by knowledge (at least at one time) of a higher tech way to do the work.

Trying to avoid electricity, steam and internal combustion power and relying only on water and muscle is a challenge, due to no information on how many man-hours and cubic feet per minute dropping X number of feet it takes to do simple chores.
owlfish
Mar. 4th, 2004 07:30 pm (UTC)
So knowing more about how people thought about windmills adds to knowledge of how windmills spread and thus how our current landscape was ultimately formed. By this standard, knowing about the symbolic development, its use as a symbol for things other than time and death, is something of a dead end since it's not something related to how we ended up here: it's a dead end along the way. I guess this tells me something about how symbolism can fail to work and thus cease to be used. Is this important? Or is it just interesting?

It's all pretty interesting though, isn't it - you clearly agree that far!
(no subject) - crustycurmudgeo - Mar. 4th, 2004 07:59 pm (UTC) - Expand
snowdrifted
Mar. 4th, 2004 07:21 pm (UTC)
I wonder the same things about my own research too, really. :S I think at best I'll end up with a niche field since History of Chemistry is so tiny compared to Bio or Tech. But then I was working out an idea for a paper this week and ended up with something that might not be completely earth-shattering, but might suggest a context for one particular thread of scientific work. So maybe if we can give people a new perspective on what was happening in a specific time and place then we'll have done something good for the world. :)
owlfish
Mar. 5th, 2004 06:49 am (UTC)
We can look through the work with other peoples' eyeglasses and compare the views with professional authority and experience! (To strain the analogy with my talk.)

How oriented towards educating scientists is our department? That is to say, to what degree are you and I being trained up to create research which will tell scientists more about their work and might inspire them to think differently about their own work? Is that an agenda item at all? If it is, then I'm more off of the map than most people.
(Deleted comment)
owlfish
Mar. 4th, 2004 07:37 pm (UTC)
PhDs are easier for me to justify than the importance of my research. A PhD is training in research, in teaching, in knowledge creation and acquisition. Those are all portable skills, useful in lots of different ways. The generic skill of knowledge creation is a pretty good one, and can be applied to things that other people clearly consider important. I have no quarrel with that logic.

In a general way, history is clearly important. It deals with questions such as "Why are we here?" and "Where did we come from?" in non-biological, group-oriented ways. So having a general outline of how our country's borders, governmental structure, and trials and tribulations is formational. This is why I can see and argue for the importance in things like projects which aim to find out just what role women or minorities played in time periods and places where the evidence for them isn't as prevalent as evidence for whatever it is we do know a lot about them.

But I'm not tackling peoples whose voices haven't been heard. I'm not discussing life-style practices which affected all of everyday life. I'm working on the symbolic baggage of a bunch of known-to-be-medieval inventions, and the historiography of invention in the middle ages and early modern period. People today are more interested in who invented what than knowing what people back when knew about who invented what and how that differs from what we believe today.

Have fun with your peasants!
(no subject) - larkvi - Mar. 4th, 2004 10:48 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - larkvi - Mar. 4th, 2004 10:54 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - owlfish - Mar. 5th, 2004 06:29 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - owlfish - Mar. 5th, 2004 06:28 am (UTC) - Expand
You almost answered your own question... - suslikuk - Mar. 5th, 2004 01:36 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: You almost answered your own question... - owlfish - Mar. 5th, 2004 06:43 am (UTC) - Expand
kashmera
Mar. 4th, 2004 11:07 pm (UTC)
I'm going to pretty useless at giving specific answers since I'm not really familiar with what you're looking at, but one thing I do know is that often we may not be the ones to find the importance, its the people who come after us and build on the work. We do the little steps and then somebody else makes a leap and gets all the credit..*sigh*

The questions I have, which I'm sure is a little naive and you've probably answered before, is:

Is it possible for the things you have discovered to alter our interpretation of other literature?(i.e. what we thought they were saying) And is this limited to literature or does it possibly extend to other documents?

I think I'll wait for you answer to that before continuing my line of reasoning..
owlfish
Mar. 5th, 2004 06:35 am (UTC)
Yes, I believe that what I have discovered can alter the interpretation of other literature. Perhaps it doesn't alter it in major ways, but it does make a difference. I think it makes a difference in literature in both sense of the word: it changes some arguments in current scholarly literature, and it can change the way we research some literary literature from the late middle ages and early modern time period. But I can't argue that it changes it in a major way. I've reworked a thread: my whole dissertation is effective a response to an interesting and influential article which came out in the 60s by a bomb-thrower of a scholar - he tended to write striking, revolutionary articles, well enough supported to be a potential truth, but without arguing that it was the be-all and end-all of arguments. It was a way to start the discussion, and then he'd go on to other subjects. The article is widely cited amongst historians of technology, at least. My dissertation examines the plausibility of his argument and thus far looks as if it's disproving one of his central conclusions.
haggisthesecond
Mar. 5th, 2004 12:00 am (UTC)
There are days--lots of days--when I ask myself the very same question, with "the novels of Elizabeth Blower" substituted for "the technological history of sandglasses and windmills", of course.

I agree with what you said above about a Ph.D being valuable training in research and independent thought and in managing large projects and all that, of course I do. Yes, my larger area (hitherto neglected women novelists of the later 18th century) is a trendy field, even if EB herself is totally unknown (but that fact enables little old me to be the world expert on Elizabeth Blower). But.

At the same time, often when I apply myself to the question of why my actual research matters, well, quite frankly I can't come up with anything, apart from putting it in the context of the larger academic enterprise of "rediscovering" these novelists.

Perhaps it's a bad thing that I can't come up with any justification of why I should be spending all this time, effort and money on doing a Ph.D when I could be feeding starving orphans in the third world--but would I be doing that if I wasn't doing the Ph.D? The answer's probably no, when it comes down to it.

At the same time, the same argument about significance can be applied to the vast majority of Ph.Ds out there, including, I'm willing to bet, lots of your and my professors. There are exceptions, like my brilliant chemical engineer friend Jennifer, who defended her thesis last fall, who has been making a big contribution to making artificial corneas to help people see (her Master's project involved working on an artificial blood substitute to help save lives in battlefields and disaster areas).

But in general, your work and my work is no more and no less important than anyone else's. And you have just as much justification for pursuing it as anyone else does.

PS. I'd be interested to know who asked you the question--what does he or she do that IS "important"? It's such a relative, value-laden term....
owlfish
Mar. 5th, 2004 06:15 am (UTC)
The person who asked me the question is a senior faculty member in my own department. She's a professional historian, so she understands why history is important per se. She asked me how the work I presented in my talk would change the way iconographers in particular thought about their work and, more generally, why my work was important. I struggled to answer the question in any way she could acknowledge as being important, but did point out that my work on sandglasses and windmills had produced more significantly original information. She asked why I hadn't presented on either of those topics then, and I replied that I'd already given conference papers on both of them, that this was the first time I was giving a public presentation on my work as it dealt with eyeglasses. She agreed it was a good reason.

Arguing for the importance of my work with a professional academic historian is probably a much greater challenge than arguing for it with a generic member-of-the-public, since the latter might be willing to accept the more generic arguments which can be made for the scholarly study of history: it contributes to way our world is today and how we perceive it, it's interesting and original. I'm not sure how to convince a fellow historian, however. What counts as importance is so subjective.

We're working on the footnotes of history and literature, but, as a recent Invisible Adjunct post discusses, the big sweeping popular works of history can't be written without other people doing the detail work. I just hope we both get footnoted.
(Deleted comment)
owlfish
Mar. 5th, 2004 06:39 am (UTC)
Re: How do we know until we do it?
I like your argument, and it's one I can use to justify my work to many people. The complication is that I was asked the question of why my work is important by a fellow historian, a senior academic, someone who already understands the importance of history in general. Thus, her concern is really why is my work in particular important to other historians in particular. I suspect it's a question we'll each have to grapple with at some point: it strikes me as perfect interview-fodder for job-finding.

What qualifies as important is so subjective. What qualifies as a good answer entirely depends on who I am talking to.

Your answer also emphasizes how important it is to give conference papers and public. If our research isn't accessible, isn't known about, it'll never have the chance to be important.
tisiphone
Mar. 5th, 2004 02:58 am (UTC)
Just because something isn't headlineable, doesn't mean it's not important. Think about this. A middle-schooler has to do a research paper on the Middle Ages. He thinks history in general, and the middle ages in particular, are incredibly boring. He picks up el randomo encyclopedia in the library, flips to the "middle ages" section and reads - your research on windmills. A historian is born, and you just changed someone's life. How is that not important?
owlfish
Mar. 5th, 2004 06:46 am (UTC)
There aren't very many historians of medieval technology. I like your argument: I'm crucial to swelling our numbers and enabling more middle schoolers to discover the joys of both history and, perhaps, engineering and various trades as well.

The worries about importance which came out of yesterday's conversation in large part stem from losing track of the big picture, why historians in general are important, since I was trying to find arguments which applied to my work in particular. I think I still need to work on finding arguments which apply to my work in particular however, since that's what'll go into grant proposals.
curtana
Mar. 5th, 2004 07:43 am (UTC)
My work also isn't of obvious 'importance', whether it's my MA thesis on abduction or my present work for REED. REED at least has the potential to prove something interesting about Shakespeare, but we haven't found him personally yet. It's more about demonstrating the context he came out of and exploring the drama that *wasn't* great literature. They do always play up the Shakespeare angle when applying for grants, though, I notice.

As for your work, I think it's important that you're moving towards disproving a previous scholar's well-known (in the field) position on this particular piece. Improving the quality and accuracy of our knowledge and beliefs about the past is always important, even if it's about art and symbolism rather than something more concrete. Trying to understand what people in the past would have taken from looking at a particular set of symbols may not cure cancer, but it helps us better appreciate what was going on in the minds of these long-dead people, and I think that's wonderful.
kashmera
Mar. 5th, 2004 12:13 pm (UTC)
"Hear, hear" (I hope that's the right spelling) - that's what I was working towards trying to say but don't enough about the work in question.

One other question to be answered: rather than trying to apply the work 'as is' to the literature, can some of the smaller parts of the work instead be expanded to additional symbolism? e.g. can the 'why' of what they did be used elsewhere?
(no subject) - owlfish - Mar. 5th, 2004 01:51 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - kashmera - Mar. 5th, 2004 01:53 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - owlfish - Mar. 5th, 2004 01:57 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - kashmera - Mar. 5th, 2004 02:01 pm (UTC) - Expand
siusaidh
Mar. 5th, 2004 08:37 am (UTC)
what is not important
hi shana,
its been ages since ive posted and i have no excuse like lindsays but i just remembered that livejournal was out there and its a quiet friday so...im just picking your most recent post as the one to reply to...and it seems 22 others have already responded so hopefully you have received some good ideas as to what qualifies as importance? im sorta grappling with that idea down here but more on the opposite side as i watch some of the staff rush about preparing for a big visit from accreditation folks. the college so wants this visit to be perfect and im just hoping the team doesnt come near me b/c i hate playing college cheerleader. in my book, its just not that important but i know they dont think that...anyway, enough chatter about importance...i hope youre doing well and i just thought id say hello as i thought of you the other day when i was pondering ridiculously cute items in one of the shops near my home!
owlfish
Mar. 5th, 2004 01:55 pm (UTC)
Re: what is not important
Hello! It's good to hear from you. I'm still wrestling with the concept of importance, but having so many other peoples' perspective on the subject really does help me to think about it more than chewing it over on my own does. I'm particularly glad to have you point out that the question of importance is hardly specific to dissertation research and applies to a great deal of individual and corporate interactions. Maybe I should read up some more on PR and grant-writing for some other angles on the subject.

I am doing well in general, although I've been quite tired today, still recovering from all the pre-talk nerves I had on Wednesday, I think. I've done some reading today, so it's hardly been a waste. I have a chapter due in a week, but since it's my eyeglasses chapter, it'll be fairly easy to work on - most of the material is freshly in my head at the moment.

Your nearby shops are particularly good at cute and charming! I still think of that fishy toothbrush holder now and again, even if I still don't think I need it.
retsuko
Mar. 5th, 2004 09:19 am (UTC)
Much the same struggles here. The world will not change because of what I'm doing; women with signs will not stand out in front of manga publishing houses protesting the treatment of female characters. I'm well aware of this. I'm also well aware of the fact that sometimes, pointing out trends is just as important as working to change them. When you do original work, IMHO, you present ideas in ways that others had not thought of them before, and even though this is sometimes a thankless job, I believe it leads other people to different ways of thinking. These aren't always noticeable, but you hear about it indirectly every now and then, and it's a really good feeling to know that you changed the way people think. A visiting scholar to our department once told me that due to hearing my paper on manga, she didn't think they were trash anymore, and wanted recommendations to go out and buy a few of her own. On that day, I felt so, so right in my choice. ^-^;;
owlfish
Mar. 5th, 2004 01:42 pm (UTC)
I love the idea of equal rights campaigns for manga characters! I realize I'm mentally cartooning what is perfectly good research of yours on the subject, but it still makes for a delightful mental image. I imagine mass walk-outs will cause male manga subjects some great awkwardnesses in trying to progress their plots without central characters.

I don't know that I've seriously changed anyone's view on the subject of medieval technology, even if I've definitely done good work on it. I think that thus far I've been working in a very niche-specific way, which doesn't obviously translate into any kind of methodological insight on the field as a whole. Most of the feedback I receive tends to be of the delighted "isn't that interesting" variety, which I appreciate, I really do, but it doesn't give me any further insight into my own work. This week's talk was partcularly gratifying to me, as it was the first time I'd received any really useful questions.

Congratulations on showing someone why manga was worth reading! That's a wonderful compliment.
(Anonymous)
Mar. 8th, 2004 08:59 am (UTC)
from your sister
Shana, I think this is a fascinating discussion. It's interesting to see the dialogue that's been posted from within the field.

I'm glad you included the context in which the professor asked you the question. Although I'm not sure what tone of voice the questions was asked in, it almost sounds like she was just prodding you for your own benefit. It was more a rhetorical question than seeking a definite response, I would assume. Whatever answer you come up with, you should write it in your introduction-- why is this important? why should we care about what we're about to read?

From a "layperson's" perspective, this would make me more interested. For the purposes of defining your research's importance within your own field, I think it's enough that you've taken on a unique, never before written about topic that deals with some common items of technology that are so useful we still use them today.

In the big picture, I think your work parallels that of an artist-- you have the potential to enrich people's lives by providing them with fascinating information about objects that are familiar to them. I think everyone has a fascination with inventions and knowing more about the world around them. If I see a documentary on TV or an article in a magazine or a newspaper that deals with these kind of topics, I rarely skip over it. Why? Because quite frankly it gets me down to only read about war, social injustice and the latest critiques of US education policy. I want to expand my mind by reading about something that intrigues me.

Will this change the world? Absolutely, if you do it with the end user in mind-- a student, a museum goer, a TV viewer (say, for example, the Discovery channel!), a newspaper reader. That's because you make people think about fascinating things. I do disagree with research for the sake of research (although I do agree with the person who said PhD training in itself gives you important skills). But as long as you have the intention of making your findings accessible, or sharing your knowledge and exchanging ideas with students, I think you're every bit as useful as a doctor, engineer, etc.

Maria
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