Friday, May 22, 2009

Thinking with the learned, speaking with the vulgar

Fellow Smoker Zombie asks the following question:
Does anyone have a "layman's" version of their diss/research, for non-philosophers who ask about it? Since I've got a postdoc fellowship starting in the fall, I've had occasion to tell people outside of philosophy that I'm starting a new job, relocatiing, etc. Many ask what I'll be doing, and what it's about, and I realize I need a really short and non-jargony, soundbitey explanation. Likewise when people ask me what my diss was about. Or do you just talk until their eyes glaze over and they start to back away slowly...
The strategy I take when the vulgar ask about what I do or what my dissertation is about is to first sigh loudly and with resignation (not exasperation), then adopt a decidedly non-excited tone and talk very haltingly (and with fingers running through hair) to indicate just how fucking hard it is to formulate my very complicated project so that they can understand. Now, if that doesn't completely put them off from asking any other questions, I'll drop a few names that they probably heard of, but know nothing about. This gives the other person an opening to pretend to know what's going on, nod interestedly, and go back to talking about the weather or my fantasy baseball team.

But, I somehow doubt that is the the advice Zombie is looking for, and it's certainly not the proper way to interact socially with someone else. So, let's help Zombie out, what strategies do you adopt when you talk with the lay about your work?



DaN McKee said...

Arguably this could be a litmus test to save us all from the abyss of over-specialization: if you CAN'T explain your work to anyone outside an esoteric elite, is it really work that is going to be worthwhile?

Asstro said...

Funny thing, that. With this attitude, neither of you will get jobs. It would behoove both of you to presume that there are similar such vulgar know-nothings in the departments that are interviewing you. In an interview, you have two, maybe three, sentences to get your shit out on the table. If it's not out there...Next!

Anonymous said...

If you can't talk to "the lay" about your work then it is very unlikely you're going to be a very good teacher.

Anonymous said...

I don't find myself doing this all too often, but when I do, I tend to avoid talking much about the particulars of my own take and instead try to tell "the story of why". This usually goes something like:

1) There is this broad problem X (how reference works in language) that philosophers would like to get a handle on, but no solution has been settled on, so there are a number of competing theories.

2) It turns out that there is a particular area Y (propositional attitude reports) where the competing theories all seem to have various problems, and the ways of getting around those problems sound, to one degree or another, silly to those people who are aware of the area but don't have a dog in the fight. As a result, Y has become a sort of battle-ground of problem X.

3) My work focuses on a particular solution to X mostly discussed in terms of Y. I think my version of Y sounds reasonable, and I'm trying to convince other people of this.

Then if they ask for details, we can get into it.

Most of the work in philosophy tends to be about Y-things, and when you start talking about your solution to Y, you're failing to address the issue of why anyone would care about Y, including the person asking. I think it's generally more important and fruitful to explain why someone might care. (Of course, some people won't understand why anyone would care about X, and for those people you'll have more work to do.)

Soon-to-be Jaded Dissertator said...

Though this won't get us any closer to answering Zombie's question (let's try to do so soon), in order,

Dan: Yes, it will be worthwhile; I imagine my friends with PhDs in the hard sciences on obviously worthwhile stuff, find it hard to explain what they do except, maybe, in the broadest of outlines related to the problems they are addressing (which, suggests one useful way of at least framing one's project to others: explain your hook into your project in terms of the questions you care about and why *you* care about them?).

Asstro: What attitude? I guess you're referring to my tongue-in-cheek use of 'vulgar' and snarky answer to Zombie. But, don't read too much into it. I certainly care about actually answering Zombie's question. Finding ways of talking to others about my project not only in my own terms, but in theirs also, will be especially helpful on the job market. And being able to talk about one's project in a few different ways each respectively emphasizing different facets of it for certain interested parties is an important skill that we all should learn and not neglect.

Anon. 9:02: The problem isn't being able to teach students who have no background in philosophy the basics of the field. You have a whole semester to do that and it's a very different enterprise than trying to figure out how to explain a 250 page project or 10 year research interests in the span of a normal conversation. Certainly there's some overlap between the two, but being unable to do one doesn't mean you can't do the other.

titmouse said...

Yes, I agree, this is a very bad sign. It signifies a few bad things.

I don't want to say that philosophers should always be able to explain their work to lay folk. Not all problems can be explained without a lot of background information. So if your work is very technical, say in logic, then you might not be able to explain it to non-philosophers. In any case, this does strongly suggest that you are working on a chmess problem. If not, then perhaps something else is wrong.

But there are not so many problems like this. For a huge swath of philosophical issues, perhaps most, you should be able to motivate the problem to any intelligent, attentive person. (Many programs don't encourage this. It's a damn shame.) Typically, philosophers simply have no excuse for not being able to explain their work. . . .

If you are working on a problem that could easily be motivated, but you just can't seem to do it, then you will likely be a very bad teacher and an absolutely awful writer. ( . . . I've seen very good teachers who are very bad writers. But this is another problem.)

A practical concern: If you get a job interview, you are going to be talking to people who will be as outside your area of specialization as some guy on the street. You'll need to be able to explain your project to someone with very little background in the topic. Go get some practice!

Of course, there are lots of insecure people who assume that if they can't understand what you are saying, then it must be their fault. If you can get an interview room full of these types, then maybe you can get the job. The first step is to send in a paper that looks like a giant equation. Only write in dense sentences with lots of symbols. Never use plain English when you could use a formalization. Whatever you do, don't use any concrete examples. And make sure that your sentences are at least a page long. When you get to the interview, speak only in jargon and talk really fast. When asked for clarification, just repeat the same sentences with different variable names.

Soon-to-be Jaded Dissertator said...

See, now that's what an answer to Zombie's question looks like, and even without noting bad attitudes, job prospects, or lack of ability to teach. Thanks Anon. 10:19!!!!!!

Anonymous said...

Good for you, Jaded. I think the first three comments, all very critical, are wrong. You've explained why, but let me add a couple of quick thoughts.
Asstro, being able to explain your dissertation project to a hiring committee is really very different from being able to explain to a random person at a cocktail party. Even if you disdain your future colleagues as much as you suggest, you have a bunch of culture and a lot of vocabulary and basic background knowledge to draw on when you chat with the hiring committee.
And 9:02, I couldn't explain my dissertation to an intro philosophy class in twenty minutes, frankly. I think I do pretty well teaching them introductory philosophy in 15 weeks though. (I've been doing this successfully for over 15 years.)

Anonymous said...

Doing this will be good practice for the job market, I agree, but I also think it's a good skill for teaching newcomers to philosophy. Your work (or the course material) might be technical, but chances are, the larger puzzle or interpretive issue that drew you to the topic in the first place is something that is easy to state and compelling, or can be made so with a little bit of work. Focus on the puzzle more than the particulars of your solution, but you should have a good high-level story about your solution, too. (Socially, "and what I am doing is coming up with a framework that makes sense of our conflicting intuitions" probably suffices for quite a lot of philosophy.)

Anonymous said...

I thought 10:19 was a joke. It's describing how to boil water. Are we dealing with Martians here?

"the story of why" = motivating the problem

The introductory chapter or chapters of the dissertation should motivate the problem. Your work should already be done. . . .

Mr. Zero said...

Hey, so, can we please stop with the if you would ever, under any circumstances, write these words in any blog post or comment, then you are obviously a shitty philosopher and will never get anywhere bullshit? I mean, I have a Ph.D. and a job in philosophy, and my chair observed a few of my classes and had good things to say, and although I've had a hard time getting a permanent job, I'm sure it's not because I find it difficult to explain my dissertation to my cousin who thinks that the earth is 6,000 years old and that fossils exist to test our faith.

Asstro, I know you from the other blog, and I respect you. But come on.

Seriously. I find it very challenging to explain my work to people with no background in philosophy. I work in theoretical ethics, and I find that people often have no conception of theoretical ethics, no sense of why anyone would be interested in it, and no ability to comprehend how I could possibly be interested in ethical issues when I am specifically not interested in applying them to real-world situations. I've never had any such problems when discussing my work with trained philosophers.

I usually find that either the person quickly regrets having asked the question, and so I quickly wrap up the discussion and mention sports, or else the person has thought about something that is tangentially related to my topic, in which case I allow the person to follow the tangent. Then I bring up sports. I usually find that sports is what they really want to be talking about anyway.

the spice expands consciousness said...

You think explaining your dissertation is tough, just wait until you meet non-academics and they ask you what you do. Teaching at a university is understandable to most people; being a fellow, not so much. After my first year as a post-doctoral research fellow, I have found that answering the question, "What do you do?" with "I am a research fellow" will only leave the questioner with the same glazed over look as the "terms of art" explanation of your dissertation. Add "post-doc" and they are even more confused.

I have found the easiest, most hassle-free answer is: "I'm working on a book for [insert university/think-tank/etc. here]." If they ask you what the book is about, answer at your own discretion.

Asstro said...

Apologies if I came off as unduly harsh. In all likelihood, most readers of this blog will find jobs, but I anticipate more pain than success if you don't have a road map to your research on the tip of your tongue. Even extremely convoluted philosophical problems can be introduced delicately and briefly to those who aren't schooled in philosophy. What's unique about philosophy is that, to a large extent, _none_ of us are experts in the areas of others of our colleagues. We may know more than lay folk, but we don't know that much more. I'm not heavily read-up on philosophy of language, for instance. If I'm interviewing someone who can't introduce their problem to me in a way that keeps me engaged, I start thinking about how my socks are pulling on my ankles, how I need to lose weight, how I sure need to get a drink of water. That's not necessarily true in larger departments (which mine is), but it's true enough that though I don't interview people outside of my AOS at the APA, I do often go out with them and talk to them about the research.

Point being, if you go on the job market, you should (must!) be able to explain your research at several levels of complexity... including to the Dean, who may very well not give a rat's ass about philosophy.

At any rate: sorry if I offended. I just think it's damned important to pitch your research projects in the right way to the right audience. If it helps, identify five or six different audiences that you'll need to persuade, and write out abstracts (short and longer) to address each audience. Think in these terms:

1) Your mom, dad, and grandma.
2) An undergraduate student
3) A grad student
4) The Dean
5) A prospective departmental colleague from a totally different branch of philosophy (in other words, they "get" the philosophical project, but may not be familiar with your questions).
5)A prospective departmental colleague in an affiliated but non-philosophy department (in religion or literature, say). In other words they don't "get" the philosophical project.
6) A philosophy colleague from _your_ branch of philosophy.

Those are all different pitch pieces. You should have each one of them nailed down.

Anonymous 10:19 said...

Anon 11:28:

I have a friend who is a mechanical engineer. One of the things he spends time on is tolerancing. When I ask him what he's been doing, and he's been doing a bunch of tolerancing, I suppose he could explain to me the specific calculations he goes through, and how he arrives at a conclusion. He could also explain what tolerancing is, and why someone would want to do it. By answering that question, he has provided a completely reasonable answer.

It is true that the material related to "why" will appear in the introductory chapters of a dissertation, and the bulk of it will be about particulars. It is also true that if you are interviewing, the search committee will want to hear some of those particulars. It is even true that if you are asked what you're working on by someone familiar with the area, they will want to hear some particulars rather than a rehash of what they already know.

What is not necessarily true is that anyone outside of those groups, including philosophers, will necessarily be asking for the particulars of what you worked on, or are working on, when they ask that question. If we think we can only really explain by differentiating ourselves (by explaining our contribution to the problem), that's partly because of our unwillingness to see the bulk of what we spend our time on as being like working out tolerances for some particular part: not terribly compelling to someone whose own work isn't very similar.

Now, as it happens, I am a bit interested in the mechanics of tolerancing, and one day I will sit my friend down and get him to explain enough to me of the specifics so that I know more about the process in the abstract (rather than just have a grasp on what the result is). But that will take a while, and will only happen because I'm interested. You may run into people like this (hence the "we can get into it" portion of my answer), but you should let them guide you to the level of detail they want.

Mr. Zero said...


No hard feelings. I find myself in agreement with your elaboration.


I thought your initial response was right on, and like your elaboration even more.

Anonymous said...

Could I just take a moment to commend the supreme pwnage going down over at thanks to Mr. Zero's efforts to combat extreme right-wing zealotry. He's a credit to the profession.

Anonymous said...

Philosophical thinking might be understood as a refinement of ordinary thinking. In this case, its methods and subjects would be continuous with the methods and subjects of ordinary thinking. The trick in explaining what we do (and why it matters) to non-philosophers would then be a matter of making this continuity evident. This is much easier in some areas (normative ethics, say) than in others.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Zero 9, Lydia 0. It's almost not fair to engage in a battle of wits with a retard.

titmouse said...

Yes, Mr. Zero has the patience to rationally engage what appear to be insane bigots, whereas I would have only left an ugly trail of invective. I can see the virtue in this. But I fear it may be futile. In any case, Mr. Zero deserves praise.

inarticulate said...

Same here, titmouse. I know I would lose my cool (and philosophically speaking, I have plenty of cool) and descend to the dialectical equivalent of fists and a two-by-four. Kudos, Zero.
Likewise for Mark Lance in the lengthy exchanges on Leiter last month(?) over anti-gay bigotry. Lance put a philosophical beat down where I could only fume and sputter.

Anonymous said...

Agreed with Anon @5:41. Mr. Zero is indeed a credit to the profession and has incredible patience.


Anonymous said...

I mean I *try* to do what anon 10:19am does, but how easy is this when you're interested in whether names function as disguised definite descriptions or as tags for objects?

And no, I don't believe that just because you can't explain your work to a layperson that this means you are a bad teacher.

I don't try to explain my work to my first-years, since phil of lang doesn't even get taught until their junior year usually. There are reasons for this: some stuff takes some learning to get, people.

Would you expect a physicist to be able to explain her work to a layperson? Would you expect her even to be able to explain the theory of relativity to a "layperson?"

I doubt it.

Now do you need to be able to say in general terms to well-educated smart people what you are doing? Of course, but this is not the same as being able to explain something to someone who probably hasn't used their brain since college.

And the question that starts this blog is inane: who the hell understands nuclear fusion (really), and that work was certainly, if not worthwhile, impactful!

Anonymous said...

It sounds like Zombie has a job to go to (which eliminates one important reason for having a layman's version ready to talk about). I've been on several on campus interviews for primarily teaching positions where I am sent off with a group of students for lunch. Obviously, you aren't going to get to the ninty grity of your dissertation at such a lunch, but you had better be able to make some sense of it with such a group. If you can't explain your research to random group of students, then you've really got much less of a shot at a teaching gig.

Mr. Zero said...

5:41, 9:22, titmouse, inarticulate, and 7:28/C,

Thanks, y'all. I wasn't sure there was a rational audience over there; I appreciate the shout-outs.


zombie said...

I happen to be a really good writer, if I do say so myself, having been a journalist for decades. And I'm a pretty damn good teacher. I work in a fairly new field in bioethics, so I don't think the problem is that my work is too esoteric. It is just that I don't have an easy and brief way to explain it to people outside of philosophy. I have no need to explain it to my students (although I did, when I told them that I was leaving the university for a research fellowship). I know that not all of my philosophical colleagues will be versed in neuroethics, but they at least understand (broadly at least) applied ethics.
When I was talking to someone on my committee about it, he said that when he was graduating, he and his fellow students decided they needed seven different levels of explanation, from philosophers in your AOS, to philosophers outside your AOS, to, eventually, and at the simplest level of explanation, grandma, to whom you say "I teach college." The "I teach philosophy in college" was fine when I was doing that. Now I need a better way to explain what I'm doing as a PDF to the grandma-like others who are genuinely interested, but who are not going to be familiar with the issues yet. I would like to be able to talk to people about it without being off-putting, or making them feel inadequate, because I am working on important issues that affect those very people, and I would like them to understand what I'm doing and why. But I am unaccustomed to doing so in a really brief way, because it is a complex subject. (My diss was more than 300 pages long, and I just could not make that into a pithy, a 15 word conversation starter. So I just told people it was about "genetics." But "neuroethics" is not at all as obvious as "genetics.") I guess the problem is that I talk to smart people, and I want to be able to explain it to them without being overly reductive, and without treating them as if they are not smart, even though they are really not going to know anything about the work I'm doing, unless I can explain it to them in a really quick and easy way.

zombie said...

Must take issue with this: "Arguably this could be a litmus test to save us all from the abyss of over-specialization: if you CAN'T explain your work to anyone outside an esoteric elite, is it really work that is going to be worthwhile?"

There's these really esoteric and hard-to-explain financial instruments called credit default swaps that, it turns out, are really important to a whole lot of people who lost massive amounts of money in them, or as a result of the worldwide economic crisis to which credit default swaps contributed. I have heard numerous attempts (mostly on NPR) to explain these things in terms that non-economists and non-robber barons can understand. I've heard some pretty good explanations, but they took WAY more than a couple of minutes. The best explanation I've heard makes an analogy to contaminated salad. I need a pithy, NPR-type explanation of my work for NPR-type interlocutors. But a casual conversation is not the place for a ten minute, one-sided discussion. I'd also like to avoid the cringe-worthy kind of explanations one hears on Numb3rs (a show I cannot quit, despite the dumbening I experience every time I watch it, because it's so often about stuff I care about).

Anonymous said...

What a CDS is: "A credit default swap is a sort of insurance plan for an investment (such as a bond). One company agrees to pay some amount (the full value of the bond, for example) to another company if there is a problem with the original investment."

The problem for individual companies: "The general insurance industry is regulated, and one requirement of the regulations is that companies offering insurance policies keep a certain amount of money handy in case they need to pay claims. Credit default swaps were not regulated like that, and a number of companies offered a whole lot of CDSs thinking that there would never be any claims."

The systemic problem: "A lot of companies protected their investments by buying CDSs for them. Many of those investments are now worth less (or worthless), and the companies will not have enough money to stay in business unless their CDSs are honored. However, some companies that offered those CDSs wouldn't have enough money to stay in business if they honored them. In some cases, the same company both needs the money from the CDSs it bought, but can't afford to honor the CDSs they offered."

This is oversimplified, but that's kind of the point.

A "fifteen words" criterion has been mentioned here, but I think that a thing that can be described that briefly will generally be similar enough to other things in someone's experience that the latter can be referenced in the description of the former. (You might be able to describe hockey in 15 words to someone only familiar with baseball, but probably not to someone completely unfamiliar with any sport.)

Anonymous said...

I think a distinction needs to be drawn between explaining your subject and your work (i.e. your contribution to your subject).

It is understandable if you cannot explain your work to a layman. But you should be able to explain the contours of your subject.

titmouse said...

Thank you 3:35. I needed this.