Embracing Public Scholarship

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by Joshua Perlin 18C

The thesis defense was my abyss. To clarify, the abyss is the culmination of Joseph Campbell’s heroic quest. This quest is part of an archetypal heroic journey known as the monomyth, which pervades cultural narratives throughout history. The hero is called upon to exit the world of familiarity to embark on a voyage, wherein they must overcome increasingly demanding challenges before reaching the abyss. The successful conquering of the abyss provides the hero with new insights into both the world and themselves. I draw upon this narrative trope in my honors project, in which I analyze how narrators ‘redeem’ these personal challenges.

The defense was this ultimate challenge for me—not because I dread public speaking or academic exposure. Instead, I found myself fumbling with the process of public scholarship; that is, making my research accessible and digestible to listeners outside of my discipline. Public scholarship is a critical intellectual enterprise if academics hope to remain relevant. When I sat in the weekly work-in-progress seminars through the Fox Center, I heard inflections of the dissatisfaction with systems of power and oppression that rings out in the public sphere. Clearly, the academic’s can be brought to bear on some of the greatest social ills of our times. So, why is it challenging to communicate those ideas to the broader public?

I similarly struggled with this paradox in working on my defense presentation. My research is wedded to people’s lived experiences—so much so that I am collecting their life stories! I even begin my thesis with the decisive statement: “The human experience is rife with personal challenges.” Yet, I found it profoundly difficult to tap into this shared human experience in communicating my findings. In my view, I lost sight of the forest through the trees. To make my work comprehensible for the public would mean disregarding some of the nuances of the research; however, maintaining the nuances divorced my research from the public. After poring over the pages of my project for almost an entire academic year, I was so emotionally close to the work that I found it extraordinarily challenging to isolate the essential information. However, academics should be trained to shine a light on the essential information and present it in a lucid way. We become so accustomed to the who, what, when, where, and why that we forget perhaps the most important question: So what?

Because of my experience with the defense, I have set the intention to re-center my scholarship on the ‘So what?’ as I journey through graduate school and beyond in my professional academic career. I have recognized the necessity of public scholarship to the lifeblood of the academic. If we want to make the generative claim that the goal of academia is to contribute positively to the world—and I think we have a good case for such a claim—then we need to begin contributing to both the scholarly world and the public world.

How is that for a redemptive story?

Joshua Perlin is a senior majoring in Psychology with a minor in Ethics. He is writing his honors thesis in Dr. Robyn Fivush’s lab, studying how individuals narrate personal challenges in such a way that negative experiences are transformed into positive ones (narrative redemption). He is using quantitative methods to assess how redemptive sequences correlate with psychological well-being. In addition, he is conducting qualitative analyses to investigate identity formation in redemptive narratives. He is extraordinarily excited to use interdisciplinary and humanistic methods in psychology, and is extremely grateful to Dr. Fivush and the Fox Center for giving him the opportunity to do so.

 

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