Topic: A Specialization in Obscurity
The Ph.D. candidate who specializes in philosopher Jean Baudrillard ‘s theory of hyperreality in graphic novels.
The English lit master’s student who studies post-structuralism in Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way.
The undergrad majoring in 19th century French poetry.
These hardworking, passionate scholars regularly face the same dreaded question:
“What are you going to do with that?”
An article of the same title published in the Chronicle of Higher Education earlier this month provided the transcription of a speech given to Stanford University freshmen earlier this year.
The speaker, William Deresiewicz, said:
“The problem with specialization is that it makes you into a specialist. It cuts you off, not only from everything else in the world, but also from everything else in yourself.
Of course, every profession in the world has its own specialization. From river fisherman who specialize in bamboo boats made for a very specific type of catfish… to financial lawyers who only deal with specific types of mergers between companies of a specific size and type.
Specialization in itself is not bad. Getting sucked into a hyper-specific world to the point that you no longer find use for creativity is bad.
I’ve been guilty of hyper-specialization.
In undergrad at SF State, I became obsessed with forensics (a.k.a. speech & debate). But not all of forensics… just individual events. But not all 11 individual events… just platform events. But not all platforms, either… Just three: informative (info), communication analysis (CA) and after-dinner speaking (ADS).
Those three individual events guided my life in college.
I spent my entire junior and senior years obsessing over the best topics, structure, attention-getters, sources, examples, speaking styles and visual aids to give the best info/CA/ADS I could for competition. I spent hours picking the right pantsuit-shoes-jewelry combo for different tournaments based on how conservative the judges would be. I switched up my speeches based on the types of communication programs in which my competitors were enrolled: Were their professors interpersonal theorists or post-modernist feminists? Or did they study communication management? I lived and breathed a hyper-specific academic universe.
Forensics, like any specialized field, came with its own language. It’s routine to ask an IE-er if they broke their CA and what kind of leg they need to qual for nats. The IE-er’s teammate, a big interper on the circuit, may respond that while their team is going to HFO this year, they have too many LD-ers to send everyone to AFA.
It was nuts! No one outside of the activity understood (nor cared) about what we did. But I loved it, and the sport remains an important part of my life.
However, specializing to the point of obscurity limited me, too. On one hand, I learned discipline, research skills and how to make a grumpy 6th-year rhetoric doctoral student laugh in a dingy classroom at 8 a.m. on a Saturday. On the other hand, all of my writing (academic, creative, blogging, prose, letters to my grandma…) suddenly became speech-ified.
I began to open every piece of writing with a speech-y “attention getter.” I would preview all of my paragraphs in verbal format. Once, I forgot to use MLA style in one of my English papers and instead, cited all of my sources (name, title, date) directly within the paragraph. I balked when the teacher wrote, “Google Purdue Owl to learn MLA…”
Specialization took over my entire M.O.
Deresiewicz sums up my dilemma with hindsight:
“…as you get deeper and deeper into the funnel, into the tunnel, it becomes increasingly difficult to remember who you once were.”
Was it wrong to specialize so specifically in college? Well, no, because fortunately, I had other outlets. I wrote for the campus news website, interned at the poetry library, volunteered for the YMCA and… well, that was basically the extent of my extra-forensics-curricular activities, but I’m eternally grateful for those outside experiences. I feel bad for those who did nothing outside of forensics. They have sacrificed other rich experiences to pursue a tunnel-vision directed path.
I think students need to be careful when they become hooked in one specific area in college. Maybe a tenured art history professor takes you under her/his wing and steers you toward a master’s about (specifically) one of those French poets, the subject of your excellent midterm paper. Maybe a summer internship with a big political think tank looks so good on your résumé that you can’t bear switching fields after having landed that crucial stepping stone. Maybe you’ve been telling people you were going to cure Alzheimer’s since the 9th grade and can’t bear to abandon the ability to one day say “I’ve wanted to do this since I was a kid,” once you’re a rich and successful brain surgeon.
And specialization can be a crutch. A comfy safe zone in a new environment.
This fall, the week before my journalism grad program began at USC Annenberg, I decided I wanted a spot in Neon Tommy, the student-run digital news site. I quickly labeled myself as a technology columnist and began fervently writing articles about Facebook, Twitter, Craigslist… you name it. The hottest topics in tech were mine on which to wax poetically. I didn’t have the courage to start writing without a framework, yet I ended up feeling pigeonholed by the ultra-specific closet in which I’d created. Now, I’m putting the feelers outside of this ultra-specific niche, but I’ll try to keep the framework as a starting place for new ideas. My editor has nudged me in the direction of linking the midterm elections to technology, and it sounds like a good way to stay creative while holding onto some specificity.
Remaining open to the rest of the world can be difficult once you’ve found a passion. In fact, some of the greatest discoveries and advancements have sprung from the minds of professionals who devoted their entire work to one specific thing.
But… I think the sentiment “find your passion” is a fallacy, because that implies that we have just one. “Find a passion and remain curious” seems like a more complete approach.
Toward the end of Deresiewicz’s address to Stanford’s freshman, he broke it down to imagination and courage. With those two motivators, he argued that even the most specialized individuals can channel their passion in new and fulfilling ways. He noted that having the audacity to imagine your future in creative and unpredictable ways is imperative to making the most of your mind, specialized or not.
“Morally courageous individuals tend to make the people around them very uncomfortable. They don’t fit in with everybody else’s ideas about the way the world is supposed to work, and still worse, they make them feel insecure about the choices that they themselves have made—or failed to make.”
Currently, I’m a dedicated BetterGrads volunteer, journalism grad student, online columnist and aspiring videographer… but I’d like to think I’m much more than simply the sum of these parts.
…and much less predictable.