Robyn Pritzker | 7 August 2017.
As a humanities researcher (and as a human), I am often reminded about the importance of caring: empathy, sympathy, and general sensitivity to my environment are some of the important values that supposedly distinguish the humanist from their scientific or otherwise quantitative counterparts. As humanists, we study culture, literature, language, and other facets of the world expected to inspire feeling or indicate meaning (freedom, beauty, truth, and love, even)! Working on a long-term independent project like a thesis, we are absorbed by our research, or we absorb it, depending on the day.
Most researchers at one time or another catch themselves feeling guilty about not paying enough attention to their work, as though the thesis were a child needing constant attention. Despite the humanist’s supposed engagement with, well, humanity, researchers are often haunted by a thought that the people around them are not interested in their projects. To boot, we ourselves often feel a distinct sense of apathy about our work. For me, this sometimes happens when I have other academic responsibilities and can’t prioritise my tasks properly. It also happens when I am suddenly faced with the world outside academia and forget how to function back inside the bubble. Given the voluntary nature of doctoral research, apathy, from others or from oneself, can feel a lot like failure.
At a conference earlier this year I was on a panel with another academic whose paper was markedly different from mine. This was largely inconsequential, but it meant that many attendees had come specifically to discuss his section of the field, not mine, and there was little overlap. The result of this was a long thirty minutes after the panel spent listening to questions and answers about someone else’s research while I sat quietly. I could not help but think, over and over, “none of these people care about my work at all.”
Ultimately, that’s fine. In academia we are constantly doing battle with everyone around us to try and convince them that what we write matters, and that what we discover and analyse is valuable. It doesn’t always work. It is the research process to work tirelessly to inspire someone, anyone (hopefully a publisher) that your project is important, and then once it’s done, you start all over again with the next chapter, next book, or next funding application. However, at this conference and in this instance, there was a perfect storm of discomfort that made me briefly question my entire academic purpose. I was, as a young woman still nervously making her first forays into the field, sitting next to an established and confident man, one who headed several important committees, who had published books and articles. It’s not surprising that the well-established scholar was a bigger draw than a newcomer, but when so much professional emphasis is placed on convincing others to care about, to recognise, your research, it can be hard to feel so small.
To put things in perspective, my research focuses on a writer who has been minimised and discounted by most scholarship; she has almost exclusively been known not for her work but for being the wife of another famous writer. Thus, feeling like my paper wasn’t of interest to this crowd hit a bit harder than usual. Despite my frequent assertions that Fanny Vandegrift Stevenson was a writer worthy of study on her own, I am still asked more about her partnership with her better-known husband than anything else, an understandable but frustrating reality.
I can’t make people care about my project, but I try to care enough on my own for those who don’t. Stevenson’s writing is entertaining and her observations keen, her work embodies a transitional period in women’s writing at the end of the nineteenth century suspended precariously between the Victorians and the Modernists which deserves more attention and understanding. She had a close friendship with Henry James, and she was known as a passionate and clever storyteller. However, she has remained stranded in the relative obscurity usually afforded to ‘literary wives.’ Stevenson’s many publications were referred to even by her own sister as nothing but “several fairy stories” (327). As long as my research centres around figures at the margins of the canon, I will probably be fighting that same uphill battle against apathy displayed by both Stevenson’s sister and the attendees of my panel.
I left that conference feeling adrift, and it took a few days for me to adjust my thinking to remind myself why I persist in my research even in those times when I want to quit. I care about Fanny Stevenson and her writing, but plenty of people don’t, including other literary scholars, and I have to be okay with that. I am trying, in my research, to make a case for others to care, because the voices of women (and all underrepresented voices) matter, but I will never be able to convince everyone that this is true, and my work must ultimately act as both means and end. Victory over apathy can feel as satisfying as an archival discovery, and when it happens, we should celebrate it as we would any other achievement.
Robyn is a graduate of McGill University and the University of Edinburgh. Her research involves the Victorian print trade, women, authorship, and digital humanities. Otherwise, Robyn is an avid ghost story reader with heterochromia and a penchant for the outdoors.
Nellie Osborne Sanchez, The Life of Mrs. Robert Louis Stevenson. Scribners, 1920.