Thursday, 22 December 2011

The day before the day before the day before, or why I need to learn to explain myself better. Or become a secret ogre.

Last night I could not sleep. No, it wasn't because I was too excited about it being the day before the day before the day before SWAGmas. (It's plausible, though, because now that Jimmifer has bought my present all he does is talk about how excited he is to give it to me and now I'm really really curious dammit.) And no, it wasn't because I went out for all-you-can-eat sushi for lunch yesterday and still felt too full to lie down.

It was because I could hear violins.

I'm serious. Violins. I'd be lying there, and suddenly I could hear this sound... You know, one of those sounds that's so faint that you're barely even sure you're hearing something. But I was hearing something. It was music. So I sat up. And then I couldn't really hear it. So I tried to go to sleep. Ten minutes later, I could hear it again. This continued for quite some time until I was ABSOLUTELY SURE I was hearing music. And it sounded like violins. Definitely violins. I became convinced that one of us had left our iPods on and music was coming through the headphones. I tried to figure out where our iPods would be. I didn't want to get up, you see, mostly because I'm kinda afraid of the dark and I didn't want to wake Jimmifer up by turning on all the lights and having to be all like "I'M TRYING TO FIND THE VIOLINS!" because that's the sort of shit you get put in a straightjacket over. Also, I started to really overthink it. Like maybe the soft sounds of violins function in the same way as the light at the end of the tunnel. Like if I went to find the violins, at the source of the violins would be DEATH. And who wants to die like that? Crawling around on the floor searching for violins?!?! Not me. (I'm not entirely sure why I would have been on the floor. In my head, I was convinced that the source of this music was on the floor so I'd have to crawl around to find it.)

Eventually I remembered that I left my iPod headphones at my parents' house, which meant that if it was my iPod that was playing it would actually be really quite loud because it has those built-in speakers. And I don't think Jim has that much violin music on his. Not that I do either. But I have Christmas music. And sometimes Christmas music has violins. Then I also realized that we live in a bloody apartment building and PERHAPS this sound was coming from someone else's apartment. Perhaps someone was watching a movie with a soundtrack of violins? Who knows. Anyway, those are the sort of shenanigans I get myself into alone at 1:30 in the morning.

ANYWAY, what I actually wanted to talk to you about today is related to grad school and SWAGmas. So as we all know, this is the time of year where you see lots of family and friends and family friends and just a whole lot of people that you don't usually see on a day-to-day basis. And don't get me wrong, I love this. I am a huge supporter of the SWAGmas family party. However, people have a tendency (and rightly so, I suppose) to ask young people, and students in particular, the dreaded question: "So what are you doing?"

If you don't see the person often at all, usually a simple "I'm doing a master's degree in cultural studies" will suffice. And sometimes the person will take the conversation in a relatively simple direction after that, discussing where you live and such. That conversation I can handle. It's when people want specific details that I start to falter.

People say, "What is cultural studies?" And I go, "Well...uh..." And they say, "Do you study India or something like that?" And I go, "No." Because I know the answer to that question.

(Sidenote: while thinking that people in "cultural studies" study "cultures" is not that farfetched, why does every single person who assumes that cultural studies means studying the cultures of the world assume that I would be studying India specifically? Seriously, everyone says India. Is there like a large group of non-academics who are just waiting for someone to publish a comprehensive study on India?)

But the thing is, someone in cultural studies COULD be studying something to do with India. So when I try to explain that no, cultural studies isn't the study of different cultures around the world, sometimes I lead people off track. Then they think, like my chiropodist did the other day (yes, I was having this conversation with my foot doctor... I realize that's not exactly a family Christmas party, but still), that we only study current North American culture, but that's not true either. I mean, I primarily study current North American culture, but it's way more specific than that. So I try and explain that people do a lot of different things--like I look at popular music and gender representations, but other people look at pedagogy or animals or whatever. But then that sounds SO UNFOCUSED. So sometimes I try and explain how we use critical theory to look at these things. But bringing up theory--especially feminist theory--can be dangerous. And I never know how to explain it to someone whose never read stuff like that before. (Obviously my chiropodist did a lot of grad school and med school so she grasped everything fairly quickly.)

Some people take a more practical approach and just ask how my program is structured. So I explain that it's a one-year program, and I do two terms of coursework (three courses per term) and then in the summer term I write a major research project. To university graduates, this usually makes sense. But sometimes only if they have an arts degree. To my hairdresser (and a few others), this is quite confusing. (Yes, I know, my hairdresser was not at a family Christmas party either.) They ask, "What do you do in your courses?" and I try and explain, but the concept of a 15-20 page term paper is confusing and they ask, "What do you write about in a term paper?" and I explain that you do research based on the material you learned in the class and then they get confused because term papers don't actually have to incorporate texts from the course and what is the POINT of the term paper and don't you do research in the summer so what are you doing research for now?

And then I'm like, "Well currently I'm applying to PhD programs!" And then they give up on you and walk away.

So how do YOU, my fellow grad students and other readers who may have input, explain what it is that you do? Because I'm at a bit of a loss. Sometimes I just shout "I STUDY BOY BANDS AND FEMINISM AND QUEER THEORY" in the hopes that people will just run scared. But that's not really helping bridge the gap between academia and the so-called "real world," which is something that's really important to me. Because in my mind, it is not other people's failure that they don't understand what I do. Their questions are valid. It's my answers that suck. So, in the SWAGmas spirit of giving, give me some advice! How can I explain the importance of grad school and cultural studies? How can I explain what it is?

In other news, Jimmifer just walked in on me writing this and I have my tea tree oil face mask on which is bright GREEN (he wasn't supposed to be home yet!) and he asked me if I was a secret ogre. So maybe that's what I'll tell people when they ask what I do. I'm a SECRET OGRE. Yeeeeeeeeah.

Merry the day before the day before the day before SWAGmas!


  1. I wish I had an answer. I suppose Cultural Studies is a little bit more confusing for people than Communication Studies on the surface, but trying to explain it is just as hard once you get started.

    You probably get the same looks as I did when telling people I was writing about musical theatre, specifically Legally Blonde. The look that says: "Oh. [and you're getting a degree for this?]" / "Riiiight. [and this is important whyyyy???]"

  2. Okay, maybe I do have an answer.

    I did eventually come up with an impressive-sounding and apparently satisfactory description of Communication Studies, which you might be able to adjust a little for Cultural Studies: Comm. Studies looks at the creation and circulation of messages and 'meanings' in society. (i.e. anything communicated ever)

    So while you can say that "anything" can fall under either Comm. or Cult. Studies, we're actually studying certain common processes or practices OF "anything". Just like biologists could study the 'biology' OF any living thing, Communications scholars can study the communication processes OF anything. But no one ever says "biologists can study anything! what does it MEAN?"...

    So, Comm. Studies can look at the communicative practices (i.e. the circulation or generation of messages) of musical theatre/political parties/comic books/architecture/clothing/universities/body language/television/the space program/fingerprinting/candy wrappers/cuneiform/whatever --and generally the "significance" or "effects" of either the messages themselves or processes of creating/circulating them.

    I think Cultural Studies has a very similar explanation - it's also very much about "meaning making processes".

  3. And it (cultural studies) also studies things from a particular perspective (i.e. critical theory), which might actually make your explanation easier, in a way.

  4. Okay, last comment (I think).

    Ha, Wikipedia agrees with me: "cultural studies seeks to understand the ways in which meaning is generated, disseminated, and produced through various practices, beliefs, institutions, and political, economic, or social structures within a given culture."

  5. Wow thank you! That's actually pretty helpful. I admire your dedication to figuring this out haha. And I've always thought that the fact that you did your master's thesis on Legally Blonde is just about the coolest thing ever, by the way :)

  6. Thanks! Glad I could be of service. :)

  7. You could always just tell people that you're trying to save the world.

    Or (to sound slightly less dramatic/like you're pretending to be a superhero)you could say you analyze various aspects of culture with the hope of making social progress.

    Of course, that answer will inevitably lead to more questions (maybe even more difficult questions). So clearly I haven't got a solution for you.

    If it makes you feel any better people always just assume that all I do is read books for marks and become baffled when I haven't read the latest bestseller.