What are you working on?

“What’s your research about?”
“Err…”

I think this is a fairly common situation for someone doing a PhD, and I know for sure that it’s something I’ve struggled with. This blog has a ‘big picture‘ page, which, in quite a lot of words, gives you a breakdown of what I (currently) want my thesis to be about. Unfortunately, this is not a very useful text to use as a response when someone asks me, “so, what are you working on?” Often such an interlocutor won’t be a specialist in my field, and so I need to say something back that is at once comprehensible and avoids too much misrepresentation.

A mathematical diagram, the kind of elegant expression to which my PhD is not very amenable…
Interestingly, when I first started my doctorate, I was very bad at answering this question. As things have got clearer, I’ve grown a little better, and I thought I’d share here some of what I’ve found out about the process of explaining PhD research in the humanities to non-specialists. Of course, my improved explanations are as much the result of working out more about my thesis itself as of any advances in method, so the obvious rule to lay down here at the beginning is that your explanation will only be as good as your understanding of your research.

Using my own thesis as an example for a moment, I used to tell people that I worked on “the reception of Shakespeare in the eighteenth century”. This is about 50% accurate, as it says nothing about what part of Shakespeare’s reception I study. The same problem occurs when I drop the Shakespeare and say, “I work on the theory of drama in the eighteenth century”. Neither gives the whole picture.

There’s another problem too with these replies: both “the reception of Shakespeare in the eighteenth century” and the “theory of drama in the eighteenth century” are too enormous, so enormous that people don’t really know what I’m doing in these large fields, merely that this is where my research is located. I could, for example, be devoting three years to such futile questions as whether people believed they’d seen Shakespeare’s ghost in the period, or whether food was important to David Garrick’s performances. A far better approach would be something like, “I’m looking at the relation between Shakespeare’s reception and eighteenth-century theories of performance”, since at least here the conjunction of both topics provides a better sense of the kind of research I’m doing.

Now, there’s one more thing to add here, and it’s the difference between writing and speaking about my thesis. Read the sentence above (“I’m looking at the relation between Shakespeare’s reception and eighteenth-century theories of performance”) and it’s easy to grasp; say it out loud and the amount of prepositions and other connectors make it a nightmare to understand without some kind of diagram. There are two potential solutions to this. The first is to build up slowly to this sentence, beginning with Shakespeare, then saying Shakespeare’s reputation in the eighteenth century, then elaborating to the role of the stage in Shakespeare’s reputation in the eighteenth century, and finally concluding with the relation between Shakespeare’s eighteenth-century reception and the theory of drama. Often, though, you don’t really get this much time: it’s a sad fact, but I find most people either ask me about my research in order to have an excuse for talking about their own or switch off when I say “Shakespeare” since they believe everything that can be said on this subject has already been said. Many times over.

In these cases, there is the second approach, which I’ll call the ‘headline’. For an example, see the title of this blog: “A Muse of Fire: Shakespeare and Acting in the Eighteenth Century”. This gives a pretty decent idea of where my research is focussed, and uses no more complicated a word than “and” to enclose all the “relation between”, “reception” and so forth that have made the earlier examples so tricky.

Whether you go for the slow build up or the headline, you may sometimes stumble upon someone who actually wants to hear even more about your research. In such situations, I favour a mix of example and interpretation. I try and tailor these to the person I’m speaking to, but most often I find myself saying things like, “Did people think Shakespeare was a good poet because he was a good actor?” or, more simply, “what are the connections between authors and actors?”. Both questions are broad enough that the other person might be able to hazard a guess, thus leading nicely into a bit from me about what I’ve found out so far.

Ultimately I suppose, I can summarise all this by saying that talking about your thesis should be as inclusive as possible, a conversation and not a lecture. Some of the specific things I’ve discovered are:

  1. Your explanatioon is only as good as your grip on your research.
  2. Any spoken explanation with complicated conjunctions and prepositions is a bad idea.
  3. When talking, either build up slowly to a good explanation or try for a headline sentence that does a decent amount of justice to your work.
  4. If you have the opportunity, give examples, especially those that encourage other people to participate in the conversation: you can show off later.

Well, I hope readers of this post find it helpful. To conclude, I’ll repeat an observation that a friend at Oxford, writing a thesis on Jane Austen, made to me this week. She said that both she and I were lucky, since at least people knew the authors we were writing about. Upon further reflection, though, we soon realised that this was a curse as much as a blessing, and that simply saying “Shakespeare” or “Austen” really gets you nowhere. Unlike, I suppose, the handy method I outline above…


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