Though perhaps not as many as others I know, I have presented at a good number of conferences. One thing that I have learned throughout the process is the utility in using these experiences to better shape my research narrative.
Like a story in itself, the thing that we research often becomes something told and retold on so many occasions that it transforms into a part of our personal discourse. That is, our research topic transmutes into something that describes us, and vice versa. It becomes a part of our identity. This is, partly, why my twitter handle is twitter.com/AtheismGuy. Moreover, at the early stage, when we are focused so myopically on the PhD Thesis, this is ever more prevalent as we begin to try and describe (and in the process come to realise) what it is that we are actually researching in the first place. This is perhaps best reflected by a friendly exchange that recently took place between myself and two other individuals who are studying Atheism/Non-Religion.
The three of us met at a cafe in Edinburgh to discuss the possibility of shaping together a roundtable discussion for our Atheism in Debate course here at New College, which we each tutor on. I wrote briefly about the course in a previous post. The locus of the idea came from Liam Fraser, who’s research on Atheism and Fundamentalism argues “that these apparently irreconcilable movements share a common intellectual structure, and derive from a common theological and philosophical source.” Very interesting stuff. The other in our group was Christopher Cotter, who I’ve mentioned previously, and who’s research at Lancaster University on the discourses that underly the social constructions of notions about Non-Religion and the ‘secular’ is definitely worth a read.
While Chris and I have known each other for a few years now, this was our first introduction to Liam, so our conversation, as so often happens when three individuals who study similar things meet for the first time, was focused as well on what Liam so aptly called our ‘elevator pitch.’ I’ve heard this phrased a number of different ways, perhaps the most popular of which is the ‘three-minute thesis,’ which is also the name of a world-wide competition that began in Australia. In essence, the ‘three-minute thesis’ is as the title suggests, or as the website states: the reduction of an 80,000 word thesis into a three minute presentation. It isn’t really that easy, despite the ease with which some are able to do it. See, for example, this last year’s winner Megan Rossi:
Regrettably, I have never really tried to reduce my thesis in this manner. So when Liam asked for my ‘elevator pitch’ he, perhaps begrudgingly, received a fairly long and detailed account of how I intend to change the academic world with my substantial and original ideas. As I was detailing all of this to him (and Chris, who got to hear it all over again) I began to consider how this pitch not only describes what it is that I’ve done these last four years, but me as well.
This thought returned recently as I sat down to write up another conference presentation, which I will expand on a bit more later this month. In the process, I came to realise that there exists an odd feeling of ownership to these subjects, a bizarre association with ‘Atheism’ and my name, or the way I feel as if I have some sort of hold on the notion of Atheism and fiction and Ian McEwan’s novels, the latter of which always seems to surface when I meet someone who’s read one of his books and we carry on in a special conversation only we understand. It’s like having an exclusionary knowledge about a subject, being ‘in the know,’ or privileged in some odd way.
Whenever I find myself thinking this way I am reminded of a line Malinowski noted in his diary during his observations in New Guinea for Argonauts of the Western Pacific.
Joy: I hear the “Kiriwina” [another name for the Trobriands; more strictly the northern province of Boyowa]. I get ready; little gray, pinkish huts. Photos. Feeling of ownership: It is I who will describe them or create them.
Though he never, as far as we might assume, intended to publish these personal thoughts, and though their publication made way for the Writing Culture debate that would follow in the next two to three decades, I would argue that Malinowski’s own feeling of ownership is not all that surprising. In fact, because he saw himself as the translator of Trobriand culture for the Western World, his sense that he ‘owned’ it is as equally reflective of his idea that this would be his subject. He would introduce it to the world. He would translate their ‘imponderabilia,’ the nuanced and specific day-to-day that only one who has lived amongst his subject might be able to understand. He would create them.
Beyond the conversation we might have about how an observer’s textual representation (or even interpretation) might in any way equal anything akin to ‘creating a culture’ (which will come up eventually, I assure you), this might better explain what i mean by a ‘feeling of ownership.’ When we undertake these sorts of research projects, we not only immerse ourselves fully into the subject, the subject begins to infect us as well. There becomes a blurring of sorts, a consolidation of subject and object. This might explain why, on occasion, and especially depending on the subject of one’s research, we often get confused with what we do. This appears infrequently in religious studies. On a number of occasions I have been asked by friends and family if my intention is to become a ‘minister,’ or if I ‘actually believe’ what it is I study. Likewise, this might explain the jealousy we feel when we discover someone who studies what we study, but with (horrifically) a different perspective.
While this sort of thinking resurfaces from time to time, it is not something that I would argue is entirely an inaccurate assumption. We are our subjects, because our subjects shape our research narrative. They play an integral role in not only shaping the story we intend to tell, but the story of that story as well. In this way, when we reduce our research into an ‘elevator pitch’ in order to easily describe it, we are likewise finding a way to describe ourselves. Of course, and again, I do not have an elevator pitch. Rather, I have a blog. This is my elevator pitch. However, the elevator is very slow, and this building has a whole lot of stories.
So, as I once again cobble together a presentation on Atheism, Atheist Narrative, Fiction as Ethnography, Atheism in McEwan’s Fiction, and Discourse Analysis and the Definition of Atheism, I am once again reminded that, for no other reason than the obsession it takes to fully baptise oneself in a subject, when I give this presentation I will be the one who owns it. I will be the one to describe and create it. Of course, that does not mean that it is entirely mine. This is just a story I tell myself, a feeling of ownership I pretend exists, to keep me from feeling like what I have to say means something beyond the boundaries of my own thoughts.
 Bronislaw Malinowski, A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term, Norbert Guterman, trans. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1967), 140.