“Physics is like sex: sure, it may give some practical results, but that’s not why we do it.” – Richard Feynman
With this quote, Anthropology professor Jerry Moore concluded his keynote speech at the 17th annual Southern California Conference on Undergraduate Research (SCCUR), held this year at CSU Dominguez Hills. Moore’s point, in an address titled “Undergraduate Research in Difficult Times,” is that there is something wonderfully satisfying and pleasurable about university research that cannot be replaced by trade schools and technical training programs. People may see academic pursuits as a luxury in this slumping economy, but Moore argues that there must always be a place where people can learn, wonder, and discover. Research, as Moore puts it, is the best way to learn.
This weekend, Lillian (of Scientific Lillian) and I joined 400+ participants at SCCUR 2009 in embracing and celebrating the necessity and beauty of research, particularly at the undergraduate level. I got to sit in on two oral presentation sessions (including my own) as well as spend some time looking at posters during a poster session. I was impressed by the seriousness and dedication of the presenters as well as the creativity and range of the questions and approaches that they took. From 1950s Hollywood censorship to vanity sizing in women’s jeans, the presentations definitely ran a gamut of research topics.
During my own panel, the presenters spoke on Islamophobia in the US media and Renaissance rhetorical practices in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. Presenting last, I talked about collaborative authorship in Renaissance theatre, particularly focusing on Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen. I wasn’t especially nervous as I had already given a preliminary version of this presentation at a previous conference. But at the same time, there is always a certain amount of insecurity about how your ideas will be received.
I think academic conferences are important for this very reason. Research can be lonely, but it is so so important to find your own tribe to share your ideas with and get feedback from. In my honors research colloquia, we’re always talking about inserting ourselves into the scholarly conversation and showing our awareness of previous scholarship. Oftentimes in undergraduate literary research, this means responding to journal articles and critical theories. But at some point, we hopefully begin to engage in real life debates with the people we used to cite in our papers. We will struggle to meet their challenges and questions and eventually we will emerge the better for it. Fancy ideas are just fancy ideas until you test them against an audience and persuade them to see things your way.
Personally, I also find conferences to be a great source of motivation to get cracking on my own research project in the same way that Googling grad school CVs already makes me worry about getting published. You’re filled with a nervous energy, but its the good kind that inspires your ambition and excites the spirit. Going to a conference with 400+ presenters really hits home the fact that a lot of people are doing exactly what you’re doing so you better work harder than ever if you want a shot at the whole professor thing.