Once upon a time, while I was on an airplane, I started talking to the person next to me, as I am wont to do. (Being in the 99th percentile for extroversion, I am mega-fond of talking to strangers.)
We covered all the small talk bases, including the oh-so-polite “What do you do?” She was a banker and I a grad student. She asked what got me interested in Canadian Studies and I gave her my usual song and dance about knowing thine enemy. At the end, when people usually chuckle and move on to the next oh-so-polite “What are you going to do with that?” she opted for a “That’s not true. There has to be a better reason for you to be getting your PhD. You must have some kind of plan.”
Ummmmm, what? Since when is there a plan? Wouldn’t I know if I had a plan? Wouldn’t there be some sort of official notice posted about The Plan? Aren’t there loads of self help books encouraging people to let go of their stifling adherence to anxiety-inducing plan-making?
In an effort to oh-so-gently make a Point, I asked her how she came to be in banking for so many years. She outlined a rough sketch that involved getting a BA (not in any banking related activities or accounting, for the record), looking for a job, getting hired by a friend of a friend, and sticking with the bank through the various promotional levels that brought her on the business trip that enabled our encounter on that airplane.
My tactic may have been a bit too non-forthcoming, because she still seemed incredulous that someone would study Canada, despite how her unplanned life seemed to be going just fine. I should have tried: “So… willy nilly was a good plan for you, then? That thirty year career in banking is working out okay?”
Granted, the anti-intellectual bent is nothing new. People are always vaguely (or very) suspicious when I mention that I am pursuing a Life of the Mind (teaching? studying? writing? what is it that you do exactly?) as ye old Thomas H. Benton / William Pannapacker aptly described in his article “On Stupidity:”
As an English professor, I can attest to the power of that element in American culture, as can just about anyone in any academic field without direct, practical applications. When a stranger asks me what I do, I usually just say, “I’m a teacher.” The unfortunate follow-up remarks — usually about political bias in the classroom and sham apologies for their poor grammar meant to imply that I am a snob — usually make me wish I had said, “I sell hydraulic couplers,” an answer more likely to produce hums of respectful incomprehension.
After this delightful airplane conversation (and a few others), I took a quick poll of some friends and asked: “What are the most annoying questions you get from people?” Some took it as academically based, and some took it as Canada-based. The responses were all endlessly amusing (if discouraging!):
– When I tell people I study Canadian Studies, they are either befuddled, bemused, or they ask me ridiculous questions about things, such as “Did you know that they speak French in part of Canada?”
– I find “What are you going to do with that?” the most annoying. THE MOST.
– “I’ve been living in Montréal for 9 months now and I haven’t even been to Canada yet.”
– If you think “What are you going to do with that?” is annoying, you should try studying something everyone thinks they understand. “Oh, I better watch what I say around you, Mr. Psychology!” Then I suplex them.
– “What are you even going to do with a degree in Women’s Studies? Aren’t you all a bunch of lesbians that just sit around in a circle in class and talk about how evil white, straight men are?” (obviously)
– “Why isn’t there a Men’s Resource Centre? This is reverse discrimination.” (insert discussion of patriarchy)
– *grabs my arm without asking and rubs it* “OMG nice tattoo!…but, aren’t you going to regret that one day” (yes, that’s why I decided to get half my arm tattooed. for that exact reason)
I suppose that as a PhD candidate in Canadian Studies I personally get asked “What is that?” more often than “What are you going to do with that?” because most people don’t even know what street Canada is on.
Overall, it’s like a delightfully choreographed tap dance* of misunderstanding every time I try to be honest in small talk. I’m going back to saying “freelance editor.”
(For the record, I think there are loads of good reasons for The Pursuit of Knowledge. My issue is with the anti-intellectual tone of so many conversations. There may be other professions that get the same dismissive response as “student” or “teacher,” but I am just reporting on some limited first-person experiences.)