This or that?

Stack of books

At some point, usually after qualifying exams have happened, every doctoral student has to begin writing his or her dissertation, which will ultimately end up as a lovely dust-covered leather-bound book somewhere deep in the stacks of his or her respective university library (this is how one “contributes to human knowledge” officially). But you have to start thinking about what, exactly, it is you’re going to write well before those qualifying exams occur; in our program, for example, you have to develop some sort of focus statement document thing roughly a year into your studies, and that is essentially the time when you decide what it is that you’re going to research and write about. This is the point where your professional hat is more or less hung on the coat tree of your permanent focus, to use a horribly tortured metaphor.

I’ve been thinking about this for a bit because I have two rather divergent fields in mind that both fit under the umbrella of “Communication and Society” (though apparently at some point in the last month that was changed to “Media Studies,” unbeknownst to pretty much all of us), and yet they really don’t relate to each other at all. Thus my dilemma–which do I ultimately pick?

On the one hand, I observed something while I was teaching as an adjunct at Manhattan College (for three years I taught one of two sections of the Communication Department‘s course on Web Design). For several semesters towards the end of my tenure there, I instituted a rather unusual (and somewhat unpopular) assignment; I would require my students to read Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains before going on a 48-hour “technology fast.” This meant no phones, no TV, no iPads, no laptops–essentially “nothing with a screen.”1  After the 48 hours had elapsed, I asked my students to write a reaction paper integrating the premises from the book with their own personal experiences.

What surprised me the most about today’s 19-to-21-year-olds is that their primary means of connecting to the Internet (and thus to each other, via Facebook, primarily) is not their laptops or their desktops or even their iPads–these they seemingly gave up with ease (TV was pretty much an afterthought for most students). Instead, it was their smart phones. Giving up an iPhone or Android handset was apparently the most lamentable part of this whole assignment. Many of them (and I observed this without fail over the course of several semesters) said that they felt lost, panicked or worried without their phones; more than a few mentioned feeling that “something horrible was probably happening somewhere” and they had no way of knowing about it.2

While I am not a psychologist and do not have any formal training in psychology (aside from the fact that I graduated from Wake Forest University one course shy of a second minor in psychology thanks to schedules that just wouldn’t align), it struck me that these “symptoms” almost seemed withdrawal-esque in nature, especially when you consider what the DSM-IV outlines as “substance abuse” and “substance dependence” criteria. Some students almost seemed to have phobic responses which seemed extremely unusual.

These observations led me to consider the usage of fMRI3 technology; fortunately, the University of Oregon includes the Lewis Center for Neuroimaging, which has at least one fMRI machine available. I’ve reached out to several individuals who seem to be associated with the center and the psychology department to see if they might be able to give me a place to start, should I assemble a study that attempts to image the brains of these “technologically withdrawn” folks.

On the other hand…

It’s pretty common knowledge that I wrote my thesis at The New School on food TV shows–specifically I attempted to chronologically align developments in food media with what was going on in the larger culture at the time. The idea came out of nowhere, more or less–I just knew that I had to write about something that I wasn’t going to be sick of after two or three semesters. It turned out to be an excellent choice, because at least one school is using the document now as a text for a food/media-related course.

I am something of a foodie; I routinely challenge myself with new recipes (I roasted fish whole in the oven just last night, in fact, and they turned out stunningly well), and I am probably one of the few people who actually owns a full set of Nathan Myhrvold’s Modernist Cuisine. Food and restaurants fascinate me, as does the constant uptick in food-related programming (see Top Chef, Top Chef Masters, Top Chef Just Desserts, and now Life After Top Chef, not to mention Top Chef University, all associated with a formerly bumbling and stumbling lifestyle channel–not even Food Network or the Cooking Channel!), so I’m considering the possibility of investigating just how social media and the interwebs can be harnessed to drive business and diners to restaurants. It could make for a fascinating ethnographic study.

Which do I pick?

I’m mildly concerned that whatever I choose to write about and ultimately publish will essentially define who I am as an academic, and I don’t want to pigeonhole myself. These are, however, my two biggest interests currently, research-wise, so I’m not exactly sure how to consolidate the two, if I even should consolidate the two, or if there’s some middle ground that I have yet to discover that will allow me to delve into both worlds. Decisions, decisions…

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  1. One student from recent memory really blew this requirement out of the park. Apparently she needed money to purchase a new MetroCard, but because she had taken an overly long nap, she missed her bank’s Saturday teller hours, and since an ATM has a screen, she called her father (I told them that analog land-line phones were OK) to ask him to withdraw money for her so that she could buy her subway pass. I was quite impressed by the dedication that she showed to the assignment.
  2. I will also briefly mention that the rate of completion for the assignment was always fairly high. I told the students that if they slipped or failed altogether in the task, they should simply tell me, because I would be able to discern (quite easily, in fact) based on their reaction papers that they were lying. One girl did an absolutely terrible job of fibbing, saying little more than she “had a good time at the park with friends.”
  3. Functional magnetic resonance imaging–used to create visualizations of the brain in real time as a task is being performed, etc.