Speaking to Outsiders: Can Our Theory Make a Bigger Bang?


by Natasha L. Mikles

Every year during November and December, I find myself confronting a very particular problem—one which I am sure is familiar to all of my colleagues, but one we rarely ever discuss: how to explain what we do to our families.


While on a long visit to my parents in Murrells Inlet, SC this year, their friends and neighbors frequently asked about my studies, and I would inform them that I was on track to graduate from my doctoral program in May 2017. This answer would elicit guffaws; they would slap my father on his back, saying “You are certainly a tolerant man, Perry,” and remind me with apparent glee that one day my father’s patience would wear out, and I would have to get a “real job.” My explanation that finishing my doctoral program in six years, rather than seven, was generally a whole year earlier than most students in University of Virginia’s Tibetan Buddhism program seemed to have no effect; carefully outlining the meticulously constructed plan of comps, field research, and dissertation writing for the next three and a half years fell on deaf ears.

This attitude of ignorance (and our corresponding frustration) held by many non-academics is a product of our own creation—the fault of a university system that doesn’t train its participants in communicating their research effectively and the common disinclination of academics themselves to develop such skills along the way.

I remember once going to dinner with a young woman in a rather erstwhile attempt to meet people in my parents’ retirement neighborhood. I was twenty-one—just finishing my undergraduate degree in religious studies, accepted to a Master’s program, and enamored with the academic enterprise. Before going to dinner, my mother told me that the young woman was very religious and that her family was evangelical.  Towards the end of the evening, after discussing briefly what I studied, my dinner partner asked me in a roundabout way about my own religious beliefs (I am sure most readers are familiar with the type of cloaked probing questioning I mean). I remember telling her that I simply knew too much to be religious myself, a response I shudder to consider now.

While the response is certainly understandable and sympathetic to many of my fellow scholars, it carries with it the assumption that people who participate in a particular religious tradition are ignorant—if they only knew more information, had read more books, or thought more critically, then they would no longer partake in such practices. It ignores not only the individual’s self-reflexive understanding of their own experience, but also the multitude of reasons people participate in such activities, while simultaneously privileging my own form of knowledge and my own ability to determine what is “believable” or “truthful.” As Dipesh Chakrabarty has explained in Provincializing Europe, I was heralding the basic assumption running throughout European and American scholarship: only secular, non-theistic explanations could qualify as valid and respectable historical explanations.

Although I am humbled by the arrogance of my previous self, I would argue that my narrative is not merely an example of a young inexperienced scholar far too eager to show off her schooling, but rather evidences an attitude towards the general public (the laypeople, as my colleagues and I have been known to call them) which is both conceited and aggressive. I become particularly cognizant of this attitude in watching the television sitcom The Big Bang Theory. Scholars love to trash The Big Bang Theory, but I’ll freely admit that I enjoy the show; the episode about meeting the University donors had me giggling for days as I imagined my graduate colleagues in ill-fitting suits trying to explain their research over cocktails with donors who were more interested in the University’s football team. Leaving aside questions of the quality of humor, the comic setups, or the incessant laugh track, the most common complaint against The Big Bang Theory is its anti-intellectualism—the viewer frequently is supposed to sympathize with Penny, the girl who lives next door and is consistently dumbfounded by the four scientists’ words and logic. Much of the humor of the show is based on mocking these brilliant, educated characters for their lack of common sense, social grace, and emotional sensitivity. This is certainly a problem, but perhaps The Big Bang Theory is a mirror to ourselves—how we look to our families and neighbors when we focus more on proving how brilliant we are, justifying our research to ourselves, rather than taking an interest in communicating our knowledge and research experiences effectively.

I will not deny that North American society suffers from trends of anti-intellectualism, but it is also undeniably exacerbated by the attitudes of many academics themselves, particularly in the humanities. We get frustrated when the general public questions the importance or difficulty of our research and respond by making our research even more abstruse and reliant on an increasingly specialized vocabulary. Our writing begins to look less like English and more as if we are constructing scientific equations using theoretical keywords as algebra—we constantly move meaning through successive rounds of abstraction until it can only be understandable to someone with a doctorate degree. There may very well be a time and a place for that style of writing—though I’ll admit, I have yet to see such a situation in which it was necessary—but it also alienates most readers, particularly those who have not been able to pursue a graduate degree in the humanities.

Modern academics are trapping themselves in a vicious cycle with non-academics: non-academics do not understand our research, question its value, and in response we make our research more abstruse and difficult to understand in order to validate the enterprise. If we are supposed to be deepening the human race’s understanding of itself, it seems we have forgotten that an important part of creating knowledge is also creating the means to communicate that knowledge.  Our academic training excludes preparation in effectively disseminating our research outside the academic community, and we are often disinclined to seek it out ourselves, as the tenure system generally doesn’t reward such an endeavor.

In Gods and Demons, Priests and ScholarsBruce Lincoln suggests scholarship take a more aggressive approach—one which no longer “shields the object of study [religion] against critical interrogation,” but rather provides “rigorous, uninhibited, unintimidated, theoretically and empirically informed, wide-ranging, irreverent, and appropriately critical study…” (134-135) I deeply respect the man who taught me so very much and formed me as a scholar in many ways while I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago, but I feel Lincoln’s thesis is missing something. While there is a definite need for hard-hitting, critical scholarship in the field of religious studies, there is also the need to effectively communicate that scholarship with those outside the Academy—to share that research with people who may or may not themselves be religious practitioners, who may or may not be scholars, who may or may not still be learning that there are a multitude of belief and ritual systems outside of their own—all without being an insufferable “jerk,” as I in my former self was.

To return, therefore, to my initial question—how to explain what we do to our families—I think the answer is perhaps quite simple: we need to stop lying to our families and neighbors. J.Z. Smith discusses the lying we do as academics—introductory lying to our students and disciplinary lying to ourselves—in his essay “The Necessary Lie.” However, his thesis could be extended even further; we conceal from those around us the work we as academics perform not simply through the lie of oversimplification, but also through the lie of obscuration. When we intentionally make the tools of conversation ungraspable for those who have not been initiated into the academic discourse, when we inhibit individuals from discussing religious beliefs and ideas in which they have a very real stake and very real agentive role, what response other than “well, it’s his or her opinion” is a frustrated person to have? This is not the same as saying every individual’s perspective is correct—because it is not—but rather every person’s perspective deserves to participate in the conversation, for only then can we allow our knowledge, the very real work we do, to revise and amend that person’s perspective. While I am sure all academics will bristle at the phrase “real job”—implying that our work is not valid, significant, or tangible—it is our own responsibility to demonstrate that our work is “real.”

Natasha L. Mikles is a doctoral student at the University of Virginia. Her research centers on Tibetan literature and bibliography, as well as the narrative traditions surrounding the Gesar epic.

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One Response to Speaking to Outsiders: Can Our Theory Make a Bigger Bang?

  1. Ken Derry says:

    Thanks for your comments, Natasha. Perhaps one example of our regular failure to communicate (or even attempt to communicate) aspects of our world that I continually encounter is the fact that it is unusual even for senior undergraduate students to know what tenure is, or even that not all “professors” are in the same category of employment. Every time I bring this topic up in a class, I learn that the majority of students essentially think that all of their professors have the same kind of job, and get paid about the same amount of money for that job. There is very little transparency about not only what we do, but the conditions in which we do it.

    On another note, you might find it interesting to know that for the past few years in my large introductory religion course, each term I ask students to vote on an ongoing television show that will become one of the course “texts” — students have to watch the show each week, and I have to show how the theories we’re looking at that week connect to the episode. I’ve taught the course eight times now, and seven of those times students have picked The Big Bang Theory (which I hadn’t seen when this first happened). There is certainly a lot to criticize about the show, but I agree with you that there are more interesting things going on there than may at first be apparent . . .

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