Academic Research in the Wild

I don’t write much about my regular day job on my blog or talk about it on social media. For readers who don’t know, I currently work in victim services, providing information, support, and resources to crime victims. I can’t say very much about it for reasons of confidentiality etc etc etc, but that’s what I do in my life when I’m not writing, editing, tweeting, or taking photos of something.

Sometimes people ask me why a historian would be working as a victim advocate or how my PhD skills translate into working at a non-profit. Last year, I found myself at a work-related training with a bunch of people that I didn’t know. The woman seated next to me and I started talking. She asked me how I got into the field of victim advocacy. I hesitated, because I never really know how to talk about my PhD in my current job. I often feel awkward mentioning it and usually crack the old joke about being a recovering academic and move on.

One of the things that’s the most difficult about leaving academia is the very real sense of leaving behind a vital part of oneself. In academia, the boundaries between the personal and professional often vanish completely. Your research becomes much more than just a thing you’re kind of interested in and study; it is a deeply personal part of you. In academia, you talk about your research all the time. In my work in victim advocacy, I don’t have much opportunity to talk about the thing to which I devoted many years of my life to and still care about deeply. I’m still not quite sure how or when to talk about it to people.

That day, I decided to take a chance and tell her about not only about my personal story, but also about my research. I talked about my experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala from 2004 to 2006. I told her about the many people I met who had family members disappeared or loved ones who were victims of political violence. Their stories weren’t mine, but they grabbed my heart and wouldn’t let go. I shared how I couldn’t stop thinking about their stories, even long after the end of my service. I went to graduate school because I wanted to understand what had happened to people and why.

 Generally I stop talking at this point, assuming that my short answer has satisfied my listener’s curiosity.

But my new colleague seemed interested, so I kept talking. I talked about the Guatemalan banana fields of the 1920s and how the United Fruit Company had a stranglehold on the national economy and politics. About how the 1944 revolution overthrew the military dictatorship and opened up an unprecedented ten years of democracy, known as the Ten Years of Spring. About the CIA-backed military coup of 1954 and the counterrevolution that followed. I talked about the how the violence escalated and the bodies piled up.I talked about the bloody years of the Rios Montt dictatorship and the support it received from the Reagan administration, even as human rights abuses grew. I talked about recent forensic anthropology efforts to reunite the remains of the dead with their families and communities. I talked about recent genocide trials and the testimonies of survivors of massacres. I talked about the legacies of the conflict, the continued impunity and how it fostered vigilante justice and lynching. I linked the violence of the conflict to the waves of Central American kids who had arrived to U.S. borders in 2014.

“I never knew any of this!” she said when I’d finished. “You should present this at next year’s state conference [for victim services]!”

So now I’m writing this non-academic abstract that touches on some of my work on Guatemala at large conference of victim service providers. I’m pitching it as an opportunity to think about how individual victimization always takes place within larger political, economic, social, and cultural structures, even if we can’t see them. To make it relevant for my audience, I’m planning to talk about some strategies for working with refugee and immigrant communities. As war, immigration, and refugee resettlement continue to be huge issues that appear in the news daily, I’m hoping that I can give people a new way to see the people with whom they work.  
I confess that I’d never pictured using my research in this way, but the chance to present at this conference resonated with my big goals. As I wrote last week, when you find yourself thrilled by doing something, think YES and write that down. I’ve presented research at a lot of academic research at different conferences. Conferences used to freak me out. The idea of reading a paper in front of a bunch of people ready to rip it to shreds used to terrify me. However, the more I presented, the more I liked it. As a sworn introvert, I was shocked to discover that I actually really enjoy public speaking. In fact, I’d like to be doing more of it in my life. I genuinely like taking those moments to connect with the audience to help them see the world in new ways.
Presenting my academic research to a non-academic audience will require some different strategies than the standard academic conference presentation. If accepted, the presentation will necessarily be more narrative than an academic paper. It also needs to focus on helping people see the world differently and solving a problem for people. It needs to be, in sum, something to the effect of a TED talk. As historian Megan Kate Nelson argues, there’s really no reason that historians have to present in the boring ways that we find ourselves doing at academic conferences.The magic of the TED talk is listening to someone present complex ideas (even obscure academic ones) in accessible language to general audiences in a compelling way. You walk away feeling like you have a new lens through which to see the world. Translating academic research for non-academic audiences seems like a skill I could learn. Maybe I could be doing something similar.

This morning, I read a thoughtful piece in The Guardian by Daniel Jose Camacho. I loved reading it because the author used history (bonus points for it being the Latin American kind) to talk about how loudly talking about diversity doesn’t actually erase racism. He points to the indigenistas of Latin American in the early 1920s and how they attempted to talk about non-white people in a new way. Nevertheless, their rhetoric failed to alter structural racism and kept traditional white elites in power. I admired how the article linked our current discourse about diversity to a decisive anti-blackness. He analyzed a current problem we’re having using the past to provide people with a new way of looking at something.

It occurs to me that the opportunity to present my academic and personal knowledge about Guatemala to a non-academic audience is exactly the kind of thing I want to be doing in the world. I want to be answering current questions using my research on race, indigeneity, gender, fake science, mass media, and representation to help people understand the world better and solve real world problems. I’m not sure what that’s going to look like yet, but presenting my knowledge about violence in Guatemala to victim service providers seems like a good start.