A writing professor at Harvard once recalled a frequent experience. Asked at a cocktail party what his job was, he would explain that he was a nonfiction writer. How interesting! The conversation would continue inexorably and not unpleasantly through a series of questions about his previously published work. Finally, the dreaded inquiry came. “What are you working on now?”
It may seem benign on the page, but consider the many pitfalls of answering. Like questions about my plans after graduation or about whether those jeans fit nicely across the back, this question is a trap. Answer too elaborately, and you risk cornering yourself into a never-ending and increasingly complex conversational wormhole with someone who was really only asking out of courtesy anyway. Give a cursory reply, and you instantly reduce your life, your work, and your aspirations to careless inconsequence.
The key to mastering these situations, the professor pointed out, is to distill the answers to sprawling personal questions down to a single sentence. Then, deliver that sentence with complete confidence. What am I doing after graduation? I will be working as a medic and freelance journalist in Seattle. Oh, and those jeans are slimming.
The one-sentence method is foolproof when deployed correctly. I have been woefully unable to apply it, however, to the thing that I most frequently explain: my senior thesis project.
Reach back for a moment, and see if you can’t sift from your muslin memory some recollection of being a college senior. After three years of study, you have just begun to know something about a subject. A senior thesis, you are told, will be the academic culmination of your time at Harvard.
Now, neck-deep in a neurobiology research project, it is clear that my thesis is less a magnum opus than a reflection of my intellectual infancy. After toiling in the pits of innovation for a summer, my results clearly add little to a vast body of neurobiological knowledge. This has taken a disturbingly small toll on my ego. My results are still endlessly interesting to me, and I want nothing more than to share them with everyone willing to lend an ear.
Unfortunately, I cannot apply the one-sentence method to my senior thesis. The problem is semantic. The one-sentence method relies on the use of words that are instantly recognizable. This is all the more crucial when describing a project in the hard sciences. Which is why it is so inconvenient that the most recognizable word in my thesis topic is “pain.” Go ahead. Try telling someone that the subject you spend the most time on is pain. Horror is a best-case scenario.
However, there are few words to substitute for “pain” without toeing the line of pretentious obscurity. Eyes glaze over at the word enzyme, let alone nociception. One way around that is to be purposely misleading. What is my thesis about? I am studying how discomfort affects quality of life. Never mind that we are talking about the quality of mouse life.
I prefer, though, to throw the whole thing out the window and just be honest. At least my project does not sound boring. Once I have you hooked, we can let the conversation shift to the nature of pain and whether I am a monster. And for all my angst over how to represent myself and my work, at the end of the day I wouldn’t give up those probing, questioning conversations for anything. Being challenged to explain a project that is entirely my own might just be the academic culmination that writing about it was supposed to be.
If you’re an undergraduate or graduate student and have an essay to share about life at Harvard, please email your ideas to Jim Concannon, the Gazette’s news editor, at Jim_Concannon@harvard.edu.