Imagine that you are studying the nervous system of the hedgehog.*
You assume that your topic is rather obscure and, obviously, stunningly erudite. Each day, you spend hours poring over anatomical diagrams of hedgehogs, tracing the delicate arcs of their spines, considering the synapses that, every moment, are firing off in their wee hedgehog paws. (Of course, as you are a scientist, you would never use such a common and ridiculous word as “wee.”) You study works on hedgehog reflexes written in needlessly inflated language by scholars with their PhDs in Hedgehog, and your own feelings about the neurons of small mammals begin to take shape. You are surprised every day that such a niche research interest as the hedgehog has generated such a vast amount of scholarship. You have even discovered a journal that has been in print since 1952: Studies in Hedgehog and Chipmunk. It’s published by Routledge. (Not really.)
At the end of the day, you grab a glass of six-dollar wine and a bowl of Ramen — the study of hedgehogs, after all, is noble but not very profitable, and you must economize wherever possible — and you settle onto the couch to watch some mindless television. You are eager to escape the pinball-play of ideas that you must somehow shape into a book or an article or a conference paper or what-have-you. You land on Animal Planet. They are airing a show on hedgehogs.
“Fair enough,” you muse, as you twirl a noodle around your fork. “Hedgehogs reasonably fall into the purview of Animal Planet.” You jot down the title of the documentary — Hedgehogs as Predictors of the Apocalypse — on a stickie note, and you surf until you find MTV. The cast of twenty-somethings posing as teenagers in the network’s latest reality show? They’re tasked with racing hedgehogs through the streets of New York City. Winner takes all. You watch as a bottle blonde with “Yummy” printed across the seat of her sweatpants tempts her hog through Times Square with a small piece of cantaloupe.
Hedgehogs, you begin to realize, are everywhere.
Or are they? :: raised eyebrow :: When you’re researching a topic, it begins to appear in places where you would never expect it to appear. Where it has no business appearing. This leads a researcher such as myself to wonder: is my topic really as ubiquitous as it seems, or am I projecting my day’s reading into this quality reality programming? My topic of choice begins to surface amid the fuzzy humdrum of everyday life like an image out of one of those Magic Eye posters that were so popular in the 90s. But I maintain a healthy sense of skepticism. I’m not so sure there were ever really hidden pictures in those Magic Eye things, and I’m not so sure that my research is really as “everywhere” as it seems.
Of course, if I didn’t want to be confronted with my research everywhere I went, I really should have chosen something other than children. Children are everywhere. I suppose I could escape them by retiring to a senior community in Florida, where I could tool around in a golf cart, but even there — grandchildren.
And don’t get me wrong. Most of the time, I find it interesting to see connections between my research and the World Out There — that universe that does not necessarily read nineteenth-century literature or care about the Child Study movement of the 1890s. It makes me feel relevant. Case in point: when Barack Obama, in his State of the Union address, emphasized the need to improve our education system to compete in a global market, I could trace that sentiment back into the Victorian period, when, in the years leading up to the Boer War, the British became increasingly concerned that their stock of brave and strong young men was, in fact, not so brave or so strong.
Let’s educate up those young’uns, they thought, so we can WIN the FUTURE!
*I choose the hedgehog in part as a shout-out to my dear friend Sandy, proud once-owner of hedgehogs.