The WHY of work

 

Often when I give informational interviews and I ask something like “what would you like to do?” it becomes very clear from their answer very quickly that the person is only thinking about problems and challenges the way that they had been framed in school.  “I like to critically deconstruct political speeches for what they reveal about insider/outsider identity.” An answer like this one is problematic not only because there are few job ads (at least that I have seen) seeing someone to be able to do this task, but more so because I don’t know from this answer what about this work speaks to you.  Is it the rhetorical genre of speechmaking, or is it about genres of persuasion or obfuscation? Do identities of belonging particularly speak to you, and if so – why?  Is there a particular context in which you see its application being particularly insidious/problematic/inspirational? If you tell me that you are interested in investigating discursive othering in political speeches given by the Canadian Prime Minister because you see something here that may be brought to how the issue of migration gets thought about and the solutions and policies that get proposed, then now we are getting somewhere!

 

So how do you answer the question “what would you like to do?” Can you break it down into its constituent pieces?  Is it about an issue? A context? A speech act? A goal?  Perhaps you are drawn to speech recognition technologies.  Interrogate that.  Why?  What do you want to have happen as the result of your work?  Or perhaps it is teaching.  Why?  What about it?  Do you see the need for different pedagogical approaches?  If so, why?  As you may be seeing, I am an inveterate “why”- asker!

 

Three ideas for activities to help you get at answers to these questions:

 

What is your dream job?

In nearly a decade of asking this questions, I never yet had someone tell me that they don’t know.  You know.  If you just let yourself answer the way that you would answer if there were no constraints imposed by time, training, geography, finances. There is something to be mined in the answer that you give that speaks to a problem you wish to solve in the world.

 

What research projects do you choose?

Consider research projects that you chose over the course of your schooling.  I remember when I was trying to decide between two topics for my dissertation, and I met with one of my professors – Ron Scollon – for his advice.  He told me to choose the topic that spoke to me as the one most aligned with a sense of change that I wished to see in the world.  At the time I was considering studying either a peace vigil hosted by Quakers on the lawn of the capitol building or an improvisational theater troupe.

 

Which was the problem that I chose to devote several years’ worth of my intellectual energy exploring?  Improv.  Why?  Because the training that improvisers receive is in communication, listening, collaborative problem solving.  Improv teaches people how to say “yes” to things and at the same time, how to embrace failure and mistakes.  I see these as the skills most sorely in need of practicing in our culture today.  This was the project that I dedicated myself to studying because one of the problems that I most wish to solve in the world is how to cultivate a stance of curiosity.  An orientation of “what if?”  (you may have noticed that I bring that to career in this blog – “what if you wanted to pursue a career in X, then what would you do?”)  Improv also speaks to major values of mine about the importance of communication, collaboration, and perspective-taking.

 

Name three people you emulate

These can be linguists or non-linguists, but ideally they should be real people (although not necessarily people that you know).  Spend some time writing and reflecting on the problems that they have devoted their time and energy towards solving.  What real world challenges do they work to address?  Does this have anything to do with why you emulate them?

 

So these are three activities to start getting you to reflect on the problems out there in the world that you wish to devote yourself to solving.