It’s always been tough explaining to my family what I do. ‘Student’ they understand; ‘graduate student’ is easy enough by extension. ‘Philosophy’ is hit-and-miss. While the folk (i.e. my folks) has an sense that philosophy involves far-out, abstract thinking (and maybe a pipe and leather elbow patches), it’s harder to grasp what it means to write a dissertation on the subject. Trying to explain the specific nature of the problems I’m interested in, or even how my subdiscipline is delineated, is a non-starter. It takes lots of setup for the problems to make sense, and lots of persuasion to convince that the problems are worthy of a research program. This is either a testament to the erudite nature of philosophy, the pointlessness of philosophy, or my ineptitude as an explainer. (I am indifferent between these possibilities.)
I had a new spiel this Christmas Eve, trying to explain my new job as an
educational technologist. In some ways it’s easier. When I tell them that it has to do with computers they usually glaze over and that’s that. (Unlike, incidentally, when I tell people that I’m doing philosophy and they really want to engage in a philosophical discussion with me. Seriously, what is up with that? I just want to drink this Blatz and eat this venison sausage and not think about Kripke for like ten minutes.) Of course, when I try to dodge the question with the “work with computers” line, I’m sure the position they imagine is something very different from what I actually do (they probably envision the administrator that Jim Groom describes here). Does it make me cynical that I don’t care to disillusion them? Seriously, I just want to drink this Blatz and eat this venison sausage and not think about pedagogy for like ten minutes.
I’m curious to know how other people deal with the “What do you do?” question, when “what you do” is not well-defined by the kinds of categories familiar to, say, my grandfather.