I’m not a controversial person by nature. There is almost nothing about me that would raise an eyebrow. However, I seem to gravitate towards research topics that really get people arguing.
My undergraduate thesis looked at the psychological effects of 9/11 at the fifth anniversary. As part of this research, I also collected oral histories from people of different age groups to see how others processed the event. My mentor on this project was a psychology professor, so I followed all of the IRB rules, and I even learned to use APA citations. It was a wild time for the Lady Americanist.
I presented my first semester’s worth of work at a small reception in our Honors Program office. Only the other students completing projects and their mentors (and some very supportive friends of mine) attended, and everyone was very friendly. In the spring, when I finished my project (it took an academic year instead of one semester because of the project scope), I was encouraged to present it at a poster fair to celebrate undergraduate research. I observed a few things:
1. People avoid the 9/11 project. It makes people uncomfortable, especially when you have a self-made film playing that celebrates the towers.
2. People are way more interested in the science projects than the humanities. It’s hard to present humanities research on a tri-fold board and make it interesting.
3. The only people who approach the 9/11 project are those who want to ask you about the conspiracy theories and “truthers.”
That last one really got my goat. These folks never took the time to look at my thesis, which takes no political stand on 9/11 what-so-ever, but saw pictures of plans and the Pentagon and took that as an open invitation to ask me pretty inappropriate questions about pretty upsetting topics.
So, rather than pursue this research further, which I regret and plan on returning to at some point, I changed directions as a Masters student. I figured something lighter would be best. Researching 9/11 for an entire year of undergrad is emotionally draining. I chose film as my focus in graduate school, and I decided to take my knowledge of New York City and use it to analyze the films of Woody Allen.
If I thought I got uncomfortable questions with 9/11, they paled in comparison to those about Mr. Allen’s personal life. Again, my project had nothing to do with Woody Allen’s romantic life or really his life after 1986. My analysis was ignored by many at conferences, and I was asked a lot of questions about Soon-Yi Previn (her name never appears once in my thesis).
My current research has its Disney-haters (but I can fend them off and ignore them…it’s a welcome break from questions about government conspiracy). However, I find that my topic allows for a lot more discussion about my research than invasive questions about my subjects. I do get the odd “Where is Walt Disney’s head frozen?” inquiry, but that’s more amusing than anything else.
All this said, I never want to stifle academic discourse. I don’t love that these sorts of challenges got in my way of pursuing topics that genuinely interest me and have a place in the American studies pantheon. These sorts of questions belittled my time and effort on important topics. How Americans deal with events, both culturally and psychologically, is very important.
How do you deal with insensitive questions about your research? It’s difficult to fend off a line of inquiry that is obviously meant to demean you or your research. Any advice (other than humor, which works with Woody Allen, but not so much with 9/11)?
– Lady Americanist
PS: This post was inspired by a recent viewing of the documentary The Woman Who Wasn’t There, which tells the tale of “Tania Head,” a woman who claimed to be both a 9/11 survivor and a 9/11 widow, both of which were lies. She got away with it for about 6 years, which just fascinates me. Even 14 years later, it is difficult to see what the broader effects of 9/11 have been. It’s definitely something I will be returning to after the dissertation is complete.