The trouble with researching something you love versus something useful

I had a professor when I was doing my undergrad who taught a Shakespeare course. He was a really good teacher, his course was fun, his area of interest was gender and sexuality in Shakespeare and he had this theory that the extra beat in the pentameter in one of Shakespeare's sonnets was actually symbolic phallic imagery.
Now, I have no idea when anyone but people who study Shakespeare specifically to try to understand his sexual preferences or want to see hermaphroditic images are ever going to care about that theory. So I'm kind of skeptical about how useful this theory actually is.
One the other hand, at the time when Socrates was stilling around pondering ways to care for your soul the same way you buy sandals to care for your feet I'm sure lots of people were asking themselves "How is this useful?" and three thousand years later we still think we need to find ways to protect our souls (and develop better footwear).
I understand that no one will fund a proposal called "Was Shakespeare gay? Why one extra syllable in one sonnet suggests yes" and frankly, I have no idea how that will ever have useful implications to the rest of the world but I guess, theoretically, possibly, maybe it might.
So, while I think ideally studies should be fundable and useful to society I don't think we can guess what will be useful next week, let alone in forty years.
If I were in change of giving out research grants (and had unlimited funds) I'd give them out to everyone who asked on the off chance that something really obscure becomes useful to everyone someday.


mwells said...

That was an interesting discussion we had last class about whether or not research needs to be "useful", and exactly how useful it should be (i.e. useful to society vs. useful to a few fellow scholars).

When I was younger and less cynical (or more naive?), I believed that all research, no matter how obscure, was beneficial. And I still believe that...or I try to, but I've bounced around academia a bit and I've seen how this idea can be manipulated to less than ideal ends. Luker describes this world well in her discussions of the "canonists", and the quasi-secret societies they form where graduate work is turned into something that looks more like an arcane initiation ritual than genuine research. Luckily social sciences seem to be on the forefront of breaking free of these old ideologies.

Devon said...

Yeah, I guess I am assuming that most people who are researching are doing good research. It's totally possible they aren't.

Aaron. said...

It might be the case that Shakespeare is particularly well covered - I once had a partner who was taught a class by a professor that did her doctoral work in beheading in Shakespeare's work. Not just any old dismemberment or death by sword, but specifically beheading. I hadn't, and still don't, have any idea why anyone should care - but it's possible that someone might and, in any case, that sort of work is likely to crop up until universities start telling people they can't write a thesis on Shakespeare, period.

Cathy McRae said...

I have been struggling with the same issues - regarding usefulness - in the past few weeks in relation to the case studies that I've read (in other courses and in connection with my research project) and in every case I've had to pause and ask "Did someone really dedicate this much of their time and life to studying something this obscure and seemingly useless?"
I think some of the greatest ideas have been birthed from projects that never intended to discover them. I also believe that for every one of these discoveries that has enriched our understanding of a topic, there are probably twenty research projects that hoped to do this and failed miserably...

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