Be a nerd about your stuff

On October 30th, 2014, the Fall Lecture Series in the Urban Ed department’s Core Colloquium course at CUNY saw its third incarnation. As always, the speakers were diverse in their research, presentations, and personalities, and as always, we had some great thoughts to take with us after the evening was over. I came away with a very clear phrase in my mind that I will make part of my mission of being a PhD: “Be a nerd about your stuff.”

Dr. Victor Bobetsky’s unique, sparkling presentation, which consisted of a chamber choir that sang from the back of the room on several occasions to illustrate the his thesis that the beloved folk tune, “We Shall Overcome,” has several possible origin songs, was a delight. He was clear and emphatic, seemingly pleased with the response he got from us as his audience (if everyone’s face looked like mine, there were nothing but surprised smiles all around), and his passion for his subject impressed and inspired. After the Series was over and we had our “mill-around” time, in which we sidle up to the presenters and sloppily introduce ourselves, I approached Dr. Bobetsky and thanked him for the music he’d brought to the gathering, as well as his obvious zeal about his subject. It would not be an easy presentation to forget, I assured him.

On my way home, the simple phrase be a nerd about your stuff got stuck in my head. And it made sense to me: Bobetsky had a gawky, slightly oddball though kind quality that made his excitement, his passion about the origins of “We Shall Overcome” “nerdy” in the best possible way. I think there’s a signpost here: As academics we need to sink into our subjects, muddle around and get so into it that we forget to worry about what we’re wearing, how we sound, or even how much money we’re making. We need to find our passion and allow it to fill us with energy and excitement to share it with the world; we need to be awkwardly delighted with our research so that no matter what happens, it will sustain our spirits as we move through the less inspired world of career and the politics of university life. We need to imagine that the room is smiling along with us, and bring everyone else along for the ride.


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