Academic Research and Zombies: Are There Topics that Can Hurt a Scholar’s Career?

The Chronicle has an article about Dr. Bradley Voytek who is a neuroscientist who also studies zombies, remedy and uses the topic of zombies to engage people in the field of neuroscience. It has caused him some grief, try as several of his advisors suggest that he not include his “zombie research” on his c.v. because it could be a hindrance to his finding gainful employment in academia.

The one place he has been hesitant to promote, ailment or even reveal, his undead-brain research is on his curriculum vitae. As he applied for his current postdoctoral research position last year, his Ph.D. adviser, Robert T. Knight suggested he “scrub it clean” of zombies.

“I didn’t want him to be known as a ‘media guy,'” says Mr. Knight, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at Berkeley. To be taken seriously as a researcher, Mr. Knight cautioned, you should avoid seeming like a limelight-grabber and balance fun outreach with hard-core science.

Mr. Voytek’s partner in the zombie research, Timothy Verstynen, received an equally discouraging response from one of his advisers.

While finishing postdoctoral research and beginning his faculty job search, Mr. Verstynen was told by a senior adviser that he considered his outreach work a “stupid idea” and a huge career mistake.

“I think it was a kind of protectiveness,” says Mr. Verstynen, who earned his Ph.D. in neuroscience at Berkeley in 2006. Anything that detracts from research could hurt a young researcher on the job market.

It’s got me thinking about the field of theology and biblical studies. Are there topics that would hurt a young scholar’s research and job prospects in Christian academia? Would studying theology and the works of Joss Whedon, or biblical studies and Star Trek automatically lead to a young scholar’s c.v. being rejected by a Christian institution?

Would blogging about the intersection between theology and science fiction be evidence that a scholar is not serious about the field of theology? Is it too fringe? Is it okay so long as they primarily do “serious research” and leave the geek stuff to be done as a hobby? Should these interests be hidden until a scholar has found employment, or has achieved tenure?

For those of you who are academics, were you ever discouraged from exploring an avenue of research because it wasn’t serious or respectable enough?

  • Alison

    I fear I may becoming “the Harry Potter librarian” but I need stuff for the tenure file and if that’s where the ideas are coming, my boss is fine with it, so I’ve been running with that lately (One presentation on Madam Pince for a Harry Potter symposium that I later expanded for a local library association program, and I’ve submitted one for this years’ symposium on how Hermione is the true librarian of Hogwarts). It’s not the only stuff I’ve done since I got this tenure-track position (co-presented on Spiritual Memoirs, a panelist on a panel about library-faculty collaboration, probably will be coordinating a panel on library stereotypes in fantasy and science fiction next year…) but I do sometimes wonder if it looks odd. But if my alternative is no good ideas and not enough stuff counting towards tenure, I figure I’ll gladly take what ideas I’m coming up with, you know?

    That said, it’s kind of different as a librarian – we have a bit more room to be multi-disciplinary without turning quite as many heads, and it’s also different as one who already has that foot in the door of having the position in hand, even if tenure is yet far off. You add in my interests from my work on my MA in Applied Theology at the moment and my “research interests” seemingly lie all over the map!

    • “But if my alternative is no good ideas and not enough stuff counting towards tenure, I figure I’ll gladly take what ideas I’m coming up with, you know?” True, true!

  • “For those of you who are academics, were you ever discouraged from exploring an avenue of research because it wasn’t serious or respectable enough?”

    A certain person whose name I won’t mention told me not to write the book I have planned on the psychology of the Klingon virtues.

    • Ah but would that advice change as you become more and more established?

  • Alison

    I just wonder how much times are changing and how much they must. I was just reading Elaine Heath’s “The Gospel According to Twilight: Women, Sex, and God” this past week. In it she tells a story that in combination with what I’ve read in other books (Such as Danielle Tumminio’s “God and Harry Potter at Yale”) has me really thinking:

    p.xv “At the close of the service a group of young women rushed up, grinning from ear to ear. “I listened to every word of your sermon,” one said. All her friends nodded. “I usually don’t like sermons,” she added, “but as soon as you mentioned Edward I knew it was going to be great!”
    Whether it was great I do not know. What has become very clear to me, however, is the power of popular culture to shape our imaginations and our hearts. A great story, even one about vampires, can open us to the influence of the Holy Spirit in ways that a theological statement cannot.”

    Is this not why all these pop culture theology and pop culture academic books are getting published – because the audience is there, and because they are reaching them? And if this is the world we’re in these days, does this actually put those of us interested in this stuff at an advantage?

    (Playing “Devils advocate” a bit here – this is pure speculation trying to prompt some discussion here)

  • Great post, Amanda.

    I know from first hand experience and by witnessing it in others, that if one chooses to launch out into ‘speculative theology’ or ‘contextual theology’ to question things such as the doctrine of God (i.e., open theism – me), the relationship between Christianity and other religions (I’ve done this :), and the doctrine of scripture (other than the widely accepted ultra-literalism of neo-fundamentalism), you might as well prepare to be ridiculed. For example, I wrote a paper a year ago on developing a Pentecostal theology of religions in which I basically argued for a form of inclusivism inspired by Amos Yong’s work on the Holy Spirit. It was accepted for publication, but one peer reviewer basically wanted me to re-write it to fit his exclusivism. Of course, I wouldn’t.

    Sometimes research may lead us in directions that push against well-ingrained theological positions, but so be it. As long as we are not intending to be renegades, but to engage in research that seeks to benefit the church and world, I say let the chips fall where they may 🙂 Rachel Held Evans, Peter Enns, Clark Pinnock, and Brian McLaren are just a few of a host of writers who have been ridiculed for stepping out beyond the margins. Yet, their collective contributions have made and are making a difference. And besides, it’s fun to try and color outside the lines 🙂

  • Good post. This is an important issue. I wonder, though, at least for evangelicals, if it might be easier in Canada than American: my experience is that parts of the US landscape will be much harsher about even talking about this stuff.
    I know a man – an OT prof – who wants to publish a zombie novel, but I keep wondering about these sorts of issues and worrying . . .

  • Speaking as a non-academic (forgive me since this post is for academics) I do understand the concerns and on one level they are likely reasonable ones. What bothers me is that people who are academic, serious published scholars, have to be afraid of not being allowed to be fully rounded, whole human beings with a host of interests; some of them even…….dare I say it…..frivolous and fun! It seems unfair that your peers feel a sense of entitlement to put any of you in that position. There needs to be an ability to be developed for discernment among peers and colleagues as to when something that seems an odd interest for an academic is simply an expression of another side of her or his personal interests and when someone is going completely off the rails. Not akways an easy discernment. Anyway, just my opinion.

  • Elizabeth D.

    My favorite example of this is outside Christian academia. Mary Bly is a Shakespeare/Early Modern Drama specialist in the Fordham English department–super smart, well-respected in her field, I think, etc. She also moonlights as Eloisa James, Regency romance novelist (not to be confused with E. L. James of 50 Shades of Gray fame). She got into writing romance novels in grad school for extra cash, and she’s apparently extremely good at it (I keep meaning to read one since I know her, even though romance is not my genre of choice); she’s been on the NY Times bestseller list and has made millions. But the fact that Mary Bly was Eloisa James was a tightly-guarded secret until after she got tenure–and she was very frank about the fact that she kept mum about it because she was afraid of hurting her tenure prospects.

    As for more traditional media studies scholarship, I feel like in the humanities, at least, it depends on whether it’s your primary thing or a side project. If your dissertation is on Buffy, that’s going to limit your marketability (though not necessarily eliminate it). If your dissertation is on something pretty mainstream, but you wrote an article or two on Buffy and blog about sci fi, I doubt anyone’s going to care. It might even be a plus in the cool factor column, as far as some hiring committees are concerned. And after tenure, yeah, anything goes. Of course, with the Christian context there’s also the concern about people policing morality. So someone with a media interest in Star Trek wouldn’t get blinked at on the “what good Christians should watch” front, but someone who writes on The Wire or something like that might be. Which…well, that would be a rant for another time. 🙂