| Tim Galsworthy
I’m writing this piece in a sleep-deprived and highly emotional state. I, like so many other people, have spent the last few days and nights watching bits of an interactive map turn blue and red as the results of the U.S. election pour in. Hopefully, by the time I post this piece, the arcane Electoral College machine will have churned out that magical 270 number. Given that my PhD research focuses on the Republican Party and elections, it’s fair to say my phone has been busy lately! Countless friends and family members have been messaging me hoping that I might have some answers for them. So for this post I am mulling over what to expect when you’re expected to be an expert.
Since Tuesday night, as messages pop up on my phone seeking smoking guns and silver bullets, I have been trying to make sense of just what is happening in the US myself. When someone asks for your expert opinion, don’t put pressure on yourself to have all the answers. The truth in academia, as in life, is that we very rarely have all the answers. You can point people towards other sources of information, whether that is other experts or newspaper articles or conversations. I have been turning to Nate Silver and FiveThirtyEight to keep me calm and to reassure me that my conclusions are trending in the right direction. It is ok to not the know the answer to something, and it is ok to tell someone that you don’t know the answer to something. It’s also ok to take your time and come to conclusions after absorbing as much information as you can – just like you would do with research.
On the flip side of that more pessimistic approach to your appointment as an authority, being expected to be an expert offers you a wonderful opportunity to strut your intellectual prowess. Own it. Own your chance to be an expert on something. I shamelessly admit that this is highly egotistical but, when you spend most of your PhD being seen as an egghead operating outside the real world, it’s nice to be taken so seriously. It will only be fleeting – I certainly hope questions about the US election will be over for another four years very soon(!) – but we should enjoy the few moments where our academic brains are in the sun.
Being expected to be an expert also offers a practical, utilitarian benefit. For most of our PhDs we spend our time engaging with complicated ideas alongside other people with similar expertise. Being asked questions by “normal people” without that in-depth subject knowledge forces us to explain complex ideas in concise and understandable ways. Much like teaching undergraduates, being expected to be an expert for non-experts hones our skills in explaining and summarising.
These last few days, and any time we are tasked with providing answers and explanations, have shown why academics remain an invaluable part of society. The deriding of experts, alongside the undermining of objective truth and knowledge, have been central features of our contemporary and highly divided humanity. Kellyanne Conway, one of Donald Trump’s top aides, coined the term “alternative facts” in 2017. A year earlier, in the midst of the Brexit campaign, Conservative politician Michael Gove asserted that people “have had enough of experts.” I am sorry to disappoint these titans of intellectual thought but, people have not had enough of experts. In turbulent, confusing, and important moments, like right now in the U.S, people turn to experts. People look to us (academics, intellectuals, experts, commentators, whatever you want to label us) for solace, calm reflection, and, ultimately, answers. Whenever democracy is under attack – and make no mistake, President Trump is waging a war on the very idea of democracy – we must respond to the call-to-arms and do our part to light the way.
Doctoral researchers, and academics generally, are often accused of shutting ourselves away in ivory towers. In our tumultuous present moment, the need for academics to climb down from those ivory towers is more imperative than ever. At different stages of our PhDs, whatever discipline we’re in and whatever our research topic is, our projects will seem relevant and pertinent to what is happening in the “real world.” We should all embrace this opportunity. Whether it’s appearing on TV as a talking head, writing in newspapers, sharing expertise on Twitter, or just messaging our friends about which states Joe Biden will carry, we have an important role to play. Being perceived as an authority about something can be daunting, and we shouldn’t be expected to know all the answers, but it is also exciting, valuable, and necessary. Whenever we are expected to be an expert, we shouldn’t shy away from the responsibility. The world needs experts, now more than ever. And we must keep playing our role in this world, speaking to those willing to listen and those who turn to us for answers. Now, I should probably stop being a pontificating peacock and actually get back to my PhD thesis…Or, should I just keep watching CNN?
Tim Galsworthy is a third-year History PhD candidate at the University of Sussex. His doctoral research explores Civil War memory and the Republican Party. Alongside being Chair of Pubs and Publications, he is also Postgraduate Secretary for HOTCUS (Historians of the Twentieth Century United States).
Image 1: https://www.kunr.org/post/how-register-and-vote-nevada-election-0#stream/0
Image 2: https://pixy.org/696254/
Image 3 (and featured image): https://www.picpedia.org/highway-signs/e/expert.html