Skip to main content

‘Does what I study even matter now?’ Yes, it does. Here’s why.

Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, professor of psychology | February 9, 2017

Every once in a while, I have an existential crisis. I question my career, my relevance, my purpose. Why, I ask myself, am I doing research when there are so many more immediately important things going on? Why do I agonize over articles that so very few people read? Who cares about our ivory tower questions when there are so many pressing political, social, and environmental issues pressing down on our planet?

These moments are generally sporadic. Yet for many of us at Berkeley, these questions have become chronic — even urgent — in the face of current world events.

This situation is not helped by others outside of academia who may look at you askance, as if asking, “Why aren’t you doing something meaningful?” In my case, given that I study intergroup conflict, the question takes on a particular sneer: “Why aren’t you down there, making a difference on the ground and in the trenches, instead of watching it all from your thinking chair?”

So, today I am moved to share with you what I need to remind myself of during my existential crises. I share these thoughts because it is so easy to lose sight of the context of what we are trying to accomplish, and because these truths matter more to me now than at any other moment since I chose my route as a professor.

students in classroomSo why does what we do matter? To help answer that question, I recommend you start here. You see, it’s not just about the thinking chair. It’s not just about the why, but the how.

You are part of a public institution that drives upward mobility. You — right now — are playing a role in creating access and opportunity. We do not see the change we make as dramatically as we might with a protest, for example, but the change you are helping create is long lasting. It impacts the lives of people in your classes, your labs, your sections, your study groups.

That said, we are far from perfect, and there is much room for us to improve in providing this access and opportunity. As the UC Climate Survey shows, many people continue to feel marginalized and left out of our community and our learning spaces. A wealth of literature in psychology and other disciplines now makes clear that a sense of safety and belonging are key components to people’s ability to learn and succeed. And for many among us, safety and belonging are in especially short supply at the moment.

This brings us back to the question: why — and how — what you do matters. Remember that you have the privilege of being able to engage in a unique manifestation of social change as an educator at a public university. No matter how esoteric your area of scholarship may be, you have a chance to create an inclusive micro-climate every time you invite someone different from you to share in those ideas. You are creating opportunity. At the level of the interpersonal interaction — in other words, at the level of the people that you meet — you have daily opportunities to help provide that access and that feeling of belonging to someone who may be different from you. In this process, it is the small things that matter — smiling at someone, remembering someone’s name, encouraging a growth mindset.

This is not just “be kind to everyone you meet.” This is recognizing that, in our role as educators, we influence students’ and peers’ motivation and career paths. If we are invested in increasing access and diversity in our classrooms, our discipline, and our university, our own micro-level interactions matter.

What you do makes a difference, every bit as powerfully as any other form of activism. Please, remember that next time people (including you!) question the relevance of what you do. What you do matters, and how you do matters. How you collaborate, mentor, and engage in discovery matters. Now, arguably, more than ever.

Comments to “‘Does what I study even matter now?’ Yes, it does. Here’s why.

  1. Yes, having a sense of safety and belonging is vital to being able to direct one’s focus towards learning and not having mental energy sapped by worrying.
    But I see a disturbing trend emerging in society and academia since the 1980’s: the call to impose censorship upon speakers and ideas on the center and right of the political spectrum, based on the claim that exposure to distressing or otherwise unwelcome ideas traumatizes the people who disagree.
    Life is always about trade-offs. There is no perfection in life. And trying to chase having a problem-free, injustice-free society as a viable social goal is succumbing to the siren song of destroying the good in pursuit of the perfect.

  2. Prof. Mendoza-Denton, Kurt Lewin taught us that “You cannot understand a system until you try to change it.”

    I have been trying to change the UC academic culture for over 10 years, encouraging professors and scholars such as you to participate in two-way conversations in efforts to produce and implement solutions to out of control social problems that threaten our civilization today more than ever before in history, such as discussed in my previous comments to you, and that has not worked at all.

    Needless to say, we cannot make nearly enough social progress to allow us to adapt in time to save our civilization because of the way your culture even marginalizes California citizens, and Cal graduates who support our institution, especially now that American Democracy is threatened as much as it was during the Civil War as a consequence of the latest election.

    I had hoped that social scientists such as you would be the best educated to make the right things happen, but it is now most obvious to me that this is an impossible dream.

  3. Interesting that a psychologist is once again proving the truth of the Dirks quote of ‘Richard Hofstadter’s [1963 book] Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.… He talked about how academics characterized themselves as pure. And he noted that one of the reasons, perhaps, why there were so few public intellectuals of note in America is not just because America is anti-intellectual—which of course it is—but also because so many intellectuals don’t want to take on the sort of complications and impurities that come with being public.”’ published in the 2013 issue of CALIFORNIA Magazine.

  4. Prof. Mendoza-Denton: DECLARATION OF SURVIVAL

    First we must study much harder to learn the lessons of history, to make sure we do not destroy another civilization, if not the human race

    We must learn to use our prefrontal cortex to control our amygdala from performing outrageous actions

    We must emphasize empathy, cooperation and compromise by uniting We The Peoples of the World, Politicians and Intellectuals to do the right things for the greater good

    We must protect our environment and stop exceeding our resources in order to produce and perpetuate an acceptable quality of life for all future generations

    We must end never-ending wars, violence, inequalities and chaos throughout the world

    We must produce and perpetuate Equality, Worldwide Peace, Rule of Law, Education, Opportunities, Free Speech and Morality for everyone by protecting the human race from the destructive forces of the Power of Money, Tyranny and Us/Them Dichotomies

    • Friend, you can’t IMPOSE perfection. People resist, the authorities crack down, and bingo! There you have another oppression cycle.

      • I love these CAPCHA questions.
        I guess they want to know if you’re smart enough to opine on the blog of the University of California! LOL.

  5. Prof. Mendoza-Denton, thank you for posting this discussion I believe it to be extremely important in the increasingly chaotic world we live in today.

    I am an 80 year old Cal graduate who has learned over my lifetime of experience that psychology is one of the most important fields of study and practice that can enable us, with the greatest sense of urgency, to produce solutions to prevent the destruction of the human race that is in gravest peril in our history.

    Three of the most important requirements for a stable society, as Prof. Powell pointed out in his BB post on Tuesday, are Democracy, Equality and Dialogue. Those are problems I have with dealing with intellectuals like you folks on the Berkeley Blog, as well as with politicians in both political parties in Washington DC.

    I strongly recommend that you implore your Ivory Tower colleagues to stop marginalizing We The People, the general public and start participating in two-way communications instead of one-way pontifications.

    Indeed, the consequences of marginalization of We The People by both political parties have proven beyond all doubt in just two weeks that we must produce and implement solutions to the most destructive social, political, economic and environmental threats we are experiencing today with the greatest sense of urgency in history.

Comments are closed.