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

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.

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