As a politically-minded academic I am faced with a wide chasm between:
- What is ‘intellectually interesting’
- What is ‘practically useful’
The greatest daily struggle as a researcher is to merge these two areas, finding the overlapping areas where what stimulates me intellectually is also what is useful to the world outside of academia. It is far too easy to start a project with activist aims, wanting to change the world and achieve something great, and then never discover how to bridge those political goals with ‘the text’ and ‘the data.’
As a Special Educational Needs (SEN) teacher for four years I felt that struggle daily. In one of the worst-funded, most dangerous districts in the U.S., I only had one goal: to give my students the best shot at a happy life I could, when everything seemed stacked against them. The problem was I never realised to what degree everything would be stacked against me in realising that dream.
What I felt then and only later had a name for was the need to do as much good as possible in my daily life: ‘the desire to make the world as good a place as it can be, the use of evidence and reason to find out how to do so, and the audacity to actually try’; in other words, effective altruism.
Sometimes doing something that is seemingly selfish can, in fact, be incredibly altruistic. When I left teaching, I did it because I knew that if I continued in my role: 1. I would slowly lose my passion (and my mental and physical health!); and 2. I could never the teacher I knew I could be and, most importantly, that I knew my students deserved.
So, here I am, a researcher with only one goal: to do the most good I can in a world where everything seems to be stacked against doing good. The balance is, ultimately, between pursuing aims that will help you become the best activist and creator of good you can be and pursuing aims that will do the most good to the world around you.
My daily struggle is to make sure I never stray too far from the blurry boundaries, which becomes increasingly difficult the further along I travel on my journey.