July 6, 2015
Alexis Zimberg, recently completed her first year in the PhD program in the Department of Political Science. Below you will find an extended version of her essay on the ‘Journey of a Young Scholar’ , as well as enhanced multimedia of her conference presentation. We hope you enjoy her reflection.
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This February, I gave a public lecture at my hometown school—Wayne State University. In Detroit, I spoke to a room filled with students, faculty, department heads, and community members on a topic that remains intellectually valuable to me: whether or not Vladimir Putin’s Russia is good or bad for its Jewish minority. The talk led to thought-provoking follow-up questions and extended debates—signs, I believe, of a successful academic event. And let the photographs show: nobody came to play games on their cell phones. After a semester of research and preparation, I felt intellectually, physically, and mentally prepared to share and defend this new body of work.
It didn’t start this way. My first academic talk—Lexington, 2010—was, arguably, bad. I presented a paper that I published with the Michigan Journal of Political Science on the topic of violence and women’s revolutionary movements in the Russian 1870s. The meeting was the Kentucky Foreign Language Conference and I, the ultimate novice, was to present on a tangential-at-best Political Science topic. I stuttered, I sweat, and I used PowerPoint as a (faulty) crutch. To boot, my Georgetown University advisor, Professor Richard Stites, unexpectedly passed away a few weeks prior. I was a mess.
Despite these hurdles, I was proud of my work. I loved the excitement of researching opposition movements under authoritarian regimes—something that continues to bring me so much joy. Picking up on that earnest enthusiasm, other scholars guided me through my first run with tremendous kindness and patience in their questions and encouragements. Professor Peter Solomon, who spent months helping me to prepare for the Wayne State lecture, recently said: ‘you can run away from the podium, or you can ride that adrenaline to the next research question, the next public debate, the next annual meeting. Without hesitation, and in spite of the Lexington learning curve, I see that I chose the latter.’
In November, I gave public talks a second shot. This time, at a regional meeting of the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES) and the International Studies Association (ISA) in Saint Louis, I gained the confidence to field questions about my methodology and about how my findings might generalize to explain similar protest movements in Brooklyn or Kyiv. My pulse raced faster with each validation. I felt so supported that, after my first foray into fieldwork in the post-Soviet region in 2011, I returned to the Midwest to share my discoveries with these colleagues. In St. Louis, I spoke freely about anonymous avenues of free expression in the closed states of Eastern Europe, using printed bullet points to guide my words. Uncertain of how to frame my new findings, I relied on photographs of what I saw, rather than some critical analysis on why it mattered.
In the years since, I’ve reframed (and reframed, again) that 2011 lecture to ultimately become Post-Soviet Graffiti as it currently exists: a research project that investigates the unique ways in which opposition movements circumvent oppression and censorship in authoritarian states. I shared it at Georgetown University in 2012, at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in 2012, at ASEEES in Boston in 2012, at the National Centre for Contemporary Art in Moscow in 2013, at the University of Illinois in Chicago in 2014, and I will share it at the APSA Annual Meeting in San Francisco this September. Each time that I speak on Post-Soviet Graffiti, my reflections on the data, and its implications, mature. With each new case study, new fieldwork trip, and new mentorship, I gain a new perspective on something that—after half a decade of research—could have easily become stale.
To share one’s research in a public scholarly setting can be daunting—no matter if the project is completely new or one’s lifelong work. But it can also be a necessary challenge that drives innovation and fresh approaches. Academic research does not develop in a vacuum; big ideas are, rather, the result of long hours, deep discussions, and endless revisions. It is an added bonus when strangers’ kindnesses—a shared cab-ride, a lunch invitation, or a reading suggestion—turn into new collaborations, professional invitations, or, the best alternative, a scholarly family.
You can listen to her entire lecture at Wayne State University by clicking here.