When you’re grading undergraduate essays, one of the most recurring issues you may come across is a student not taking their argument far enough. They’re stating a point that they’re attempting to prove, but going no further, they have no “so what” to their argument. In another blog about writing, the author rephrases the “so what” question as the following questions – “What is significant about your claim? How does this enrich my understanding? What are the implications of your claim?” These questions force you to get outside of your narrow lens and think about the larger impact of the paper and what it means for your readers. The further I have been getting into my PhD, I couldn’t help but wonder if I had lost sight of the “so what”. Why is this topic important or impactful? What is the wider meaning for my research? How does it enrich my field and set me up in terms of a successful career? I found myself wondering those things a lot throughout last year, but it was only when I was able to get back to the roots of my research that I felt grounded and reminded me of the “so what”.
I’m studying Canada’s first interior decorator, an extraordinary woman who traveled all across Canada creating a national style during the turn of the 20th century. In May, I had the opportunity to stay in Montreal for a month and I spent every day that I could walking to the McCord Museum and poring through the boxes of archival sources on this woman. There were diaries, letters, papers, newspaper articles carefully clipped out, photo albums and even a lock of hair belonging to her son. Through immersing myself in these pieces of ephemera, I was able to really get to know my research subject. I photographed every single page until my own archive was in the thousands. Whenever I came across something exciting I would hurriedly carry it over to the head archivist who would share in my excitement as I explained why this particular piece of paper was of extreme interest. The archivist – always an important person to befriend when you’re doing archival research – encouraged me to reach out to the surviving grand daughter, and so I did and before I knew it I was invited to her Montreal loft and was sipping lemonade as I was going through more photos, paintings, and looking at furniture that belonged to my research subject.
The granddaughter reminded me so much of my research subject, a formidable woman with an eye for style and a welcoming demeanor that immediately put you at ease. It was a lovely meeting that led to me being even more excited about my topic. She invited me to come visit her in her summer house later that week with my fiance, and the two of us made the trek over, and it felt like we were long-time friends as we sat across from each other at her breakfast table going through even more documents and talking about her family. I left that house with a family history book, that I’ve sworn to return once I’ve read it through thoroughly and an excitement that my research will have meaning, that my research subject is someone real, and that people living today still adore and care about deeply. I’m so grateful to have had that experience, and though life often gets in the way as you’re attempting to get through the monumental task that the PhD often feels like it is, it’s important to remind yourself what it is about your topic that drew you in. What excites you about the research. What is your “so what”.