How to Sell a Dissertation, Or: The Hand as a Proxy for the Brain

[I wrote this post for the Osler Library of the History of Medicine, where I spent four weeks over the summer as a recipient of the Mary Louise Nickerson Award in Neuro History. I added hyperlinks and minor changes.]

When asked about my dissertation topic as an early ABD (“all but dissertation”), I used to tell people that I work on the history of handedness research. A very common response was: “Handedness in what sense? Does it have something to do with molecules?” I usually explained that I’m researching manual preference, and that my project has nothing to do with chirality or any other fancy physical phenomenon.

After half a year of explaining what I mean by “handedness,” I came up with a more efficient strategy for answering the dissertation question. I started waving my hands in the air whenever I said “handedness.” This was somewhat effective. My conversation partners usually understood that I write a history of left- and right-handedness, but this also made them give me a look that said: “Oh my, what a boring thing to do.” Continue reading