Skip to content

Experts in the odd: Academics search out weird niches

MBrown4.JPG

Michael Brown, a journalism professor at the University of Wyoming, has, through research, become an expert on how the media covers Martians. (Courtesy of Michael Brown)

Allan Peterkin.jpg

Allan Peterkin, a psychiatrist and Professor at the University of Toronto, has a book on the history of beards. (Courtesy of Arsenal Pulp)

Martians came into Michael Brown’s life when he was studying for his Ph.D.

Well, not actual Martians.

Brown, then a graduate student in journalism, was studying the ways in which the credibility of Guglielmo Marconi, the man who invented the radio, was diminished when he claimed that it was possible to have communications with Martians by radio.

As he researched further, Brown became intrigued by the media’s role in taking the debate over whether Martians existed out of the hands of scientists and putting it into the public sphere.

“It says a lot more about us than it does Martians,” said Brown, a professor of journalism at the University of Wyoming, whose office is strewn with Martian-related materials, including two plastic alien heads and copies of early drawings of Martians.

Like many academics, Brown’s research led him to an expertise in an odd niche, an alleyway off of a major academic highway. The scholarly world is filled with little known experts in the obscure--from authorities on beards to specialists on professional wrestling.

As academic fields like American history are picked apart by generations of researchers, academics find themselves investigating deeper into the details of oddities. And as the academic job market becomes more and more competitive, being an expert in the odd is a way to stand out.

Benjamin Ogles, the dean of fine arts and humanities at Ohio University, says his school still seeks out people who can teach generalized introductory courses, but when it comes to research, professors tend to seek out a specialized niche to succeed.

“In their scholarship, faculty members do need to find a unique way to get their research published,” Ogles said. “In the finite world of Shakespeare, so to speak, it’s unlikely more will be found that was written by Shakespeare, so it’s going to be a little tougher for someone to find a new approach, so you start to narrow.”

He says with the range of general knowledge available through the Internet, specialization is necessary.

“Today there is so much information out there, for someone to keep up on a broad area, it’s very, very difficult,” he said. “You’ve got to be an expert in a very narrow field.”

For Scott Beekman, who wrote “Ringside: A History of Professional Wrestling in America,” having a specific area of expertise was a necessity.

“Part of it is because there are so many historians,” said Beekman, a professor of American history at Ohio University. “In order to find a niche you just have to be very, very specialized.”

Beekman, whose dissertation had been about William Dudley Pelley, a right-wing leader from the American South, came across the wrestling idea one night while flipping through the channels on his television. He began wondering if anyone had ever studied wrestling’s past.

Beekman pitched the idea to a publisher, got a book deal and spent a year researching the sport of pile drivers, body slams and the atomic leg drop.

Prior to Beekman’s research, there really was no scholarly exploration of wrestling. He found that wrestling, which started out in the United States as a legitimate sport in the late 1800s, really laid the foundation for the American love of sport.

Since writing the book, he hasn’t done much more with wrestling. However, the book segued into another assignment: co-writing a book on the culture of NASCAR.

For Allan Peterkin, a psychiatrist and professor at the University of Toronto, simple curiosity brought him into the world of beards.

“I was noticing that every third or fourth male face was sporting a goatee on the streets of Toronto,” he said. “I really was just observing a phenomenon.”

That perception led him to write “One Thousand Beards: A Cultural History of Facial Hair.”

Peterkin’s book explores the history of five o’clock shadows to full-on Grizzly Adams-style beards all the way back to the Stone Age.

“The meaning of the beard has changed so many times in our history,” he said. “It used to be men would take their cues from their king and their clergymen. Modern men take their cues from rock stars, musicians and athletes.”

The book made Peterkin the go-to guy for news stories on facial hair. When Al Gore lost his presidential bid, and emerged months later with a “mourning” beard, reporters went to Peterkin for comment.

Peterkin has also written a book on synonyms in the English language for erotic terms.

While his students and colleagues are interested in the two subjects, his research doesn’t show up in his class lectures on psychiatry. But students taking Brown's or Beekman’s classes will likely at least get a mention or two of Martians or wrestlers.

In the class “America in the 20th Century Since 1945,” Beekman will sometimes talk about professional wrestling’s role in the dawn of the television era, or how Cold War ideas were displayed through professional wrestling characters.

For students, having a professor with a highly developed specialty is a good thing.

“They see you as someone who participates in advancing the field,” Ogles said.

Ogles, who took the position of dean this year, still teaches psychology at Ohio University and knows a little about specialization.

His niche? The mentality of marathon runners.

E-mail: pac2103@columbia.edu