Your Assignment: Turd in the Punchbowl

I had a postdoctoral fellowship at the Center for Historical Analysis at Rutgers that was one of the more satisfying professional experiences I have ever had. The topic for the year was the history of consumption and commodities, and a lot of the fellows, both local and from outside, were really compelling scholars who gave me a lot of insights into my own research project.

It started with a really terrifying experience, however. The first seminar meeting was dedicated to a paper presented by a visiting speaker, an accomplished historian who had previously done excellent work on the history of religion in England. The speaker was presenting some work on the history of consumerism and masculinity in 20th Century England that focused heavily on toiletries for men. Since one of the major topics I was writing about was the production and consumption of similar products in southern Africa, the Center’s convener for the year, Victoria de Grazia, asked me to be the discussant. This made me nervous, to be kicking the whole thing off with my first non-grad-student service as a discussant. What made me more nervous, as the event approached, was that the paper was, in my opinion, pretty bad. It had a really worrisome methodological twist, in that it was based on access to company records that only this historian had been or would be permitted to see, but that wouldn’t have been an issue but for the argument and tone of the paper. Basically the paper gave off some weird psychoanalytic vibes, as its main argument seemed to be that in the course of the 20th Century, the natural earthiness of male odor had been disciplined by overly prim and controlling female sensibilities acting through the agency of toiletry manufacturers. I could imagine a version of that argument at least being taken seriously, but at least in this iteration of this paper, it was in all honesty pretty goofy.

So I fretted for a week. What should I say? Be pleasant and neutrally encouraging, the way discussants or academic book reviewers often are? “This paper makes an important contribution to the field…” and all that? Or should I be straightforward, if polite, about how troubled the paper was? I didn’t think then and don’t think now that the job of the discussant is to pedantically correct the presenter about relative trivia, or even to tell the presenter about the paper they should have written. It’s to figure out what is discussable in a given paper. But you still have to choose whether to discuss the paper from the premise that it sets the conversation off in a strong way or whether the discussion is about what’s wrong with the paper.

I ended up coming in with a pretty hard-hitting commentary which went over well, though the presenter was obviously very unhappy with me. The point for me was to try and use the commentary as a springboard to bigger issues: what was good evidence in the context of studying the history of consumerism and commodities? What can we find in corporate holdings, and what can we do to encourage them to be shared with historians? What represents a sound interpretation about the personal experience of consumer desire in the past? Why do felt needs and material practices change? But I did make it clear that the scholar presenting the paper was barking up the wrong tree on each and every one of those questions.

I’m thinking about this memory this week in the context of sparring a bit with Mark Bauerlein at the Valve. Partly I was just irritated with Bauerlein for filing a kind of entry that at this point is long past its expiration date, the “look at the stupid titles on papers at conference sessions I didn’t attend”. That’s the blog equivalent of phoning it in.

In the discussion, however, Bauerlein made an interesting point about scholars in the field of composition who try to address the problem of how racial identity affects writing, and implicitly, about whether that effect is something that should be reduced through efforts to standardize analytic writing. Bauerlein observed, “The proper handling of racial differences, including hypothesized differences in writing or arguing, takes years of study in history, sociology, demographics, and psychology…I spent three years in archives documenting race relations from 100 years ago, when racial differences were an intense focus in public and private life, and I wouldn’t trust myself to manage that question in the classroom or at a conference.”

I observed in reply at the Valve that the standard Bauerlein sets here ought to apply not just to assertions about the impact of racial identity on student writing, but to any question in composition, and even to any question involving the interpretation of texts or culture. Here I want to go a different direction, namely, that if Bauerlein thinks this, he has every reason to attend a conference session of this type and make that criticism in a friendly and constructive manner to the presenters. A lot of academic life has a tendency towards the “mannered and tendentious”, towards closed and self-confirming forms of reasoning and evidence. To sing an old song of mine, t’s not just “liberal” disciplines that have that problem. Economics is as self-confirming and hermetically sealed a discipline as you’ll ever see, and its closed circles are typically anything but liberal or left-wing.

In practice, this is part of what interoperability in academic life should be about: the willingness to go to presentations or to read articles where you have fundamental disagreements with the starting premises or underlying assumptions and to push back critically on what is being said or written.

You have to be fair, and you have to talk about what is actually said in the paper or written in a scholarly work in the context of the discipline at hand. It’s both bad manners and pointless to go to an economics presentation and hold the paper accountable for simply being in the discipline of economics. I once got involved in a discussion of an article with a colleague in economics whom I like quite a bit where I started going off about the entire concept of the SES as a metric. That was not a useful contribution on my part. On the other hand, a case where I thought I got it right was when I went to a faculty lecture by a colleague in religion who was talking about myth and historical narrative in an area of Southeast Asia where I pushed pretty hard about how he was criticizing certain modern narratives as inauthentic and non-indigenous while ignoring the ways in which the narrative he took to be “baseline indigenous” was easily interpreted as a story told by conquerers about their violent suppression of an earlier autocthonous group in the region. In the context of this presentation, that was an unwelcome reading: it disrupted the entire premise of the lecture, and came from outside the framework that the speaker was working within. But I think it was a useful reading that pushed back on the lecture in a way that the speaker recognized as legitimate.

It’s hard to find the time in any college or university to even attend lectures and presentations within your own core areas of competency. I’ve missed several this semester that I felt a serious obligation and desire to attend. In some ways, however, we should feel an even greater drive to go to presentations where our presence is unexpected and press hard on those presentations from unexpected directions. If Bauerlein is doubtful about whether a scholar of composition can successfully integrate evidence about racial sociology, psychological identity, cognition, and the history of racialized reading and writing into a presentation, he owes it to the people making such presentations to push back on their work in those terms, to raise the questions that their immediate colleagues would refuse to ask or would not think to ask. It’s not just him: I think this should be a requirement of professional scholarly life, to “cross-train” both for your own benefit and for the benefit of others. We shouldn’t just tolerate this sort of unfamiliar intervention, but actively wish for it, as long as it is professional, generous in intent, and accepting of the basic legitimacy of our own disciplinary practices.

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4 Responses to Your Assignment: Turd in the Punchbowl

  1. Nicole says:

    As a philosopher I am always perplexed when attending talks in other disciplines precisely because there seems to be so little engagement with what was said. However, I have been told by others that philosophers are rude, and that they can’t believe how mean we are to one another. I agree with your final statement, but I suspect that my disciplinary standards for being professional and generous in intent are liable to conflict substantively with those of other disciplines.

  2. Joey Headset says:

    Wait… you shouldn’t make fun of other people’s papers unless they’ve actually read the papers or attended the conferences where they were presented? That’s a little harsh. Uninformed opinions are the hi-octane fuel that powers the Blog-O-Sphere. Bloggers are busy people: they’ve got blogs to update, blogs to comment on, blogs to… blog. Blogging may not actually be a job, but if it were a job, it would be a full time job. As such, any prospective blogger has to choose between actually experiencing the world and being able to generate a constant stream of provocative opinions about the world.

    Furthermore, I’ve found that the interestingness of my opinions is inversely proportional to the extent to which I “know what I’m talking about.” On my own website, I ONLY review movies I haven’t seen yet. Not only does this allow me to get my reviews online before the competition, but it also helps me to keep an open mind about the film in question. By going to see the movie, I would only be biasing myself for or against it… and that’s the sort of bias all of us bloggers should strive to eliminate from the Blog-O-Sphere.

  3. Endie says:

    Nicole said:
    >> However, I have been told by others that philosophers are rude

    Well, that’s what most Athenians said about Socrates (not to even mention Diogenes), so it should probably be taken as a compliment.

    Joey: It is important, in blogging, to read at least two sentences of a post, even if only those that have already been posted, out of context and preferably with many ellipses, in a chain of other, outraged blogs. This allows an authoratitive quote and link, which can then be used to recreate what one thinks the OP must have meant by the rest of their post. For examples, see Belle from Crooked Timber in any discussion of Christopher Hitchens, Nick Cohen or Oliver Kamm.

    And re the post, I was extremely lucky to choose law as my first degree, a subject so spectacularly easy that I was able, in my second year for instance, to spend more time at lectures in other faculties than in my own. A few years’ of taking all of knowledge to be your province is rather fun.

  4. Joey Headset says:

    First of all, I don’t write blog entries about other people’s blog entries. Ever. So I need not worry about divining the original context of blog entries that have been quoted on other blogs by other bloggers. However, if I were a blogger who blogged about other bloggers’ blogs, I would have have an implicit trust for prevailing blog-o-sphere opinions.

    If other bloggers are already outraged about something, then I see no reason why I shouldn’t be outraged about it too. It’s called “piling on” and it’s a fine tradition that works just as well on the internet as it does on the football field. Playing football, if I see that 3 of my teammates have jumped on top of somebody, I’m not going to stand there, saying “Oh gee… I don’t think I should join in until I can establish the original intent of the guy at the bottom of the pile.” HELL NO. I’m going to rush to be the fourth one on that pile, and I don’t give a damn if the referee has already blown the whistle or not.

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