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 wouldnâ€™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.