Generalist’s Work, Day 5

My colleague Richard Eldridge has written intricately about “the persistence of romanticism”, and defended romanticism in literature and philosophy against some of the more common criticisms.

In humanistic writing, I’m struck by the sometimes uncomfortable mixing of a romanticist vision of authorship with the value of scholarship as a collaborative, collective and accumulative enterprise. In peer review, tenure review, grant applications and other venues where we set the benchmark for what counts as excellence, we often expect scholarly work to exhibit the author’s “quality of mind”, and that in turn is often best established by the degree to which the analysis and interpretation in scholarly writing appear to be original and highly individualistic, all values that I think trace back to a romanticist vision of cultural creation as the expression of a liberated and extremely distinctive self. We often insist that the act of research in the humanities reveal or uncover something that we did not yet know, and suggest that this is both a mark of the individual quality of mind of the author of that research and a benchmark of its contribution to a shared project.

I think this somewhat contradictory posture accounts for the wariness of many humanists towards digital media, crowdsourcing and so on. I also think it inhibits scholarly writing in some unfortunate ways. I was musing on this feeling a lot while devouring Wendy McClure’s The Wilder Life over the past week. Basically, what I kept asking myself was, “Why isn’t this how cultural studies scholarship normally reads?”

McClure is not a professor: she’s a writer and editor. I suppose you could say that’s why scholarship doesn’t read this way, because she’s someone who makes her money from writing well rather than proving her erudition. And yet, the book is in its own way quite erudite. She’s certainly read just about everything there is to read about Laura Ingalls Wilder, a fairly substantial scholarly literature in its own right. Yet, if a junior cultural studies or literary scholar submitted this as their manuscript for review by a tenure committee, I feel fairly certain that their candidacy would be in serious trouble in many institutions. That’s a damn shame.

The book is offering no strikingly new findings about the Ingalls or their place in history. As McClure points out, it’s not even the first book to offer a travelogue of journeys to important Ingalls-related tourist sites. But it is a smart, personal engagement with the big questions that the Little House books pose: why were they written and published? (By whom, in fact?) Why do we like them? (Which ‘we’?) What have they done to and with national, religious, cultural and gender identity in the United States over the last forty-odd years?

To me the gold standard for scholarship is not “is this an original finding, an act of research which is wholly original to the person who undertook it?”, but “what conversations does this provoke? how could I teach it? how does it help me to think about what I already know and teach me things that I did not know?” I’d be happy to enshrine McClure’s book as a sample type of what one kind of synthesizing, engaging cultural studies scholarship ought to look like. The analysis it offers is personal, wistful, meditative, as well as consistently funny, and I have no doubt that this would irritate some of my colleagues in cultural studies who have an expectation that the underlying social formations expressed through the novels and their fandom require more trenchant and systematic critique.

It’s not reasonable to expect that this kind of book be the first thing that junior scholars write, but it is reasonable to suggest that it’s a very desirable kind of synthesizing, explanatory writing which the humanities could move towards.

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2 Responses to Generalist’s Work, Day 5

  1. Doug says:

    Could a given faculty shift those incentives on its own? An editor or group of editors at influential publications? A like-minded group that set up either its own journals or a new online mode of publication?

    Your argument across several posts seems to be in favor of “good books, well written.” But those are terribly slippery concepts, as all your readers here are likely to know. I’m not inside the academy, so I don’t know whether the rubrics used to evaluate scholars’ works are less slippery. If they’re easier to define more clearly across sub-fields, maybe that’s one reason for their persistence?

  2. G. Weaire says:

    For me, the question is whether there is, or should be, a single “gold standard” at all. There should be places for many different varieties of published intellectual engagement.

    I tend to feel that the absolutely most prestigious positions (not the routine full professor, but the endowed chair at the world-famous institution) should be reserved for those who have “done it all.” Not least because those positions should come with an obligation to be an ambassador for your discipline to the wider world.

    I might highlight the importance of the personal in your described “gold standard….”how could *I* teach it? how does it help *me* to think about what *I* already know and teach *me* things that *I* did not know?” Not saying that we shouldn’t think this way; in fact, a lot of the time I think that’s what we’re already doing and calling it something else.

    But it calls for respect for many different responses, including the one that goes “Actually, this particular work is basically useless to me.”

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