February
19th 2009
Squadratomagico’s “Circle of Life”

Posted under: American history, students, women's history

mufasasimbaThis is hillarious.  Sqadratomagico writes:

In my book, I attempted to dismantle a then-dominant narrative within my subfield.

I recently was asked to review a dissertation prospectus for a national fellowship organization. In that prospectus, I am the dominant narrative. My name is cited in the context of that very phrase. This prospectus, written by an eager young scholar, is attempting to dismantle my work.

I find this terribly amusing.

It’s amazing the speed at which this happens.  By the time we publish books, we’re lectured to by all-knowing graduate students and younger colleagues that our years of research, thought, writing, and re-writing were really pointless, since we’re just fonts of conventional wisdom telling everyone what they know already.  Gee, I wish someone had told me this 10 years ago.  Oh, wait!  Someone did–lots of someones, in fact, except they said there’s no evidence whatsoever for my point of view and what evidence I had I was clearly misreading or misinterpreting, since everyone knows that women aren’t involved in war, so trying to analyze gender and war was ridiculous, impossible, absurd.  What the hell was I thinking? 

The one constant over the past 10 years is that I’m clearly an idiot whose scholarship is worthless either because it’s entirely imaginary or the most hackneyed of all conventional wisdoms.  Now, lots of senior scholars who were protected by tenure ten years ago (when I was not) are writing about what I wrote about in my first book.  How did that happen?

14 Comments »

14 Responses to “Squadratomagico’s “Circle of Life””

  1. squadratomagico on 19 Feb 2009 at 8:52 am #

    Actually I was pretty tickled to be the big ole’ intimidating Dominant Narrative for the very first time. On the other hand, I do think that Young Scholar has overestimated the degree of consensus surrounding my work. I think I opened up a set of questions, but I don’t really see myself as the Dominant Narrative. It’s a convenient rhetorical device for making Young Scholar’s work look more daring than it really is (though in fact, the work is quite good — just not daring per se.)

  2. Historiann on 19 Feb 2009 at 9:16 am #

    Well, it sounds like your work is being treated respectfully, even if you doubt that you’ve totally smashed the formerly dominant paradigm. I was amazed to read in a recent book proposal that I had “failed to consider” such-and-such, and that this “failure” totally impeached my entire book even though the book is about so-and-so, not such-and-such. (I recognize that it’s mostly posturing, but still–who do they think will be asked to read these proposals?)

  3. Indyanna on 19 Feb 2009 at 10:55 am #

    I guess if some kid doesn’t try to run you out of Dodge you’d begin to wonder why you ever came into Dodge in the first place, right? That’s the trouble with kids today, though. Nobody wants to do “normal science” anymore. Just shatter the papier mache “paradigms” that are established to frame the next new thing. That’s largely why history didn’t get very far parading around as even a soft-core science. Everybody does get to be king of the hill in somebody’s imagination, though, and how bad can that be?

  4. Historiann on 19 Feb 2009 at 11:32 am #

    Oh, it’s not so bad! I don’t mean to sound dyspeptic about it at all–I just think it’s a funny phenomenon that we all see. (Or, most of us, anyway).

  5. GayProf on 19 Feb 2009 at 12:17 pm #

    If you think scholarship goes out of fashion quickly, just think about the speed that blogs fall out of favor.

  6. Historiann on 19 Feb 2009 at 12:43 pm #

    What what what??? What is this “fall out of favor” that you write of?

    There is a major difference between books and blogs: blogs can talk back, as it were. But, as we all know, this is the non peer-reviewed world wide timewasting web, so you get what you pay for…

  7. Susan on 19 Feb 2009 at 1:43 pm #

    I would say it’s much better to be erroneously thought to be “the orthodoxy” than to be ignored. It’s really amazing when people talk about things that you have done without acknowledging that someone else has thought about it before.

    But I also think it’s a funny characteristic of some graduate student training that instead of thinking that their job is to build – extend – amplify they think they have to overturn. As I did my dissertation research, I think I became much more humble.

  8. Satsuma on 19 Feb 2009 at 2:13 pm #

    Susan’s comment was very appropriate:
    “It’s really amazing when people talk about things that you have done without acknowldeging that someone else has thought about it before.” A truer statement couldn’t have been made about women’s studies or even women’s accomplishments worldwide.

    I believe this ignorance is either deliberate, or it comes from people who really haven’t done all the reading in the first place.

    After all this work to “reclaim” what women have done herstorically, you’d think we’d be on to this “erasure”** trick by now.
    ** One of the seven deadly sins of the fathers– Mary Daly’s analysis of how women’s work from the past is often unknown to women in the present.

  9. Ink on 19 Feb 2009 at 4:38 pm #

    “. . .or it comes from people who really haven’t done all the reading in the first place.” –Indeed! Lately, I have found myself writing the following on *multiple* reviews: “It seems important to acknowledge X, Y, and Z, who have done extensive work in this area.”

  10. Satsuma on 19 Feb 2009 at 5:36 pm #

    Thanks Ink for doing this for your colleagues and in your “multiple reviews.” Perhaps maybe this will help people become a little more thorough in their theories to begin with.

    Can we blame this on postmodernism? :-)

  11. PhDinHistory on 19 Feb 2009 at 6:41 pm #

    Just wait until text mining makes its arrival in our profession. A friend of mind already knows how to use Google Books to carry out meta-literature searches. He finds generalizations and arguments in historical monographs that just don’t hold up when your computer surveys the full extent of the literature. He is too much of a gentleman to name names, of course.

  12. Ink on 21 Feb 2009 at 12:28 pm #

    I wonder if it also has to do with the whole turbo-professionalization idea, the increased expectations for publishing earlier in one’s career?

  13. kb on 21 Feb 2009 at 7:15 pm #

    I would like to add two points to the discussion (somewhat belatedly):

    1) In my PhD program in Australia there is a heavy emphasis on the assessment of the originality of your thesis. I would assume that this is not unusual at other universities, if not commom practice. Often this can be interpreted as “if I can show that so-and-so is wrong, I am doing something new”…or along those lines anyway. More elegantly work can be done to build on others peoples work, which brings me to…

    2)… the difference in academic cultures. “Building on” or “extending someone’s research” were not at all encouraged at my university in Germany. Standard procedure in the class room was more like this: Student 1 formulates an argument or hypthesis. Student 2 says “yeah, but…” and dismantles student 1′s argument or hypthesis WITHOUT adding any other constructive thoughts. Discussion was more about shooting down other people’s ideas than about constructively building a new idea.

    I absolutely loved being an exchange student in the US and learning this other, constructive style of discussion. So much more useful! I would be sad to see that the pressures of academia, be they the job market, publishing expectations, etc, affect the academic culture in the humanities to the degree of leaning towards a destructive, rather than constructive model.

    I assume that the prospectus is the student’s way to stake their claim of why they need to be in the program, so it makes sense that they -with an ever-rising bar to get a scholarship in mind- try to impress with grand claims. Plus, sometimes, just sometimes, a fresh look by a fresh face can bring new ways of looking at a topic that the “elders” simply didn’t have a chance of seeing at the time of the writing of the book… :)

  14. Jeremy Young on 21 Feb 2009 at 11:20 pm #

    Some professors (my advisor, for example) love being treated like this. They encourage people to dismantle their work, while staunchly defending it unless convinced it’s been disproved.

    However, I tend not to dismiss existing scholarship in the way you’re describing, because of the arguments you make in this post. I prefer the “standing on the shoulders of giants” approach to scholarship. In fact, I’m thinking of thanking some of the scholars I’ve built on and disagreed with in the acknowledgments section of my dissertation.

Trackback URI | Comments RSS

Leave a Reply