May 14, 2003

Overspecialization as Scholasticism?

Rebecca Goetz reports on some remarks made by Bernard Bailyn, "the dean of historians of early America," at a forum for graduate students held at the Colonial Society of Massachusetts:

His take on the historical profession currently is that because of the volume of publishing, our professional dialogues are now carried on in the context of a sort of scholasticism...He pointed out that when he wrote his dissertation there was only a handful of books dealing with New England in the seventeenth century.

Goetz notes that while thirty years ago her own topic -- on religion and race in 17th-century Chesapeake -- would "have only encompassed a handful of books," her biblography is now "stabilizing at three hundred items" and yet she still feels that she has not "fully researched all the secondary literature" (but I'm sure she has). Our debates, she writes, "are now predicated on a knowledge of secondary work that takes years to master and significant amounts of time to keep up with, as demonstrated by the proliferation of journals."

It is instructive to compare the history journal article of today with the history journal article of thirty years ago. What's striking is the difference not only in the number of footnotes per article but also in the number of sources cited per footnote. A friend of mine first called my attention to this a few years ago: she was doing some research which involved reading a lot of journal articles from the 60s and 70s, and was struck by the relatively modest (by today's standards) footnote apparatus in the earlier articles.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at May 14, 2003 01:04 PM

It is rather insane. Partly a function of the increase in the number of schools that happened in the 1960s and partly due to even the "teaching schools" expecting publications. We are at the point where virtually no one in academe can really be considered an expert on much of anything, I think. As I used to tell my students, as each month passed I knew less as a percentage of everything I should know than the month before. There is simply too much coming out--most of which I don't even know about--to possibly read. Indeed, there are scores of political science-related journals that I have never seen, and some I have never heard of.

Posted by: James Joyner at May 14, 2003 02:52 PM

The drive to publish, publish, publish -- which is different than actually doing worthwhile research in many cases -- is a big part of this hyper-specialization. The best way to publish is to find some completely irrelevant and uninteresting phenomenon and convince others that it is highly relevant and interesting. As a book review editor, you would not believe the number of absolutely useless books I've seen come across my desk.

Most books should be articles and most articles should never be written.

Posted by: John Lemon at May 14, 2003 05:21 PM

I was recently at the orals for a friend's Ph.D dissertation. Afterwards, at lunch, I was talking with one of his examiners about how seldom one sees wider sweeping histories...that so many monographs are so focussed that the non specialist wouldn't want to read them, never mind being able to cope with the footnotes and background information. History on a grander scale does sell well with the greater public..witness the popularity of works by John Keegan. However such works are sneered at by academia as too "accessible". Why are books that people actually read to be sneered at?

Posted by: Dr_Funk at May 14, 2003 08:03 PM

Because we're a sneering bunch.

Posted by: John Lemon at May 14, 2003 10:09 PM

There's a pretty wide gap between academic and popular history.

For example, check out the nearest college history department you can find and count the number of military/diplomatic historians on staff. Now check out the history shelf at your nearest Barnes and Noble and count the number of titles that fall under the rubric of military/diplomatic. That's quite a gap.

At the other end of the spectrum, compare a couple of popular "herstory" titles with a couple of books by academic specialists in the history of women/gender. If you're an academic, the "herstory" will probably seem like a theoretically naive form of hagiography, or perhaps like Plutarch's women worthies with a lefty feminist spin. If you're not an academic, the scholarly literature on the history of women will likely seem dry, boring and perhaps incomprehensible.

I don't what the answer might be in terms of bridging the gap. I do think the gap is a problem, though.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at May 14, 2003 10:31 PM

If you're an academic, the "herstory" will probably seem like a theoretically naive form of hagiography... If you're not an academic, the scholarly literature on the history of women will likely seem dry, boring and perhaps incomprehensible.

Where do you put Antonia Fraser or Margaret Forster's work on this continuum between hagiography and dry/incomprehensible?

Posted by: drapetomaniac at May 15, 2003 11:00 AM

Bridging the gap is, I think, worth further thought, especially given the rampant devaluing of scholarly activity (within academe) by the general public.

I suspect that part of the problem is a disconnect both in terms of topic and in terms of style. I don't see why one can't at least look for under-served topics that are interesting to others beyond specialists, or topics that are popular with a general audience that can be addressed with sufficient rigor to merit academic approval.

On the style question, I suppose one might feel a "need" to write in jargon for an academic audience, but what is wrong with clear, engaging prose? It seems to me that if you can't explain a difficult concept at a basic level (1) you're not realizing the full value of that concept -- if it's truly incomprehensible, how useful can it be? and (2) maybe don't understand it as well as might be liked.

{disclaimer 1} I myself find it increasingly difficult to sit down with books in my field because they're both jargony and feel "warmed over" in their approaches and topics, so perhaps I'm simply channeling my own feelings of frustration.

{disclaimer 2} I am in the process of revising my manuscript (on what I and my editor believe will be a popular topic) so that it reads in a way that is both fun for the intelligent layperson and makes a scholarly contribution. It's hard!

{disclaimer 3} I am a footnoting fiend. (Couldn't you tell with all my parenthetical asides?) My compromise was to relegate the larger, citation-heavy ones (versus commentary asides) to endnotes where they won't bother people who aren't interested in them.

Posted by: Rana at May 15, 2003 06:38 PM

Rana hits the nail on the head. The way to bridge the gap is to stop with all the intellectual elitist pretensions (a phrase that oozes with its own pretentions, I might add). A book that has the word hagiography will never sell to a broad audience. I find nothing wrong with writing in a jargon-free, fun-filled prose...and actually find it quite easy.

Posted by: John Lemon at May 15, 2003 10:44 PM

The only history of Forster's that I've read is _Significant Sisters_. It's been a long time since I read it, but as I recall, it was a kind of collective biography of Victorian women in the "women who made a difference" vein. I also recall that it was a pretty good book. It's not hagiography, but I would put closer to the "women worthies" end of the spectrum.

Fraser is tougher to classify. It seems like she's doing something like an old-fashioned political biography (though often with women as the focus). So perhaps closer to the military/diplomatic (though again, often with women at the centre): the framework is that of high politics, diplomacy and etc, though she often focuses on the private more than the public lives of the high-born and high-placed. I really like her book on the Gunpowder Plot, by the way.

John, It's true that a book that has hagiography in the title probably won't sell. But a book that is hagiography might sell very well indeed. I'm being a bit facetious (and/or intellectually pretentious) with that term, I just mean a kind of glowing and uncritical form of biography.

Rana, If your topic can be translated into something popular, that's great!

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at May 15, 2003 11:15 PM

Yes, I'm certainly hoping so!

John -- what's tricky is less the matter of writing in an approachable style, but the effort of keeping a fairly advanced interpretive framework from taking over. Our (my editor's and my) partial solution so far has been to put the majority of the historiography and explanations justifying the switch in approach to fellow academics in a separate, "optional" chapter. There are the simpler versions in the introduction and throughout as needed to make sense of my analysis, and the advanced explanation (which, while not requiring jargon, does assume a certain familiarity with the issues of my field) is there for those who want it.

(While one could tell a very simple version of the story without the new framework it would largely negate the point of doing so -- the richer version of the story is the justification for developing a new approach to a much wider topic.)

So.. I wish that it was only a matter of prose style. You're right -- that part can be quite fun. But updating laypeople on several decades of contentious theoretical wrangling is challenging to say the least -- and while the book is, on one level, about the theory, it's also about the topic to which the theory is applied, and I don't want to lose that.

It does give me a certain sympathy for those who do manage to publish popular but intellectually rigorous works!

Posted by: Rana at May 16, 2003 09:37 PM