15 May 2003

Scholasticism and Scholarly Conversation

Invisible Adjunct posted a response to my comments on Bernard Bailyn's remarks yesterday. I do enjoy attracting attention! One of the comments on her post, though, says, "Most books should be articles and most articles should never be written." Sigh. At least I though my article was worth writing.

Having said that, I would like to address some of the comments of both Invisible Adjunct and Timothy Burke on scholarly conversation, because I think they relate to the problem of "scholasticism" and overspecialization. Invisible Adjunct nicely paraphrased Burke's remarks:

In a nice dissection of the heartlessness at the heart of the academy, Burke places his emphasis on the significance of fear. There is, for example, the "internalization of shame" and "paranoid wariness" that is too often the accompaniment of graduate school training. And there is also "the massive saturation of the intellectual marketplace with published knowledge and academic performances of knowledge at conferences, workshops and events," which makes academics "fear exposure of ignorance, because in truth, most of us are ignorant."

In place of "the ceaseless overproduction of derivative, second-order knowledge," Burke calls for a renewed embrace of the teaching mission and a revaluation of the vanishing art of scholarly conversation. Following Hume, we might call this a return to the ideal of conversibility, where the scholar does not work in "monkish seclusion" but rather engages with the problems and concerns of common life, mediating between the world of learning and the rest of the world. In any case, go read Burke's essay

I have a few thoughts on this.

1. I think the "paranoid wariness" Burke describes in graduate programs would go away if schools only accepted those they can fund. Everyone in my department is fully funded and has more or less equal access to travel money and other support. This makes the atmosphere much more congenial. I don't have to hide my thoughts for fear someone will steal them and use them to compete against me on a grant application.

2. As scholars we need to be more open to people who don't hyper-specialize. I have been a victim recently of the notion that one can only teach one's main field of study. I am an early Americanist. I know quite a bit (I think) about North America from 1400-1800. But I also did general fields in medieval Europe and early modern Britain. These fields led me to teach things Americanists don't generally teach--in my case, my university's Western Civilization class. I enjoyed the class so much the professors who teach it invited me back to be Head Teaching Fellow next fall. Now, this is mainly an administrative position and I'll spend most of my time ordering books and tracking down recalcitrant students. But it was whispered in my department among other grad students that an Americanist should not be teaching European history.

This made me pretty mad, but beyond that, I think it is symptomatic of the problems Burke and Invisible Adjunct were addressing in their respective posts. Are we so attached to our little specializations that we dare not cross our artificial boundaries to teach and to learn?

I agree that the publication of too many books and articles (in pursuit of tenure) is part of the problem. But beyond massive academic production, I think we also have an attitude problem.

Lastly, in her response to my post, Invisible Adjunct assured her readers that I had no doubt located much of the secondary literature relevant to my topic. I appreciate her faith in my abilities, but alas, while wandering the byways of my favorite used bookstore yesterday, I came across a collection of articles published in 2002 which is more than relevant. I didn't know about this volume until I saw it on a shelf. It never ends. Sigh.


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