Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Pistols! Treason! Murder!: Discipline Can Take the Fun Out of History (The Australian, 2007)

Following on from my last post, which reprints the text of an editorial I wrote for The Sun-Herald in 2007, here is a similar piece published in The Australian at about the same time. It's basically the same argument, but it's written in a different style for a different publishing context.

The Australian

April 28-29, 2007 (Weekend Edition)

Discipline can take the fun out of history

It took me about 3 1/2 years to obtain a doctoral thesis. It took me the next 3 1/2 to unlearn all the bad habits I acquired in the process. So why did writing a PhD feel like learning to suppress everything that attracted me to history in the first place?

Hayden White has argued that the transformation of a subject or a literary genre - in this case history - into a university discipline is principally a matter of deciding what is illegitimate: that is, making a list of all the things you are not allowed to do if you want to be considered respectable, qualified and - most important of all - employable. That is a far more important part of the process than establishing a positive set of skills and investigative techniques appropriate to the subject.

By definition, the transformation of history defined as a literary pursuit into history defined as a university subject involved the establishment of professional examinations and qualifications. Anyone who could not pass these exams was then by definition not a real historian. Whether failure implied an excess of imagination or a lack of skill was beside the point.

Postgraduates are taught valuable lessons; for example, paleography (how to read handwritten historical documents), which is only the most basic of the critical skills required for the interpretation of sources written in alien historical contexts. Students are also exposed to a rich body of work written by their predecessors, which contains valuable practical and theoretical insights that prevent them from having to reinvent the wheel. But at the same time they are acculturated (to borrow a piece of jargon from anthropology) into academic life. I used to watch it happen in seminars in Cambridge, which I single out not because Cambridge is an inherently stuffier or cleverer institution than any other university but because there are a lot more students and seminars there, and so the indoctrination is much more blatant. Students listen carefully to their elders and betters and practise asking the right kind of question, one that reveals their erudition rather than their ignorance and does not betray any emotional involvement in the subject (although political commitment is acceptable at times).

Despite the variations in technique and approach among different disciplines in the humanities, there is an identifiable academic style to all of them: an acceptable vocabulary, a way of phrasing questions and structuring papers, a shared understanding of what constitutues an intellectually serious argument, along with some more obvious formal elements such as the use of footnotes and referencing conventions. The precise nature of this shared set of values and conventions evolves from generation to generation, but the primary function of each generation's members is to pass on as much of their cultural inheritance to their successors as they can, to ensure that the culture survives and thus secure their place in its canon.

These academic conventions - and the related practice of using anonymous referees to review work submitted to presses and journals - are ostensibly intended to preserve minimum standards, which they do. But they also encourage rigid conformity. Anonymous refereeing is a particularly vicious process for those who genuinely wish to try something different, as the writer has absolutely no means of defending his or her self against attack from an unidentifiable quarter and no opportunity to bring the pilloried work into the public arena for discussion. As a result, experiments are strangled at birth, as my book would have been but for the intervention of several generous editors (especially those of Rethinking History) who took the unusual step of overruling hostile peer reviews.

As graduate students, we are led to believe that the academic voice is a universal language, a guarantee of comprehension among a world-wide community. Actually it is more like a dialect. Now, there is nothing wrong with that. Obscure languages and dialects have particular powers of expression that make them ideal for analysing previously undreamed-of nuances in subjects that seem self-evidently simple to outsiders. The most famous (and possibly mythical) example is the generous number of words for snow in certain Inuit tongues. Similarly, even the most abstruse article in the most obscure journal may contain important insights, but that does not mean its style should be adopted as a universal standard of judgement.

In essence, I have no problem with the way in which we are taught to write and think as graduate students. It is the equivalent of learning how to draw and model at art school. I use that analogy deliberately because in art school the purpose of that training is to prepare you to move beyond the limits of this basic education and find your own voice. I agree with whoever said that you have the right to break the rules only if you are capable of keeping them. Indeed, I make a point of periodically writing and publishing entirely conventional academic articles in peer-refereed journals just to prove that I can do it, so that if and when I choose to do something different it is clear that it is a deliberate choice and not a question of incompetence. I value the training I received, but why would I want to rewrite my thesis over and over again for the rest of my career? One of the most basic insights of cultural history is to argue that many practices and beliefs are constructed and not naturally given, but historians are seemingly unwilling to apply this obvious insight to their own writing.

The academy is the only place in which the entrance examination - the thesis - marks a definitive statement of the values and techniques that are supposed to define your future written production. This conservatism masks a deep-rooted insecurity that is revealed most clearly by the intolerance of anonymous referees for jokes. I think jokes are useful as a form of criticism, as a way of encouraging greater self-consciousness and scepticism. But to referees, not taking oneself - and by extension, them - seriously is an unforgivable sin.

So, do I long for a return to the days when history was left in the hands of gentlemen amateurs who were more concerned with crafting an elegant phrase than racking up the required number of refereed publications, irrespective of whether anyone read them (and nobody does, not if they can help it)? No. After all, I hold a post within an academic institution and I hope to continue to hold productive debates with my colleagues there for many years to come. Rather, I would like more of us to acknowledge that imagination, creativity, playfulness and, above all, risk-taking and formal experimentation are essential to the survival and growth of history and the humanities in general. As a discipline, we need to become more undisciplined.

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