Sunday, July 01, 2007

Research and "real" scholarship

As I mentioned in my previous post, and despite my early fears that I'd taken on a job too big for the time available, I completed both my manuscript transcriptions while in England--and I have, as a consequence, been feeling rather self-congratulatory.

I’ve also had some interesting conversations about my work, both with academics and non-academics. My conversations with the former have been useful in all the expected ways--I’ve gotten ideas and additional references for this project--but in some ways it’s the conversations with the latter that have made me think the hardest about what it is that I’m doing, and what it is that I do.

Whenever I mentioned that I was going to the U.K., I described the purpose of the trip as "research." But when asked further about what exactly I’d be doing, I sometimes started to get that imposterish feeling that I usually experience only around actual academics. Was what I was doing research? In the way that the average person understands it? After all, I wasn’t rooting around in an archive, hoping to stumble upon something new and exciting; I wasn’t tracking down dates and locations, establishing which version of something had been published first, or investigating what the author was doing during some unaccounted-for period of his life. No: I had two manuscripts to look at, manuscripts that I’d already examined and whose contents I more or less already knew. My task was to transcribe them as swiftly and as accurately as possible (and hopefully get microfilm or digital copies as back-up). If I noticed anything interesting as I was doing so, great, but it wasn’t my task, just then, to look for patterns, worry over unusual details, or compare one part of the MS with another.

After I'd described this work to Mr. and Mrs. Ex-Pat, Mr. Ex-Pat asked, "why is this something that you have to do? Can’t the library just hire a temp to do it?"

And that's a reasonable question: in the business world, it’s the low-ranking people who do the equivalent of this fairly mindless work. Is transcription really any different from data-entry?

Of course I explained that not even the librarian at this particular archive knew how to read seventeenth-century handwriting, so a temp certainly wouldn’t be able to, and I added that there are so many manuscripts out there, the contents of which are largely if not entirely unknown, that--even if the financial resources and the demand were there--most archives simply wouldn’t be able to make informed decisions about what needed transcribing and what didn’t.

And in this conversation, as in the other three or four that I had, not only did I start to realize that I actually had some relatively tangible scholarly skills (nothing says, "I earned my Ph.D." like displaying a page of cramped Secretary script and proceeding to read it aloud), but I also discovered, to my surprise, how interested in the process non-specialists become. Now, I've always suspected that I do a much better job of describing my work to non-specialists than to people in my field (maybe because I'm a totally reductive thinker? or because I'm deeply insecure about my abilities?), but something about the physical, material process of the kind of research and editing that I'm doing or contemplating doing gets people interested, in the same way that facsimile copies of seventeenth-century texts get my students to think differently about the works we're reading. The same student who couldn't care less about the multiple possible meanings of a word in a given soliloquy, or about why some of its lines might rhyme while other don't, can look at a facsimile title page and suddenly produce all kinds of theories about how and why the play is being marketed the way it is. It's as if once there are objects and people involved--books, not just "texts"; an author and a printer and a bookseller and an imagined reading public, not just words on a page--non-academics can suddenly relate and feel invested.

I wonder whether this is something peculiar to English as a discipline. Many people I talk to--even academics in other fields--profess great surprise at how "historicist" or "non-theoretical" the projects that I and most of my friends work on are. This is always said by way of being a compliment, although I'm not sure that it is (there's no necessary opposition between the theoretical and the historicist, after all), and I wonder whether those people whose only experience of English comes from lower-level classes don't think that all we do is look really really closely at texts in order to produce subversive readings--readings that they perceive as being in service to some larger philosophical or theoretical agenda.

So, when it turns out that I'm going back to an early text, and comparing it to later texts, and trying to recover something like the author's intentions (okay, you can just shut up now: it's all about the intentional fallacy around here, and I do so too have special access to the psyche of long-dead authors), the layperson gets interested. Maybe I should call this the History Channel Effect: the reflexive respect for something that involves musty old papers and travel to foreign countries, but that doesn't always have a lot of patience for the ambiguities and multiple possible meanings of words on a page.

On my best days, I think that I can show my students (and non-academics) how the two are related. I just wish that I could do so all the time.


Anonymous said...

This is not in any way related to anything you're talking about, but I saw this today and instantly thought you'd get a kick out of it.

I was up in Marin county hiking today, and saw a car with the following stickers in the following order:

University of Vermont
Oberlin College
Marin Academy

It just seemed so..... Marin.


Scott said...

A while back, one of my friends in Political Science asked me "So, um, how is what you're doing English?" She was surprised that I didn't sit around all day interpreting poetry.

RageyOne said...

I think it takes time to get to that point of really being able to explain succinctly what you do and how they are related. You're getting there and that is what is important.

When you were explaining to Mr. and Mrs. Ex-Pat and they got it, that means you are getting there. They realize that research is different for all different disciplines. It is not one blanket thing that we do as researchers. It is unique to your discipline. That, I think, is the beauty of higher education. It is so different and yet the same.

We are seeking to gain some knowledge about a subject and interpret that for others. In due time, in due time. You'll get there.