Saturday, July 25, 2009

Loss of faith

I've published several articles derived from my dissertation/book manuscript, and although there are things that embarrass me a bit about all of them--especially the brash, pugnacious tone I now recognize as peculiar to the graduate student--I still consider them basically solid pieces of work.

However, there's one whose central argument I no longer fully believe in. It's still a plausible argument, I think, and even a profitably provocative one, but I'm not prepared to go to the stake for it.

The problem is, the material from that article accounts for nearly half of the chapter I'm currently revising. And it's the better half.

I think that the way I'm reframing both the chapter and the book will allow me to moderate and rephrase that particular claim while still retaining nearly all my sub-arguments and local readings, but I'm torn between wanting essentially to keep the damn argument--I wouldn't write that tendentiously now, but I kinda enjoy the confidence behind it--and fearing it will weaken the entire chapter. I'm also not sure what my ethical obligations are: if one changes an argument radically between one published work and another, does one need to acknowlege that fact in the text? In a footnote? Anywhere at all?

I'm sure such losses of faith or changes of heart must be relatively common, especially over the course of a long career working on the same or similar texts and topics. If you've ever had a loss of faith in your earlier claims and have contemplated publicly revising them, what have you done?


Thoroughly Educated said...

I haven't done this myself, but I've seen quite prominent people publish retractationes in the context of a followup piece on a previously-published topic. In one instance, somebody who made a big stir with a controversial stance in an early-career book did a really elegant job in the introduction to a later book of going through the points on which he'd been swayed by his critics and changed his mind in the intervening years. I think it's a gracious and normal thing to do.

Zachary Lesser said...

I think that this kind of palinode almost invariably ends up making the author look terrific. So if you do change it, I'd be inclined to talk about that as part of the argument. It's a really strong way of making an argument, as it shows your thinking evolving with new scholarship, new evidence, etc.

Remember, too, that the argument in the *book* will almost always be the one that lasts, not the one in the article. I'd say to change it to what you really think now, especially since for the profitably provocative aspect, the article is still out there.

Horace said...

I have always believed that the hallmark of a great thinker is the ability to change your mind when presented with more nuanced ways of thinking. Although in politics, this was once called the "flip-flop," in academia, I think it suggests that we are active parts of the critical conversation, not just by contributing, but by responding.

I am running across a similar issue in the chapter I'm working on now, and have found that presenting the "provocative possibility" approach has been received better than the straight up argument, and that acknowledging the revision of my earlier position actually helps establish my scholarly ethos as a writer who has something of a career's worth of work to look back upon in the first place.

Historiann said...

What everyone else said. It's unlikely that too many people follow your career so closely that they're going to notice anyway, but think about the book first, above all, and make sure that that it reflects the most honest, most complete version of your current thinking. Z is right to say that it's the book that will last. Most people refine if not revise entirely their thinking in-between the publication of some exploratory articles and a book.

You can just note briefly in a f/n that "another version" of this chapter was published earlier, but that you've had an opportunity to revise in light of further research.

I have never revised my thinking so dramatically in-between articles and a book--perhaps that's because I'm not as intellectually mature as you? (I did try out a wacky argument in a conference paper that I immediately abandoned, but that remains unpublished.)

Anonymous said...

Reading in my own field, I know a few who handle this kind of “loss of faith” gracefully, and that grace is part of what makes them among my favorite writers.

The approach I admire amounts to:
1) come fully clean, and
2) don’t make a great big deal out of it.

Sometimes, I point out such examples to my students in religious studies, in order to show them the difference between scholarship and dogmatics: we scholars like to emend our conclusions in light of new evidence or fresh arguments.


Flavia said...

Thanks, all, for your advice and examples. I've heard of people doing such things, but the only time I've encountered anything approaching a retraction myself was at a conference about a year ago:

A famous scholar gave a (typically) provocative keynote, and in the Q&A someone said, "well, can you explain how what you've just said squares with [a well-known theoretical concept which said scholar formulated early in his career]? Because it seems contradictory."

He waved an arm dismissively. "That's a good question, but there's an easy answer: I was wrong." And then he went on to the next question.

Which I guess is okay for Anley-stay Ish-fay, but perhaps not a useful strategy for the rest of us.

(As for myself, I've just reread the text that article depends on, for the first time in five years, and you know what? I've regained my faith. My interpretation isn't the Secret Key to Everything We Don't Know About This Author, as I once thought it was. . . but I'm reconvinced that it's the most persuasive reading of this one particular text, given the available evidence. I still need to make some major revisions to how I ARTICULATE this claim, but it's not the radical change I was fearing.)