This weekend, I finished reading Umberto Eco’s lovely little book, How to Write a Thesis, that was translated and republished by MIT Press a few years ago. The book is a great refresher for mid-career scholars and I would love to use it one day in an undergraduate research class. From the choosing a topic, to identifying sources, organizing research, preparing an outline, and writing and formatting the thesis, Eco leads a researcher through the entire trajectory of a project. He also offers some useful observations on the attitude of the researcher. He calls for students to have both humility enough to read everything with an open mind to its potential and proud enough to speak with their own voice and to own their expertise.
Over the last five years or so, my experiences as a scholar has certainly fortified my sense of academic humility and I suspect that some mid-career scholars feel the same way. Not only do I feel more humbled by the immense and complex task of producing new scholarship, but I also recognize that my own skills as a scholar have eroded significantly since I completed my dissertation in 2003. In fact, going back to that manuscript from time to time, I find my academic voice almost unrecognizable. I started to wonder what caused this change. Why do scholars lose confidence in mid to late career and why does our (or at least my) work suffer?
To be clear, I’m not assuming that all scholars go through the same process that I am experiencing and I recognize that many scholars continue to produce important, influential, and high quality work in their mid-career and beyond. Everyone’s academic trajectory is a bit different and situation – in terms of resources, support, political awareness, and rigor – varies. I am writing today with the suspicion that at least some mid-career scholars feel like I do, and not to suggest that all mid-career scholars are the same or even similar.
It seems to me that at the very time when we should be more confidently asserting our expertise on a topic, that we increasingly admit to our own failings and the shallowness of our own knowledge, understanding, and expertise. On the one hand, I recognize that some of this is simply a growing awareness that many smart people in the world write and say many smart things. On the other hand, some of it – at least in my case – derives from the conditions that produce good academic work in one’s early career change by mid-career swinging the balance from early career pride to humility.
First, as a graduate student, I had more time and resources to do good research. It goes without saying that as a mid-career faculty member there are many demands on our time (and for my contingent colleagues, it is only worse). Between teaching, service, and other obligations across campus (and into real life), I struggle to find the blocks of time necessary to read and write in a thoughtful and confident way.
More than that, I had to good fortune as a graduate student to have access to good research libraries, time to write and read, and funds to travel both to collect data and to gain new skills. While my current library does a more than adequate job keeping me supplied with books and I have the good fortune to travel regularly for research, I’m also aware that maintaining this situation requires constant “hustle” as a colleague puts it. Time, funds, and resources are not a given and lapse the moment that you take your foot off the gas and stop applying for grants, stop protecting time and space to write, and grow tired of the processes necessary to get books and articles. My energy to produce careful research has waned because it’s not easy to do especially with the constant competition from life and work.
Second, social conditions change by mid career. I was fortunate as a graduate student to have amazing colleagues who would read my work, talk endlessly about ideas, and drive me to be both more rigorous, more precise, and more measured in my scholarship. While I still have some remarkable colleagues who are willing to read, comment, discuss, and help me to revise my work (and vice versa), I also know that they have competing priorities as well. The days of the seminar (and the pre and post seminar conversations) are gone and the rigor derived from those experiences is gone as well. (To say nothing of the prodding pen of my advisor and faculty).
In its place is the intentionally impersonal process of peer review which generally lacks both iterative process that defines the seminar and a deeper awareness of one’s academic development. I say this not to make my situation seem unique. I recognize that most academics experience some sense of writing in a vacuum that I do. Instead, I have come to realize how much the social situation of my graduate education allowed me to be at better scholar.
Third, and this might be the most person, I realize that after over a decade of doing what I can to get by in academia, I’ve developed bad habits, fallen into bad research and writing habits, and have found myself so adrift of the last research skills. The social circumstances that pushed me toward rigor and the resources that made it possible for me to research and write well are gone. Now, I write too quickly. I read broadly and without depth. My research methods tend toward the random and I rely too heavily on an increasingly compromised memory and a disorganized process for note taking, draft writing, and editing. While I can produce plausible academic work, it isn’t good academic work. Eco’s book reminds me how research should be done.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I feel like I’m much more intellectually and politically aware now than I was as a graduate student. In graduate school, the larger intellectual project of my work was much more closely tied to my own personal and professional ambitions. I wanted to get my degree and get a job and to do that I had to write and research at a particular level.
Today, there’s more to writing and researching than personal professional advancement. The legacy of what I study, how I do my work, and why I write what I write hangs heavily every time that I sit down to do research. This is a good thing, of course, but the burden and complexity of responsible scholarship does not always align with challenges of producing good scholarship. The struggle of producing scholarship that is both good and right is universal, but it seems uniquely difficult to accomplish as a mid-career scholar when the complexities our moment and the limits of time and resources intersect most violently.
This post isn’t meant to bemoan my fate or even make an excuse for my own mediocrity, but instead as a first step toward thinking about how to reinforce or even re-establish the skills, resources, connections, and contexts that made me a competent scholar in my early days. I realize that the NEH and other organizations run faculty seminars and such things are increasingly common at universities in the US. I also understand that for contingent faculty the challenge of remaining sharp, engaged, and relevant as scholars is even more pervasive. Perhaps mid-career faculty and contingent faculty can find common ground on the need to re-develop and maintain research skills. A start to this could be as simple as monthly seminars or as a comprehensive as regular training sessions on new research techniques, scholarly writing, and engaged scholarship.
At the same time, reflecting on my own decline as a scholar has pushed me to recognize the need for greater humility and to temper any rush to claim expertise. Over the past three or four years, I’ve found myself reading more charitably, collaborating more constructively, and doing more to promote the work of colleagues who have kept sharper, longer into their careers. Perhaps part of being a humble scholar, then, isn’t attempting to recapture the energy, skills, and ideas of my youth, but to contribute what I do have left in the tank to helping others realize their goals.