Academic Culture, Bias, CMU, Elites, Elitism, Fishiness, Fishy, Genius, Joe William Trotter Jr., Objectivity, Oppression, Privilege, Racism, Scallops, Status Quo
I am not much of a scholar. No, really, I’m not. At least not in the extremely narrow way those who taught me to do historical research defined scholarship. For me, uncovering deliberately hidden truths or coming to new ideas, realizations, and leap-in-logic epiphanies was always about more than just “evidence.” It was about the nexus between human history and human behavior, the ability to use the past to understand the present and possibly the future. And through all that, to predict, to prevent, to propose remedies or possibilities for being, and being better, as a person, as people, as entire societies.
But all through graduate school in the 1990s, especially during my Carnegie Mellon years, all I was supposed to learn was about the greatness of “scholarship.” The way my dissertation advisor Joe Trotter would say “scholarship,” it reminded me of how my now recovering-alcoholic father would say “pep-up” when he wanted a drink. Trotter said “scholarship” with the zeal and relish of a person ready to eat at their favorite down-home restaurant or fish shack.
For years even after finishing my doctorate, I could still hear Trotter’s “scholarship” and think of scallops, the ugliest and fishiest tasting of mollusks, in my opinion. I imagined them raw, then either sautéed or seared in butter, as this is the only way to eat the nasty things. Just like with academic scholarship. None of this removed their fishiness or the loads of carcinogens lurking in their lumps of meat.
For years, I have watched former and current colleagues, former and current students, and big-fish academicians I have only seen from my cold and cheap seats in the Kuiper Belt promote scholarship as a great and mystical process. “This is groundbreaking scholarship” is a common phrase in my academic world. “The genius of” so-and-so’s “scholarship” can also be read and heard, in book reviews, in scholarly journals, at academic conferences. I could be jealous, but I’d eat a can of unseasoned and undressed tuna again before eating up these scallop-y descriptions of scholarship.
For those who really don’t know, “scholarship” is really a combination of three things.
1. Research, which in my field usually involves archival materials, like a letter Martha Washington might have written about making “her” Rum Punch, or a diary left behind by a granddaughter of an enslaved African woman, providing details not normally found in historical literature. For me, it’s interdisciplinary. Interviewing people about their experiences, asking common questions along the way for comparative purposes. It could also mean looking at census records, running microfiche machines for 100-year-old op-eds about “Saturday Night and the Negro.” But it is ALL research, and you don’t even need a high school diploma to be this nosy. I knew this already, but was reminded of this by a former student, an archivist who recently completed his bachelor’s.
2. Training and Methodology helps folks shape the research they do into what we call scholarship. It is very hard to do historical research on any given topic without “going to the archives.” That’s where researchers can commune with the primary sources, where they can most readily find the first-hand and “objective evidence” they need. But, if dead folks didn’t write anything down, then proximate evidence, like census records, can tell us about a people who didn’t leave written records, or because of oppressors, might have seen their records destroyed. Ethnographies, all the rage in my profession in the 1990s, are a sociologist’s and an anthropologist’s tool. So is mere observation or years spent reading others’ research. This is how I and so many others know lazy-ass Martha Washington ain’t never mixed no drinks in her Mount Vernon mansion. Not when she had trusted enslaved Africans as cooks and mixologists doing all the work.
3. Experience works on multiple levels, and is often the way others who like what they’re reading reach the conclusion that so-and-so’s “scholarship” is “genius.” There’s the experience of interpretation and being able to take new information and meld it with everything one already knows about a specific person, a group of people, a given topic, event, question, and/or social problem. There’s the experience of being a human being, and how those experiences have shaped you and how you process information, including the small and big epiphanies gleaned from one’s research. There’s also the experience of being oppressed or benefiting from oppression, which utterly colors whatever “objectivity” one may believe they have. In the case of oppressors and their beneficiaries, those experiences often dilute one’s ability to take quantum and cosmic leaps in logic to cover up the ginormous holes in their research, training, and methodology.
So when like-minded people get together to discuss what is and is not “scholarship,” 3. outweighs 1. and 2., just like Jupiter outweighs the other seven planets in our solar system — combined. It is a toxic, cannibalizing system, made more potent by the riches and miseries of capitalism, where research grants, book deals, and media appearances, and lecture circuit checks are on the line.
When people ask for “evidence,” whether at this year’s American Historical Association conference or on Twitter, they are saying, “My experiences in life and in my field are privileged and limited, so I have decided your experiences in life and in my field do not matter.” When people refuse to accept your findings, it is often their myopia and their sense of narcissism and entitlement at work, and not flaws within the research you did. Especially when one’s research is about oppression, oppressors, how to fight oppression, and what happens when a people succeed in that fight.
This is why I chafed at Trotter’s salivations over scholarship some 26 years ago. This is why I find much about the idea of scholarship offensive today. Oh, I think doing one’s own research in a field of expertise or even to acquire expertise is fundamentally important. I just don’t think genius and scholarship are in any way related. Not without the experiences of life, the understanding of one’s positionality in privilege, not only to do research, but one’s unique life experience through which to process it. This is why I can never be a scholar. I refuse to be part of a club that has to sear and sauté its poisonous, fishy-ass scallops and declare themselves all “geniuses” for doing so.
One might say that there’s something fishy going on here in the academic world. Scholarship is like scallops in that way. Do not leave it at room temperature for too long. Just like the academic “geniuses” who refuse to shower while writing their latest unreadable tome.