On Scholarly Competitiveness and Collaboration

An archivist friend recently commented on the difference in cultures between archivists – whose professional ethic is to make research materials available to any and all researchers – and his historian colleagues – who would rather hide such material away from historian-competitors.

Academic competition: we tend view it the same way we view commercial competition – as a mechanism to ensure improvement and progress. Students compete for grades because only the “best” will gain admission to prestigious colleges, or to the best graduate schools. Good graduate student grades,one presumes, gives the most “competitive” students a leg up on securing increasingly rare tenure-track academic posts. I was cautioned when I first entered medical school to be careful to hold on to my class notes as they would tend to “disappear” just before exam times – sequestered, as it were,  by classmates who hoped thereby to gain a competitive grade advantage. In medical school, high graduating class position garners entrée into the finer residency programs.

As I’ve portrayed it, scholarly competition smacks of an “every man for himself” mentality, and to be sure, the western model of academic endeavor features the scholar laboring in glorious solitude to create his or her piece of brilliance. We put academics in Ivory Towers for this express purpose. I do not mean to denigrate the immense value of serious scholarship undertaken by intrepid individual researchers both past and present. Even so, there is something wrong today with this picture. Almost every field of non-commercial human work now demands some element of collaboration, if for no other reason than this is how we learn to communicate with others.

Anthony Grafton, President of the American Historical Association, in addressing the two generation “crisis” of disappearing tenure-track positions for new history PhDs has made the “very modest proposal“: that graduate programs in history should tell their students in no uncertain terms that at least half of them will have to look for work outside of  the academy. In citing a traditional academic attitude, he declares that  “… many of our students who actually do leave the historical profession, and take what they’ve learned in graduate school to the business world, are seen as having crossed the line from the light of humanistic inquiry into the darkness of grubby capitalism…” Grafton’s very modest proposal is that history programs should actually encourage preparing their students for this eventuality, for instance by adding an “additional course or two, adventures into new realms of knowledge that build skills for diverse careers.” He adds that graduate programs could offer “workshops to explore the world of work” [methinks here’s that “grubby capitalism” creeping in – or the medieval concept of getting your hands dirty…] and internships to get folks “even deeper experience, although [of course!] care would have to be taken to integrate them into dissertation writing calendars.” In a follow-up article, “Plan C“, Professor Grafton and his co-author Jim Grossman (Executive Director of the AHA) correctly expand the theme to encourage development of graduate program offerings to create a “wide platform of occupational options”.

Professor Claire B Potter describes the Grafton proposals as “seismic“. But, she points out that the really radical aspect of Grafton’s proposed reforms is that they recognize “that the most path-breaking and influential scholarship in the twenty-first century is likely to be collaborative and accessible to a broad public.” [emphasis mine]” Potter adds,Breaking with the model of the exceptional individual, who works in private and competes successfully among professionally and narrowly similar peers, a paradigm that has governed access to the profession for over a century, is in its own way revolutionary.” In Part II of her discussion of academic collaboration Professor Potter expands with two “takeaway points”:  –“A precondition to training new PhDs for a range of historical work that will be collaborative would be to make intellectual collaboration central to graduate training and to the most influential public spaces in the profession”, and  –“Students are [currently] not only not rewarded for collaboration, they are not taught how to do it.  Until we teach, reward and recognize collaborative scholarship, younger generations of scholars will continue to be as myopic as their elders about the possibilities for intellectual work.” [Emphasis mine]

I like Potter’s peroration: “We need to learn to  work with professionals who can convey and translate our work to larger audiences; who don’t give a $hit about footnotes, archives or historiography; and whose objectives include entertainment and providing intellectual pleasure to people who may not read books at all.  Such work might also include collaboration with policymakers, politicians, reformers, private foundations, think tanks  and businesspeople to ensure that projects that are reshaping, or seek to critically intervene in, the public sphere are historically grounded and informed.”

I think Professor Potter misses a key point here: there’s no mention of the collaborational opportunities available in such hybrid historical organizations as the Society for the History of Navy Medicine (our sponsor), the American Association for the History of Medicine, or the Society for Military History. I would say, “you need to add scholarly collaboration with specialists outside the narrow halls of history to help your PhD candidates see other areas rich with exciting intellectual – and occupational – possibilities”.

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