Of fraudsters and scholars, Part I

Notorious Ph.D. writes in a post called “No, really:  I AM a fraud” that she’s struggling with seeing herself as an expert in her field because of deficits in her graduate training in the historiography of medieval “Blargistan,” her pseudonym for her region of specialization:

I went to grad school specifically to study the history of Blargistan. I was fascinated by it for various reasons that I won’t get into here. And sure enough, I did my M.A. with a professor whose research was in the history of Blargistan. But most of his reading on the subject was a couple of decades out of date, and since I wasn’t yet savvy enough to find the best current scholarship on my own, I ended up reading a lot of the same books he had read in grad school many years ago, and little else.

For the Ph.D., I switched to work with a professor whose advising style I worked better with. It was a good choice, and I don’t regret it one bit. But this professor’s work had nothing at all to do with Blargistan. He read and wrote fluently — even elegantly — in Blarg, but his area of specialty was thematic — let’s say, for the sake of argument, scholastic theology. So, I ended up writing a dissertation (and later a book) on scholastic theology and kittens in Blargistan.

And as I’m now moving on to another project, I’m realizing that I now know a great deal more about both scholastic theology and kittens (separately and together) in the Blargistanian context than probably most medieval Blargistan historians working in this country. What I don’t have, I’m coming to realize, is a good grasp on the general literature of medieval Blargistan — all that stuff that my friends read as a matter of course in grad school completely passed me by.

Welcome to the world of writing a second book, Notorious!  I think this feeling is pretty common to most of us who are intellectually honest and have a decent grasp of the magnitude of what we don’t know.  But, were our graduate programs designed to make us experts in one tiny sub-subfield for the next forty years, or did they aim more broadly to teach us how to teach ourselves for the rest of our lives?  I go with the latter theory of graduate education myself, since most of us find that the shelf life of our specific training is pretty short.  This may be a self-interested view, since I decided more than a decade ago that I didn’t want to revise my dissertation for publication–it was in my estimation too narrowly focused, and missed much of what I myself found exciting and new in my field.  So, I wrote my second book first, in effect, by taking just a few theories about colonialism, conflict and social change from the dissertation and conducting a raft of new research on a new topic.  I had to train myself competently in Indian history and early Canadian history, as well as understand some basic military history. 

None of those subfields was an intensive part of my education at Ben Franklin U. twenty years ago, aside from one token book in most reading seminars on Native American history.  (In one seminar, quite memorably, “Women, Indians, and Blacks” had to squeeze into a single week on the syllabus, because the huuuuuuuuuge significance of elite, white men and their political history filled the other thirteen weeks entirely.)  Even people who are revising dissertations may decide to expand one section of their project a great deal, or to explore their ideas in some fresh contexts, all of which requires some serious off-roading from our graduate training. 

I say we have to think of our careers as scholars as though we are sharks:  we must keep moving forward.  (This is not to say that we should act as though we inhabit a shark tank!  But, apparently, others disagree–h/t The Way of Improvement Leads Home.)  How do you think about retraining yourself in new fields?  What have you had to learn in order to keep moving forward? 

I’ll write more about the specifics of auto-retraining in Part II.

0 thoughts on “Of fraudsters and scholars, Part I

  1. It’s probably not a surprise, but I totally agree with the idea that graduate training is more about teaching “us how to teach ourselves.” Indeed, who in the Fall semester of their first job hasn’t suddenly realized that they need to learn *a lot* more to teach undergraduate classes on topics tangential to their main research?

    As I am looking into the long road of Never Ending Research Project of Doom: The Sequel, I know it will mean breaking into a whole other sub-discipline. But I see that as the type of challenge our jobs are built upon rather than as a shortcoming of my graduate training. I couldn’t learn everything in six years.


  2. GayProf: you make a great point about how it’s not just our scholarship that prods us on to learn new sub-fields, it’s our teaching! I think you’re exactly right that one’s first academic job is a great opportunity for coming to terms with the severe limits of one’s training. So, you don’t even have to wait until you’re writing The Sequel: getting comfortable with your own ignorance happens the first time you need to teach a course!


  3. This reminds me of a conversation I’ve had a few times in the last couple of years: in my field (English), the “shelf life” for a typical article is probably less than 20 years: by which I mean that the range of critical sources cited in a typical article these days is probably highly focused on the last ten or twenty years. (Critical editions, of course, have a longer life-span, and truly important articles as well. But typical ones? Not so long.)

    Anyway, I noted in these conversations that my career will be (one hopes) longer than the shelf-life of currently trendy theoretical modes and concerns. One must retrain, or suffer a deadly lack of trendiness, or focus on kinds of work that have a long shelf-life. At least if one is as obnoxiously ambitious as I seem to be. Retraining and doing important, long-life-span work seems like the best combination to shoot for, from my perspective. But I haven’t undertaken a critical edition. Yet.


  4. Something that’s been really heartening to me over the past year is that I’ve had (for whatever reason) a number of conversations with people whom I had considered “expert” in things that I was just “faking” and they have confessed to me that they, too, began working on those things by “faking” it. The longer I do this profession and the deeper friendships I develop with people in my field, the more I realize that scholarship isn’t actually about knowing every last single thing about a topic before you begin. It’s taking the risk of asking a question that you don’t already know the answer to. And yes, that does produce a certain amount of anxiety and insecurity, but it also is the source of originality.


  5. We have Ph.D.s which are research degrees. We don’t have a Ph.D. in the history of toe-nail trimming in eastern Blargistan, but Ph.D.s in history that, while they might be awarded based upon our in-depth knowledge of toe-nail trimming techniques from the late medieval period as demonstrated in our dissertations, also qualify us to pursue historical research in other topics and even regions.

    Notorious isn’t a fraud and even if she had read all those important works in grad school, she’d likely need to be revisiting them carefully right now as she embarks on this new research project.


  6. I say we have to think of our careers as scholars as though we are sharks: we must keep moving forward. (This is not to say that we should act as though we inhabit a shark tank! But, apparently, others disagree–h/t The Way of Improvement Leads Home.) How do you think about retraining yourself in new fields? What have you had to learn in order to keep moving forward?

    The most significant discovery I have made as a scientist involved my stumbling into a field that I didn’t even know existed when I set out on the experimental journey that ended up there. Subject-matter expertise is way overrated as a requirement for making scholarly progress in a field. Methodological expertise, on the other hand, is key. The way to make novel and exciting progress is to turn a methodological approach onto an area of substantive inquiry where it has not previously been exerted (or at least exerted effectively), and to ignore the supposed subject-matter experts when they tell you you’re wasting your time.


  7. Yeah, the issue is really much broader than just second books. I picked a dissertation topic that required me to learn lots about obstetrics (in German) without having formally studied medicine or even the history of medicine. I suspect a lot of historians have had similar experiences.

    I then spent years teaching women’s studies instead of history, and that has worked out fine, too – precisely because my grad education prepared me well to expand on what I knew and retool where needed. Now, with funding for my current job soon to expire, I’ve got an interview this afternoon for a position in my original field at the institution where I’m currently teaching. This post has helped me articulate in my own mind why the committee should seriously consider hiring me.

    So thanks, Historiann. This post was exactly what I needed to read this morning.

    We’re much more than just “not frauds.” We’ve learned to be intellectually flexible and self-directed. (I hope Notorious Ph.D. is reading this!)


  8. Since graduate school, I’ve been moving into a new field – same time period, different geography (and hence a different historiography) – this has definitely been a scary process, especially now as I’m on the brink of actually beginning Totally New Project #2. I’ve been pretty upfront about the fact that I’m a Fraud in this area (ie that it bears little relation to my graduate training and I’m self-teaching). Though my Fraud status makes me uneasy at times, teaching a general graduate seminar in my original PhD field last spring made me acutely aware that I’m Faking It in my own field as well, which was far more disconcerting. My graduate training was *very* narrow – but I’m happy to say that my own graduate students get a much more general training, by which I think they will be much better served as they move into both teaching and research. For my ten cents, it’s a much better approach to have graduates train as broadly as possible within a given field (medieval Europe for example) and then as they’re working on their dissertation, they can learn the ins and outs of medieval Blargistan. In some ways I would have been happy to stay in my medieval Blargistan bubble for my second project but the pressures of the job market forced me to start thinking outside the box. I’m glad it did and look forward to the challenge of the new project.


  9. I have a background with my first book that is somewhat similar to yours, Historiann. I radically re-wrote my diss. from the ground up, such that it was *almost* a totally new project. I was asking the same question, but conducted lots more research, shifted the focus and methodology for assessing my answers to the central question, and as a result formulated an entirely different argument, framed in a completely different writing structure. That process taught me a lot… I *thought* I was hot shit when I finished my diss, but three years later, I was desperately unsatisfied with it. I’m so glad I got to that point, because the book I published is a gazillion times better than the diss.

    Now, as I move in to my second book, I’m also having to retrain in some areas, and am trying to figure out how to acquire the knowledge I need and get it right the *first* time, instead of having to do a total re-write, as I did with the first book. Yet… I recently had some new ideas that did make me think about reframing the half-book I have written. (Still processing and deciding about that.)

    But, in sum: every work of scholarship we produce is a reflection of a particular moment in time — in the scholarly conversation, in our own development. We would never write the same book at different moments in our lives. In some ways, we could frame this alteration of purview as a question of increasing expertise over time: I think that’s true. But it is also a question of how we, as humans, are constantly in motion: intellectual and emotional as well as physical. So, some alterations in our outlook are “lateral” moves as well, rather than “vertical” moves up the ladder of expertise.


  10. Just want to echo and applaud CPP on the importance of methodological skill over the need for complete subject mastery (tho I’d emphasize that one can also self-teach new methods). If we have the skills to find the material we need and approach both secondary and primary sources in ways legible to our colleagues, then I’d think that we’re in good stead to tread new ground or ask new questions (at least i’m hoping so… i am, after all, brand new to this faculty career thing).


  11. Toneail trimming! Crap! I haven’t read *any* of the literature on that!

    Seriously: thanks, H’ann, and commenters here and at my place. I mean, I know that fraud complex is mostly a myth, but I really thought that this time, I was right. But what you say really, really makes sense.


  12. I never took as much as an undergraduate course, much less a graduate one, in literally *any* subject that I subsequently taught, or that I published even as little as an article in. This was largely an artifact of the great seismic quake that hit academia and my discipline at the time I went to graduate school, and which carried off most or all of my cohorts. But even if one had simply decided to go beach-combing and then come back years later and gotten interested in something very different, you really *can* read yourself into a field that you want to intervene in, sufficient to do worthy research, if you’re willing to take the time.

    This is harder to do at the dissertation stage, say, than the second book, as Historiann notes. In my case, writing most of what amounted to the dissertation “off the clock,” and then coming back in and finding I could get signatures without much difficulty made most of the difference. That plus having a very enlightened advisor. But if you do it once successfully, you might find that you prefer to move around promiscuously, rather than mining a single fairly narrow vein of evidence and analysis. (For one thing, you might thus stay uncranky enough not to run the risk of “jump[ing] the shark” when somebody else writes the right book all wrong years later).

    Don’t get me wrong, I think there very much *is* a price to pay for moving off center, both in terms of the time it takes to construct an ark or raft of literature to keep you afloat, and in a real and persistent sense that you might be seeing things all wrong. But that is different, I think, from the “fraud” issue. Being “all wrong” is not fraud. Plus, knowing TOO well just what you are (and should be) looking for is a good way to fly right past important anomalous data lying on the ground in plain sight that nobody has bothered to deal with because everybody knows its not relevant to the problem that everybody knows is the most important problem in our field. I’d rather take the “fraud” risk.


  13. I’m entering my second year in a PhD program in medieval history, and I’m just starting to publish (first article under review, second article about two months away from submission, woo!). I know I’m a complete fraud, and I don’t see any way around that. My research constantly requires me to wander into other subfields (late antiquity) or other disciplines entirely (economics, architecture), so that I’m having to learn things that have nothing to do with my seminars. I get over it by telling myself I’m becoming a doctor of philosophy, not a doctor of medieval history. The essential education is in how think, not in any particular body of knowledge.


  14. Since my second book was miles (literally) from the focus of my first, this rings true to me. Suddenly I had to become familiar with a huge historiography. There are two things taht were important. First, just reading. Then going to specialized conferences where people talked about these things. And I gave papers to people in Historiann’s field, partly in order to get corrections, etc. I was very up front about what I thought I needed to learn.

    I would add that friends/colleagues are of enormous help in the process. I’m shameless about saying to people, “I’m doing X, and this is new. I’ve been reading around, but is there something that you think I’d find helpful?”

    In fact, I’m about to go into that mode as I move into finishing a part-finished book by a colleague who has died. It connects me more to my first book, but with a different slant, and I have to catch up on all sorts of things!


  15. Thanks, everyone, for your thoughts on this.

    Indyanna’s and Comrade PhysioProf’s comments both speak to the much greater importance of being trained solidly in methods rather than steeped in a particular subject area. As Indyanna says, and Susan’s and many of the other comments here testify, it’s good to have people entering sub-fields sideways, because “knowing TOO well just what you are (and should be) looking for is a good way to fly right past important anomalous data lying on the ground in plain sight that nobody has bothered to deal with because everybody knows its not relevant to the problem that everybody knows is the most important problem in our field.” That’s the way a lot of pathbreaking and original books get written, IMHO.

    I think rustonite’s comment gets to an important point w/r/t historical training, which is that there are some sub-fields in the U.S. that have more permeable boundaries and which rely on interdisciplinary training. This has a lot to do with the scope and shape of historiography in one’s field. I get the sense that (as rustonite suggests) Anglophone medieval Europeanists are very open to interdisciplinarity and comparative evidence, in large part because of the relative scarcity of evidence in that field compared to, for example, 20th C U.S. History. Whereas (for example) modern U.S. historians can be much narrower and pickier about who’s allowed into the club and which books and evidence they’re going to read. I think medievalists are better served by their catholicity than 20th C U.S. history is served by its specificity–but perhaps I’m making a virtue of necessity?

    Good luck to Sungold on your job interview!


  16. Just to pile on the bandwagon- but I changed geographical contexts for my (in progress) second book project and I have this weird situation where I feel I need to know a lot more about the general history of country 2 than I ever asked about country 1 for my first book (do I really need to know this much about a revolution that happened 100 years after the period I’m researching? Apparently my psyche says yes). Yet, despite having done a lot more general reading, I still fee a complete fraud in my new geographical context- as if there is a hidden literature out there that I just haven’t found. I don’t really feel that way about my first country even now when I know what I don’t know!

    I guess when you are doing the PhD (which became my first book) you don’t have these anxieties because there is somebody looking over your shoulder making sure you didn’t miss any gaps- and that person isn’t there for the second project (although I have friends and colleagues who read for me but it doesn’t seem the same).


  17. I dunno how relevant this is to history, but another important route to creativity in the sciences is to *invent* new methodological approaches. This almost always ends up shedding new light on what seem like well-worn paths.


  18. Comrade, this can be done in the Humanities, but it’s rare. I flatter myself that I managed to do this once, and re-framed a whole lotta data and opened up a new question as a result. But I sort of stumbled on that particular methodological insight, and I don’t expect to achieve a similar conceptual leap again any time soon.


  19. Ooops — hit send too early. I meant to add that History, in some ways, has a somewhat more conservative ethos than the sciences, which prize methodological innovation. Humanists — or at least Historians — are not really trained to think about, or strive for, methodological innovation, so when it happens, it tends to be an unexpected moment that’s hard to actually bring about consciously.


  20. Humanists — or at least Historians — are not really trained to think about, or strive for, methodological innovation, so when it happens, it tends to be an unexpected moment that’s hard to actually bring about consciously.

    Hmm. Sounds like an opportunity to me.


  21. I am with Comrade about methodology. I fell into a new research and teaching field because some nurses at my college needed a social scientist to help develop some baseline data for a community health project. From there, I relied on my colleagues in the health professions for advice on what to read to get myself up to speed on the literature. It’s been a great move for me.

    A comment on Notorious’ concern about her Masters reading being out of date…I’ve seen too many young presenters claim to reinvent gravity in their conference papers because they haven’t read anything written before 2000. So long as you’ve now read the new stuff, is it such a bad thing that you read the old stuff too?


  22. Missing from the discussion is a realization that expertise doesn’t amount to completeness but rather to breath. In other words, “faking” is admitting that there is alway way more than what we know.

    Some use the coin “it humbles” instead of “fake.” We all know that claiming expertise may cause bumping into walls that the humble avoids.


  23. PoliSci Prof–that’s a great point about knowing an older literature. It ain’t all bad! (Plus, the wrinkles come for free with it.)

    I like koshem Bos’s idea of substituting humility for fakery or fradulence. Although Notorious was being a little intentionally over the top when she said that she’s a fraud, I think kB suggests the right attitude.

    As for historians and methodology: oy. Don’t get us started. I once sat in an interminable meeting in a former department about what we meant when we made our majors take a “methodology” course. It’s like a room full of blind people feeling up an elephant, if you know what I mean. (And this was before the social-sciencey types had completely given up, and there were people who identified themselves proudly as “cliometricians.”)


  24. Just to be controversial- maybe this is a UK thing or the field I work in, but my arm of history are quite obsessive about methodology, thinking about it, coming up with new ways of thinking about it, talking about it, having journals that deal only with methodology etc. This is becoming even more important in the UK as funding is all tied to ‘impact’ (which shouldn’t but does mean can your research make money?) so we all tie ourselves into the social sciences and methodology is how we do that.


  25. I thought Notorious was saying she *did* know the older literature, because that’s what her advisor assigned. What she had to learn on her own (and did) was how to identify the most up-to-date new stuff.


  26. I thought what PoliSci Prof. meant was that it was a good thing that Notorious knows the older stuff AND will soon master the newer stuff. (That’s how I read it, anyway.) Ze was suggesting that it’s not all bad to have been trained the way she was (and I agree.)

    As koshem Bos suggested, there’s depth and breadth, and we all have to pick one!


  27. Actually, what I learned originally was the really out-of-date stuff that was fashionable in the 60s, and very little since then. And I do acknowledge that I have a great deal of breadth, a lot of it because of my training, but some of it just because I was grasping at straws. Fortuitous, but I’ll take it.

    But what you’ve all said here gives me a lot of hope that this sort of thing can be done, and that, in fact, it’s fairly standard procedure. Now, I’m looking forward to reading that Part II!


  28. To change gears, I read for a year, then went to the specialized conference to listen to how they talk about what they do; it made me think I was starting to have a grasp. I read for some part of another year, at which point I was able to submit something to their specialized conference and be part of the conversation. Coming from an odd angle, to be sure, but in the game.


  29. About a decade ago I came across a document by a family member that took me into a completely new geographic area of research – some of the issues were similar to my graduate and subsequent work, but I was woefully ignorant about the new area. It did take a lot of reading, and as others have suggested, humility in approaching scholars in the new area – but it all worked out, I made some new friends, and in addition I thoroughly enjoyed myself. And I recently published an article based on that document. I can say that I found again some of the excitement of discovering new stories that I had kind of lost over the years.

    And at the same time, two colleagues and friends have been expanding their research beyond our original (shared) geographically-focused research, one by moving into a new geographic area and learning a difficult language for her new project; she even got a Fulbright for a year’s research in the new area. The other friend is shifting her research from family history (her first book) to art history; she took art history courses at a local research center to help get the disciplinary language and to help her think about new approaches.

    I actually think it may be a necessary step for many of us, to begin some really new research after a decade or two in one field.


  30. As for historians and methodology: oy. Don’t get us started. I once sat in an interminable meeting in a former department about what we meant when we made our majors take a “methodology” course.

    If you don’t have any methodology, then you’re just pulling shit out of your ass, right?


  31. Maybe, but we have lots and lots of evidence. (Or, we should, anyway.) Historical methodology, so far as I understand it, is read a lot of stuff, collect a lot of evidence, think about it analytically, and build an argument while telling a cool story.

    Various interpretive lenses (feminist, Foucauldian, post-structuralist, Marxist, consensus, etc.) can be applied to this methodology to vary the interpretive result. But, this is basically what we do.

    Kathie makes a great point: retraining is perhaps not just possible, but necessary for many people. I know that I’ve wondered just how much longer I can roll out of bed and teach the same courses, however much I vary them internally. In the past, I got a new job and thereby changed my job description and routine of expected courses. But post-tenure, we all have to find ways to keep our brains interested in what we’re doing. Inventing new courses is also a common strategy for exploring a new field. (Why not make our teaching work for us?)


  32. Pingback: Of fraudsters and scholars, Part II: two kinds of historians : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  33. Pingback: Grad School and the Fraud Complex « Shitty First Drafts

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