Monday, April 7, 2008

When research gets personal

First, a quick report: I'm back from a conference in Chicago, which was lovely. I didn't get to play tourist like I had planned (Interesting Development begged off the trip to stay home and write), but I did see a number of interesting papers, and made a couple of good contacts, including some young scholars working in the same field as I, and one senior scholar who has agreed to read my MS. So that's good.

Since returning, I've been reading about various forms of violence perpetrated against women. My route to women's history was a convoluted one, and I'll blog about that at some point, but I think that it's fair to say that those of us working on gender topics, perhaps more so than most, do it out of a sense of personal investment: we want to understand the history of the constructs that in many ways constrain our own experience.

This can be wonderfully enlightening, and even liberating to realize that it's not about you in particular. But it can also be horribly depressing to see the same patterns played out, century after century [NB: yes, I was poking at Bennett's History Matters again -- another thing I'll have to blog about].

Even more unsettling is when you see things you can identify with, either in whole or in part. The shock of recognition can be overwhelming at times: one does not want to feel tears welling up when one is reading at one's perch at a coffee shop table, but sometimes there's nothing one can do about it.

So, in these situations, am I supposed to maintain historical detachment? Does knowledge of a personal connection to my research make me a better historian, or a worse one?


servetus said...

I just do not buy that people who study gender topics have a closer personal relationship to their topics than most others. Many people who study racism, for example, have close personal ties to their topics, as do many who study religion, and I could think of ten other topics of which the same is true but that would be boring. People pick research topics at least partially because they feel connected to them.

Hence (because a stance of feigned detachment is in most cases I know of quite spurious) one has to balance one's desire to be fair with one's desire to take research personally.

servetus said...

Excuse me, I should have said "greater personal investment" instead of "closer personal relationship."

Notorious Ph.D. said...

I can't dispute this in the least. I am, however, accustomed to having to cover my ass all the time when writing or teaching about gender and women, because I am a woman, and because I am a feminist. I suppose the same could be said of Jews writing about Jewish history, Black scholars writing about lynching, ordained ministers writing about religious history, and the list does indeed go on.

"Agenda-driven history" is a tough place to defend, because it's too easy to be accused of being tendentious. On the other hand (as I think you & I agree), we don't just pick our research topics out of a hat. But detachment and professionalism are not the same thing, which is what has me wondering here: when the experience of one's research subject actually resonates very closely, enough to make your ears ring, how do you balance personal investment (or revulsion, even) with professionalism?

Susan said...

Oh, such an interesting question. But I think it's a false one, and have since I was asked it at my first job interview 25 years ago. And I'd say what I say now: my personal experience shapes my questions. It doesn't shape my answers. (Back then there was real tension between the "discovering how terribly women were treated" and "discovering women's resistance, agency and independence which had been cruelly destroyed by capitalism", which helped.)

Having done a fair bit of work on violence, I know I'm working with some of my own issues. But it seems to me that is true of all of us no matter what we are working on. Something draws us to a subject. And it seems to me we can write in ways that draw sympathy, anger, compassion to the places we want to draw them, without making big speeches. It's called good writing!

I would say the books I've really valued reading have all been ones that bore the marks of the author's passion for the subject -- so I say the connection makes you a better historian.

Dr. S said...

My dissertation director always used to say, "Everyone's research is always autobiographical. At least you're smart enough to admit it." I tend to put myself on the page, in very careful ways.

Dr. S said...

Also, omphaloskepsis? Brilliant.

Anonymous said...

A psychiatrist working at a university once told me that the most informative question she could ask PhD students was "what is your dissertation topic?" It was always revealing.