Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Fox and the Hedgehog, part 2: The Problem with Other People

In my previous post, I talked about how starting project #2 saw me changing from a hedgehog to a fox. A few commenters noted that, on our first projects, we all are hedgehogs. Well, perhaps, but that's really by default. After that, there's a choice, and that choice brings me to part 2 of this post.

There are scholars in every field who specialize thematically. They might spend a career exploring the different aspects of the history of medieval towns, or the Transcendentalists, or what have you. By the time their third book and a handful of articles come out, they are acknowledged experts in that field. My own dissertation advisor was (and continues to be) just such a scholar.**

Then there are scholars who move from one topic to the next as their interest dictates. Another one of my graduate mentors was like this: her first and second books, both well-regarded, were on radically different topics, with only a geographic area and broad chronological sweep tying them together. Her most recent book sees her leaving even those two commonalities behind so she can examine a broader phenomenon (tangentially related to her first book, but only a bit) in transhistorical perspective.

Again, I say that both of these approaches have their merits. No matter what, I think we should all make our choices dependent on what our interests are as we launch into a new project. If we continue to have new and interesting questions about the topic we started out with, that's great; if we decide to go off playing deep in the tall grass again, also good. In the end, we are the ones who must be satisfied with our work at the end of the day.

But there's a problem with being a fox, one that goes beyond having to learn a whole new field, and that problem is Other People. Other People become invested in What You Do, and breaking out of that is difficult. I've heard reports from foxes that, for years and years after their first book comes out, they are invited to speaking engagements, or to contribute to volumes on "their" topic, and have a very difficult time explaining that they just don't do that anymore. ("Professor Jones wrote that great book on Cistercian nuns, but her talk today is on crusader medicine? What's up with that?")

My experience with this phenomenon came during my most recent stay in Exotic Research Country. Over the years, I've made a number of friends there, many of them other junior academics. Yet when my new topic came up, they were puzzled: "But what does that have to do with gender?" Well, nothing specifically. It's a different project. "But it will eventually be on gender. Or [other thematic focus of book 1]." Well, no. "Oh, I'm sure it will."

I learned to stop trying to convince other people. Perhaps they'll believe me if and when the next project begins to emerge. Hell, perhaps, by the end of things, the project will circle back around to gender -- who knows? But isn't it odd how invested other people get in our scholarly identities, and how eager they -- and we -- are to fix them in place somehow?

Even if it's only to try to define ourselves as a fox or a hedgehog, I suppose.

Stay tuned for part 3: a defense of the hedgehog, and gender studies!

**Well, sort of. He never published from his dissertation, which was a meticulous study the account books of a particular institution that had nothing whatsoever to do with the thematic area that he devoted the rest of his career to. He once referred ruefully to the time he spent "counting barrels of pickled eels," and claimed that he never even considered revising it for publication "because I hated that thing."


rootlesscosmo said...

"counting barrels of pickled eels,"

Counting is a feature of in other bad research memories--I recall a geneticist shuddering at the memory of "counting Drosophila ventral bristles."
And Keats poked fun at his guardians, Mr. and Mrs. Abbey, for "counting coffee-berries."

Comrade PhysioProf said...

But isn't it odd how invested other people get in our scholarly identities, and how eager they -- and we -- are to fix them in place somehow?

It's actually not odd at all. People do this because it's threatening when others cannot be neatly pigeonholed as doing something that isn't going to pose any threats to one's own scholarly gravitas, and also because it is a common--but unfortunate--aspect of human nature to want to take others down a notch to protect one's own ego. Those who are too unimaginative or fearful to engage in novel interdisciplinary pursuits or to stray from the comfort of their existing sphere of expertise get angry at others who do these things.

When I was a senior post-doc interviewing for a faculty position, there was this one washed-up old-fuck senior-faculty asshole interviewer who was a textbook example of this. Even as a grad student and post-doc--while not a fox in the sense of having multiple approaches and topics going on simultaneously--I did switch from topic to topic (sort of like a serial hedgehog). And the last project I engaged as a post-doc--the one that was successful enough to provide the traction for my faculty job search--was quite interdisciplinary.

As a result of that history, I am a member of a relatively disparate set of scientific societies, each reflecting one aspect of another of my scientific history or current interdisciplinary interests. So in the interview this fucken old-fuck asshole kept perseverating on why I was a member of a particular disciplinary society that this guy considered his own (boring and shoddy) research to be at the heart of. Like pestering the shit out of me and trying to get me to "justify" my membership in that society. I was all like "Whatever, asshole".

Turns out that someone with a similar set of interdisciplinary interests and approaches to my own had twenty years earlier scooped the shit out of this asshole on a major discovery by applying the conceptual and methodological approaches from another field that I am very active in to successfully answering a very important question in the discipline that this douchebag considered "his field" and that he had been unimaginately and fruitlessly hammering at using only approaches drawn from within. And once he lost that race, his research program almost completely petered out, and he never publishe anything of significance again.

That's why foxes are threatening.

Anonymous said...

This has been a helpful discussion. I have a Ph.D. in history and a MA in a professional field. I am TT in the professional field. I am revising my dissertation for publication, but it does not draw in any significant way on my professional field. I have been encouraged by some faculty outside my department to do more to bring the two fields together and create a more unified research plan. That I need to do so in my tenure notebook. My chair, however, understands that my "fox" identity has to do with the interdisciplinary nature of the professional field. His own degrees and research cross multiple fields. Anyway, this discussion has been really helpful. Thanks.

Belle said...

Another aspect of Other People seemingly resistant to foxdom is simply that they may be feeling that they are hedgehogs, or that hedgehogdom is The Way. Which might be attributable to their own career trajectory, their advisor's models, or simply the challenge that foxdom mentalities present to the world at large. Even when foxes get all hedgehoggy, we might well get defensive when somebody else wanders by.

I have students - I'm sure you do too - who at 18, 19, 25 - are very focused on being A, B or C. For them, at this point in their lives, hedgehogging is useful, functional and even a bit comforting. I won't fault them for that. Of course they regard my foxishness (lord, I love inventing words) as odd, threatening, frivolous. That's what helps them now. My dinosaur colleagues, intent on maintaining their dinosaur habits? Irritating, sometimes frustrating, sometimes amusing - absolutely. Very defensive? Yup. Their choice to hedgehog, mine to fox. They live with their choices, as I do mine.

It's Sunday; I'm feeling philosophical!

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Thanks for the comments, all. I like CPP's and Belle's formulations here: a "serial hedgehog" or "hedgehoggy foxes" -- we're likely all a little of both, in varying degrees over the course of our careers.

And just so y'all know: part 3 is going to be a defense of the hedgehog.

Historiann said...

CPP and Belle are right. Foxes are threatening because they don't stay comfortably in their pigeon-holes. The tippy-top people in my field write books about different regions, different time periods (sorta), and with different subjects and themes, and therefore demonstrate their versatility and brilliance at learning new things and mastering new historiographies. Hedgehogs can do well--but I think there's a limit to what you can do as a hedgehog compared to what you can do as a fox.

Jonathan Jarrett said...

I think gender may be a specific case of resistance, because it's politically important to people in a way that most other areas of the humanities aren't. It doesn't really matter if you don't care about the Bronte sisters, for example, but someone who is willing to say they don't care about gender is a bit worrying. So when you leave that subject I wonder if people are taking it as a hit for their cause.

The other thing that occurred to me is that people use one as a fount of expertise on one's field so that they don't have to read in it; if you leave it, therefore, they lose their short-cut in. But I think that's maybe a less convincing explanation.

(Forgive the absence of authentication: Blogger's OpenID support seems to be broken.)

JaneB said...

This strikes a chord with me. I have foxish tendencies myself, having changed type-of-science drastically in the course of my undergrad and picked a PhD topic which positively required me to use a broad suite of methods. I tend to fail badly when asked to sum up my work in one or two sentences, and it gets worse as the years go on. I know I don't have it in me to be a hedgehog... but part of me envies them the clarity of their boundaries, and I bet they never get grant applications rejected due to their lack of a track record in the field.

I think each sees the other as a challenge to its own identity. Foxes see hedgehogs as implicitly criticising their own lack of depth of knowledge of any one topic, and hedgehogs see foxes as implicitly making fun of them for being narrow-minded and old fashioned in these days of 'interdisciplinarity'. Scholarship needs both...

Digger said...

Thanks for posting this. I am a fox and have always felt intimidated by the hedgehogs.

I am looking forward to Part 3!

I also must thank you for the opportunity to write "I am a fox" :D

Katrina said...

Thanks for this discussion. I have concluded I am neither fox nor hedgehog but squirrel!
I included your posts in my entry here:
Stone cold foxes of academe

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Hey all --

I've been enjoying the comments, but I've been too swamped to reply. I'm glad that these posts have brought the foxes out of hiding. I think that we can work on one thing or many, as long as we do it with integrity and (one of the just-retired generation's favorite phrases) intellectual rigor.

And Jonathan, you're reading my mind here -- the next post (whenever I get to it) is where I'll be musing about whether gender studies is different, whether pushing would-be foxed into hedgehog behavior is best for the academy, for women, and for the scholars themselves.

Batocchio said...

Other People become invested in What You Do, and breaking out of that is difficult.

Yes, exactly, and this happens in so many fields. It happens for academics, for authors, and certainly for artists. Some of it's simply that if you do something well, someone else will find it useful and want you to continue, even if your true love is something else.

Some of it also depends on the culture of a school, region, country or field. For an example outside of academia, in Britain, which has a small film industry, "real" actors are expected to do some classical theater as well as contemporary works, be good at drama and comedy, and it's considered normal to move regularly between theater, TV and film. In America, particularly in Hollywood, there's a much stronger push to pigeonhole people, particularly actors – and so they play their "type," or versions of themselves, over and over again, sometimes within a single genre. It's not surprising given the commercial demands, and the ethos to deliver something that's "the same but different." Some individuals can break out of it, especially as they gain clout, but the external pressures can be strong. And the amnesia can be maddening. Direct an effective, moody drama, and suddenly they somehow forget that your previous project was a comedy they made them laugh their asses off. There are more things in art and life, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your narrow agenda...

(I came over from CPP's, and I also rebel against strict fox-hedgehog divisions. I'll look forward to part 3.)