Wednesday, November 4, 2009


Thanks for the encouraging comments on the last post. I don't disagree with the fun of setting off into uncharted territory; my problem is with having to then draw a map of that territory that other people will judge.

But that's not the point of this post. The point of this post is that last night, I think I figured out why I'm struggling with this conference paper when papers used to kind of flow out of me while working on the dissertation. I have, in the process of revising the dissertation into a book, become argument-driven.

This is one of the key distinctions between the dissertation and the book, and one that everyone has to discover for themselves as they go along. For me, the moment came when I was writing fellowship proposals in the summer between my second and third year on the tenure track. I was forced to confront the question: So what? In other words, what's the point of all this blah-blah? The grant-writing process, for me, was mostly the process of inventing, nearly from scratch, an analytical framework that the dissertation generally lacked. The pre-submission revision process was me turning the dissertation inside-out, in order to make the argument, not the documents, the main point.

But here's the problem: once you've crossed that line, whether that's in graduate school or (as in my case) much later, you can't go back. You can no longer feel comfortable presenting a paper or writing an article that's just a bunch of neat stories, with a loose "argument" tacked on as an afterthought. The argument has to be the point. And this paper is my first try at constructing an all-new argument. Gah.


Anonymous said...

Serious disclaimer: everything that follows is the opinion of a non-scholar, though highly interested reader, of history. (If I have a personal hero it's Marc Bloch, though not altogether for his scholarship.)

1. There are people who don't come up with a new argument but keep repeating their original one, jury-rigging the more recent research so it seems to confirm the well-worn conclusions. I think it's very much to your credit that you've rejected that path, almost (it appears) without having given it a sly thought.

2. For readers like me, and I hope scholars won't ignore us as un-reachable or not worth the bother of addressing, the "point," though it needn't be set out literally in an Introduction or a Conclusions chapter, is a deep element in our response to the book. I don't think non-specialist readers needed to be thwacked across the chops with a headline about absolute monarchy to get what "Les rois thaumaturges" was about, beyond the details (none of which I can remember after thirty years); the requirements of scholarship are (I imagine) quite different, but I think satisfying them and the non-scholar's is a very worthwhile goal.

Belle said...

I had a colleague tell me that he wasn't a historian, he was a storyteller. When I cringed, others in the department nodded and agreed. For them, the field is first and foremost about telling the cool little stories; the stories themselves are framed as a simple narrative, but only his peers 'heard' his argument.

He was/is considered by the univ as a Master Teacher.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Oh, I don't want to disparage telling stories -- the reason I'm attracted to Shiny New Project is that it's such a great story. I guess if I were put to the question, I'd say I'm a storyteller by inclination, but a historian by profession. Historian is much harder.

Anonymous said...

Tried to email this link, but it bounced:

Terrific stuff.

Susan said...

Can you frame your paper around this very problem? Here is this great story, why does it matter? And clearly, you have hunches about why it matters or shiny new project would not have appealed to you :)

Another Damned Medievalist said...

hehehe, I'm a crap storyteller, but do tend to come up with a lot of "ooh! shiny!" when it comes to discoveries, that I then need to contextualize better. But for me, that part always seems more straightforward. I *wish* I could also make it a good story, because I've been known to be way boring.