Saturday, May 1, 2010

It's MY topic

One of the more disconcerting things about academia is the strong incentive to develop exclusive proprietorship over one's specific object of study. PhD students--and to a lesser extent, MA students who write a thesis--are strongly encouraged to do "original" work as part of their contribution to the profession. By "original" is meant "new," and strongly implied in this injunction is that "new" means "something that has never been done before."

On one level this makes sense. Why do something that's already been done? Why, for example, would the world need yet one more study of a given topic that has already been done?

Yet on another level, this attitude stifles academic inquiry. When I was an MA student and decided to write my thesis addressing the labor movement in Denver, some of my fellow students pointed out that "the Denver labor movement has already been done" (by David Brundage, The Making of Western Labor Radicalism). As it turns out, the topic of my thesis was so much more specific than Brundage's (I focused on two strikes that he discussed only in passing) that my project still had the originalist bonae fides.

Yet, I find in some of my fellow PhD students, the same concern exists that they be the first to finish with their project. One person, who received her doctorate a year or two ago, was racing to finish her dissertation because another graduate student, somewhere, studied almost the same topic and my friend wanted to be first. Another person, who received his doctorate last year, had many concerns about submitting papers or discussing his project with others who studied the same general topic. His reason for concern: he was consulting archival sources that to anyone's knowledge had not really been used before and he feared tipping his hand to other would-be researchers.

These concerns are rational. One's standing as a contributor to one's profession rests on newness. And especially if one wants a job at a university that prioritizes research, it is important to be innovative in one's research.

Still, I think this is a sad state of affairs for three reasons.

First, it probably over-exaggerates the importance of "newness" to a topic. The first friend I mentioned above has a job at an open-enrollment school that focuses on teaching, and her dissertation's importance lay more in the fact that it is completed than that it is new or even well-done. (For what it's worth, I haven't read the dissertation, but it was probably very well done.) In other words, grad students choose to buy into an inaccurate picture of what is expected of them. (My other friend, however, has a job now at a research-oriented university; so the newness of his topic presumably serves him well.)

Second, this state of affairs probably encourages the writing and over-publication of poor or superfluous scholarship. Everyone is looking for his or her angle on a topic, or is trying to "redefine the paradigm," or is arguing that such-and-such a topic has been excluded and needs to be addressed or that such-and-such a source has been neglected and needs to be used, or might be read differently.

Third, this state of affairs hinders academic inquiry. Under the current regime, we (grad students) are well-advised to keep our topics, interpretations, and especially source-bases (somewhat) to ourselves. Or once a topic is done, it is off-limits, and it must be at least tweaked before it can be done again. So, for example, take my masters thesis. If I had decided to do substantially the same project that Mr. Brundage did, I would have been well-advised to choose another city, say, Colorado Springs instead of Denver (unless a similar study has already been done about Colorado Springs).

This might seem to encourage academic inquiry. After all, more and more is being done about different localities, or with different and/or new sources. But it takes away some of the joy that in my opinion should come with intellectual investigation.

The topic of my PhD dissertation (get ready, it's a long one....) is "antitrust policy in Chicago and Toronto as it may or may not have applied to coal dealers from c. 1880 to 1940." This topic is esoteric enough and boring enough that I probably don't have to worry about someone filching it. But I can't help but thinking how exciting it would be to find someone who has the exact same topic and who uses more or less the exact same sources. How would he or she interpret, for example, Chicago's and Toronto's reaction to the coal shortage of the 1902-1903 winter? Or how about the state of Illinois's attempt to exempt labor unions from its own antitrust law? Or the Canadian fuel administration co-operation with the American fuel administration during World War I? If we looked at the same sources, we could give each other our own insights. Would the other person have suggestions about other sources I might look at? Would I have suggestions to offer?

Similarly with my masters thesis: if I found someone who studied those two strikes in Denver, what would his or her interpretation be?

Now, I understand that this is the way the system works and that most graduate students have every incentive to be wary of over-sharing what they do. Who knows?....if I actually met someone who did my precise topic, maybe I would suddenly become ultra-proprietary of it.

I suspect there is probably some game theoretic used by political scientists or economists that would explain better than I why this state of affairs exists in academia given the current incentives. I just think it's unfortunate.

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