Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Dirty Words of the Academy

Randall Stephens

This past weekend I was down in Atlanta for the American Academy of Religion meeting. The sessions I attended on history were dynamic and produced some terrific discussions and debates.

The field of religious studies tends to be far more grounded in theory than history, as far as I can tell. (Is it true that all "studies" programs are theory driven? Peruse the conference programs of the AAR and the AHA. Do a word search for "performative" and "postcoloniality." See also the pluralization of concepts: "hybridities," "boundaries," "theologies.")

As I listened to several papers in various sessions at the AAR I thought about how scholars in the humanities employ certain words to discredit a range of views. So, I've compiled a list of dirty words. This list could certainly be extended.

Top down

What does it mean that historians and humanists in other fields use these words almost always as code for bad or wrong?


Jonathan Dresner said...

I don't think these are "code words" or euphemisms at all. They're descriptions of patterns of thought that are often, if not always, fallacious in a humanistic context. What's wrong with that?

Randall said...

Jonathan: You might be right. Scholars in the humanities look at their subjects from a variety of angles and try to avoid over simplifications.

But, it does seem strange to me that the highest praise a work can receive, in some instances, is that it "complicates" this or that subject. (Why not "clarifies" or "makes plain"?) I remember a piece in the Chronicle about this in recent years.

Chris Beneke said...

In my experience too, humanities scholars sometimes succumb to an anti-dogmatic dogmatism that lends anything resembling social critique an air of intellectual gravity. We are so riveted by the specter of teleology, essentialism, etc., that we confuse opposition to these invidious cultural tendencies with serious scholarship. The repetition of the "dirty words" can become a kind of mantra that calcifies thought and discourages dissent.

dan allosso said...

But isn't it also partly a professional life-cycle issue? Many historians seem to have a similar ambivalence for "grand narrative." I'm not saying there aren't legitimate reasons to be suspicious of the concept of grand narratives; but doesn't some of our drive to "complicate" come from the fact that we're keenly aware of the things these views from 50,000 feet left out -- but ALSO keenly aware that that territory has already been staked out? Doesn't the academy and its approach to professionalism tell us (perhaps not always directly) that there are people who own that turf, at least until the wheel of historiography makes another turn?

Personally, I don't agree, and I'm not that content to wait for historiographical change. I'm just saying, it seems to me many of the people I meet at conferences are happy to be part of a paradigm, and to be adding a brick to the wall. It takes all kinds.