Monday, May 20, 2013

Size Matters?

Elizabeth Lewis Pardoe

"Length of the average dissertation," from FlowData.
This chart initiated a round of chest thumping by academic historians. Apparently we historians write the longest dissertations. Now, according to this chart, philosophers and classicists do not write dissertations, when in fact they do. However, for the sake of argument, let’s assume the chart is correct. What does it tell us about historians? Either we do more research than scholars in any other field (unlikely from my interdisciplinary vantage point), or we are less able to articulate our findings in a pithy manner than our colleagues in other departments on campus.

When I made a snide remark about length on Facebook, my historian friends jumped to the defense of 325 page dissertations as the necessary length for a monograph. Other fields publish articles rather than books. Thus, the argument went, they can get away with less. This perplexed me. A doctoral dissertation no matter the field should demonstrate an original contribution to knowledge, right?

Last time I checked, one can’t measure originality with a ruler or a word count. The Encyclopedia Britannica used to fill rows of shelves, but it contained less innovation than the napkin upon which
Watson and Crick drew the double helix. I am a fan of Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws. It makes a mighty doorstop as well as an excellent overview of 18th-century political theory, but Madison’s concise constitution brought bigger results in fewer words.

Historians have never been certain whether we rank among humanists or social scientists. Do we weave tales or devise algorithms from the infinite human variables hidden in the past? Is our fundamental task to describe the human experience or analyze it? If the former, no wonder we run on so long. The infinite permutations of personal experience stand at odds with the virtues of pithy prose. We forgive Dickens and Dostoevsky their length for this reason, but should they serve as historians’ role models? According to the chart, anthropologists, whose ethnographic methodologies hinge upon description, nip at historians’ lengthy heels. Einstein captured rather a lot with E=MC2, that’s why mathematicians and physicists come in comfortably under 200 words.

I think most historians have had the experience of reading a brilliant, incisive essay in a journal or collected volume then trudged through the book that expanded the same analysis from 30 to 300 plus pages. The extra examples and paths through the past make us fall in love with our own research, but how many of our readers—even other historians—care?

A few days before the dissertation chart made the internet rounds, Guggenheim and MacArthur Fellow George Saunders spoke about his artistic practice as a short story writer on my campus. Years ago, I read Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies followed by The Namesake. Each of her short stories in the former Pulitzer-Prize-winning collection established a cast of characters, or—if you will—derived an equation constituted of characters as complex as that in the later novel. The novel (begun as a novella) attempted to propel the characters through a narrative/solve the equation with less critical acclaim. My equation analogy for Lahiri’s work came to mind as Saunders described his education as an engineer and his thrill when he takes ten pages and pares them down to one page of perfect prose. I tell my students to think of one page essays as a reduction sauce. Simmer off the excess and leave me with pure flavor. Like a good engineer who seeks to solve a problem, simplify the equation.

Saunders noted that novelists make more money than writers of short stories. Historical essayists such as John Murrin and Bob Scribner never earn the royalties garnered by Gordon Wood or Stephen Ozment, let alone journalists cum historians David McCollough or Barbara Tuchman. Do historians seek an added intellectual value in books or a shot at big bucks and the ultimate money-earner, a movie? These books and films definitely reach a wider audience outside the classroom, but do they convey as much useful information as a tightly argued article assigned in an undergraduate seminar? Size clearly matters, but why and how?

11 comments:

hcr said...

This is a great question! Can we keep this going?

I've been fascinated by the rise of on-line publishing, since it will permit us to publish 60-page ideas. Think about it... there has been no venue for that sort of literature for ages and ages. And lots of ideas are too long for an article, but too short for a book. So now we can write those.

And as for too long-- amen! I think short can be terrific. I tried a new writing essay this semester, forcing my students to write a blog post. 100% of them agreed it was the most useful writing assignment they had had, b/c it forced them to consider each word they chose.

Sorry-- probably incoherent because am just back from a long, hot graduation, but would love to toss around more about this.

Randall said...

I think that it is harder in some ways for us to write short, to-the-point pieces. Maybe departments should set a limit on page numbers for the diss? Then again, dissertations usually contain a review of the lit chpt that will likely have to be ejected for the book.

I agree with Heather on this. Anyhow, my two cents on how short can be better. It think next year I'll start deducting points in a concerted way for essays that go far over the length.

Brian Bixby said...

I think trying to explain causation is one of the significant reasons historians write so long. Short, simple explanations are always open to challenge as being superficial. And besides, what historian tackles the question of cause if it looks to be short and simple?

Randall said...

Could be. It can be more of a challenge then to write with page limits. And some of the best books in history have been short and concise. Think of Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities (256 pgs), Natalie Zemon Davis, Return of Martin Guerre (176 pgs), John Lewis Gaddis, The Landscape of History (206 pgs), Fernand Braudel, On History (236 pgs), C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow (256 pgs).

Then there's Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1088 pgs)...

hcr said...

I think two things make me overwrite. First, I get so into the topic at hand it never occurs to me that other people really don't care about every single little obscure detail. And second, I always think I have to cover every possible exception and contingent, and to make sure I have used every possible piece of evidence I have.

The second piece brings up the gap between popular and academic history. Seems to me most people want to hear what you have to say, and to see that it's decently supported. But I'm always writing with that One Academic Who Knows Everything And Isn't Afraid to Say So yapping over my shoulder.

Brian Bixby said...

True, some very good books are short. But in at least two of the cases you listed, Anderson and Woodward, one of the reasons is that the authors did not write to cover every possible piece of evidence and exception, to borrow Heather's words. Safety, particularly before a dissertation committee, demands a historian at least try to cover as much pertinent material as possible.

I'm intrigued by the idea Heather advances that electronic publication will give rise to more works at lengths other than the standard article or book. And there will be other nontraditional practices . . . such a hyperlinked blogs, of course.

hcr said...

Seems to me the idea of hyperlinking (if you could make those links permanent) offers great possibilities. You could open up doors... and doors... and doors. Wikipedia, but with a name and responsibility.

Just musing....

EJLP said...

Saunders made an important point about online writing. To have tight prose, you need to revise, revise, and revise again. The rapidity with which one can publish online works against that sort of slow refinement. It need not necessarily do so. However, I fear many online journals use speed to press as their selling point, which may mean hyperlinks in lieu of - not in addition to - honed argumentation.

hcr said...

Hmmm... that's interesting. I tend to think of on-line publishing as far less forgiving of extra words than hard copy.

But you could be right. I'll have to think on that one....

Certainly you have a point about argument. I have been shocked lately by some of the articles I've seen-- they seem to have no point at all. And, of course, no depth. But that's true of both print and electronic stuff, so I had thought it was a reflection of modern journalism. Could that be caused by speed? Quite possibly....

A guess a silver lining is that, since I'm writing this at 1:35 am and have not finished today's (yesterday's!) project yet, I could perhaps just decide that more time will make it better!

Todd Arrington said...

This is a topic near and dear to my heart, so I also hope it leads to further discussion. I'm one of those Ph.D.s working outside the academy, and I've never really considered trying to get into it. Of course, I was already employed full time in my chosen career when I decided to puruse the Ph.D., so perhaps that makes my situation a little different. I've worked the past 15 years in public history for a federal agency, and I really enjoy "doing history" in this manner. Of course, we have our own challenges. (Sequesration, anyone? Perhaps with a side of "I pay taxes, so I pay your salary"? Uh, I pay taxes, too. Does that make me self-employed?) But people coming to where I work are actively seeking information on history, which makes them much different than most of the undergrads I teach as an adjunct. I've never felt I was misusing or wasting my Ph.D. by working outside the academy. Great post and discussion!

Todd Arrington said...

Sorry to all...I wrote this comment on the article "Staying Positive" way too early this morning, but then somehow thought I'd deleted it or it hadn't posted. So when I went back in to post it again, I posted it under the wrong article. Wow. No more getting up and reading blogs at 5 a.m. My apologies to all!