A long absence, and what do I have to show for it? Two things: an extremely tentative PhD thesis title and a new appreciation of the entwined perils of Narrowness and Overambition in PhD work. Brief thoughts —
I started thinking about Narrowness quite early on this year. It was especially striking when I attended a seminar a colleague presented on the development of history (as an academic institution), its uses and abuses in several islands of postcolonial Caribbean. I could hardly help noticing how numerous the parallels were to the development of postcolonial higher education, state history and nationalist narratives in the region of the world I know a little more about. It’s familiar to the point of being facile: the inherited elite school syllabi from e.g. Oxbridge, with little regard for local educational needs; the movement of an intelligentsia between the metropole and the colony, and the cultural-intellectual disjunct this causes; the postcolonial state-sponsored back-creation of mythical heroes, whose criteria for inclusion in the national canon rested solely on their anticolonialist credentials; the ferment of state-sponsored stories about the past; the searching need to root this embryonic nation in an ancient past — the more distant, the better — in hopes of discounting the colonial period as an aberration.
A hypothetical scenario arises, unbidden, in my head. At a conference, a novice graduate Africanist presents a novel discussion of his findings on postcolonial uses of history: among his main research findings are, say, precisely the developments sketched above. At the same conference, a novice graduate Southeast Asianist might present similar findings as a thrilling insight into her own field — a national canon of heroes! — Both stare incredulously and bitterly at one another, while the Caribbeanists yawn and say, old news, old news. It’s easy to perceive novelty in narrowness, but both are encouraged features of a PhD. The peril!
but conversely, on the issue of Overambition, one only has to look at one’s own tentative PhD thesis title, viz., “A Lettered Archipelago: Intellectual Communities in the Making of Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, 1928-1965”, to consider wistfully the plunge back into the warm, comfortable waters of Narrowness … I am constantly overwhelmed by my own ignorance, at times more than others, and the attractiveness of such a retreat increases proportionately with anxiety. But at any rate I depart for Singapore and ISEAS this September (where all the books are) and I have a feeling my year abroad, among communities of good scholars and being close to my objects of research, will be a good remedy for such worries.