I’m alive

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.


7 responses to “I’m alive

  • Jeremy Young

    Is narrowness really encouraged in dissertations? My thesis advisor has been pressuring me to make my topic as broad as possible. I started out wanting to write about a very narrow topic, and he’s pushed and prodded me into something far broader and (I think) better.

    Of course, this is precisely why I picked him. But still, I didn’t think it was that unusual.

    Oh, and congratulations on the diss title!

  • Jonathan Dresner

    I think narrowness makes sense in a dissertation, but a dissertation shouldn’t be the sum total of what a graduate student learns. A dissertation also should put its topic in context: not just historical context, but historiographical context.

    That said, most advisors aren’t all that interested in transnational comparisons and you’re right: they’re important, often revealing. I’ve gotten a lot of good out of the little bit of transnational study I’ve done on migration patterns.

    But who wants to end their dissertation with “same stuff, different country”?

  • Rachel

    so much of the history of empire seems precisely to be “same stuff, different country” — I wonder, you know, about the greater legacy of empire in general, not the legacies of particular British, French, Dutch etc empires, but the similarities of the experiences of governing and being governed in an imperial context more broadly: and particularly on, if you will, ‘trans-imperial’ comparisons of mass decolonization. if anyone knows of a good book on this, I would be most grateful. it seems to me that a book like this with any claims to comprehensive scholarship would have to be some sort of collaborative work — it’s hard to imagine one scholar with as much in-depth knowledge of all these empires as comparison would demand — but perhaps I’m wrong on this.

    at any rate, the trade-off between narrowness and overambition seems to me to be, like many other trade-offs, an economic one, to do with distributing scarce resources — of time, mental capacity, etc.

  • zenpundit

    Good post.

    IMHO “narrowness” is driven by the programmatic imperative to discover something “new”.

    This can be good or it can also lead to “microhistory” of the most banal kind. I’ve really had a bellyful of papers or books on “household economy” in obscure New England colonial hamlets because some aspiring PhD. unearthed some mouldering account books in a town hall or local historical society basement. You can only admire so many butter churns before your eyes glaze over.

    At times, making a workable, valid, novel, synthesis across all these tiny silos of historical excellence is a better contribution than what doctoral programs typically yield.

  • andrew

    I’ve never finished it, but Dominic Lieven’s book on the Russian empire in the context of other empires might be of interest to you.

  • chris

    How long will you be researching at ISEAS for? I attended their 40th Singapore lecture yesterday!๐Ÿ™‚

  • Rachel

    @ Chris: I’m at ISEAS for one year, starting in September — and certainly plan to attend as many of their lectures/seminars as I can. I take it you’re also working in or around there? if you’ve any thoughts/information/insider tips on the institute, I would gladly welcome an email (rachel DOT is AT gmail DOT com)๐Ÿ™‚

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