Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Form in the Humanities (1)

My posts about introduction, conclusion and body of a paper provide an outline for a standard social science paper. But what about the humanities? To answer this question I want to explore the possibility of writing a publishable paper without an explicit statement of your "theory" and your "method". I'm doing this both because I want to be of use also to scholars working the humanities and because of the growing interest in a "liberal arts" approach to business studies.

Papers in the humanities will still need an introduction, a conclusion and a substantial analysis. They also do well to have a section devoted to the implications of their results. And there is no immediate reason that these sections cannot be written according to my ideal form. Also, it is often legitimate to provide some background information about, e.g., the author(s) that the paper is about. But instead of telling the reader explicitly how the writer sees the world (theory) and what the writer has done to get a better look at it (method), the paper will try to give the reader an indication of the writer's style. In fact, the possibility I would like to explore here is that the humanities differ from the social sciences precisely in their reliance on style over theory and method to build rapport with the reader. (I'm sure a historian of the social sciences can tell us the importance of the late nineteenth century for the rising fortunes of theory and method against the baseline of style.)

When writing about your theory and method what you are doing is activating the reader's expectations and standards. You're describing the reader's mind and getting the reader to trust you long enough to let you try to change it. A style, meanwhile, is a way of talking about the world and also a way of looking at it; it is the perfect immanence of theory and method, their seamless integration. The fifteen paragraphs that are devoted to background, theory and method in a social science paper must work up to the twenty paragraphs of its analysis and implications. In a humanities paper, you do well to think in similar terms. After the introduction you're going to have to prepare the reader's mind to be changed.

"Form in literature is an arousing and fulfillment of desires," said Kenneth Burke. I often say that in scholarship it is the art of disappointing our peers' expectations—a paper artfully evokes and then artfully disappoints the reader's expectations. So you can see the arc of a piece of scholarship in the humanities as follows:


And we can further divide the tasks of "arousal" and "fulfillment" into sub-tasks. There's a kind of general, underlying, "human" arousal and a more specialized, scholarly arousal. That is, we can talk about the broad cultural assumptions about, say, Shakespeare, that no piece of scholarship, no matter how well researched, can proceed without taking stock of, and we can talk about the more focused expectations that a community of specialists have of a reading of any one of its members.

When evoking the expectations of scholars, a writer does well also to give some indication of the sort of reading he or she has done, both its extent and its intensity. A popular audience, or "general reader", will generally be impressed with the scholar's ability simply to summarize the basic plot points of Hamlet and Othello, and saying something half-way interesting about the sixteenth century. But a fellow scholar will want to see an understanding of the issues of interpretation that arise around these works and that period. So the writer must carefully drop names and problems into the first fifteen paragraphs of the paper in order to give the reader a recognizable frame of reference. Also, the reader does well to demonstrate familiarity with the works of Shakespeare, especially those under scrutiny. The writer is here always reminding, not telling, the reader what is going on on the page.

I'll continue this theme on Thursday, getting into greater detail about the passage from "arousal" to "fulfillment" of scholarly desire.

(Read part 2 here.)

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