Piggyback scholarship deepens sea of knowledge

By Ari

It is fortunate that Jim Gardner, the author of Monday’s article on universities, faculties and scholarship (“How U professors aren’t pulling their weight”), saw fit to leave academia and pursue other interests. Yet it is curious he was able to reach the status of Ph.D. candidate knowing as little as he does about publications, particularly in the humanities.
It is true that the goals of scholars in the humanities field differ from those of other researchers. The results of our work are generally not reducible to charts, graphs or equations and what we produce often ends up raising many more questions than it answers. Yet, this is far from any cause for shame. Works in the humanities have been among the most influential in history, defining, reshaping and occasionally reinventing societies, and we would certainly be remiss if we did not examine with zeal and devotion that which has made us who we are today. We examine the works of our predecessors — writers, poets, historians — and try to find out what was in their minds and what affected their thinking. Our tools are the library and our own minds.
Gardner points out that simply republishing someone else’s work is not the same as research. This is true. However, he forgets the primary reasons for republishing old material: the editorial work that goes into such books often proves to be more important than the texts themselves. A copy of Beowulf, for example, is available in any bookstore, but an edition of the same book with a clear and well-researched analysis of the poem is a rare thing. A complete and up-to-date bibliography can direct the reader to other books and articles that will help someone understand the work even better. Again, the questions raised in its introduction and appendices will be manifold: Was Beowulf written by Christians or pagans? Is it based on factual events? Did it appear early or late in the history of Old English literature? And so on. Further research will most likely be based not upon the Old English text (which, though an integral part of the book, is obtainable almost anywhere) but upon the contributions and research of the editor. Yet the title of the book is, and remains, Beowulf.
Which is not to say, as Gardner seems to think, that books are our sole means of expression. For some reason, he frowns upon the value of articles: “A scholar in the humanities is rightly suspicious of articles,” he writes. “Their brief scope will not accommodate ‘cutting-edge’ research.” This is indeed puzzling. Has he never been to the basement of Wilson Library? Has he not looked upon the seemingly endless bookshelves of the periodical room filled to capacity with millennia worth of journals? Has he not noticed the hundreds of publications dedicated to history, philosophy, art, folklore and literature? Or has he indeed seen it but not been sufficiently impressed by its value? Apparently, he has missed a great deal. Books may contain a wealth of information, and usually do, though even the thickest tomes can sometimes be overshadowed by the briefest articles and monographs.
As an example, I would refer Gardner to a little number published by the linguist Karl Verner in 1875 with the unassuming title “An Exception to the First Sound Shift.” (Despite the early date, this was not written at a time before linguists had thought of the idea of publishing books.) In 34 pages, he created and proved what became known as Verner’s Law, and by doing so cemented many of the holes in earlier descriptions of the relationship between Germanic and other languages. His article remains to this day one of the most important works ever written in the field of language, and is indeed of such significance that nearly every book on historical linguistics published since then refers to Verner and mentions his paper by name.
Unfortunately, articles, even brilliant and innovative ones, can easily slip through the cracks and get lost through time. Sometimes they are passed over because of the ignorance (in the most neutral sense) of researchers. Take the field of etymology (the study of word history), for example. Thousands have written essays on English words, only to have their work completely ignored because no one knew it existed. Even the best dictionaries have been unaware of their existence and, in their etymologies, have simply repeated the information of other lexicons, some of it inaccurate or simply wrong. In order to resolve this problem, a team in the University’s Department of German, Scandinavian, and Dutch is working on a most “picayune” bibliography (as our friend would call it) of all works dealing with English etymology. Over 20,000 articles and books have been read, classified and indexed. Anyone who works with words (and there are many) will need and want to make use of this bibliography once it appears. Nothing like it currently exists in the world. Is this real scholarship? I suppose we would have to consult Gardner to answer that question.
Gardner does raise some interesting points. Scholars in the humanities do work differently and produce results different in nature from those in the natural sciences. We all try to understand the world around us, yet we in the humanities have methods that are necessarily at odds with those in other fields. Our research, however, is research nonetheless, and its results are to be found in libraries, book shops throughout the world, and, more importantly, in the minds of all those who have been affected by our understanding of philosophy, modern languages, Shakespeare, Beethoven, the Roman Empire, cinema and Medieval theology. If our methods are called “piggybacking,” then let us all enjoy the ride.
Ari Hoptman is a Ph.D. candidate in Germanic philology.