Me, Myself, and Introspection: Autobiography in Academia

Authored by Oliver Marsh, a PhD Researcher in Science Enthusiasm and Social Media at the UCL Science and Technology Studies Department.  Originally appeared at the blog SidewaysLookAtScience.

 

The other week, while writing a paper for a Digital Sociology workshop, I inserted the following nauseatingly self-absorbed passage:

For completeness, I should probably also tell you a couple of salient points about my own background.  I originally entered university doing a physics degree, intending to go into science communication, but finished up doing history of science, particularly social history of science communication, and then moved into sociology of science a few months ago.  I should also note that I was never a serious member of any online science enthusiast communities, including the ones I’m studying.

Even as I was writing it, I wasn’t quite sure why it was there.  Maybe a subconscious longing for a fancy personal intro in a conference, like proper academics.  Maybe the influence of a paper I read recently about Antonio Gramsci who – in addition to doing time in prison (making him one of the few social scientists with an excuse for not doing data collection) and wanting to scatter socialist literature from hot air balloons – examined the personal backgrounds of scholars.  But the most honest answer is that it sent a signal: although I was discussing sociological methods, I actually have zero experience of sociological methods and if they asked me hard questions I would cry.  Surprisingly the response was not ‘this is an academic meeting, take your X Factor backstory and get out’.  Instead, they felt this was a useful addition to my talk.  Which I regard as a victory for my cowardice.  But was it a victory for academia?

Generally I regard cowardice as inimical to academia – scholarship should be about putting your ideas out in a bold and clear way that maximises the ease of being properly critiqued.  Sometimes personal features assist cowardice and laziness – for instance, an idea might be accepted or rejected without due critical thought because of who wrote it.1  But in other cases personal features assist good scholarship, as with (for example) feminist scholars who have shown able to show some very subtle biases in academia due to a lack of female perspectives.2  So one question is: when do personal features make for better scholarship?

There’s a rather bigger question lurking behind that: what do we want scholarship to do?  What distinguishes ‘scholarship’ from other stuff that involves thinking, hypothesising, debating, and generally trying to be clever?  Personally, I think of academia as a project to understand all the world.  Why is that apple falling to the ground? How did we come to have our systems of government, our forms of entertainment, our belief systems, etc.?  Is there a Lord Gaga?  This implies a certain degree of detachment – the emphasis is on the world, not our writing about it.  We don’t create our own new worlds, unlike creative writers; we try to take our evidence from the world and not just ask other people, unlike journalists; we use methodologies, unlike generally clever people writing generally clever things.  The utopian aim of scholarship, then, might be some abstracted and impartial understanding of the whole world, the ability to answer any question without just making stuff up.

Well, maybe.  To fully discuss that here would require me to use postmodernism, pluralism, and far more space and coffee than I have available.3  The point I’d like to make is that ensuring best-fit with the world is hindered, not helped, by trying too hard to be abstract and impersonal.  The personality and skills of an individual inevitably enter into academia, what with it being a practice carried out by humans.  There are mechanisms for distancing these influences, like anonymous reviewing or declaration of funding interests.  But to say these are completely successful would be to miss interesting, and probably important, points.  Take experiments. A common argument runs that experiments should give the same result irrespective of who is carrying them out.  The principle is pretty clear, but I can assure you that the results of experiments can vary wildly depending on whether or not they’re being carried out by me.  Less glibly, this also neglects the fact that doing one experiment over and over isn’t the entirety of ‘science’.  Even the best experiments have to move out of the lab sometime, and this involves some pretty human processes like judging when the experiment should end, whether the experiment is good enough to convince (especially if it overturns prior beliefs), whether the news is worth passing on further (and if so, how), or even if it’s worth doing in the first place.

As a sociologist I’m contractually obliged to point out that contexts, as well as personalities, enter into all this.  I certainly know that I’m a much harsher critic of papers when I read them for reading groups than when I read them to teach undergraduates.  In the former case I’m trying to maximise the number of interesting (read: argumentative and nitpicky) points I can throw into the discussion.  In the latter I’m trying to show the students some useful points they can take out of that reading which they definitely actually did, honest.  Now obviously there’s more to it than that – I really hope my overall assessments are somewhat influenced by how good the arguments are – but I’d be lying if I claimed I could easily recognise and defeat all my biases.  And I’d also be lying if I claimed such biases weren’t also present when I produce new research.  So that’s where autobiographical passages like the one I opened with come in handy.  By showing one’s personal background and the contexts one is working within, a scholar can give that bit more info to help audiences locate possible biases, blindspots, and bonus experience instead.4  It’s really just an extension of making your methodology clear.

The problem with that is… well, there are lots of problems.  Firstly, how much information to give?  Given all that contextual stuff, should every footnote include a potted ‘I read this paper while…’ backstory?  Should all work begin with your 3-volume autobiography, just to make sure that you haven’t missed a relevant self-detail?  Secondly, even if your audience can minimise your biases they also bring their own.  Thirdly, and most worryingly, this could push academia towards a clamour of voices, each with their own valuable viewpoint, and away from anything that can be synthesised sensibly.  This can be seen in a bizarre and fascinating chapter entitled ‘Perfectly Normal Female Interest In Men Bonking’ – if you look for it on the internet I’d advise using an academic search engine – coauthored by sociologist of fandom Henry Jenkins and two fans from the communities he studies.  They begin with the interesting argument that academics, in providing their own reflections on fans, downplay the importance of fans’ own self-reflections.  Their solution to this is simply to hurl out pages and pages of fans’ self-reflections on slash fiction.  The authors’ point, I think, is that all these competing voices have equal validity which should not be distorted by some academic synthesis– a fact the authors acknowledge by not providing a conclusion.  The disjointed content is interesting, but it doesn’t connect up to give a firmer grasp on any world .  If there’s any methodology going on, besides selective copy-and-pasting, it isn’t clear.

But despite all that, I’m still in favour of providing some autobiographical reflections in academic work.  It’s good for full clarity, to open yourself up to the possibility you’ve fooled yourself.  It opens up all work to the charge of human fallibility, rather than only when we want to highlight human-ness for our own purposes (it’s interesting it’s interesting that history of science lectures, in my experience, provide photos, biographical snippets, and other humanising sights of scientists, but only textual extracts from other historians).  It’s also a possibly good way to highlight prevailing influences in groups of academics, whether in a particular institution or country or all of academia.  Many of these are pretty well known anyway – white middle-class dominance ahoy – but there’s no harm in making that even more painfully obvious.  Basically, whatever we want academia to do, we want it to be ‘right’ or ‘correct’ in some way5 – and rightness and correctness are only a few steps away from honesty.

But these are all very fresh and slightly confused thoughts.  In particular, I’d like to say something more specific than ‘let’s have some autobiographical reflections everyone’, something which takes on board the problems I raised rather than stuffing them in a cupboard to deal with later.  So if you have any ideas or suggestions I’d be very interested to hear them.  So send them to me.  Along with your 3-volume autobiography.

1 = One argument runs that big-name academics can hide dodgy ideas behind their eminence, while PhD students’ ideas are held back by a presumption of their inexperience.  I think this is a somewhat blinkered argument, as the work of big-name academics gets plenty of hype and attention, and in academic terms this often translates as greater criticism – after all, I’d hope we go through enough training to recognise dodgy ideas no matter whose name is at the top of them.  The bigger problem, I’d argue, is not hero worship but the disproportionate attention, both positive and negative, paid to certain academics.  After all, if a PhD student writes a groundbreaking paper in a forest and no-one is around to hear it…

2 = A specific example from my own field is Elisabeth Lloyd’s work on the various adaptive explanations proposed by biologists for existence of the female orgasm.

3 = Very simplistically, the view propounded by many postmodernist and postmodernism-influenced scholars is that the statement ‘that’s just the way it is’ is never a good one – we cannot access a single privileged description of the real-world-out-there, as metaphysics tries to do, but instead lots of (often incoherent) viewpoints.  Ideas of ‘truth’ and ‘progress’ and ‘humanity’ are seen as created by humans, while the real-world-out-there remains permanently inaccessible.  Pluralism, again very simplistically, says that there are many possible viewpoints on anything, and there’s no problem with these existing side-by-side.  Although there’s obvious links with postmodernism, I get the sense that many pluralists are ok with saying we have some access to reality.  But this is all philosophy, which is most definitely Not My Thing.  If you want to know more from some actually reliable informants,, the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy is often pretty good.

4 = My excellent friend and colleague Raquel Velho gave me a good example of journal articles in disability studies.  This is a field in which personal experience is often very important, but also the power of disclosing said experience is down to the author (unlike gender, nationality, or affiliation which can be gleaned from author details).

5 = Despite all that postmodern and pluralism stuff – on which subject my thoughts are very conflicted and confused – but the point I’d make is that aiming for some form of truth-to-the-world is better than scholars throwing in the towel and going ‘heck I’ll just sit in an armchair and say whatever like cos it’s all kind of true and kind of false anyway’

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