The P Word

Caroline Walker Bynum, October 2007

Something has happened to the way we talk about what we do as historians. A decade or so ago, we spoke of "scholarship" or "research," of "topics," or even of "work." Now everyone has "projects." The change is in more than terminology. Behind the P word lurks a new, and in my view very unsatisfactory, understanding of the enterprise of history-writing.

"Scholarship," "research," "work" are open-ended activities; they are something one is, almost by definition, always in the middle of. When one does research or engages in scholarship, one meanders, following the sources where they lead, expecting that one will sometimes find oneself in strange byways, even blind alleys. One plunges ahead, open to new directions, expecting the questions one is asking to mutate as materials, their context, and the scholarship of others make new issues and points of view imperative. "Topics" are things that change as evidence emerges. Indeed when one "does scholarship," or simply "works on a topic," one can never really tell—it is a continuing problem we face as historians—when one has finished. A project, on the other hand, has a beginning and an end. It comes with its conclusions already drawn and its chapters outlined (sometimes before much research has yet been done). It has a time frame and an end point. A project has to be finished, the sooner the better.

I became aware of how our vocabulary and our assumptions have shifted when one of my students told me about a panel on professional ethics held at the College Art Association in 2006 at which someone asked whether it was ethical to apply for a second grant for "the same project." The question makes stunningly clear how much the expectation that we do "projects" rather than "work" boxes us into constraining timetables and foregone conclusions. One could not ask such a question about scholarship, which can never—from year to year, month to month, or indeed text to text—be "the same."

We all know why this shift in terminology has occurred. Scholarship is something a tenured professor (at least one who does not have to teach summer school in order to pay a child’s tuition bills) does in the months between June and August, then puts aside or picks up as time allows during the academic year. Scholarship is leisurely; it is generated—sometimes with fierce insistence—from within the scholar, shaped and re-shaped as current historiography and the classroom raise new questions. Projects are proposed in order to get grants or fellowships, to win tenure, to gain a job or a promotion. Projects are often generated from without, by pressure from deans, department heads, even mentors. Some young academics today struggle under the burden not just of "the project" but of "the second project," constrained by the demands of senior colleagues and university administrators to race to a close-ended, tightly formulated statement of where they will be one or two years hence when they have had no chance to ruminate on what their first research (the doctoral dissertation) accomplished or left undone.

Those of us who are senior scholars need to speak out more than we do against these pressures. But we will probably not be able to reverse such trends significantly. We all live in a grant-grubbing world. Young people do have to learn to write proposals, and their mentors have to help them learn how to do it successfully. But I would like to make a modest proposal. I suggest that we abandon the P word. If we were to return to describing what we do as "work," the assumptions—the correct and real assumptions—behind our enterprise would be more evident. If senior scholars who evaluate proposals and consider tenure dossiers were to think, deliberately and self-consciously, in terms of scholarship not projects, they would be more inclined to reward research that is honest about its uncertainties and flexible as it confronts its sources—research that admits how topics change, wandering afield and backtracking as often as they progress. And if all of us who apply for grants, come up for tenure, explore new areas, or describe our books to publishers, were to speak again of what we do as "scholarship" or just plain "work," we might find it easier to do it. Because the events and cultures, art and literature, politics, victories and defeats of the past are, as we all know, only very arbitrarily divided into finite hunks. Real research always has loose ends. It does not come in year-long, project-size units. By reverting to how we once spoke, we might release ourselves from a little of the burden we all feel in an academic world where there is ever greater pressure for speed and results.

—Caroline Walker Bynum, professor of medieval European history at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, was president of the AHA for 1996.