One of the hardest things that scholarly writers face is the pressure to be original. For graduate students, who may be making their first attempts at original work, this demand for original ideas, interpretations or discoveries can be especially anxiety producing. I’ve heard stories of graduate students hiding certain library books in the fear that others will stumble upon the same ideas. I’ve speculated about and heard others speculate about plagiarism when publications come out that seem to replicate conclusions and sources that were in unpublished manuscripts that had been sent out for review. Even for more seasoned scholars, the fear is there that we don’t know what we’re doing and that our work will be replicating something else. Given the amount of scholarly production, it seems almost impossible to imagine that we can do original work unless it’s on a subject that’s so obscure no one else knows (or cares) about it.
I’m writing this little reflective story as a way to think about how to teach students what we mean by originality and how to reduce the anxiety associated with a seemingly impossible goal.
This morning I was reading news on Facebook and followed a link to this article by Kristoffer Smemo, a graduate student at UC Santa Barbara who’s writing his dissertation on liberal Republicans:
I was thrilled by his analysis of the band Black Flag’s conservative ideology, because he had so clearly articulated and formulated thoughts about the U.S. hardcore punk scene, about which I had been reading as part of my research for a chapter of my book on anti-fascism. After my initial thrilled and excited reaction to reading this sharp analysis, I had the panicked reaction of “oh no, he figured it out first! And now… all my work on this subject up to now is just superfluous. ”
My “oh no!” reaction while understandable given the competitive aspects of academic culture is also kind of ridiculous for a number of reasons.
The reason for this reaction is based in an understanding of scholarship as a competitive endeavor in which only one person can be “the smartest” or “the first” to the finish line. Given the fact that it’s hard to be original perceiving scholarship this way can make the experience of research anxiety producing, miserable and alienating. If we instead think of scholarship as a collaborative human enterprise in which people working in the same area can be helpfully viewed as friends or comrades, what originality means, and how we get there becomes much less lonely and other people’s work becomes less threatening.
Here is a set of things I might say to students in order to reduce the anxiety about what it means to be original and to take some of the competitive energy out of the research and writing process.
1) Someone else will almost always have already had the same idea as you, or an even better one that you haven’t thought of yet, but that when you read it, will cause you to think: “yes, that’s exactly right.” And, then perhaps, “Damn it, why didn’t’ I think of that?”
It’s almost impossible to have an idea that no one else has. We’re all living in the same historical moment, and many of us are trying to figure out answers to the same problems, reading many of the same books, and swimming in the same cultural soup. So, of course we’re going to think similar things. It would be more shocking if no one had the same idea you did than if they didn’t. It’s often the case that someone else has come to a particular question before you did. To look at this from another perspective, isn’t it nice to know that there is someone else who has thought this thing or thought it better than you? Isn’t it in fact nice that someone is interested in the same subject as you? You are not alone and you are not crazy. In fact, it means you are addressing a subject that matters to other people. Now, you can see evidence in the fact of this other person’s work that your work is relevant.
2) Even if this other person has thought the same thing, or figured out this problem in a better way than you, and has even been working on this problem or question a lot longer than you have, it’s unlikely that he or she is working on all of the exact same questions that you are and about the exact same texts, historical period, or topics. You can carry on with your work. If it is the case that this person’s research has done exactly what you were planning to do and essentially “got there before you” that is why we do literature reviews when we embark on new scholarly projects. Aren’t you glad you found this book/article/dissertation now instead of a year from now?
3) You have a new comrade and helper. Discovering that someone else has already answered the question you started your project with does not mean abandoning your research on a particular subject or casting that person’s work as an enemy that has to be defeated in order to prove your own originality or superiority, or hoping that no one will notice and failing to cite a highly relevant work. The fact that this other person had already started this work before, and has thought about it so intelligently means that their work is going to be tremendously helpful and will save you from having to do the work that they have already done.
4) Now that this intellectual comrade has answered the question you started with, you can learn from his or her work, acknowledge this other scholar's significant contribution, and think about moving to a question that the work raises but does not answer. There will pretty much always be at least one. No work on a subject can say everything about it, and any really good piece of work will be applicable in other ways. There are all kinds of ways to take inspiration from another work on your subject: whether that means looking at how an idea or fact can be seen in a different context, applying an idea to a new subject, going broader and making comparisons, going into more depth about a single detail, getting into some unexplored, but possibly related area that the other author wasn’t interested in, and in fact, continuing to treat that person as a scholarly “friend” – someone who shares your passion and engagement, and with whom you are working to build new knowledge in related areas. It makes scholarship much less lonely. This is quite different from thinking about the goal of scholarship as being to come up with an original finding in which you are pitted competitively with everyone else who is working on the same subject.
5) This is different from being so indebted to someone else’s work that you are unable to think of different questions from the ones that they have already answered and just want to repeat their insights and preach about them to others, or even that you cannot be critical of works that they have done. The only reason to write anything is because you still think something is missing from what's out there. Benjamin puts it this way, Writers are really people who write books not because they are poor, but because they are dissatisfied with the books which they could buy but do not like.”
Maybe another day I'll write about the value of enemies or adversaries - they have a role too. As Orwell's famous essay on writing describes it, writing is an ordeal. Why bother if you are already satisfied with what had already been written? So, while the quest for originality can be anxiety producing when the purpose of your research is all about proving that you’re smarter than other people, that pressure comes off if you remain driven by your passion for the subject and experience some kind of fellowship with others who share that passion and are writing and thinking in the same area, while recognizing that each of us has limited capacities. No one work will say all that is there is to be said, and part of being “original” is actually about engaging productively with other scholars’ work, even when the initial experience of reading it can induce a momentary panic.