Scholarly Reinvention

Historiann is posting an interview she conducted with women’s history great Mary Beth Norton (third part to be posted tomorrow). The whole thing is worth reading for a fascinating account of the early days of the development of women’s history as a subfield of history and of women’s fight to break into the history profession sausage fest.

One of the details of Norton’s own history that is particular interest to me is the scholarly reinvention of herself from a historian specializing in the loyalists of the American Revolution to a women’s historian. And this reinvention did not occur without pushback. As she relates in the interview:

My focus on women at such an early stage in the evolution of the historical study of women made me stand out from the crowd in the 1970s, not always in a good way. Some people were very skeptical about what I was doing and its value. One senior historian I knew rather well said to a female friend of mine (who was then still a graduate student and reported the comment to me): ‘why did she have to switch to women? Loyalists were perfectly OK.’

I am quite fascinated by the concept of scholarly reinvention. While some scholars make huge contributions focusing on the same subject matter employing the same methods for their entire careers, for others sporadic–or even regular–reinvention has clearly been instrumental to their success. What I now understand about myself is that I need to continuously incorporate (or devise) new approaches into my research program, and about every ten years I need to enter subfields that are new to me. Mostly I think this is because I have a short attention span and easily get bored, and complementarily one of my greatest intellectual strengths is the ability to enter new territory and rapidly master its conceptual and methodological frameworks.

In common with Norton, I have on occasion had more senior scientists express their “concern” with this predilection, and treat me as if it were something unseemly and impudent. Fortunately, both my pre-doc and post-doc mentors effectively inculcated in me a robust “go fucke yourself” attitude towards this kind of squelching, and my current understanding is that it represents the understandable fear of the dinosaur for the mammal.


  1. blindrobin says

    Hey sailor! Don’t lean over the gunwales to see what’s in the water. You’ll rock the boat. Just keep pulling your oar and stay the course.
    Expanding your interests makes others nervous.

  2. fuckesatonne says

    It’s not unseemly and impudent. But it might be dangerous. A prof I know recently lost her job because she couldn’t seem to focus on one field: every grant was on a new topic, and she never got them renewed. When her funding finally ran out, she was axed very rapidly.

    That’s the danger of not having an identifiable “niche”. I think she would have been given a bit more slack if the senior administration had a clearer idea of where her research was going, and therefore why that particular focus was important to keep around.

  3. hannahs dad says

    Gerda Lerner has a book which documents how women struggled to break into the history field over millenia.
    As each woman broke new ground, then died, her work died with her and so woman’s history had to be constantly reinvented by the next [or later] generation over and over again until, roughly the 19th century.
    Gerda Lerner – “The Creation of Patriarchy’.
    “The Creation of Feminist Conciousness”.

  4. says

    CPP, did you see that MBN posted a response to your comments about scholarly reinvention back in the post you linked to? Just FYI.

    (I think she agrees with me that historians are methodologically promiscuous. Not to say careless, but we pretty much do whatever we want to.)

  5. david says

    In academics, switching interests or taking up new topics is considered risky behavior and is frowned on. In industry (pharma), it’s highly valued.

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