April 15, 2022
Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.
A few random discussions inspired these thoughts about the way that scholarship has changed throughout the years. Additionally, I have been reading three very different books, which brings up questions of classification. I do not really care to categorize them. They simply demonstrate the fact that works that cross borders and incorporate multiple disciplines speak to me. So, for the next few paragraphs, I will attempt to give a succinct summary of my experience with three texts. Keep in mind that this is minimal at best, but intends only to open the door to questions of scholarship and how it changes.
First, reading Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is delightful, though probably not for reasons that Gibbon intended. Published between the years 1776 and 1788, it escapes most of our critical reach in terms of Gibbon’s scholarship. Therefore, any application of today’s citation style is entirely unfair. However, studying how he presents scholarship helps us to better understand today’s scholarship.
In a recent discussion, someone indicated that Gibbon might be a bit “lazy.” While he might appear to be lazy at times, I do not believe that this is exactly the right word for Gibbon. For starters, he wrote thousands of pages. Also, Gibbon read extensively. He kept notes on topics as diverse as economics, social structures, and clothing styles. Whether or not we agree with his conclusions does not negate the fact that he knew a lot about his subject. Finally, anyone who thinks to include the sheer number of footnotes cannot be considered lazy. (I wrote a previous blog on his footnotes which you can find here: https://www.hmu.edu/hmu-blog/2016/4/25/reading-gibbon).
Having said all of that, I laugh out loud at Gibbon’s irreverence because he often presents opinion as if it were fact and then vehemently defends his stance. While he does footnote the heck out of his work, much of those contain opinions rather than fact. Clearly he has read widely, but often makes problematic assumptions. Also, he does not always present historical arguments chronologically. For example, footnote 48 from Chapter XXXIV reads in part: “I have not confined myself to the same order [as Priscus]…”. In other words, he uses data to suit his purpose when it fits his point.
Being naive of the standards of Gibbon’s day, I can only say that this type of scholarship feels sloppy. Certainly it is misleading. What sounds like authority quickly becomes something akin to historical fiction. Near the beginning of Chapter Nine, Gibbon mentions his source (Tacitus), and then writes, “The subject, however, various and important, has already been so frequently, so ably, and so successfully discussed, that it is now grown familiar to the reader, and ourselves with observing, and indeed with repeating, some of the most important circumstances…”. In Gibbon’s mind, this statement absolves him of accuracy, and allows him to repeat, which in fact he does quite liberally, without any textual indication to separate Tacitus’s quotes from his own.
In Gibbon’s defense, however, little work had been done to define what it meant to give clear attribution. In fact, Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of 1755 attempted to create a sort of rubric for quotations. Unfortunately, his work was also widely criticized. So, without much of a standard at the time, we must acknowledge that Gibbon at least credited his sources. Today, however, scholarly work requires clear citations and is controlled (rigorously) by various entities such as the Modern Language Association (MLA). (For more information on citation style, visit the Purdue Online Writing Lab.)
Accordingly, I have been thinking about what it means to represent “accurate” data. How will the reader know if the author has well-founded opinions? These thoughts accompanied me as I read Where The Water Goes: Life and Death Along the Colorado River by David Owen, which marvelously weaves Owen’s own journey into the story of the River itself. He describes how the River’s water has been divvied up far beyond its capacity, and how seemingly arbitrary water rights allow some places to thrive, and others to wither. It’s a very harrowing story, and only partially because the River’s water no longer reaches the ocean.
Having said that, he includes no notes which entirely distracts me. He writes in a clear manner, descriptive in detail, perhaps journalistic in style. I appreciate his tone, detail, and ability to make a difficult subject seem clear. And to be fair, Owen always provides the names and titles of those that he interviewed, but all of his stories are anecdotal and personal. I am sure that he recorded those conversations, but I cannot access much of that material myself. In his defense, the most common response to his questions end with the frustrating statement: “it’s just the law of the river,” which is unsatisfying to say the least. Furthermore, Owen did not intend to give a scientific analysis of river water. The book is meant for a layperson interested in water rights and the history of the West. Yet, his book does include sections of science, data, and studies that would be worth noting in more detail and I find myself missing notes which might accompany the text. Without endnotes, I have to work a little harder to find the sources myself. Maybe this is partially his point, it is simply difficult to find resources about this topic.
Recently I also read George Zarkadakis’s In Our Own Image: Savior or Destroyer? The History and Future of Artificial Intelligence. Like Owen, Zarkadakis tackles an extremely complicated subject. Unlike Owen, he has a degree in the subject of choice and I think that this may account for some of the difference in styles. Zarkadakis puts science in layman’s terms, and therefore, is probably compelled to use extensive endnotes due to the rigors of his scientific training, which contrasts Owen’s journalistic style.
As a reader, I appreciate the scholarship and extra work that goes into footnoted or endnoted material. When I read a book, I like to know what other topics I might find, what other authors might help me, etc. For this reason alone I think notes are very beneficial. Moreover, both of these topics are much more complicated than can be covered in a single book, so notes could be used to prompt further reading and investigation. For me, it also lends a sort of credibility to the scholarship done. However, I thoroughly enjoyed all three texts mentioned in today’s post and recommend them all.
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