"From the start the terms of discovery were interchangeably personal and professional."
--Sacvan Bercovitch1

In a time of stagnating scholarship, we need a means to make novel discoveries and new entries into our fields of research. We need to consider the approaches we take to our work and to our text. I propose a new approach in which we examine our individual context--including historical and physical positioning--and rely on an awareness of the contingencies with which we come to our texts. In developing and using this process, we should be able to develop an increasingly heightened sense of self-awareness. In recognizing our personal situations, revelations, and idiosyncratic work, we can harness our individuality rather than ignore it. Through harnessing this process, we can create new paths in scholarship.

Before delving into the process, though, I need to address my reasons for undertaking this project, and how I go about doing so. I also want to point out that I am primarily addressing those people working in the humanities. I don't pretend to know enough about the physical sciences to enter into a dialogue about their paradigms and methodologies. While I hope for a large audience, I also recognize that I am speaking in some ways to a small group that I imagine is composed of young academics, graduate students, and possibly upper-level undergraduates looking to stay in academia. I am asking for a new approach to scholarship, and while I hope for as much intellectual sympathy as possible, I suspect young people will have the most interest in what I say. Kuhn explains that the people who make fundamental changes along these lines are usually relatively young or new to their field because, "being little committed by prior practice to the traditional rules of normal science, [they] are particularly likely to see that those rules no longer define a playable game."2 I do not go so far as to argue for a complete overturn of current paradigm structures, but I still realize that those people who are well-established in their traditions are unlikely to be motivated to change.

18th-Century Harvard

I feel that current paradigms of scholarship are becoming inadequate. In Kuhnian terms, paradigmatic ideas have developed that address certain questions, and also help us understand what questions need to be asked. These ideas have become entrenched in academic institutions, and have come to make up a worldview. These paradigms have been helpful in helping us understand our world--including its history, arts, and culture--but have ceased to further our quest for wisdom. The current paradigms no longer ask questions that get us anywhere.

I admit that I am unable to offer the questions we should be asking, but I can point out why the current questions are inadequate. The questions being asked and answered have become predictable. If you tell any well-trained graduate student the subject of your next article and the school of thought from which you approach it, she will invariably be able to tell you what your paper will look like. Academic procedures often do not help us accumulate knowledge; they simply re-present what we already believe. I cannot show an individual work that represents this problem--the problem stems from a pattern of repetitive thought that does not teach us anything new. Our paradigms and methodologies, instead of being tools to help us understand, have become increasingly noticeable limitations to our thinking. For this reason, we need new approaches to scholarship, not simply for the sake of novelty, but because fresh approaches will lead us to the questions we should be considering.

Martha Nussbaum
Martha Nussbaum
These limitations pose two serious problems. First, they allow us to simplify our world into discrete categories. We deal with culture on the level of race or gender or class, rather than on more complex levels. We need to realize the web of relationships present in the texts we read. Second, in a paradigmatic trap, we can easily avoid the ties between our contexts and our texts. We need to recognize this web as well. In a trenchant article, Martha Nussbaum addresses this situation in the work of Judith Butler. In overcoming these two problems, we need to focus on what Gene Wise calls "dynamic processes of inquiry," which should help us give "more aforethought" to our scholarship.3 We need to examine what is going on around us, both professionally and personally, and reconsider our points of entry into our research. I do not mean to claim that academics are generally not self-aware. As Wise explains about his discipline, "Several in the movement seem more inclined now to take soundings on their own past as a means of identifying what American Studies is, and envisioning where it may be heading."4 I do, however, think that self-awareness can take several forms and result in and from different types of procedures. In the rest of this website, I explain an approach we can take to overcome the problems I have been describing by utilizing a consciousness of individual context and the contingency of accumulating knowledge.


1Bercovitch, Sacvan. The Rites of Assent: Transformations in the Symbolic Construction of America. New York: Rutledge, 1993, p. 1.

2Kuhn, Thomas. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 3rd ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996, p. 90.

3Wise, Gene. American Historical Explanations: A Strategy for Grounded Inquiry, 2nd ed., rev. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1980, p. xvii-xviii.

4Wise, Gene. "'Paradigm Dramas' in American Studies: A Cultural and Institutional History of the Movement." American Quarterly 31 (1979), p. 336.