How to negotiate your life’s doctoral turn

Identifying intellectual junctions, intersections and sites for negotiation can give your academic rite of passage the right of way, says Zachary Foster    

November 2, 2017
Elly Walton illustration (2 November 2017)
Source: Elly Walton

Someone once asked Malcolm Gladwell when his next book would be out. “I need an idea before I can write another book,” he responded. As a PhD student, his answer didn’t make sense to me. I knew that I needed to write a book (fancifully called a “dissertation”) – I just didn’t realise that I needed to have an idea for it. So I went looking for one. Here are some of the good, bad and amusing ones that I found.

1. It’s an invention. This might be the most popular academic argument around. Over the past few centuries, we’ve discovered that many things once thought to be part of the natural world are constructs, inventions or fictions. You don’t need to be an academic to know that race is a social construct, nations are imagined communities and space is subjectively defined. The most popular book in Israel for years was titled The Invention of the Jewish People. Walk into a bookstore in San Francisco and you’ll find titles such as The Invention of Science, The Invention of Nature and The Invention of Desire. Academics don’t stop there, of course. They’ve written books on The Invention of the Writer, The Invention of Infinity, The Invention of Discovery, The Invention of Prose and, to be sure, The Invention of God.

Full disclosure: the title of my dissertation is The Invention of Palestine. I was lucky that no one had already claimed that Palestine was an invention. But if someone has already snatched up your invention, just get more specific. And if someone has already got more specific, reinvent it, as in The Invention and Reinvention of the Egyptian Peasant, The Invention and Reinvention of Nordic Walking or, my favourite, The Invention and Reinvention of Norwegian Polar Skiing.

2. It depends. This is another favourite. “It depends” arguments are commonly known in the sciences as negative results. They are considered less impactful and so don’t usually get published (regrettably). Academics in the humanities, though, do publish such arguments – although their writing style often prevents readers (and the authors themselves) from grasping that. The claim is often reformulated to the effect that things are always “situated, embodied, and partial”, and revolve “around a set of features or markers that become significant within specific contexts”. One scholar suggested that national identities were the product of contingent historical circumstances of specific organisational, ideological and micro-interactional processes. Another argued that something was “produced in specific historical and institutional sites within specific discursive formations and practices, by specific enunciative strategies”. Tellingly, this same sentence is one of the most beloved sentences ever written in academic history (google it). The key to becoming a successful “it depends” researcher is to contextualise uncontextualised contexts, embody unembodied embodiments and specify unspecified specificities.

3. It’s complicated. This is similar to “it depends” in that it’s difficult for others to support or refute your claim since you haven’t really made one. Ottoman and Jewish national identities seem straightforward, but that’s only because you don’t know about “complexities of engagement” between them. You might have thought that ordinary clothes were ordinary, but they have a “multiplicity of complex and ambiguous meanings”. “It’s complicated” arguments are pioneering because they involve multiple and complicated factors produced in multiple and complicated historical circumstances that have multiple and complicated meanings.

4. You need to consider A to understand B. Example: “The core claim of this article is that any decolonial knowledge production must involve a consideration of the political economy of knowledge.” Such arguments are an improvement on “it depends” arguments because at least they claim that some relationship exists. The key, though, is to exaggerate the importance of the relationship so that everyone needs to read your article before their scholarship can go any further.

5. “A intersects B.” This is a slightly fancier version of the above. It employs words such as “nexus”, “matrix” and “network”. Consider that the middle-class home lies at the intersection of local and global transformations. Everything is constituted through interactions at multiple scales. Knowledge production, empire and nation-state building projects and governance of populations are interconnected. Three matrices of modernity evolved in response to a matrix of four mutually constitutive discourses – modernity, colonialism, capitalism and nationalism. The key to “A intersects B” arguments is to imply a mathematical relationship between your variables. This might convince unsuspecting readers that you’re not as terrible at mathematics as you actually are.

6. It’s a site for negotiation. The phrase “a site for negotiation” may sound odd to general audiences, but it is music to scholarly ears. It does not connote Camp David or even the Palace of Versailles, of course. Academics use the term metaphorically, as in “language was a painful site of negotiation over representations of children”; or “diaspora space is a site of negotiation over representational practice”. You can also swap out negotiation for other “-ations”, as in claims that schools are sites for racialised subjectification, or that the Middle East became a site for internationally sanctioned experiments in ethnic separation. To become a successful “it’s a site for” researcher, make sure your argument is a site for obfuscation over who did what to whom.

7. Identify a turn. Midway through your career, write an article telling everyone which way your field has turned. The sooner you identify a turn, the more important people will think you are. Your options are manifold. Your turn could be material, digital, cultural, linguistic, normative, discursive, settler-colonial, spatial, maritime, affective, emotional, practical, performative or even academic. If someone has already identified your turn, just reinvent it, as in “the invention and reinvention of the academese turn”.

Zachary J. Foster received his Ph.D in Near Eastern studies from Princeton University in 2017. All examples and quotes above are from real academic papers. 

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