A Response to “Responsible Research Practices,” Part 1: General Reflections

aarA few days ago I wrote a brief post on this site, intended to draw attention to a document that had just been circulated publicly by the American Academy of Religion (our main professional organization in the US), entitled “Responsible Research Practices: A Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct for AAR Members.” (Click here to read it or click here to learn a little more about it and to find the names [posted as a PDF here] of the 10-person committee that drafted it.) Approaching mid-July, and released without much fanfare (at least that I’d heard), it wasn’t entirely clear to me that members of the Academy would necessarily know this draft had been posted, or that their input was being solicited.

So my post was mainly concerned to just help get the word out a little more.

Picture 9I offered a brief critique, sure, but didn’t dwell on any of the details.

Since then I’ve talked privately with two people on the committee, to make my views known to them directly, and so I think my post from the other day now deserves a more sustained and public follow-up.

First off, I should say that I don’t think documents such as this are a bad idea — for e.g., I’ve seen my share of ad hominen reader’s reports that, while providing little evidence the reviewers had read the paper very carefully, offered copious evidence for how much they loathed the author; I’ve also seen editors reject submissions merely because they weren’t “a good fit” with their journal (with no elaboration or argumentation provided to the author — none whatsoever); and I’ve read my share of descriptions of my own work (whether reviews or critiques) in which I failed to recognize the positions attributed to me. Heck, very early in my career I was even dismissively likened to “a dog wagging his tail after having learned a new trick” — in the pages of the AAR’s own journal. So I’m all for a sustained reflection on what it means to be “a responsible researcher.”

After all, much of my own writing career has been concerned with addressing just these sorts of questions, though I’ve articulated a position at odds with many in the field today; for I’ve argued that our responsibility largely rests with the requirements of the profession of which we’re members and not with the expectations or needs of the groups we happen to study. For, to me, our descriptions are deeply self-implicating and, no matter how well-meaning on our part, turn out to be more about us than we might like to think.

So you can likely imagine what I think of a document that advocates for scholars “checking self-interest”….

Let me elaborate: although being persuaded early on by Wayne Proudfoot‘s well-known distinction between descriptive and explanatory reduction (i.e., on the level of description the people we’re studying ought to be able to recognize themselves in our statements about them, but that hardly exhausts what it is we do as scholars), it’s also apparent to me that we only pay attention to, and thus set about to describe, those things about which we are curious (we = scholars who occupy a very particular place in a world of ranked privileges — after all, we’re the ones with the travel grants and the time on our hands that allow to study the things that we find curious); and so, at least to me, it is painfully evident that description isn’t as innocent as many would like to think. For it is, from the get-go, a deeply prescriptive and thus invested, even ideological, exercise, inasmuch as those who are describing things in the world often fail to entertain that items have stood out for them as interesting, i.e., as signified, only because of the interests and expectations that they brought with them — interests and expectations that are not indigenous to the things that we find and read in the archive or the people whom we meet and question in the field.

On various past occasions, when writing or teaching, I’ve cited a passage from Karl Popper‘s 1963 book, Conjectures and Refutations, to drive home this very point:

The belief that science proceeds from observation to theory is still so widely and so firmly held that my denial of it is often met with incredulity. I have even been suspected of being insincere — of denying what nobody in his senses would doubt. But in fact the belief that we can start with pure observation alone, without anything in the nature of a theory is absurd; as may be illustrated by the story of the man who dedicated his life to natural science, wrote down everything he could observe, and bequeathed his priceless collection of observations to the Royal Society to be used as evidence. This story should show us that though beetles may profitably be collected, observations may not.

He continues with a practical example:

Twenty-five years ago I tried to bring home the same point to a group of physics students in Vienna by beginning a lecture with the following instructions: “Take pencil and paper; carefully observe, and write down what you have observed!” They asked, of course, what I wanted them to observe. Clearly the instruction, “Observe!” is absurd. (It is not even idiomatic, unless the object of the transitive verb can be taken as understood.) Observation is always selective. It needs a chosen object, a definite task, an interest, a point of view, a problem. And its description presupposes a descriptive language, with property words; it presupposes similarity and classification, which in its turn presupposes interests, points of view, and problems.

While not every class I teach explores this in the same detail, making students aware of their own role in constituting the world as interesting is something that I try to accomplish in all of my classes and is even a theme in much of my work — making sure students and readers alike gain a sense of the deeply self-implicated nature of what it means to write and talk about other people. While scholars try to talk about the world in rigorous, systematic ways, of course, that talk is therefore always ambiguous, contingent, and self-interested, inasmuch as it is inescapably but one among the many items in that very world; scholarship does not hover over it like some novel’s disembodied, omniscient narrator. Instead, it is inevitably written in our voice, reflecting our interests and satisfying our curiosities — after all, authors are dead and texts are meaningful because of our interpretations, and people in the field do not speak spontaneously on topics our books are about but, rather, we put them into the position of being informants by posing our questions to them.

So, in light of this view of how scholarship works — a few we find all across the human sciences today — advising us, as the draft does, to check self-interest seems to me to be terribly simplistic and thus unhelpful; for, contrary to the model I just presented, it seems to subscribe to what Nietzsche called the myth of the immaculate perception (Thus Spake Zarathustra 2:15), whereby scholars are somehow set apart from what they study and thus able to gaze at it dispassionately — making the draft document surprisingly positivistic despite the fact that its authors would likely disown such a characterization of their work.

From where I sit, then, the question of responsibility — responsible to whom and for what? — is as important as it is nuanced and, often, ambiguous. So seeing the Academy tackle it is heartening, though, as just suggested, the draft document that has resulted is rather disappointing; it strikes me as failing to take into account any of this self-implicating complexity or ambiguity. Instead, readers are told to promote undefined (i.e., merely asserted) qualities, like goodness and fairness, and we find no systematic discussion of the many different (and not always complementary) groups to which the committee members think we, as researchers, owe something. For instance, just what do we, as researchers, owe to the public (and is it applicable to those working in private schools too?) and to publishers or to the people whose books we review in journals? To the colleagues with whom we work and the undergrads in whose classes many of us try out our research before writing it up? And, given it’s long-established big tent approach (with which I happen to disagree, by the way, but leave that aside for the moment), many of the AAR’s members work and do their research within private, religiously affiliated schools: where is the discussion of their particular responsibilities to various hierarchies and theological orthodoxies? Precisely how does needing to sign a statement of belief for employment relate to what the draft terms our “irrevocable commitment to free inquiry”? At least identifying, let alone providing some assistance in navigating, that possible contradiction might be helpful, no?

All of which begs the question of whether the draft document is meant merely to plant some seeds and prompt a discussion (and, if so, then this very post is evidence that it has indeed worked) or, instead, is designed to provide practical guidance for its readers’ careers.

Oddly, at least to me, the document’s prefatory “general reflections” indicate that it is meant to do both:

Picture 10But lacking specificity (i.e., what counts as the good we are to be promoting? And free by whose standards?), I cannot understand how this document, in its current form, is meant to function as a set of guidelines. (Practical example: assuming they weren’t irredeemably evil people but, instead, that the members of the American Psychological Association who we now know assisted the US government with developing so-called harsh or enhanced interrogation techniques likely thought they were doing something good, important, or necessary, how would this document assist us in navigating whose sense of goodness or patriotism trumps whose?) For, given the litigious nature of our society, it is not difficult to imagine such a document being put to use in some future dispute between either colleagues or a researcher and an institution, with accusations of, say, “unfairness” in the air. If this is one possible situation in which its authors intend the statement to be helpful then I think it will be of little use in its current form; for I am unsure how to fairly interpret (something the document advises that we do) the draft’s own advice (or is it a suggestion or an admonition? Perhaps a command?) to be “aware of our distinctive duty to support … ‘disciplined reflection on religion…’.” Does being “aware” mean living up to an obligation or merely recognizing it and then doing whatever? And what might “disciplined” signify? Given the broad tent that is the AAR, it surely can’t mean anything that would exclude one or more its its many (in some cases competing and even contradictory) constituencies. Does it mean rational? Historically based? Perhaps it just means citing evidence — but what of all the things that people say and do constitutes legitimate evidence…?

There’s so many more questions like this that I need answered to make sense of the committee’s draft.

But having worked in higher education for a while, it’s become apparent to me that there are two types of committees: those that meet just for the sake of meeting or to sanction some pre-determined policy, on the one hand, or, on the other, those that have a substantive and open-ended mandate. Investing excessive time and energy in the former is hardly a rational decision for a busy faculty member — sometimes showing up and being seen to show up is all that is required. But if you find yourself on what seems to be the latter sort of group (and, happily, I’ve been on a few such committees), then long term consequences in which you’re interested can result from investing your time and energy in their work.

The trick is in being able to figure out which committee is which.

It seems to me that this document has resulted from both types of committees — its lack of elaboration and unsystematic nature reads like it was written so that we can say that we have such a document, without ever actually using it all that much. However, the opening description of it as offering guidelines that establish professional standards suggests its authors also wish it to have teeth and effect in people’s careers. If the former, then lack of detail is of little relevance (in fact, if the former then we will likely want as little detail as possible); but if the latter (i.e., if this sort of document might be used to adjudicate future professional disputes or to professionalize grad students) then surely its authors have a responsibility to offer systematic specificity instead of just asking us to avoid doing harm and to tell the truth.

So, over the coming weeks I plan to write a series of posts, each of which will tackle one of the draft document’s 13 bullet points; I’m doing this assuming that the committee’s interest in conversation and its solicitation of comments from members is sincere and that its statement of purpose (to provide actual practical guidelines) is indeed the direction in which this document will ultimately go. I may be misjudging things, of course, but I think it wise to err on the side of caution; for if this document does end up having an impact, then I’d hope it could be more systematic and thoroughly elaborated than what the committee has so far offered to members of the Academy.

And if these posts prompt others to pen commentaries of their own, then all the better.

Each post in this series will be indexed here.