My current work on university history is about trying to use the study of academic practices to rethink narratives of discipline-formation and professionalization. I’m mainly concerned with the humanities and social sciences, using models drawn from the history of science (Lorraine Daston, Steven Shapin) to think about the emergent field of the history of humanities. I’m trying to do this in two particular contexts:
The first is about the early history of the PhD in the UK following its establishment towards the end of the First World War.
What I’m trying to do here is to use the early history of the PhD in the UK to investigate the shaping of the academic profession. What were the scholarly/scientific virtues that were esteemed by PhD examiners? What value was attached to thoroughness, originality, definitiveness, objectivity, literary style etc? How were they assimilated by students? There’s lots of unexplored material here in examiners’ reports, student files, academics’ correspondence with students and former students. But how can historians use this material productively? There’s some important work in the history of science by Lorraine Daston and others on the ‘epistemic virtues’, i.e. ‘moral attributes of the people who are recognized as makers of knowledge’, and currently this is the principal framework I’m using. How far were the scholarly virtues in the humanities the same as those prized by scientists? This has the potential to provide a new way of tackling the question of what the epistemic status was attached to research in the humanities.
The second project is on the early history of the British Academy (founded 1902).
Here I’m more explicitly interested in questions of academic distinction – what were the particular kinds of epistemic virtues that marked someone out as eligible for a national academy. But I’m also interested in the arguments about defining the role of the Academy. Was it primarily about recognizing distinction, or was it also about the promotion of collaborative projects? Proponents of the former view argued for keeping the Academy small, whereas those who took the latter view thought it required a more numerous fellowship. Here we see, in microcosm, one of the big arguments that divided scholars in the humanities: how far did they have the potential to progress on the model of the natural sciences, through ever-increasing specialization?
I’ll write more here about both projects as they develop. The broad aim of these two projects is to contribute to the emergent field of the history of the humanities, conceived as an integral part of the history of forms of knowledge. This field has a particular resonance at a time when a supposed ‘crisis of the humanities’ is being debated internationally. I’m trying to think historically about how the category of ‘the humanities’ came into being, and how boundaries between different groups of disciplines have been defined.