What is all this methodology business anyway?

[Backstory: also written for my students, whose task over the semester was to witness a series of lectures from various academics on their research, and think hard about differences in methodology, or even epistemology, over the disciplines. A surprisingly boring task, and a difficult one. A particularly interesting discussion arose over a lecture on the psychology of racism, and the epistemological place of such research within the university. the following was the essay prompt for their reflection essay.]

Well, in trying to come up with a plan for what would be useful to discuss about the lecture we saw on Monday, one thing that struck me immediately is that the lecture was highly methodological as it were. Ms. O’Brien managed to discuss five separate studies, five, still get across her point, and displayed a broad range of methods of attack. (I didn’t know in all consciousness that social psychologists looked at archives like that, running the numbers on op-eds from the 90s, etc.; an interesting idea, especially since people frequently do journalistical-prose think-pieces about this sort of thing, to great eclat and a check made out to them–an interestingly different mode of operation.)

I’ve been feeling both guilt and pleasure that our discussions tend to slip in and out of methodology or epistemology as such, and seek out broader questions, asking about, say for instance, the truth and success and even goodness of an approach. Of course, in strict terms, speaking as one trained in the language of philosophy, examining the epistemology of an approach would very much hold its feet to the fire, and demand and judge and even hate on a method’s success or failure…

But such, I’m learning, is not how academia at large views the term: I was at a conference this weekend in Massachusetts, held for all teachers of what we call Freshmen Honors Seminar at our university, teachers of this across the globe. It was quite unexpected, and mostly pleasant, I think, to find myself in the middle of a strange forest of people who were manifestly my people: people who know what it’s like, have similar stories and tales, who have a commitment even, to the notion that it’s just really, really good for the entering undergraduate to read great books and talk about them, no matter what messy conversations this entails. But one thing I noticed (hanging out surreptitiously at a wrap-up for a curriculum development workshop held by Yale and Columbia, those places that are the envy of all) was that people were using “methodology” in a highly specific yet quite different way from what I’ve become accustomed to.

It seemed, in fact, that they had all agreed (Kripkean notion of language, anyone?) beforehand that the word meant something, within the context of the university. In fact, I think it’s been used this way in front of me at recent meetings, but it’s only now that I’m really getting the difference between what I think of the term as, and what people within the structure of the au courant university (and those structured by it) manifestly take it to mean.

A long build-up for one who is eager, as a character in Plato’s dialogues says. Ok, here’s what I think the difference is: while in philosophy, epistemology is a manifest charge to hold a method accountable for its strengths and weaknesses, in the current university, it means a way of politely, respectfully, and above all gently speaking of the deep, deep differences between each academic discipline. Political Science and Political Economy and Economics proper each have their own methodology and mode of research; likewise, for that matter, while Psychology, English, and Philosophy all have their way of talking about why a person does the things they do, the difference, perhaps, lies in their methodology, right? As we saw, folks who do Creative Writing speak of their own research, and certainly have their own methodology; even though they speak of getting lucky in much the same way the research-on-lasers chemist did.

So the word is employed to speak to the differences, sure: But, and this is the crucial BUT, without allowing one’s self to praise or blame (hate on) the weaknesses of each publicly, because to do so is to enter into what appears to be a vortex of unanswerable debate. The English fellow really thinks that you learn more about people from reading Bronte’s Villette or, I don’t know, DH Lawrence, than your average middling psychologist or for that matter philosopher would ascribe to. And I can tell you, your average philosophy professor holds Bronte and Lawrence in a higher mode of contempt than you might be comfortable with. Such a vortex is, in ordinary circumstances, not desirable, because adults find it interferes with their need to run the university peacefully together, in their various committees and offices–and this is a real concern, since we do very much need to maintain this peaceful detente.

To speak of “a different methodology” is our polite academic way of saying, you have your truth and I have mine; you can think you’re gaining insight in your way, and I’ll continue gaining real insight in mine. It’s our way of comparing disciplines with non-value-judgment-ing eyes. This is, I think, what it means: methodology is epistemology without the judgment; that is, without the sticky questions of truth, success, and goodness. (Controversial? Ok, good. That’s actually my job!)

At the conference, I sat next to a fellow who is trying to get a freshmen seminar started in a small college in Germany (I think the vote was yesterday); he expressed the desire/worry that great books courses often have a hard time allowing for, pointing out, and allowing to grow, the different methodological approaches to each text. One and the same text may invite literary analysis, provoke psychological comment, allow for philosophical insight, and ask us to consider the nature of scientific knowing itself. That’s why it’s supposed to be Great, as in terrifying. But each professional not only knows their own method to exclusion, and rightfully considers it secretly the best (after all, this is the only self-respecting reason to pick a discipline); they are wary to the point of dismissive with the rest of the pack. The problem takes on a vividness when we attempt to converse in something other than a meeting or even a conference; that is, in the most freakish and train-wreck-ish-ly captivating of classes, the no-holds-barred discussion seminar; different only from our own in that we lack a text–other than the academy itself.

So, I completely agree with my german colleague: we need to have more of a plan for comparing methodological approaches and insights, even in the very moment we’re actively trying to be interdisciplinary–a word which so often means that methodology, such as it is, may slink off out the window. Again, with guilt and some slight curmudgeon-ous pleasure, I note that this is something I’ve been slow to work at over time, to find ways to connect the methodological interests of students with these remarkable texts: to allow for difference in interest, temperament, and the basic fact that most people will choose, and have already chosen, disciplines different from mine.

(I’ll note that most colleges and universities who offer a freshman seminar have this basic problem: not that people don’t think it’s good, or would help, but that they can hardly find anyone willing to teach it. The most unwilling tend to be humanities professors: they’re unwilling to teach outside of their specialty, and they’re strongly concerned that people from other areas will be doing their text wrong. This very much applies to our own university.) (Likewise, what we miss amid the gentle use of methodology, is perhaps some sense of the delicate-razor collection of radically different skills that would constitute liberal arts… but even to hint of such at a research university is perhaps digression enough.)

So, this semester, willing or no, we’ve delved into epistemology or methodology. (And this is what everyone has said, that they wanted more of…) The research we’ve witnessed is largely scientific in temperament and character, but even among the so-called hard and soft sciences, we’ve witnessed interesting patterns and divisions, even to the extent of benign contempt. And without any necessity for maintaining peace, I’ll say that I’ve learned from all these interesting human beings prosecuting their favorite mode of operation–well, kind of a lot. So here’s your prompt, as you say, for your writing this week: we saw a lecture that discussed a controversial topic in almost a somnolently uncontroversial manner. This is a either a methodological achievement, a weird methodological lacuna, or maybe (bear with me) a kind of failure. As with everything, I ask, What does it mean that many people get paid money for this kind of research? This research ostensibly sets out to help save/change the World. How is such research both a good and bad way to do this? What research or method might do it better? What kinds of human activities that are not research, might also help, or not help, or even do it better? Judge! because presumably, the fate of all our projects depends on it.

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