Friday, August 6, 2010

On being a hedgehog

This is written in response to Notorious, PhD's recent series on being a scholarly fox vs. hedgehog, at Notorious's suggestion, in fact. Those posts elicited numerous comments on the joys of fox-ness, and she thought perhaps I might be better placed to offer a defense, or praise, of the hedgehog. On reflection, I'm not sure if this adds up to either defense or praise, but I can talk about what being a hedgehog feels like to me.

My scholarly interests focus on certain key themes. I'm interested in women, religion, and community, and in a particular region, at that. That is, I'm interested in how religious women formed communities; how religious women engaged with the surrounding community; and how community norms shaped women's religious experiences. My research started with a particular cache of documents, all related to a single institution.

From that starting point, my research has pushed outward in different directions. I have looked at institutions of different religious orders and in different cities, and have looked at both vowed nuns and lay women. One paper took me into the heady specialty of liturgiology; I'm now attempting to explore the roles of lay servants at monasteries. In general, interesting sources have led me in these varying directions, and each has required me to get familiar with different scholarship and resources.

I still consider myself a hedgehog, however, because all the various papers and small projects I've pursued stem from the same coherent core of interests. I keep a running list of research questions I'd like to pursue at some point, which currently fills a whole page, single-spaced, and all fit into the same core interests of women, religion, and community (and for the most part, stick to the same region). I don't feel constrained or pressured to stay in my patch, as some of the fox commenters seem to; these are the questions that come to me naturally, and they could occupy me for years to come.

I think my job at a small liberal arts college suits my hedgehogging, in a couple of ways.

1) As I am the only medievalist, I must teach widely (in fact, I teach early modern history as well), so I get opportunities to exercise broader interests in my teaching. I taught a seminar involving persecution and the inquisition, for example, which I love to teach, but have no interest in researching.

2) My college has limited research expectations for tenure. Since our teaching load is intense, I call this sane, although I think some of my fellow young faculty see it as a failure of ambition. Perhaps, but to me it also indicates that I have freedom to work on what I like, without having to publish it in Sufficiently Impressive Venues.

As I said in a comment at Dr. N's, I am still early in my career. My first book is still a work in progress, and there may come a day when I wake up and decided I have nothing more to say about religious women and community. Perhaps on that day I will become a fox.

But I think my final note is that the fox-hedgehog binary, like so many others, is ultimately a matter of perspective. I commented to Notorious that I think of my advisor as a fox (er... in this scholarly-metaphorical sense), while she thinks of him as a hedgehog. I don't want to make too much of this perceived divide, therefore; surely the reality is a spectrum of interests and approaches which varies for each individual.


feMOMhist said...

I think you are spot on about institutional context. At TTLAC foxiness would be perceived as fickleness, whereas hedgehogishness provides a sort of coherence that is comprehensible for those outside my discipline. It also provides me with a well needed sense of purpose in a life that all too often feels scattered. That said, the thread that connects my scholarly and teaching interests in not a clearcut as yours, so perhaps I am really some sort of chimeric hedgfox/foxhog!

Ann said...

Ditto what feMOMhist said about institutional and/or individual context, although I can think of a lot of large research unis that may reward foxes but where it's probably safer to be a hedgehog.

Your comments about perspective in general are perceptive. I wonder if there are a lot of us who see ourselves as foxes when others see us as hedgehogs. There's something to be said for embracing your hedgehog-dom!

Your new work on lay sisters sounds fascinating. I'm researching an Ursuline monastery now, and find that there's little if anything published on the "soeurs converses." If you feel comfortable letting me know your identity, e-mail me as I'd love to see what you have published.

Belle said...

I so get it. My years as a hedgehog wannabe were thwarted by my inability to focus, and my sincere desire to focus on something as you do on your topic(s). I still have that desire - still regard hedgehogs as the 'real' scholars. Go you!

physioprof said...

You're not a hedgehog! You're a fox in a hedgehog costume!

clio's disciple said...

Thanks, all! Ann, I will send you a line...