From the Letters to the Editor column of the January 2008 issue of Perspectives on History
Letters to the Editor: More on the "P" Word
John C. Burnham, January 2008
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To the Editor:
In the October issue of Perspectives Caroline Walker Bynum writes to denounce "The P Word"—"project." She asks that we view historians' work in terms of "scholarship," not "projects." "Projects" in her extensive academic experience suggest bureaucratic motions through which one must go. I think we can all sympathize with Bynum's aspiration for historians to be intellectuals, not technicians, so that our endeavors and thinking are not "arbitrarily divided into finite hunks."
Ironically, however, one major way in which the idea of scholarly projects entered academia was precisely in an attempt to break down barriers to creative and expansive thinking. In 2003 Dorothy Ross portrayed disciplinary formation as an arbitrary process that indeed was best described as a "project." "Project," she wrote (in "Changing Contours of the Social Science Disciplines," in The Cambridge History of Science, Volume 7, The Modern Social Sciences), permits us to locate disciplinary boundaries "within the contingencies of history." Ross, of course, was portraying the organization of disciplines as attempts to organize ways of approaching nature and society in a useful and intellectually coherent way. Her use of the term was to denote a group effort to establish communication and set standards, not the constraining restriction to which Bynum objects.
"Project" did in fact come out of the group efforts of scientists to carry out research so urgent in World War II that disciplinary boundaries had to be breached. The tactic the scientific leaders used was to assemble a team to work toward a particular goal. In that team effort, as sociologists found, disciplinary identities became fluid, if not irrelevant. A person trained as a chemist might end up doing mathematics. Or a theoretical physicist would find himself or herself doing engineering. What united them all was the "project," as, for example, in the Manhattan Project.
After the war, as scientists came out of this experience and applied for funding, the format used for proposals submitted for peer review was cast in familiar terms of a project. And so thinking in terms of "projects" became universal in academia, even outside of the sciences. A project allowed an applicant to show how a person could be creative and go beyond the conventionalities of the day—exactly the kind of thinking that Bynum is advocating.
All academics can and should reflect on the ways in which they can explore their "projects" in a disciplined way and still be interacting intensely with the rich worlds of scholarship.
—John C. Burnham
Ohio State University