Monday, February 1, 2010

The work has been done

Once upon a time, I decided to write a master’s thesis. This was, in fact, entirely optional for my MA program which had recently decided to eliminate the thesis option in favor of a smaller “capstone project,” but never one to take the easy way out I wanted to go for the throat.

I chose for my director one of the most intimidatingly smart and well-read professors in the department. I played around with a couple different ideas for a topic, not wanting to research anyone too overdone to be approachable nor too obscure to be interesting, and finally decided on Thomas More. My director advised that I avoid More’s larger, more famous works like Utopia or his Response to Luther, and pointed me in the direction of his poetry. He recommended that I explore what influence his poetry might have had in the development of the English epigram. Armed with a topic I knew almost nothing about, I set out to begin my research.

Well, actually, first of all I set out to learn Latin for two months in an intensive Latin boot camp in Ireland. Then I returned home to begin my research.

Now, I didn’t exactly know what an epigram was, nor was I aware that Thomas More wrote any. Nor was my university library aware of this fact, for though it housed the definitive Yale edition of the Complete Works of Thomas More, it had neglected to purchase the volume of his Latin poetry. But after procuring a copy, I read the text along with some letters in the appendices, and was ready to begin exploring their influence.

I read the first-century poet Martial to get a feel for the Classical background of the epigram tradition (and discovered among his thousands of epigrams one that More had used as a model!). I read Ben Jonson's epigrams to see what the quintessential English epigram had become (and discovered one that seemed to be based off of one of More’s epigrams!). I read books about the English epigram tradition (because other than Jonson and now More, I had no idea who else might have even written them), and discovered a couple references to translations of More’s epigrams. I read volumes of Renaissance epigrams by obscure epigrammatists. I discovered an entire journal devoted to Thomas More, and read every article it had published about the epigrams in the past thirty or so years. I searched the collections of various rare books libraries for obscure collections of epigrams in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to see what they might have included of Thomas More.

Months later when I had done enough research to get a feel for how gargantuan a topic I had chosen for the thesis and how impossible the task of doing it well really was, my director told me to go ahead and start writing it. “This is not your magnum opus,” he reminded me. “It is not your first book. It is not even your dissertation. Just think of it as a scholarly exercise and begin writing.”

Feeling like an impostor for pretending I could say anything about the topic before I had read every epigram ever written and every scholarly book and article on the topic, I nevertheless wrote the thesis with the mere scraps I had managed to discover. Then I defended it, and despite the hazing I’m told I did well enough. They gave me my degree at any rate.

And now, months later as I prepare to write a talk for a frighteningly prestigious Renaissance conference, I picked up that volume of epigrams I succeeded in getting my university to purchase and read through them again. While flipping through the volume, I happened to notice something for the first time:

The endnotes and appendices.

The former included information like the Classical sources behind each epigram (like Martial). The latter had a chart I had instinctively ignored that listed every time in the sixteenth or seventeenth century More’s epigrams had been reprinted, quoted, translated, or discussed. There were certainly all the sources I had "discovered" in my months of research, and many many many many more. Oops.

My research had already been done for me. Some people can receive the grace to realize that the work has already been done before trying to take on the giant alone with their bare hands. There is a lot of grace in that, I imagine, but I don't seem to be one of those people. At least not this time around.

But even for me, there is another grace to receive as I realize that I had just spent months gathering information that had already been gathered by better, more able scholars. I reflect on my director’s reminder to me that no one had ever expected me to write the definitive work on More’s epigrams. No one had expected me to discover anything, per se. The telos (the end, the goal) of the project had never been the actual thesis: it had been me. Through my intensive research on a topic that had already been done in order to write a thesis that no one would ever need to read, I was becoming a scholar.

I don’t think there is generally a lot of grace among us arrogant academics, so I’ll take it when I can!

1 comment:

Ashleigh B said...

I've been skimming old blog entries of yours and thought it was cool that you mentioned Martial's epigrams, as Jeremiah has been reading them and just blogged about them today! :-)