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"Popular" scholarship or popular "scholarship"?


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#1 Ed Waffle

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Posted 29 August 2009 - 06:28 PM

In a favorable review of “Shakespeare & Co. by Stanley Wells in the “Guardian” , Robert McCrum uses the term “popular scholarship” three times in describing the work and comparing it with two other recent big Shakespeare books “1599” by James Shapiro and “Will of the World” by Steven Greenblatt. Wells is the pre-eminent Shakespeare scholar of the day—general editor of two(!) complete works, author or co-author of several essential works on just about every aspect of Shakespeare studies, chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. When I first picked it up I thought that “Shakespeare & Co.” might be no more than an old academic mining past articles and lectures to cobble together something publishable.

It is a terrific book—Wells writes beautifully with a ready wit and easy turn of phrase. The mantle of learning sits lightly on his shoulders. In the review McCrum’s reference to popular scholarship doesn’t seem denigrating or slighting in the least although I have a feeling it often might be. Is “popular” scholarship, meant for an interested non-academic audience generally thought to be of lesser quality than “real” scholarship? Or is it considered a form of literary journalism--not much of which survives in the United States—popularizing and therefore simplifying the hard work done by academics?

In other words, is it a backhanded compliment, should it be always read with an unwritten but assumed “only” in front of it?

Wondering what the eclectic group of readers here might think.

Guardian review

#2 dirac

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Posted 07 April 2010 - 03:16 PM

Hi, Ed. Sorry for missing this when you first posted it. Popular scholarship isn’t necessarily inferior scholarship, but it’s different in kind and approach and it often stands on the shoulders of work done by academics or professional historians. I’d say the chief difference lies in the target audience. Scholarly articles and books are written primarily for an audience of peers, and in the case of scholarly articles they are subject to peer review. Language is likely to be denser, with references not necessarily accessible to a general readership, and citations lengthier and more rigorous. Works of popular history and biography are often written by reporters or professional writers of fiction and non-fiction who are not necessarily scholars in the field. In the case of “Shakespeare and Co.” it sounds as if you have a scholar writing a book aimed at a general audience, presenting information that is likely already well known to his peers in an entertaining and approachable fashion.

I wouldn’t say that simplification in the bad sense of the word is an inevitable result, although it does happen.

Other thoughts?

#3 papeetepatrick

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Posted 07 April 2010 - 04:04 PM

And there are big encyclopedic compendia such as Bertrand Russell has written. Philosophers often recommend Russell, though quite a major scholar, as a 'philosophy for dummies' thing, when they find people who are trying to learn the grammar and technical terms of philosophy, but have thus far not been successful at it, as when they try to talk to these very learned philosophers. This is one of the nicest examples, as Russell is not disparaged as an amateur.

I've gotten the little I know of Biblical history from Isaac Azimov, although I'm not sure of what his reputation is among historians.

Then there are things like Nancy Mitford's popularized books on Mme. de Pompadour and others. Art historians tend to think these, and various things by Princess Michael of Kent and maybe even Olivier Bernier's Louis XIV books (or rather, I've gathered that they do, even though both give Met lectures, along with Geza Von Habsburg, who I think is thought to be a serious Faberge specialist) less lofty than Leo Steinberg, William Vincent Harris, or Anthony Blunt, but that's natural. They know the basics, and have probably often seen the photos in the beautiful coffee table books in their real-life incarnations. The professionals can be tiresome about this, because although it's normal for them to want to read texts that are more and more specialized, the tendency is unnecessarily snooty sometimes, as if non-philosophers or amateur historians are allowed to ask a question in these fields only for the pleasure the professionals get in mocking them (I've seen a lot of this.)


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