Challenging Scholarship

Lizzie Howell pic copy

 

by Lizzie Howell 15C
Managing Editor, The Emory Wheel

 

One of my least favorite assignments in history courses is the book review (sorry, professors!).

It’s a typical assignment — you select a book, read it, and write a short paper critically assessing its argument and position compared to other works.

It’s not the hundreds of pages of reading that deters me. It’s the critical analysis of the book, which, unfortunately for me, is arguably the most important part of the assignment. When I had to write my first book review in preparation for my thesis, a little over a year ago, I was shocked at this portion of the assignment. First, how could someone with a PhD publish a book that did not have a sound argument? Second, how was I — an undergraduate student — going to identify its potential shortcomings?

In hindsight, perhaps my concerns were unwarranted. I came to realize that critiquing a book did not mean I had to find fault with it. Also, the books I read were well established in the field I chose to study; their arguments had few holes for me to find. However, since beginning research for my thesis, I have learned that this is not always the case. Scholars often disagree with one another, and their arguments can be controversial, if not suspect. But, most importantly, I now know that I am allowed to disagree with them.

For much of my history education, studying meant diligently pouring over the assigned books and committing their content to memory; there was no discussion of whether that content was correct. For this reason, critiquing such books was daunting — and a little outside of my comfort zone.

But the process was only beginning. Over the past year, professors have continuously asked me how my thesis is different from the existing scholarship. At times, it still feels unnatural to talk as if my project is actually in a conversation with the works that have defined my area of study.

Prior to writing a thesis, I associated scholarship with the bookish academic, isolated and safe in the ivory tower of the university. The road that has led to my thesis, however, has often felt a bit risky. From traveling abroad to Vienna, where I discovered an interest in my topic, to reading primary and secondary sources in German, I have encountered new problems and situations that have shaped me as a student.

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My time at the Fox Center has undoubtedly contributed to my personal intellectual growth. I have continued to be challenged as one of few undergraduate students engaging in conversation with graduate students and professors at the Faculty Response Forum. I have also gained a sense of belonging to a community of scholars, even if everyone is consumed with their own projects most of the time.

The Fox Center is a sanctuary of sorts. As an undergraduate fellow, I have access to a quiet space to work — complete with coffee, printing, and space to store my books — at all hours of the day and night. However, in addition to these material amenities, the center had provided me with something less tangible — the opportunity to continue to find my own scholarly voice.

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