The Ends of Expertise

Tom Bech, Frayed Rope and Wooden Dock,CC-BY-2.0.


The Ends of Expertise

In the text of a recent a talk that Bethany Nowviskie gave for the Digital Library Federation, she offers a powerful argument for the importance of the contemporary critical thinking about the notion of "expertise." She uses the phrase, "the ends of expertise," in two punnish senses, that is, "the point of expertise" as well as "the demise of expertise."

The balance between generalist knowledge, which might seem easiest to connect with the "broad picture," and highly-specialized knowledge, which is often about devoting such large amounts of time and brain power to one thing that other types of knowledge recede into the background, is indeed to me a crucial conversation of the moment. Not least because the notion of the PhD as an incredibly specific type of textual production that focuses so often on the tiniest of sub-subdisciplines, is currently under reconsideration in some circles. Nowviskie makes the wonderful point that graduate education is about the student's growing ability to demonstrate capable humanities scholarship.

But what does "capable humanities scholarship" look like for the mid-twenty-first century, and how do we train our students to become this type of scholar when we, as advisors, may not have had this type of training ourselves?

For me, it is a moral imperative (as Nowviskie also discusses) to be capable of carrying on a larger supra-disciplinary conversation while also claiming membership in one particular discipline. That is to say, there can be no supra/inter/transdisciplinary conversation without the disciplines. If there is no "me," there can be no "us." But even still, as we train our students to become members not just of our discipline, but of a sub-discipline within a discipline, we ask them to bend their minds to the almost (but not quite) entirely overwhelming task of "catching up" on decades upon decades of disciplinary knowledge to become members of that community.

I watch their eyes glaze over sometimes when I mention a larger conversation, say, about digital methods. "I have to engage with that TOO? I don't even know my own subject expertise yet..." This is what they seem to say with their faces.

"Resisting the isolation of extreme specialization," as Nowviskie puts it, seems a critical endeavor for the humanities at the moment. But how do we open the door for the next generation to participate in this larger conversation—and here's the crux: preferably sooner rather than later? Do they first need to do the hazing that is disciplinary "content overload" that all that the past generations of PhD-wielding academics have done?

In order to talk intelligently about the general, do they first have to develop contempt for their own expertise?

What would graduate education have to do to allow young scholars to be able to take part in larger conversations while also developing the healthy underpinnings of a useful specialization? I might argue that to do this they do need to push a feeling of "knowledge overwhelm" to its very limits. By undertaking research in both general and specialized subjects throughout a graduate education the utility of vascillating between the broader supradisciplinary issues and the more specific disciplinary issues will not only be shown to them, it might also have the effect of changing humanist practices for us all, now. The current crop of graduate educators will need to staff these classes, and to do so they will need to experiment with what it means to teach "about the broader picture beyond our discipline," as this is something, I dare say, few of us were taught to do as students. There is a conversation afoot that could only be made better by more participation by diverse individuals.

Will this result in less time devoted to sub-sub-disciplinary expertise by modern-day graduate students? In this day and age of pressure to reduce "TTD," yes. It will.

But, is this what "capable humanities scholarship" looks like anymore? Isn't there time after completing a PhD to continue learning about sub-sub-disciplinary knowledge while maintaining a conversation with others doing the same? When we are done graduate school, are we done learning?

In this way, it seems to me, I may be arguing for something akin to  a "more-tightly-focused, advanced liberal arts education" at the graduate level. I'm not entirely sure that is what I mean, and I encourage any and all comments that might help clarify this point. After all, we do need to balance generalist and expert knowledge, not erase the experts. However, I do know that by imagining that bestowing another PhD means winding-up a new mechanical academic, all freshly pre-loaded with "all of the information necessary to become a specialist," does not seem like a useful metaphor any longer.

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Thanks for writing this. It's

Thanks for writing this. It's a thoughtful meditation on a question that we all need to think about. You're absolutely correct that learning does not end after the dissertation is finished. While you posit that as a way a path to continuing one's research of a sub-sub discipline. And while that is absolutely true, I guess I want to ask if might not make more sense to flip the equation. I get somewhat nervous with the trend afoot in the humanities that seems to see "capable humanities scholarship" as always taking place on the "supra-disciplinary" level. This is seen in the privileging of all things "comparative." But comparative studies are really hard to do. I guess I’m wondering, if challenging and innovative “supra-disciplinary” scholarship is the goal, is the dissertation really the best (or even a realistic) venue for that kind of scholarship?


One trend that has me worried is what I see as downward pressure that is thrusting onto ever younger scholars unrealistic expectations that they come out of a PhD program producing the sort of work that only a generation ago would have been the purview of only a small percentage of the most elite scholars. The early work of scholars like Michael Baxandall, Svetlana Alpers, or TJ Clark (we’ll just stick with Berkeley for simplicity’s sake) were incredibly focused. The same is true of many of the most eminent historians, like Peter Burke and Peter Brown or social historians like Immanuel Wallerstein. They all took time to develop a deep reservoir of competency and knowledge before they began venturing out into anything resembling “supra-disciplinary” (or even “supra-sub-disciplinary”) inquiry.


So it seems to me there are two problems. The first is that producing that kind of scholarship takes time, and we need to be patient and accepting of the fact that it is really hard to take a view from 30,000 feet when you’re only, say, 30 years old and fresh out of grad school. That is as true of one’s scholarship as it is of his/her own life. But secondly, I also worry that we are generally holding young scholars to unrealistic expectation. Perhaps it is just my perception of the situation, but I often feel like much of what is bantered about when describing “the dissertation of the future” is based on models of scholarship provided by the absolutely most elite scholars, with little allowance to the fact that these models scholars are the kind of minds that come along once or twice in a generation. And they may produce paradigm-shifting work. But is it fair to hold grad students to (even a watered down version of) that standard?


I think that this contributes to grad student’s overwhelming sense of anxiety, which you’ve elegantly outlined here. But I see it not just a question about data management/digital methods, but also the sense that young scholars are now being asked to grow up too quickly, as it were. David Summers didn’t write Real Spaces as his first book. No, it was a book he could conceive of tackling only after a lifetime of scholarship and specialization. Can we ever expect a newly-minted PhD to produce something like that?


Now I’ll stop my meandering comments. Thanks for starting the conversation.  

Chris, Check out my reply,

Chris, Check out my reply, now that I know how to use the reply function!

Yes, I hear this. And, I also

Yes, I hear this. And, I also acknowledge, as someone who got their PhD at the beginning of this millennium, I've had a little over a decade to pick up an entire different degree and set of skills. What I do now, I would not have been able to accomplish when I first graduated with my doctorate--but, that said, I had absolutely no proactive, practical training at PhD-school in digital methods.

Transpose this to our conversation about supra-disciplinary work and what do I see? I see that the very idea of this type of work is something that could be better normalized in graduate education. And moves in this direction we see all around us here at Pitt.

All this, keeping in mind that there can be no supra-disciplines without the disciplines. What the new balance might be...that's for us to decide, I hope!

I'll weigh in here because

I'll weigh in here because this discussion is precisely about what the constellations are supposed to do and how they are to strike the balance both of you are talking about.  

I take your point Chris that no one can expect a recently minted PhD to write Real Spaces or Limewood Sculptors.  In fact, as you point out, the vast majority of art historians will never write books as amazing as these.

However, I don't see a hard and fast divide between sub-sub disciplinary work and supradisciplinary work, or to put it more simply, between generalist work and specialist work.  The problem with over-specialization is that we get too caught up in the insular concerns of the specialty and lose sight of what matters more broadly in the discipline and in humanistic inquiry.  Thinking like a generalist does not have to mean doing comparitive work or mastering ever more domains of knowledge.  All it really has to mean is asking a new question or not taking an assumption for granted.  Agency is a supradisciplinary framework, but that doesn't mean that now we have to master everything ever written on agency; it gives us a new way to focus on objects and pose different questions.  In fact I find that the supradisciplinary works that change my thinking tend to be few and far between.  Sometime it takes only one book or one essay to change your frame of reference entirely.

I was just re-reading Panofsky's epilogue to Meaning in the Visual Arts, an essay in which he compared graduate education in the U.S. to that in Germany.  He wrote (in the mid-1950s) that in German universities "the aim of the academic process as such is to impart to the student, not a maximum of knowledge but a maximum of adaptability -- not so much to teach him subject matter as to teach him method."  "Not a maximum of knowledge but a maximum of adaptability": this could be the slogan for the new information age.  In the end I don't see a conflct between generalist and specialist knowledge.  Good specialist work is informed by questions that matter to a generalist, and by methods that take into account the undeniable fact that my small corner of expertise is not the center of the universe.  I am reading about ghosts in Vietnam not because I intend to do a comparitive study of death across the U.S. and Southeast Asia but because learning about the dead in a drastically different culture forces me to rethink entrenched assumptions about commemoration in my own pocket of the world; it forces me to adapt.

We do have to continue learning, both as a generalist and a specialist, after graduate school, and forever.  When I came out of graduate school I knew a lot less about American history, for example, than I do now.  I thought I knew how to do research but I had barely scratched the surface -- had no clue how (or even why) to use court records or land records or census records.  The time investment in accessing and learning them was overwhelming.  Now in the digital age they are here in front of me and I have had to figure them out.  And so now I'm a genealogist....who knew?  I am much more aware than I ever was of all the questions I will never be able to answer, no matter how much I dig into the archives.  Fortunately, though, the demands of generalization keep me from dropping down these rabbit holes for good and never reemerging.

Ultimately I see it this way: if we don't adapt and bring our cherished specializations into a larger conversation, our work will suffer, our audience will disappear, and ultimately our whole discipline will wither.  I don't even see this as a choice situation any more.  If we don't find the larger conversations, we won't stay in business.

The maxim, "Not a maximum of

The maxim, "Not a maximum of knowledge but a maximum of adaptability," perhaps needs a poster in the VMW. From Panofsky, even...

Graduate students are still likely to be overwhelmed, as I mentioned in the original post, because they can only but be confused about what they might need to adapt to. The larger picture needs to be sketched somehow, and a safe space to practice the adaptations...

Yes. That is a truly great

Yes. That is a truly great saying. 

Kirk, I guess I wasn't thinking so much about us. Constellations is fantastic precisley because it gives us a way to creat scholars that have T shaped knowledge (drilling down into their field while still keeping an eye at broader landscape in the humanities to know where their works fits into it). Hopefully as we - and some others - model that approach, it will become more prevalent. I was speaking more about a general mis-alignment that I see between the vast majority of grad programs and the talk about where the humanities are headed. Ultimately it's the problem of scale - the one-and-the-many. In the aggregate it is very clear where the humanities are headed. It is just that it is very difficult for each individual (young) scholar to muscle the intellectual formation s/he needs from a system that was designed to produce scholars with a slightly different profile. Again, I think we're the exception. 

On a somewhat related note,

On a somewhat related note, it is at least heartening to see that the NEH is coming up with a plan to help get scholars out of their silos. The Public Scholar Program that they just announced ( is aimed at producing precisely the sort of scholarship we're talking about here. I'm hoping it will be a huge success. 

Thanks for the link!  The

Thanks for the link!  The program looks interesting.