All Scholarship Is Autobiographical

Almost two years ago I wrote a post about the intertwining of literature and culture. I started composing this post at the same time, but I never published it. I’ve gone back to it over the past few years, revising and reconsidering it. Finally, it’s time for me to publish this.

I want to explore an assumption that I’ve lived with for several years: All scholarship is autobiographical.

In the preface to her book Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network (Princeton, 2015), Caroline Levine poses a sort of confessional reflection on criticism and experience. She writes about how her “father was a liberal humanist and a historian of ideas” (ix) and how that affected her own views. Levine deftly expressed how her work on literary theory developed out of her life experiences. More recently, Averil Cameron gave a lecture for the Women’s Classical Committee about her experiences in academia, titled “Starting out in the 1960s, working class and female.” Toward the start of her lecture, Cameron suggested, “I believe profoundly that at least for a historian, a person’s own history and experience have an enormously important role in how they approach their subject, and in what subjects they are drawn to.”

I think that both Levine and Cameron would agree: All scholarship is autobiographical.

I’m sure there are plenty of others who can agree with this, too. I encounter hints of it regularly, in academic writing and in conversations with other scholars. Our lives crash in on our academic work in curious ways.

My own belief in this idea began to solidify while working on my dissertation prospectus. It hit me hardest during a meeting with one of my committee members, Sherri Olson, an incomparable mentor who taught me everything I know about historiography. Sherri pushed me to think about why I was interested in my topic–not only in an academic sense but also for my personal stake.

Why was I so interested in thinking about apocrypha and preaching in Anglo-Saxon England? Why this and not other more popular or more seemingly “literary” topics in Anglo-Saxon studies, like Old English poetry? What had drawn me to these preaching texts that were so often overlooked and marginalized in our field? What could I bring to apocrypha and sermons to craft an argument that would appeal to others?

The story of my dissertation, now revised into my first book, began in the first semester of my master’s degree. That semester, I took my first class on Old English with Tom Jambeck. While I began to read and love Anglo-Saxon literature in high school, Tom provided my first formal exposure to learning the language. I wrote a seminar paper about the relationships between some of the laws and homilies of Wulfstan, Archbishop of York (d.1023). I had read and enjoyed Wulfstan’s famous Sermo Lupi before, but with that project I my fascination with Anglo-Saxon preaching emerged.

In the last semester of my master’s degree, I took a class with Bob Hasenfratz on the Vercelli Book, an Anglo-Saxon collection of Old English poetry and sermons. As I read the Vercelli Book contents, I was delighted to see so many influences from apocrypha. I began to formulate some of my own approaches to these extra-biblical works in that course, and my seminar paper eventually led to one of my first publications.

Some scholars have vilified apocryphal stories as “unorthodox” or “heterodox,” often relegating them to the margins in modern scholarship. Through my PhD coursework and exams, I continued to find evidence that they were a major part of medieval Christianity, especially in tenth- and eleventh-century England. And in this I found diversity in beliefs and practices.

I began to focus on this diversity and influences of apocrypha in Anglo-Saxon England. Fortunately, I found a mentor in Fred Biggs, who had worked on the topic extensively, and he became one of my dissertation directors. As I explored the topic and we talked, I realized that this was my main research interest.

But part of my research that was autobiographical didn’t really start in graduate school. It was a more fundamental part of my life. I hadn’t considered its significance, though, until Sherri prompted me. I had to dig into my own autobiography to realize it.

Whle I was growing up, my father was a church pastor. He was a minister in the Wesleyan Church (an offshoot from Methodist traditions) through most of my childhood–until I was in high school, when he became a prison clergy. During my formative years, I went to church and heard him preach every week. On the Sundays when my father didn’t preach, I likely heard a sermon from someone else. Sermons were a natural part of my life.

So was Christian belief. As might be apparent, I was raised as a Protestant, evangelical Christian. I attended Sunday school, Bible studies, different types of vacation Bible school, youth camps, and other events. When I was old enough, I spent a lot of time reading, thinking about, and talking to my father about the Bible and theology.

Many of my perspectives shifted during my undergraduate education at a small, liberal arts, Christian college, and in graduate school at a public research university. I found myself increasingly disagreeing with and frustrated by evangelical Christians, particularly those who identify as conservative fundamentalists.

I became more open to accepting a variety of traditions in my own beliefs and practices. I learned about other traditions within Christianity and world religions. While growing up, I had met and knew other types of Christians (mainline Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox, I’m sure others) and people from different faith traditions (Jews, Mormons, agnostics). But most of the people I knew, and most of my immediate friends, were evangelical Christians. I hadn’t explored the diversity of Christian beliefs and practices on my own.

Some of my best experiences during my undergraduate years were when I explored other religious traditions. I met people who practiced other religions. I met people who were not part of evangelical Christianity. I became active in a group where we read, invited guest speakers, and debated issues from an array of different viewpoints. One of my fondest memories is of hanging out with a group of Franciscan friars who taught me about the fundamentals of Catholic monasticism (“poverty, chastity, and obedience”) with a phrase that I now use: “No money, no honey, and a boss.” Over the years, I became more interested in exploring the multivalences of Christianity throughout Western history.

Once I stopped to reflect on my work as autobiographical, connections to my father as a minister and my desires to embrace Christian diversity became obvious. I was able to see parallels between my work on the historical past and my own present.

All scholarship is autobiographical.

In my previous post about literature and culture, I wrote about similar ideas, though not with as much overtly personal narrative. I did consider “how we reflect our own culture onto our readings” with these thoughts:

Bias. Perspective. Identity. Theory. We all have our own agendas when reading and analyzing. We read, interpret, write, and analyze through different lenses. We use glasses of various tints. And, in many ways, using these glasses is often necessary, sometimes justified, and even honest to who we are. Part of academic work means reflecting on, acknowledging, and challenging our own personal assumptions and biases. Sometimes we (and our students) view bias as negative, although it’s not; it’s part of being. I’m skeptical that we ever can (or should) wholly discard our own biases and, in many ways, our identities, as we learn to analyze somewhat more objectively.

All scholarship is autobiographical.

In her preface, Levine discusses the relationship between studying the past and relating it to the present. She warns about presentism but also considers the need to put past and present into conversation with each other. She suggests, “none of our research matters unless it is generalizable, unless we can learn something from it that has implications beyond its own time” (xii). The same could be said for the experiences that lead us to our scholarly interests.

When I considered connections between my life experiences and scholarly interests as a PhD candidate, I was reminded of a book I had read in one of Sherri’s historiography courses, James Simpson’s Burning to Read: English Fundamentalism and Its Reformation Opponents. In his book on early modern Christianity, Simpson explores the roots of evangelical fundamentalism in the English Protestant Reformation. His polemic is clear, as he traces a line from early modern to contemporary debates about Christian beliefs and practices.

Making this connection, I realized how polemical my own work is at its heart. While I don’t think I’ve overtly expressed this in my scholarship, one of my main drives is to expose the diversity of Christianity over the centuries. The use of apocrypha is a major part of that multivalence. Christian apocrypha demonstrate that different Christians have believed that there are other ways of telling the story, or that there are other stories to tell. People have had different, even competing, ideas about Jesus and his followers, and what that means for living out Christian beliefs and practices. Apocrypha challenge normative history as it’s been told.

In the decades that saw the emergence of Christianity, there were a lot of debates about what that meant (just read the biblical Acts of the Apostles). In the patristic period, people constantly differed–that’s why so many councils were needed to find common ground. A Christian didn’t have to be heretical or unorthodox to contribute to the diversity of beliefs and practices. These trends continued for the next few thousands years: through the medieval period, when Roman Catholics split with Eastern Orthodox believers and then often followed local customs rather than purely universal trends; through the early modern Protestant Reformation, when Catholics called for reform, which led to further denominations within both Catholicism and Protestantism; through the sectarianism of the eighteenth to twentieth centuries; and through to our own time, which is arguably the most multifaceted period for Christianity.

Christianity has never been monolithic. I want that to be clear in my scholarship. It’s certainly been true in my life experiences.

Part of the autobiographical drive in my scholarship is selfish and deeply personal. It’s related to my anxieties about being a Christian in academia, especially since I study the history of Christianity. I don’t want people to make assumptions about me based on what they know about conservative American evangelicalism. I’d rather people see my Christianity within the framework of diversity.

Part of this drive is to open up history against popular misconceptions about Christianity. I see misunderstandings of historical Christianity (and religion more generally) from various groups: conservative evangelicals who reject whole swaths of Christian tradition; those who see Christianity only as a host for violent ideologies; those who read their own modern biases onto the past; those who appropriate Christianity to justify misogyny, racism, white nationalism, colonialism, and other wrongful attitudes and acts of oppression. I’m sure I’m guilty of my own misconceptions. But I also hope to have some part in showing the nuances and complexities of Christianity across its long history, to help rectify these misconceptions.

In the end, I’m led to another truism that I’m starting to embrace: There’s a lot to be gained from critically considering the influences of our personal lives on our scholarship. We do this with the subjects of our research, as we piece together how their biographies inform our readings of their works. Perhaps it’s just as pertinent to consider how our own lives are tangled up in our scholarly pursuits.


7 thoughts on “All Scholarship Is Autobiographical

  1. Brandon, this is excellent and really inspiring. I would love to see more of this genre of writing circulated among academics, and I feel inspired to write up a similar exploration and explanation of my own influences, experiences, and motives, as well.

  2. Reblogged this on Fornorð and commented:
    Brandon Hawk explores why he does what he does and raises those questions for the rest of us to benefit from considering. I’d love to see more of this kind of writing circulated among academics.

  3. Awesome post here, Brandon. It’s given me a lot to think through these past couple of days, especially since I can relate to much of this (UMC PK instead of Wesleyan, but same diff).

    One thing I’m wondering about is how disciplinary structures and conventions encourage (or not) such reflection. For instance, I was an Anthropology major before jumping ship to the Medieval. In most of my upper level Anthro classes, we had to write ‘project reflexivity’ sections for our final papers wherein we explained why we were interested in this paper’s project or how we got to this topic. In that field, at least as it was taught to me, knowing one’s own position in relation to the object of study helped inform the project’s analysis and methodology explicitly.

    Why, do you suppose, is this less common in the humanities? Is there some myth of individual genius/detachment at play in our fields that discourages the personal? Or might it be a reaction against 19th century lit crit (which was as much about a scholar’s personal taste than the text at hand)?

    Again– thanks for sharing!

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