Recently a friend at Harvard sent me a link about an on-campus talk, thinking that it might be related to my research. I expected to open it, scan the description quickly, nod and file it away for further reference. Instead, as I began to read, waves of panic ensued. At first glance, the topic of the talk seemed closely related to my dissertation research. A second read through confirmed this and suddenly I began entertaining a series of worst case scenarios: what if our sources were the same (or even worse – theirs were better!)? What if our general conclusions were the same but their work came out first? And most dramatically, if this was the case, what had I been doing when I was traipsing to the Shanghai library and municipal archive for a year? What to do?
Over email, I sought out the advice of my friends in the field and the professors on my dissertation committee. Thankfully the responses were prompt. My friends noted that the talk seemed to be a preliminary stab at a research new topic, more of an exploratory exercise than a fully formed book project. One advisor remarked on how different things are in the humanities and the sciences – where the race to finish a project is really against the clock – and that often in history we are actually grateful to have someone else with whom to discuss our topic, our sources, our thoughts and our findings. My other advisor reminded me that the most important thing was to continue doing my own work. Everyone suggested I contact the Professor asking for more details on their work, and perhaps a copy of their talk.
When I did this, the Professor was generous and gracious, providing me with a copy of the talk, stipulating only that I cite it in my own work. I printed it out immediately, read it as fast as I could (footnotes first), and breathed a sigh of relief. There were some similarities, but also many inherent differences – in the scope, in the treatment of the material, in our overall goals and themes for our work. And, once the panic had subsided I realized that I was actually quite pleased to know of someone else working on the topic, precisely because of the alternative perspective they may bring: the different sources they access, the alternative conceptual framing they may use and the potential for a conversation on a topic that not many other people may have considered (or be interested in).
I’ve found that, day to day, in the midst of writing a dissertation it’s hard to keep your perspective about the scholarly world around you; you are focused so intently on one topic for so long that for better or for worse it feels like yours. This is exacerbated by the fact that often research is a solitary pursuit and when we return from the field, we write alone. This potential “scooping” was a jolt that reminded me that even though much of the work we do is individual, it’s the dialogue between our work and that of others that informs our topics historiographically and personally, and connects us to others in our field. And, ultimately all I can do is trust in the materials I’ve found and the conclusions I’ve made and forge ahead every day, putting words on the page.
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I know this feeling. I had completed a very long section of my dissertation dealing with the history of migration of the ethnolinguistic group I had done my anthropological fieldwork on. My history was an attempt to understand how they’d gotten to where they were in SE Asia. That required understanding the history of opium production, trade, and interdiction in the region. All of my historical work had been on English and French sources – I don’t read Chinese – but I had discovered that opium was a significant cash crop in SW China well before the standard dates. Then I put that section aside. Nine months later, I read David Bello’s recently published Opium and the Limits of Empire – finding the same thing, and using Chinese resources.
I actually felt relief – what I was arguing was not as out there as I had feared; my reading of the material was accurate; and now I could make an even stronger argument about the relationship between opium production and regional migration. Funny how that works …
I had a similar experience. I went to a conference and when I looked at the program, I realized that someone (Mark Priestley) was presenting on the technical history of programming. And that the presenter had a book that had just been published, on the history of programming, titled “A Science of Operations”. I was two months away from defending a dissertation on the technical history of programming. This might seem like a broad topic, but given that I can practically count my colleagues that focus on software on my fingers, it seemed a bit close to home.
It turned out that our work really complemented each others’ well – I actually feel like the two were almost a series, because his focus was earlier than mine.
I improved my dissertation by using arguments Mark had developed and in such a small field, it was nice to be able to engage with a different argument, instead of just forwarding mine.
I successfully defended and now I’m teaching a course on the history, theory and culture of programming and I regularly reference A Science of Operations by Peter Mark Priestley!