The Craft of Research

Wayne Booth, speaking
Image Credit: The Chicago Maroon & University of Chicago Library

As I hope was clear in a series of posts back in November, Wayne Booth is the presiding genius of this blog. This spring here at the CBS Library, we will once again try to channel his spirit into a series of weekly talks to help students who are working on their final research projects, whether they are nearing the end of the first year of their bachelor studies or reaching the final year of their master’s program. In the spirit of the times, they will be held online. (If you’re not a CBS student, that’s fine, just send me an email and I will sign you up.)

I like to think of Booth as the James Jesus Angleton of academia. Angleton was a leading figure in counter-intelligence in the early days of the CIA, which today cleverly (if a bit ominously) calls itself “the center of intelligence”. (Perhaps it thinks we’re peripheral?) He served as the inspiration for Hugh “Harlot” Montague in Norman Mailer’s Harlot’s Ghost, where he nurtured and guided the protagonist during his formative years at the Agency, and seems to watch over him later in life. Though I never met Wayne Booth, I often feel as though this blog is benignly haunted by him.

When I first began teaching English, I saw myself taking up the weapons of reason against a world committed to emotionalism, illogical appeals, and rhetorical trickery—a world full of vicious advertisers and propagandists determined to corrupt the young minds I was determined to save.

University of Chicago Magazine, November and December, 1967

Like I say, it’s not too far off to think of him as the honorary chief of academic counterintelligence, the “good shepherd” of the university. And if the University of Chicago Magazine was right to call his 1967 speech to students “eerily prescient” back in 2018, things have gotten downright spooky lately. Like Booth, I hope to do my small part to save the minds of the young.

In Mailer’s novel, Harlot held weekly seminars for a select group of young agents. He held them on Thursdays, devoting some of them to the art and craft of espionage, and some of them to its science and philosophy. “Low Thursdays” dealt with what we might call method and inframethod, “High Thursdays” with theory and meta-theory.

Advanced were the High Thursdays, awfully advanced for the Lows. I would ponder some of his conclusions for many a year. If Montague’s method of discourse on such days threw the more inexperienced of us over such high hurdles as the Theater of Paranoia and the Cinema of Cynicism, he could on any Low Thursday return us the threading of a rusty nut to a dirt-grimed bolt. Indeed, the first day of the first Low had us working for two hours to construct a scenario on the basis of a torn receipt, a bent key, a stub of pencil, a book of matches, and a dried flower pressed into a cheap unmarked envelope.

Norman Mailer, Harlot’s Ghost, p. 410

Academics perhaps understand the Theater of Paranoia and the Cinema of Cynicism just a little too well. (I don’t really have to explain them, do I?) Already as students they got a sense of what it might feel like to be an agent working undercover as a diplomat. (Maybe I’m being overly dramatic for the sake of a literary allusion, but let’s say we’re learning how to balance “theoretical rigor” with “lived experience” as we try to thread our rusty concepts onto dirt-grimed facts.) Near the novel’s end — five years before the fall of the Berlin Wall — when Harlot has gone missing in Moscow and Harry doesn’t know what to believe about the true nature of the Cold War, he recalls those meetings in Washington, twenty years before:

What was it Harlot had said once on a Low Thursday? “The aim of these gatherings is to acquaint you with the factology of facts. One has to know whether one is dealing with the essential or the circumferential fact. Historical data, after all, tend to be not particularly factual and subject to revision by later researchers. You must look to start, therefore, with the fact that cannot be smashed into subparticles of fact.”

Norman Mailer, Harlot’s Ghost, p. 1281

Mailer wrote that in 1991. Almost forty years earlier, he had another of his protagonists recognize that “nothing is harder to discover than a simple fact.” Students know this too, as do their teachers. It’s not easy to know things.

I’m going to try to help. Over twelve weeks I will hold eleven talks, sometimes high, sometimes low, about the craft of research. Every week I’ll no doubt write a blog post as I’m working out what to say in the talk. Last year I found it to be invigorating work and I’m looking forward to seeing what I come up with this time around. I will try to reign in my natural paranoia and acquired cynicism, but I will not sugarcoat the nuts and bolts of scholarship, the difficulty they imply. There’s a reason they call it an an academic discipline.

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