On Academic Rigor

McKenna Stayner is a current OHMA student. In this post, she reflects on the meaning of "rigor" in academic contexts. Watch Ann Cvetkovich's lecture on YouTube.

Oral history is an old practice—in some form or another, we’ve been collecting stories for thousands of years—but it’s relatively new in the field of academia. In our classes, OHMA students frequently discuss how to define oral history in the context of the Academy. We consider how it fits into scholarly parameters (whether it be theories or methodologies, making it quantifiable in some way), and if, in academic settings, the study of oral history can or should be judged by the same measures as history, sociology, or anthropology.

With these considerations on my mind, I was particularly excited for Ann Cvetkovich to start off the spring workshop series. Ann is the Ellen Clayton Garwood Centennial Professor of English and Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, and the author of An Archive of Feelings:  Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures and other books. In her work, she has combined oral history interviewing and analysis with a style of theoretical critique learned in departments like English and Women’s Studies, creating a deep body of work that connects the personal, the political, and the cultural in profound new ways.

I asked Ann how she makes oral history rigorous in her own work. In response, she challenged me on the assumptions built into my question. “What does it mean to put the word rigorous in front of academic, or are you assuming that there’s something inherently rigorous about being an academic that would stand out in this context?” she asked. Ann went on to say that “One reason I also want to pause over that word—or not take it for granted—is because your list of the many different affiliations I have in my view sometimes makes me less rigorous, that is I’m a bit of a dilettante across many boundaries. I, indeed, want to see academia expand to make those crossroads possible, but it sometimes feels to me like I’m pushing at the conventional notions of rigor when I do that. So can I push back at your use of the word?”

It was an important and productive counter-question, and it was true, I had been equating rigor with academia. Developing my question and my use of the term further, I realized that my concern was more about how to cull from these other fields the methods that can bring a deeper critique of our interviews—analysis of language, culture, tradition, or any other lens through which we might want to investigate our own work.

Taking up my revised question, Ann focused on how the skepticism learned through her work in more “traditional” academia influences her approach to oral history. “I think oral history is so often a form of activist engagement with knowledge production that you’re trying to make visible communities or bring new kinds of knowledge into being. You’re trying to make connections between the academy and different communities and constituencies. So, again, you’re always having to ask yourself questions about how those goals are being achieved, and not just take for granted that because out of the goodness of your heart you wanted to perform this research project that these goals are necessarily being achieved. That’s where the counterbalancing influence of my critical academic training has been, at least for me, very useful in my own practice of oral history.”

Later in the lecture, Ann shared one of the exercises she uses with her own students. She asked us to pair up with the person sitting beside us and to discuss the word rigor, one at a time. I wrote down an approximation of what my partner said afterwards. He described rigor in academia as an opportunity for thoroughness, for moving a body of knowledge forward through finding what is essential about it. Rather than considering rigor as a series of constraints, or parameters, as I had been thinking of it, he understood rigor to be an opportunity. The strength of Ann’s work—whether it is traditionally “academic” or exists beyond the boundaries (if there are any) of academia—is that she brings exactly this quality of openness into her work, and that’s what makes it rigorous.

Hear Ann Cvetkovich expand on the interplay between her background in critical theory and her use of oral history in her work.