I’ve just come across a beautifully expressed antidote to my implicitly hubristic last post (Bleak House with footnotes). Conjuring up (for me, at least) an image of an ant’s nest, Clare O’Farrell reminds us that our work as researchers is important, no matter how limited its immediate impact. Her post is called ‘The social utility of art and scholarship’. She quotes Geoffrey Galt Harpham as follows
[Research is] an immense undertaking in which countless people performing the most tedious small tasks are able, collectively, to liberate the modern world from the grip of doctrine, authority, and myth. The value of each contribution can, he says, be measured only in the aggregate, and in many cases only much later: many scholarly or scientific projects are like abandoned mines, awaiting rediscovery by future generations.
Clare then adds herself:
Harpham argues that every little bit counts and is worth the effort: an approach that one also finds in Foucault’s work. It is the optimistic view that every human action, every human investigation makes a difference, no matter how tiny.
All this reminds me of something that happened over 20 years ago.
I’d slogged my way through three or four re-writes of a book, it had finally been published, it had a brief life in the media, and then it disappeared from view. I’ve still got unsold copies the publishers sent to me some years later, when they were clearing out their warehouse. Though I’d loved writing it, and while the students I’d written about told me they enjoyed reading it, I was disappointed that it hadn’t made any contribution to conversations amongst teachers about education.
Then, at a conference of English teachers in Sydney a year or so after the book was published, I was tapped on the shoulder during a break by a clearly agitated middle aged man.
‘Are you Steve Shann?’ he said belligerently. When I nodded, he added, ‘Have a seat. I’ve got a bone to pick with you.’
We sat down on some seats in the conference hall, and he then proceeded to harangue me.
‘I’m a school principal,’ he said, ‘and I’ve been teaching a while and thought maybe I needed to freshen up my thinking a bit. So, before going on my Christmas camping trip, I went to a bookshop and your book caught my eye. One rainy day, my wife and I lay in our tent reading, and I started your book. When I got to about page 10, I threw the book at the tent wall and shouted, ‘This bloke is so out of touch, he wouldn’t know if his arse was on fire!’
He paused for a few seconds, and I had the impression that he was rather enjoying the panicky look on my face.
‘Then, later, I picked up your book again and continued reading. And there was this one bit, Steve, that really got to me. I found I had tears running down my cheeks. I was moved by those stories of those kids, and I’ve been telling my staff that they have to read your book.’
I have no idea, of course, whether they did, or what they thought, or whether it affected anything. But it was nice to hear that my abandoned mine (to use Harpham’s image) had been revisited.