If you’re new to graduate school, you may have had an experience similar to mine in your first few classes. A handful of people in class, slightly older than you, who seem to know the in’s and out’s of dozens of philosophical ideas. They constantly name drop dead thinkers to bolster their arguments, and it all seems very overwhelming to you.
Is this what’s in store for me in grad school? Will I have to memorize all of this too?
I’m here to tell you: No. In most cases, memorizing these theorists is superfluous to the main point, which is finishing your dissertation.
My point in writing here is to try and cut down on your stress in grad school. It’s all stressful enough, so putting pressure on yourself so become an expert in theories that aren’t all that crucial to your work isn’t productive.
I wouldn’t say there are no cases in which the following writers are pertinent to your work. But be selective. Do you need to spend hours working out the fine dynamics of a particular theorist’s framework to write this next chapter, or would your time be better used doing more primary source research? I’d argue that the latter is the case most of the time.
Before starting, let me just say that none of this is meant to discourage anyone from reading whatever they want. Grad school is a great time to read outside your comfort zone. You can definitely gain a lot of personal satisfaction from what you read. I know I sure think about the world differently because of some of the weird things I read that had nothing to do with my dissertation. I personally enjoy 2 of the 3 writers I’m about to mention. But there’s a difference between personal fulfillment and things that are necessary for your degree. Acting like certain things are required when they’re not adds stress and slows the process.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed and just want to do what you need for that PhD, in my experience, you really don’t have to spend much time reading the following.
I’m not sure if this one actually comes from academics themselves or just the perception of academics. I’ve talked to incoming students who felt like they had to be Marx experts. Why? There’s no need for that. Many academics use Marxist concepts and ideas, but aren’t Marxists. There’s a difference there.
I’ll say off the bat that I enjoy reading Marx and I’ve found some concepts extremely useful. I use a bit of a Marxist framework in my dissertation. However, I study nineteenth-century economic theory, so naturally I needed at least a basic understanding of Marx’s writings (though to be honest, I didn’t NEED it and could have avoided it if I took a different direction). But that’s me and my topic. Your topic may be completely different.
And I really don’t think Marxist concepts apply to all topics. Marx wrote with a specific critique in mind, a critique of the capitalist system as it operated in the mid-19th century. Some of those observations can be applied elsewhere, and some can’t. As I said, I study economic thought, so Marx was relevant. If you study 13th-century monastic life, do you need Marx? Probably not.
The thing about Marx is he just wrote so much. Each volume of Capital is almost 1,000 pages, and that’s not counting all of his other writings. That’s just way too much to grapple with for a few footnotes in your dissertation. That time would be better spent looking at more primary sources for your project.
I don’t often read a book and think, “I wish the author used more Marx here.” There are occasions, but for the most part I want to read the author’s story instead. However I’ve definitely read work that over-uses Marx where I don’t feel like it belongs. Does a book really need a whole introductory chapter explaining how the author uses a Marxist framework? Does that add anything? I know whenever I came across a book like this I skipped that chapter.
If you are interested in learning some Marxism, I recommend watching some videos of David Harvey on YouTube. I’ve learned a ton more about Marx from Harvey than I have from reading Marx himself because Harvey has read basically all of Marx’s writings and speaks fluently about them. He basically did the legwork so I don’t have to!
Ahh yes, Michel Foucault. I remember being sick of him before I even read anything by him because of how much people talked about him. I remember once in class when the professor asked if anyone knew who Foucault was, and in a bout of smartassery I said, “God, depending on who you ask.”
I was admittedly being unfair. I did end up reading The History of Sexuality in that class and I was pleasantly surprised that I enjoyed it. The idea of knowledge being produced and controlled by those in power is an interesting concept. But further than that I didn’t find a ton of use for Foucault. I wrote an MA thesis and dissertation without citing him once. I suppose I could have in my thesis specifically, since it was about public relations. That’s basically a textbook definition of elites producing knowledge intending to control the masses. But the product was certainly not worse without any mention of Foucault. Neither my adviser nor any peer reviewers mentioned using him, and his absence didn’t stop the resulting article from getting published.
I guess the thing about Foucault is that his ideas have disseminated so widely that there isn’t a ton of need to grapple with him specifically. The amount of scholars who use Foucaultian concepts has probably already told you all you need to know about his theories. You might even use some of those theories without even realizing it.
That was my feeling when I read Foucault. I just didn’t really see what the fuss was about. It was probably because his ideas weren’t revolutionary anymore. Maybe in the 1970s, but we’ve had almost half a century to digest it all. That said, of course read up if you want to. Again, the point is that I don’t think you need to do that in order to finish your PhD.
I think this one is more pertinent to English or literary criticism folks than historians. Personally I haven’t heard many historians talk about Jacques Derrida, and the ones who do are very theory-focused. But my friends in English programs definitely know Derrida, and usually gripe about him. The few that I polled agreed that Derrida is definitely skippable—not exactly a scientific survey, admittedly, but it must count for something.
I can’t speak from much experience here since I’ve never read a single word of his. To be honest I don’t intend to. From what I understand, he’s not pleasant to read at all. Students who do read his work talk about how difficult it is to wrap their heads around what he’s trying to say.
If that’s the case then I certainly wouldn’t go out of my way to read him. More so, you probably don’t have to go out of your way to read someone who people often admit they can’t understand. You’re already overworked and stressed. Why add to that? Further, if many people admit they don’t understand a theory, is it really that important then?
It’s entirely possible I’m off the mark here since I have no personal experience with Derrida, but listening to others definitely leaves me with the feeling that he’s not necessary for your grad work.
Now remember, none of this was meant to discourage you from reading whatever you want. I started by writing that there’s a difference between reading for personal fulfillment and what’s necessary to finish your PhD. Are you fascinated by Marx’s argument about valorization and want to work out the fine dynamics of the theory? Great! Do it!
But what you shouldn’t do is feel like you have to work out these dynamics or your work has no value. In most cases I’ve seen, the work isn’t improved by a strict adherence to anyone’s theory. What does improve work is more evidence. If the option is between reading some primary sources and working out how a complex theory fits into your work, go for the primary sources.
Bottom line—Get that dissertation done! Don’t let theories slow you down if they don’t have to.