The Picaresque Scholar

A picaro was an adventurer who lived by his wits, was more often in trouble than not, and went wherever his inclinations or circumstances led. He had no respect for or patience with authority or pomp. He was a rogue, at least to those whose strictures he mocked. Yet he was meticulously observant, methodical, and adaptable, qualities without which he could never have survived, even as long as he did.

Most good scholarship is picaresque, traveling where inclinations and circumstances lead, meticulously observant, methodical, and adaptable, refusing to let rules and authority get in the way of the pursuit of knowledge. But—and most good scholars would agree—scholarship has increasingly been shackled, by academia and by publishing. For decades I have used the expression “publish and perish” to be corrected to the standard “publish or perish” (academic publication to get tenure at a university) then explaining I meant what I said. Peer review is supposed to ensure quality, but in reality, it ensures certain formats and current fads.

Some academic journals used to have sections devoted to notes and queries. These were short pieces that provided snippets of data or raised questions worthy of deeper research. Some of what I have written over the years is brief and should be. An insight or observation that deserves only a few words will not be improved by article length. (This happens all the time.) On the other hand, if you love stories and historical accounts (I do), excerpting or citation of references that will never be read to fit word limits for articles or even books is a lost opportunity.

I rarely find reason to make some theoretical argument. Theory is useful but too often distracts from rather than enhances the materials being studied. Arguing a thesis in the humanities in this day and age is downright silly—I do sometimes find it necessary to correct mistakes. Instead of argument, I prefer what Nabokov called “noticing and fondling details.”

After graduating from MIT in 1972, I did graduate work in the Department of Folklore and Folklife at the University of Pennsylvania, also in the Department of Anthropology. After moving to Michigan in 1980, I concluded that the stories I could obtain from contemporary Native American narrators were of less interest (at least to me) than what was in the massive native language collection of Ojibwa Texts by William Jones, and took on ethno-discursive (ethnopoetic) re-translation and interpretation, which turned into an endless, unfinished, task (most scholars who have done this only do one or a few stories, with little comparative material, to fit into article length). I was also doing various itinerant researching: fieldwork on Northwoods culture (trapping, poaching, etc.), interviewing Michigan fiddlers (because I could find no one with better music credentials to do it), and folk artists in schools programs. Around 1985, I started teaching, as an adjunct faculty, in the Michigan State University College of Education, initially a doctoral course on fieldwork research methods. Then I joined the Learning Community program for elementary teachers, teaching about storytelling, “multicultural literary,” etc. As programs evolved, I ended up teaching more conventional classes on children’s literature and became actively involved in a seminar with some of the leading experts on literacy, providing a storytelling and “multicultural” perspective. I also taught a Masters’ course on teaching about other cultures, where I tried to find quality alternative approaches to curriculum development. After 2000, the opportunities for creative teaching in schools diminished, with renewed emphasis on standardized teaching, and I gave up on teacher education and returned to my own scholarly pursuits. I have made occasional salvos into writing for academic journals, but having never sought a tenure-track position, I have preferred to set my own standards for good research.

Over the years, I have accumulated a large backlog of writings, many works-in-progress, because I always find something new demanding revision. Most is not-publishable in print—too short, too long, too picaresque. Besides writing for myself (to keep learning), my primary audience is the educated lay reader, although there should be plenty to interest open-minded fellow scholars. I try not to overuse jargon or assume prior knowledge of academic topics. Readers who get bored or overwhelmed by length or repetition are welcome to skip, just as readers do with fiction.

My basic, picaresque, approach to scholarship is to take a subject—a text, a problem—about which I am sufficiently comfortable to meander wherever it might lead, sometimes for just a moment, sometimes forever and a day. As with an picaro, there are always unexpected reencounters and endless diversions.

Eliot Singer, Picaresque Scholar