In my early days as an undergraduate student, I remember that a few of my professors had their own personal theory related to their discipline, and they included their own academic contribution in their classes, along with the most famous authors in the domain. During the semester, we saw many theories from a variety of international and renowned authors, compared the trends, followed the evolution of our field, and witnessed the differences between, say, European theoreticians, the ones in the United States, and those in Quebec. Then, at some point, some of our professors introduced us to their own, personal theory. Sometimes, it was an already existing theory to which they brought another point as a complement, or a nuance. In other cases, they brought a neologism they had created to describe an overlooked dimension or an emerging research question.
In the classroom, some of these “professors with a theory” even referred to themselves in the third person, using only their last name, as they did for other famous authors. They read aloud some excerpts from their own book or forthcoming article about “their” new theory. Others used their own book (not an anthology of texts or a reader, but their “book about their theory”) as the basis for an undergraduate course, encouraging students to read it, or even better, to buy a copy. Photocopies were not allowed.
I sometimes suspect that my “professor with a theory” imagined that one day, he would certainly sit in Paradise with all the famous authors and theoreticians, discussing his own revolutionary theories while harmlessly drinking cicuta.
In the same way, many graduate students doing a PhD were not discouraged from creating neologisms – quite the opposite, they were even invited to include some neologisms in their thesis title, to announce their contribution.
One could think these twists occurred only among egocentric or mediocre scholars seeking posterity. But in his latest (and excellent) book on global warming (The Politics of Climate Change, Blackwell, 2010), celebrated sociologist Anthony Giddens uses a new concept to describe how some damages causing global warming seem harmless because they do not have visible and immediate consequences; but instead of labeling this problem as “the global warming paradox” or something similar, the celebrated sociologist coined it “The Giddens paradox.”
Another related problem is self-quotation. Citing oneself can have many uses and meanings for academics. One of them is to say (I paraphrase): “What I am bringing here should not be considered new, as it has already been said before (incidentally by me)”… It is another way of saying: “I don’t have space to explain every aspect here; if you have any objections, just look at the extensive analysis I wrote about this issue in a previous publication.” Another use is to plug one’s own book “coming out this month.” Self- quotation is honest when scholars express the same idea in many publications and want to acknowledge that they are not trying to make many papers out of a single piece of research. But the more questionable dimension is for self-promotion.
I remember professor Fernand Dumont, himself a celebrated theoretician, often being quoted by other scholars. He was reluctant to refer to his own works during our weekly doctoral seminar, even though he didn’t refuse to mention his own research when students asked questions about his views and books. Some professors from France, during a lecture or speech, apologized before referring to an example taken from one of their own publications.
I do not want to mock or discourage scholars from forging their personal theories in their field: that is what they are being paid for! But conferences like ACFAS and Congress remain, in my view, the best places for academics to expose their own work, not in classes where undergraduates are not in a position to discuss and won’t dare to disagree with the professor.
Yves Laberge is a sociologist and scholar living in Québec City; he has served on various boards and commissions since 25 years.