Associate Opinion & Editorial Editor
Kerry Whiteside, Clair R. McCollough professor of government and winner of the 2009 Dewey Prize, presented a talk entitled “Inklings, Serendipity, and Doggedness: Research and Life,” Thursday, as part of the College’s weekly Common Hour series.
Held in the Ann and Richard Barshinger Center for Musical Arts, Whiteside’s discussion covered his own serendipitous sources of inspiration as a professor, his Top Four Research Maxims gleaned through his own practical experiences, an encounter with a political theorist close to his own heart and career, as well as, in his opinion, the revelation of the singular missing puzzle piece to all of Western political thought.
To hear Whiteside tell it, winning the Dewey Prize in 2009 was as much a matter of luck as it was of skill.
“Now, I know that the Dewey Prize is supposed to be about accomplishments, but I can’t help but feeling that there’s a lot about my career in which serendipity is involved,” Whiteside said.
Whiteside began his discussion meditating on the concept of serendipity, as well as its little-known roots.
“Serendipity is kind of an unusual word; it means a ‘happy accident,’’’ Whiteside explained. “But did you know the word actually comes from a Persian folk tale about princes who, through their various adventures in life, are tracking a lost camel?”
The laughter of Whiteside’s audience seemed to confirm that, no, they did not know.
Whiteside gleefully continued his story.
“So they’re down this road, and they figure out what the identity of this camel must be,” he said.
The trio of sleuthful sultans are able to correctly infer the camel’s characteristics until they can finally track it down. In the process, they so impress an emperor and his people that they find themselves lavished with gifts and praise.
“Something they weren’t seeking really brings them great benefits, unexpectedly,” Whiteside said as he looked up from his camel-finding fable and paused a beat. “That’s what my career is like.”
Indeed, Whiteside credits serendipity with a large share of his own professional fortunes.
“It was simply a happy accident that Franklin & Marshall College just happened to have a position available in political theory at the very moment I was getting my PhD,” Whiteside said. “It was also serendipitous that, when I got here, Bradley R. Dewey was actually still the dean of the College, and he was somebody who was instrumental in fostering my love of research. I think it was serendipitous, too, that I fell in with a number of colleagues who were really stimulating, and made me want to do my own research.”
Whiteside cited Dean Hammer, John W. Wetzel professor of classics and professor of government, as a particular inspiration, calling him the embodiment of research doggedness.
“Mockery can make you work better, too,” Whiteside said.
Whiteside offered his first research maxim through the lens of a legendary encounter between a wayward tourist and Arthur Rubenstein, concert pianist, on the streets of Manhattan.
“The tourist asked, ‘Pardon me, sir, how do I get to Carnegie Hall?’” Whiteside said. “You all know what Rubenstein replied, right? ‘Practice, practice, practice, practice.’”
Whiteside maintained that for one to become adept at research — or virtually anything, for that matter — it is necessary to build and hone the skill.
“To be able to do anything well, you need to do it a lot and not just alone, of course,” Whiteside said. “Like a musician, you need to work with somebody to really experience the subject matter, who will spend time with you as an individual, who will observe you and correct your efforts hundreds of times. The surprising thing is, even research is practice.”
Whiteside himself credits Donald Bidwell, his high school debate coach, for first teaching him how to do actual, adult research.
“He spent hours with us; I practiced research the way other people practiced piano etudes or tennis strokes,” Whiteside said. “Thanks, Don, I wouldn’t be here without you.”
Whiteside then spoke about Maurice Merleau-Ponty, a political theorist near and dear to his own career.
Whiteside wrote his first book about the 20th century philosopher and found himself first drawn to the existentialist while casting about for a dissertation topic in graduate school. Whiteside’s project took him to France and into Merleau-Ponty’s life, where he interviewed the philosopher’s former colleagues, students, and even his widow, who allowed Whiteside access to Merleau-Ponty’s unpublished works and even went as far as to help him decipher the rather cryptic handwriting.
Whiteside’s research in France brought him to his second research maxim.
“Everybody, learn a foreign language as well as you can,” he said. “It’s a door that opens onto another world and expands your understanding in ways you can’t even imagine before you do it.”
Whiteside presented his audience with a humorous illustration of his point.
“For the French, encountering an American who can bluster his way through their elegant language moderately well causes sort of a physiological reaction,” Whiteside said. “It’s sort of a temporary stupefaction, like they’ve stumbled across a talking dog or something. You become an object of curiosity — and welcome.”
But Whiteside, while segueing into his next research maxim, also strove to emphasize that, before beginning research, a student ought to consider where he or she would like to be welcomed.
“Whenever you choose a research topic, you’re going to insert yourself into a conversation that exists, that pre-exists you,” Whiteside explained. “There are other people who are going to talk about the topic you’re talking about. And so I think it makes sense, then, to pick up a research topic and ask yourself, ‘Who do I want to talk to? Where will the conversation be interesting?’”
For Whiteside, his own answer is, and has always been, within the realms of political theory. His research still continues, and he outlined his most recent research endeavor.
“What I’m now beginning to work on is a new book on an even larger topic,” Whiteside said. “The question we’re beginning to ask is whether representative government, as an institutional form, needs reform to take into account the order of environmental problems we’re facing.”
Whiteside claimed that the missing link in modern political theory lies within the ignoring of land and the environment as an enormously influential societal and political factor.
“It’s a massive topic,” Whiteside said. “But it’s an important topic, and our hope is that we have a little serendipity still with us [to help conquer it].”
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