What scholars can learn from Unfinished Business by Anne-Marie Slaughter

A mentor once advised that I read the Acknowledgments in any book since an author often reveals his or her priorities, key interlocutors, and support structures there (if absent, that’s telling too).

Last weekend while devouring Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family (Random House, 2015), I found that the Acknowledgments added poignancy to the previous 250+ pages of AMS’s consistent method and tone.

Here are five admirable aspects of Anne-Marie Slaughter’s new book, as aphorized in her Acknowledgments. Scholars, take note.

1. Intellectual humility and willingness to learn

The first line of the Acknowledgments says: “The thinking in this book is some of the hardest work I have ever done” — no small thing for a former Dean of the Woodrow Wilson School who served as policy guru to Hillary Clinton. Whom does AMS immediately thank? Not those in the halls of power, but rather her readers, letter-writers, audience-questioners, comment-posters, the thousands of unexpected interlocutors who shared their insights and critiques and life experiences: “I read what you wrote, including the critiques, and you shaped my thinking.”

AMS calls this “call and response research.” I call it admirable: it requires personal courage and an unself-centered approach to ideas. In our saturated and polarized media cultures that feed upon thinly disguised ad hominem vitriole where anonymous commentators say horrid things (especially about publicly visible academics who are women), it is rare.

Plus, academics are judged on the caliber of our “unique” insights. But no socially relevant, analytically precise, conceptually illuminating text was ever immaculately conceived. Slaughter’s willing praise represents the best of what I was taught about intellectual work as well as what many teachers try to model in the classroom. To see it in action in this book is stupendous.

2. Interdisciplinary Chops

Working on questions of contemporary concern with practical upshots, and then presenting those ideas to a general public, requires savvy navigating of multiple scholarly literatures and an ability to articulate complex insights in accessible prose with appropriate citation but not heavy footnoting. This is hard. Slaughter does it ably throughout the book and in the Acknowledgments adds personal appreciation:

“Many great scholars … [in a range of fields] have devoted their lives to the research, analysis, and hard conceptual and theoretical work that have advanced the boundaries of our thinking and knowledge about gender equality. As an academic in another field, I have had to accept that I could not possibly do your work justice, but let me at least acknowledge here my gratitude and recognize that I stand on your shoulders.”

Then, she lists those scholars. Giving credit where it is due is a bare minimum of scholarly ethics; giving gratitude of this sort is rarer. It matters, because it shapes the tenor of our scholarly exchanges, including disagreements and discernments about ways forward.

3. The infrastructure of daily life

Third, in her Acknowledgments AMS abundantly credits those who provide the infrastructure of life and describes what that means in very concrete ways. (Descartes was brilliant, but his solitary thought required someone to bring him food.) AMS thanks her “lead parent” spouse, her family (“more than anyone else, you make it possible for me to do what I do”), her assistants, her funders, her colleagues, digital interlocutors, and those who have “also lived this book.” One could further argue that the tenure system and its concomitant job security are some of the very structures of AMS’s experience that facilitated the eventual publication of such an intellectually informed, culturally important, well-written and policy-relevant book.

4. Great publications may need long gestations

Fourth, great publications take time and are often informed by personal experience as well as professional/scholarly insights.

AMS is clear that the personal, political, and intellectual are interwoven; that her ideas of feminism and gender and family and work have changed due to both experience and scholarship; and that this book is far different from what she would have written upon the heralded publication of her catalyzing article in the Atlantic (2012), much less at previous phases of her career.

5. Frame and finish the project

Good ideas take time, but many projects can (and should) conclude. Of course knowledge progresses and methodologies shift, with important consequences, and so one rarely has the final word (in interdisciplinary work, this is especially true).

What Unfinished Business and its Acknowledgments rightly affirm is that even while no text has the final word, there is also an enormous amount that can presently be said. What matters is to do the best you can to finish the project in a responsible way with the resources at your disposal.

For AMS, of course, those resources are considerable. Most of us in different academic institutional contexts cannot relate to such levels of job security, income, research support, an advance book contract, etc. So do what you can within the parameters that you have. Yes, you need to research with integrity, engage interlocutors, cover your bases, stipulate what you don’t or can’t know and what remains to be said.

Still, be a finisher, even though you know that a given publication will not be the final word, even when it’s likely imperfect by your (high) standards, and even though these conversations are ever-unfinished. Know when the project has enough integrity to wrap.

“Unfinished business” is more than the title of a great book that everyone should read. It’s a phrase that acknowledges the nature of scholarly work, the intellectual enterprise, the infrastructures that support our endeavors, and the incremental making-the-world-a-better-place that, at our best as teacher-researchers and people, we continue to choose — amidst the imperfect structures that govern our horizons of possibility.

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