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When scholarship is like Pearl Harbor

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OCTOBER 18, 2013

FDR made no mistake here.Writing a thesis entails a quantity of research approaching the obscene. One must spend innumerable hours in the library and searching scholarly databases to find relevant sources and determine from those which are seminal.

I fear for the research of one of my classmates — and not because she’s behind on her project. During a discussion about the scholarship we’ve read, she said she thought she had located her “more infamous sources.”

I suppose there’s some benefit to that. In a study of sociology and law, infamous works certainly have their place (one could investigate Hitler’s sociolegal motivations through a close reading of “Mein Kampf,” for example, or conduct an analysis of the factors contributing to Russian pogroms through an examination of “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”). That said, they’re rarely the most important sources in projects focused on Supreme Court rulings and juvenile justice.

More likely, of course, is that my colleague felt she had found her more famous sources, or those with the highest number of citations or the most respected authors. While these sources might be edgy from an entirely educational perspective, one would be exaggerating to describe them as conspicuously controversial.

The difference between “famous” and “infamous” is quite simple, really. The former term refers to something well known: William Faulkner was a famous author. “Infamous,” however, means something is known for less-than-admirable qualities: Dec. 7, 1941, is a date that will live in infamy.

Of course, ambiguities can arise: Justice Antonin Scalia is (in)famously harsh in his dissents. Kenny G, (in)famous in the world of jazz, has held an E-flat longer than any other saxophonist.

OK, there’s really no debate on which one is appropriate for the latter sentence, but this is definitely not the place to go into detail.

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OCTOBER 16, 2013