The colon (:) plays a very important role in the titles of academic works in places like the US. Its purpose is to separate what comes before the colon from what comes after it. But what is it that comes before the colon, and what comes after it?

What comes after the colon is a direct statement about the content of the book or dissertation. What comes before the colon is some kind of creative expression which the author invents in order to explain some new concept which s/he developed in order to explain some phenomenon which previous scholars had not explained/seen/understood, etc.

Let’s look at some classic examples.

Benedict Anderson’s most famous book is called Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. What is this book about? Well it contains “reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism.” But it also contains an argument which was new at the time the book was published, namely that “nations” are not primordial, but are modern and ultimately “imagined.”

This is a perspective which previous scholars had not recognized. Anderson came to realize this, and when he did so, he created this expression in order to capture the essence of his argument.

Another classic example would be James Scott’s Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. What is the book about? Well it’s about peasant resistance, but Scott gives a lot of agency to “weak” peasants and demonstrates that they have various “weapons” that they can use—like working slowly for a boss—in order to “resist” those who are stronger.

Prior to the point that Scott wrote this book, people had not considered the fact that peasants have such strategies and such agency. By creating the expression, “weapons of the weak,” Scott not only provided a concise way of referring to his larger argument, but he also provided later scholars with an expression that they can use to explain phenomena that they see in their own research.

So, for instance, someone studying factory workers in Asia today could talk about the various “weapons of the weak” that they employ to resist their employers, and any educated reader would understand exactly what it is that the person is saying and what the larger concept behind it is.

The other day I was looking at a list of recently defended dissertations in Vietnam, and I noticed that none of them had colons in their titles. The titles just contained “factual” information about what the dissertations deal with.

This then made me think of many conversations I’ve had with Vietnamese scholars. I’m always amazed at the amount of information that they have in their heads about “who published what and when,” but they never talk about “what someone argued” in a work, or “who’s scholarship they challenged,” or “what paradigm they overturned.” It’s just XXX published a book on YYY in 2002, etc.

So what was the point of the book? What was the scholar’s argument? Không có ai nói được, bởi vì không có argument gì cả, chỉ có “facts” thôi.

Now, I don’t think that it is necessary that all academics in the world have to follow the American (or maybe it’s “Western”) way of presenting their scholarship. But I have to admit that concepts like “imagined communities” and “weapons of the weak” do truly move scholarship forward.

It is precisely because scholars like Anderson and Scott come up with new ways of viewing the world that other scholars are pushed to rethink the ways in which they view their own work.

I think all scholars should do this in every piece of scholarship that they produce. If you cannot provide a new insight or a new way of viewing something, then why say anything?

That’s why I think the colon is important. At present Vietnamese scholars produce what comes after the colon. For scholarship to advance, however, they have to come up with concepts that they can place before the colon.

In looking at the assessment of one dissertation, it said that “Luận án được đánh giá là có một số đóng góp về mặt lí luận và thực tiễn. . .” Compare that with what Amazon.com says about Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities: “Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson’s brilliant book on nationalism, forged a new field of study when it first appeared in 1983.”

That might be an extreme example, but is it worth spending years to produce a dissertation which just makes “a few contributions”? Each scholar’s work should make a “major contribution.” Each scholar should strive to produce something “brilliant” that “forges a new field of study.”

Part of this is cultural. The Vietnamese sentence above was written the way it was to some degree because of a certain form of “academic humility,” however that can also be detrimental to the development of scholarship.

In Vietnam, students are discouraged from challenging those who came before them. Therefore, a young scholar can only make “a few contributions.” S/he can not make “major contributions,” because earlier people have already done that.

That is a ridiculous and harmful perspective. All scholars benefit from the work of their predecessors, but they should also surpass and overturn the work of those who came before them.

If people of the current generation cannot move far beyond the previous generations, then there is no need to engage in scholarship anymore.

In fact, the young can and must go far beyond their elders. But to do that, they need to come up with concepts to put before the colon, and they also need to be allowed to do that as well.