From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project: http://magazine.beloit.edu/?story_id=240813&issue_id=240610

A new post appears every day at 12:05* (CDT). There's more, though. Take a look at the right-hand side of the page for over four years of material (2,000 posts and growing) from Seinfeld and country music to every single day of the Chinese lunar calendar...translated. Look here ↓ and explore a little. It will take you all the way down the page...from round to square (and back again).
*Occasionally I will leave a long post up for thirty-six hours, and post a shorter entry at noon the next day.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Lectures (3e)—Scholarship

Click here for the introduction to the Round and Square series "Lectures à la fleur."
Click below for the other sections of this lecture:
Part One                    Part Two                    Part Three                    Part Four                    Part Five
[a] Gathering RF
Beloit College Mortar Board
26 October 2011
Part Five of Five
Let's conclude by looking at the situation from a different angle, now that we have at least one personal example of "the line" between study and scholarship. Think about your own studies, and the manner in which knowledge is created in your own fields. I realize that it is "early" in your scholarly careers, but most of you are juniors and seniors right now, and have probably begun to sense that many of the questions you have begun to ask of your books are a little bit different from the way you approached the material a few years ago. You are, in short, beginning to sense "the line." So how does it work in your own major? Think about it.

(Discussion)
[b] Focus RF

My own view of scholarship is profoundly catholic. If that sentence raised your sectarian hackles, you may need to look it up (it has a lower case "c"). Of course, there has been fine Catholic scholarship throughout the ages, but that is not my concern here. Our examples have shown that there is a wide disciplinary array of investigations under the term "scholarship," and the manner in which a biochemist carries it out is profoundly different from the scholarly work of, say, an economist. Any good academic dean will tell you that one of the things she most enjoys about her job is learning about how people in various disciplines "think." This is not just a throwaway line used by former academics who have become administrators. It is (so I hear) one of the biggest perks of being able to take a macro-view and being in charge of many departments.

It also has everything to do with what we have been discussing up until now. The way that historians view "sources" or the manner in which sociologists treat "theory" casts a very distinctive shadow over each discipline (which, in this case, seem clueless about the "shadow" of the other). You have certainly seen how different, even in your years in college, the language, assignments, and modes of thought can be among your friends in different majors. You might also have noticed how pompous some can be (and how self-deprecating others learn to be) in the great academic hierarchy in the sky. Whether you are pompous or deprecating, allow me to let you in on something that is—but should not be—a secret.


[c] Contingent RF
This is utter nonsense.

Scholarship is scholarship, and the key distinction is between "solid" and "sloppy." The idea that the study of poetry or society is less rigorous than, say, the study of economic behavior is the kind of sheer folly that only very intelligent human beings could create. Different ways of knowing will always be with us, and I pity the person who thinks that only things that can be studied according to certain "rigorous" methodologies are legitimate. What? You mean to say that you are not interested in studying every aspect of this complex world in which we live? That only material that can be codified, experiments that can be repeated, and patterns that can be given equations are worthy of study?

That way lies folly, and you should just laugh at your peers (and possibly yourself) who would imply that such subjectivity as an isolated, non-repeatable event is "squishy" and unworthy of study. I call that isolated, non-repeatable event the American Civil War (or French Revolution). Please. Scholarship engages the whole world. Every bit of it. Anyone who tells you otherwise is arrogant, ignorant, lazy, or all of the above.


***  ***
And it all comes back to teaching. I never wanted to be a teacher; I never cared at all about it. People who today see how much I enjoy and value teaching may well be disconcerted by that (true) statement. They needn't be. It is really very simple, and only liberal arts college admissions offices and university professors have made it seem difficult. The two poles of the rhetorical "guidance" debate have dominated everything, and they are wrong to their very cores. You see, the entire debate about higher education seems unable to rise above the following simplistic equation:

[d] "Truth" RF
Teaching versus Scholarship

Again, this is nonsense. Yet it is difficult to point to even a single institution in the country that will say unequivocally that the very concept of versus is flawed to the core. Alas, even our very own "national" liberal arts colleges (where we come pretty close to getting it "right" in practice) still tend to trumpet "teaching" over "scholarship." From Carleton to Reed and Beloit, and from Smith to Middlebury and Davidson...admissions officers tell parents and students what they want to hear. We are afraid to tell the truth, and for pretty good reasons. Most people seem unready for the truth. As students at a college that stresses faculty and student research almost from Day One, you already know the truth. Excellent teaching grows out of excellent scholarship. Many of us at liberal arts colleges are a little
"afraid" to say it openly, but certainly not because we are unsure. No, we at liberal arts colleges don't say it (much) because we are afraid even to hint at anything beyond devotion to students and tuition paying parents. We're afraid to tell the truth.

The truth—and all of you in this room know it better than most outside it—is that students and tuition-paying parents need to be surrounded by a rich, scholarly focus if they are to get the best educations. You will notice that I haven't even mentioned university teaching. Don't they do scholarship? Yes, and with a few exceptions, almost to the exclusion of teaching emphasis or reward. They don't get it either, but they miss the point in almost completely the opposite direction. They are not our concern today. Think instead of liberal arts college professors—people who are rewarded for commitment to teaching. Really think about them. Imagine all of your professors—close your eyes and think—sitting in their office right now.


       They are not reading, writing, running experiments, or engaging in the long 
       process of which I have just spoken. No, in this scary little thought experiment 
       they are sitting in their offices, their notes from graduate school slowly yellowing 
       and the PowerPoint teaching files sitting idle on their computers. They can't be 
       bothered with scholarship. No, they are waiting for you to drop by. They are 
       devoted to nothing but you. 
[e] Empty RF

I think back to my own college days, and I am grateful that my professors were accessible, yet busy with their work. This is what made class, office meetings, and lectures truly transformative for me. As I stated at the beginning of this lecture, none of this has much to do with publishing. I could name a half-dozen professors at every school I have attended who, without publishing much at all, were as intensely scholarly—and often much more so—than the faculty member who churns out "papers." No, it has little to do with publication (something that most colleges and universities also get wrong, if only because there is little way to know who is deeply "scholarly" and who is not without a way of counting...even if it is completely flawed). I trust that you have seen it, too—the professor who reads, thinks, writes, teaches, writes, thinks, and reads. You know who s/he is, and I can name a dozen on this campus without even pausing to think. That's scholarship...and teaching.

I adore teaching now, but let me come full-circle and make a final point about scholarship if I can. Although the following scenario is hypothetical—indeed, impossible—I trust that it will make the point. If I were given the following ultimatum tomorrow, I know exactly what I would do:
[f] Bargain RF

We will triple your salary, but you cannot produce any new knowledge for the rest of your career—no "scholarship"; just "teaching"). You may work back through your notes and previously-read books*, but may engage in no new work. This means no fieldwork, no archival study, and no "labs." That's all there is to it, and the reward is triple salary.

This Faustian bargain would not be for me. I would resign immediately and find something else to do. I would miss the classroom terribly, but I enjoy teaching precisely because it is an extension of scholarship, not the other way around. Period. There is no other way to look at it from my perspective.

That is the relationship, to my mind, between scholarship and teaching, and it is why I love what I do.

*A tempting concession, since rereading is truly one of life's great joys. 

Click below for the other sections of this lecture:
Part One                    Part Two                    Part Three                    Part Four                    Part Five

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