The Habits of Scholarship

By John Grove 

The following is an abridged version of remarks prepared for the keynote address for the Blue Ridge Undergraduate Research Conference held at LMU on Friday, April 5th, 2019. Dr. Grove was unable to deliver the remarks, but is happy to present a brief version of them here:

Ask any academic, and they’ll tell you one of the more difficult things we’re sometimes asked to do is interdisciplinary collaboration. Few things challenge us more than having to think outside the small area of expertise in which we’ve been trained and find unifying themes across different areas of study. So it is quite a challenge to write keynote remarks for a conference as broad as this one.

What unites all these different kinds of researchers? It is much easier to see what does not unite everyone here: First, academic discipline: We have students from psychology, natural sciences, sports medicine, humanities fields and many others. Second, research interests: The research presented here runs the gamut from the herbaceous species at Pine Mountain to the effect of parenting styles on life satisfaction; From learning assessment styles to Unionist sentiment in East Tennessee during the Civil War; from Jonathan Swift to the therapeutic use of Legos. Finally, methodology: We have literary analysis; we have controlled experiments; we have statistical analysis; we have the firsthand collection of data on tick DNA; we have artistic work; we have theory application and any number of other methods of obtaining knowledge.

So how is it that we can say everyone here is a “scholar”, and that the work presented here is all “scholarship” if the content of the research is so different? There are surely many ways to approach this question. Perhaps one way to consider it is to look at the people presenting the work. Perhaps we are all scholars because we are all scholarly. Our pursuit of knowledge is marked by certain characteristics and habits. So I want to put a question to you, and then some possible answers: What are the habits of scholarship? What makes a person “scholarly”?

Dictionaries don’t help much: the consensus definition, “of or relating to a scholar” is not terribly helpful. The word might have some connotations – If you say someone is particularly “scholarly”, it probably means that person is intelligent but abstract; out of touch with everyday life; I would like to put forward some more meaningful suggestions about what it means to be scholarly. These, I will preface, are not empirical observations: I certainly don’t mean to say that scholars always live up to these qualities. They are largely normative – what I think a scholar ought to be. But they are also characteristics that I think good scholarship hammers into us. They are habits that, if we regularly conduct high quality scholarship in an honest way, may eventually be engrained into our character. Scholarship makes us think and act in certain ways. This is certainly not an exhaustive list, and I’m quite sure there are plenty of critiques that can be lobbed its way. I hope my list, though, might prompt some thought about the ethos of scholarship – what it means to act in a scholarly way.

The first is intellectual humility. Certainly, the first characteristic that comes to mind when one thinks of academics is probably not “humility”. Academics have a not-altogether-undeserved reputation for pride. But conducting good research regularly reinforces the truth that we cannot presume to know answers. Regardless of our methodology, we cannot simply make assertions which we assume to be true. We must demonstrate the veracity of our claims with evidence and logical reasoning, both of which are open to critique by others. We always ought to be faced with the burden of proof. If we take that seriously, it drives home to us just how little we know instinctively, and how difficult it can be to justify even those claims that seem to us to be the obvious in the world.

Second, and relatedly, is the ability to accept failure and turn it into something constructive. Scholarship is not terribly egalitarian when it comes to outcomes: There are good papers and there are bad ones. Good arguments and bad ones. Good, well-constructed experiments and bad ones. We use a peer-review system in scholarly publishing precisely to separate the wheat from the chaff; to determine what is truly worthy of being published and read by others. This inevitably means that anyone working in this arena will experience some form of failure. Someone will, at some point, point out a vital mistake; a significantly flawed argument; a misapplication of theory. I went back and found some peer review comments on some of my published work: “there are places in which this manuscript makes implausible claims on matters of some significance”; “I hope this is not unkind, but there is something musty in this article”; “The article says the author will address an eternal but “dormant” question. It should remain dormant”; And my personal favorite, a comment made at the very first conference at which I presented as a graduate student: ““I’m sorry, he’s just wrong!” A scholar must take this in stride, recognizing that temporary failures can point the way to greater success. All of the comments I just mentioned were made on papers that were eventually published.

Third, is an appreciation of knowledge for its own sake. When I was a graduate student, my dissertation advisor related to me the common metaphor for how an academic gets noticed and makes a name for himself: Find the biggest, tallest tree in the forest, and take an axe to the roots. What this means, of course, is that you should find the most influential, well-known and respected research on your topic, and prove it wrong. I would add a caveat, however: Realize that you probably won’t be able to chop the tree down. Be content if you’re able to chip away some of the bark.

Why would anybody be content with chipping away at the bark of a giant tree if you set out to chop it down? You wouldn’t: That’s because the metaphor breaks down at this point. In most professions (including logging, I would presume), you would be discouraged if, after years and years of work you manage only to make a tiny dent in what you set out to do. But when you deal in knowledge, the calculus is a bit different. Most of us making a living as scholars have to come to accept the fact that we probably won’t revolutionize our fields of study. Our research won’t “change the world” – at least not in the direct, large-scale sense in which we often use that phrase. A 2007 study indicated as many as half of all published academic papers are read by precisely no one outside of the author, the peer reviewers and the journal editor. A different study found that a quarter of all papers in the natural sciences are never cited; 32% in the social

sciences, and a whopping 80% in the humanities. Now, there are some questions about the veracity of these statistics. Nevertheless, it’s clear that many papers that students and professors pour over for months and years will never be read or cited by anyone else, leading one blogger on Intellectual to ask,“why are professors writing crap that nobody reads?”

So, why are we? Part of this answer is the hope that our paper will be the one to make a difference; that it will be cited, it will influence others, and it will change the world. But I think most of us have to find an appreciation for knowledge for its own sake: that uncovering some truth, not just for the world but for ourselves; that knowing something we did not know before is worth the difficult task of learning it.

Fourth, good scholarship develops a habit of critical skepticism to claims of knowledge. All it takes is a quick perusal of social media posts these days to observe that most folks could use a bit more critical skepticism in the way we interact with all sorts of material. When we recognize how much it takes to justify a claim in our own research, we’re not as easily taken by those who claim to know it all.

But we don’t end with skepticism and criticism. Being a father for the past two years, I’m fascinated by observing the way my daughter grows up and learns about the world around her for the first time. One thing that is hard to miss is how much easier it is for her to destroy things than to put them together. From building blocks to puzzles, she immediately observes the weaknesses and pulls them apart. Putting them back together, however, requires a bit of help and patience. Scholarship also demands that we do both of these: deconstruct and construct; critique and build up. Not only do we critically evaluate the work of others, we also must put forward better explanations; positive answers to the questions that we are exploring. We build theories offer alternative explanations and build on the scholarship has come before ours. This is the imaginative element of scholarship: The ability to piece things together and see beyond the specific, narrow research questions that we examine, and appreciate a wider picture.

None of these qualities should be taken for self-congratulation. Scholars embody all of these traits. We often fight against them; We think we have all the answers. We have the same grand ambitions as people in every other field of life which makes us sometimes disappointed to only uncover some “minor” bit of knowledge. We get frustrated with failure. We sometimes fail to be critical when it comes to things we want to be true. We are sometimes overly critical, becoming satisfied only to tear down rather than build up our understanding. Yet I believe honest scholarship encourages these habits, and our hard work may not only build up the common stock of knowledge, but may also make us better people.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create your website with
Get started
%d bloggers like this: