Monthly Archives: January 2010

As promised…Daniel Thurs’ guest post Part II

What is Good Scholarship?
Part II

Here I’d like to contribute something of my own, perhaps idiosyncratic, thinking about the nature of good scholarship (and I want to take special pains to emphasize that from here on out, everything you may take issue with is purely me). Chief among my scholarly touchstones is the notion of humility. I don’t mean a kind of obsequiousness that consistently favors engagement and fears criticism. Many scholars-in-training already tend to defer, understandably, to the intellectual giants of their fields. In those cases, I’d suggest a slightly more skeptical course. On the other hand, to move the metaphor back to land, those people whose words and behaviors provide the grist for scholarly mills are sometimes treated with a sort of disregard. In my own work, I’ve encountered too many historical actors—not the great intellects, but otherwise ordinary folks—who were as smart or smarter than I was, and knew more about what was going on around them to boot, to be comfortable with such a view. In approaching sources, I did bring an important set of tools, concepts, and questions they did not have, but our relationship worked best when I treated them as partners rather than resources to be exploited and when I kept open the ever-present possibility of being surprised by what they had to say.

One reason why I tend to value humility so highly, and possibly one reason why the question of what makes for good scholarship is so hard to answer in the abstract, is that scholarly endeavor takes place in a certain institutional context. Modern academia, whatever its substantial contribution to the world, is not a system that typically values or rewards being humble. Aside from the intellectual adventure and fulfillment it provides, the work of getting a Ph.D., of getting a job, of getting noticed often requires a kind of studied arrogance toward other scholars (who often have to be wrong in some measure for you to be right), toward sources (who sometimes become one-dimensional and conveniently easy to deconstruct), and toward the general public (which is occasionally either little more than the waiting and empty receptacle for scholarly knowledge or the passive “other” subject to scholarly analysis). Present-day expertise, rooted in and cultivated through the institutions of academia, is an important part of the world and can effect considerable change for the better. It also has a less fortunate side that can elevate experts over everyone else, in turn justifying their expertise. For me, at least, truly good scholarship is about keeping away from such currents.

I suspect, beyond the demands of particular disciplines and the institutions of academia, there’s one additional challenge to determining the nature of good scholarship, and that’s the magic word “scholarship.” As much as I’d like to believe it, to justify all those student loans I took out, I don’t think anyone requires a Ph.D. to either produce or appreciate good scholarship. That’s true whether you earned a BA five years ago or never went to college at all. The twin values of engagement and critical attitude are present in ordinary interactions at their best wherever they occur. What is required is a community of people dedicated to grappling with the world honestly and effectively. And that is what that Draper Program provides.

Perhaps that’s the ultimate meaning of humility for me—no one can do it alone. In that spirit, I should say that, while I’ve made passing reference to the collective Draperian wisdom, I have specific people to thank for the ideas above. So, humble thanks to Amber, Georgia, Larissa, Louis, Maia, Nina, Rebecca, Robert, and Robin.

And finally, I want to impart to you all, the most humble, most important, and most profound secret of good scholarship. In one word: scallops!

What is Good Scholarship? A guest blog entry by Daniel Thurs, Professor of Science Studies

We’ll be posting Professor Thurs’ excellent essay on scholarship in two parts. Stay tuned for Part 2 tomorrow…

Part I

What is good scholarship? That was a question a student recently posed to me. After a lot of thought and a few halting stabs at an answer, I decided my best option was to pass the scholarly buck. So, I re-posed the question to the staff and faculty here at Draper to get their views on the matter. What follows is my attempt to channel the program’s collective wisdom.

One of the first responses I found was that the nature of good scholarship depended on the particular fields involved. Some disciplines value testing established models, others look for the identification of causal relationships, and still others aim at tracing out complex and often messy webs of meaning. Certain areas avoid jargon and others encourage testing the limits of conventional language. In some cases, you can refer to yourself in the first person. In others, that’s a high crime. This makes the faculty, staff, and students at Draper and NYU more broadly, with all their varied backgrounds, valuable sources of insight into different scholarly traditions. In other words, you should feel free to pass your own scholarly bucks.

Still, there was consensus on some general elements of good scholarship that transcended particular disciplines. Perhaps the most important was engagement. There’s no immediately simple way to characterize the nature of engagement, though the common image is one of reaching out. It’s the close and careful reading of sources on their own terms, according to the rules and logics they set up, while doggedly and persistently seeking out the many possible meanings and facets that any given piece of material may contain or enable. It’s also stepping into the larger academic world, grounding conclusions in the work of other scholars, being aware of their views, and addressing the problems they raise with (in part, at least) the tools they provide. And it’s making your efforts matter, ideally to those both inside and outside of academia, which relies on the ability to successfully communicate your ideas, perhaps with a dash of enthusiasm.

The second element of good scholarship that came through clearly was the need for a critical approach, on three different levels. First, while you want to read your sources carefully, you can’t always accept every claim they make. It’s important to subject them to analysis of some kind. Neither should you always nod in your conversations with other scholars. Their work, even by the most well-known, should similarly be open to question. This isn’t to suggest you claim that X or Y is irredeemably wrong at every opportunity—that probably comes from a lack of engagement—but their ideas may not fit the particular case you’re working with or you may need to adapt or extend them. Lastly, you want to subject yourself and your claims to a critical eye. Are there reasons, beyond evidence and argument, that I think something is true? What are the limits, as well as the strengths, of my perspective? What are the implications of the conclusions I draw? What are the stakes of the questions I raise?

Given what’s been said, I think it’s fair to see engagement and criticism as the two poles of the scholarly globe, which raises another question. How do you navigate between them? Luckily, Draperian wisdom can still provide some guidance. To find your way, you’ll need a sense of balance between an openness to the world and a suspicion of its honesty, between faith in the reality of knowledge and skepticism that anything can be truly known, between construction and deconstruction. At the same time, you’ll want to rely on your ability to be creative. That doesn’t always mean coming up with a dramatically new argument or composing a revolutionary piece of literature. Most enduring knowledge builds by increments on what’s come before and the majority of scholarship—even some of the best—is more methodical than grandiose. There is creativity in finding (and recognizing) a new and valuable source of information, in saying things in subtly new ways that open up novel routes of thought and research, and in combining existing ideas in unexpected constellations.

Call For Papers: Material Culture Conference at U Mich

Call For Papers:

Thinking About ‘Things’ (TAT):
Interdisciplinary Futures in Material Culture
An Interdisciplinary, International Material Culture Conference for
Graduate Students

May 10-12, 2010
University of Michigan (Ann
Arbor, Michigan, U.S.)

Thinking about ‘Things’: Interdisciplinary Futures in Material Culture
TAT 2010 is a three-day international and interdisciplinary graduate
student conference designed to explore material culture and the ways
in which we create it, interact with it, use it, discard it, and study

Papers dealing with notions of preservation, broadly interpreted, are
sought from graduate students working across a diverse spectrum of
disciplines and interdisciplines.

Accepted papers will be arranged in panels according to the following
rubric of theme areas:
1. Preservation in nature -preservation and decay with little or no
human intervention (e.g. relics, ruins, remains)
2. Human practices of material culture preservation (e.g. food
storage, taxidermy, archiving, museums, “green” culture and resource
3. Preserving the intangible (e.g. memories, identity, social status)
through the material.
4. Aesthetics, ethics, prescriptions, politics and theory of
preservation, conservation, and restoration of material culture.
5. Meaningful objects and the museum – issues of preservation specific
to the context of museums and museum-like institutions.
6. TATart – Nontraditional submissions are invited in audio, visual,
textual, and virtual formats.

Deadline for submission of abstracts is February 20, 2010. For more
information or to submit your 250-word abstract, visit

We welcome submissions from students at all stages of graduate study.

Kelly Kirby
Doctoral Candidate
Department of Anthropology
Program in Museum Studies
Co-organizer, Thinking About ‘Things’ conference
May 10-12, 2010 ~

Sarah Conrad Gothie
Doctoral Student
Program in American Culture & Museum Studies
Co-organizer, Thinking About ‘Things’ conference
May 10-12, 2010 ~

Visit the website at

Reminder! Anamesa Spring Kick-off Meeting Tomorrow (Thursday)

Kick-off meeting for Anamesa, a peer-reviewed interdisciplinary anthology of graduate student work

Thursday, January 28 at 8:30 pm
Bobst Library, group study room LL1-20 on the lower level

More info on our blog, here.

DSO Colloquium Call for Papers

From DSO…

Dear Draperites,

We are looking for papers, projects and presentations for this spring’s DSO Colloquium on ‘The Frame.’

All aspects and interpretations of the topic are welcome. Your paper could address such things as:

  • in visual art: how the frame signals the limits of the art object, what happens when it is ignored or violated, how it functions as a (de?)politicized boundary
  • in literature: the frame narrative, the critical or historical frame for a work, non-literary textual frames such as newspapers, magazines
  • in cinema: the physical frame as unit of composition, how this physical frame negotiates intentionality – what is included/ excluded, the possibility of a frame-less cinema
  • in history: the frame of reference, the perspective or context, the impact of historiographical practice on the accessibility or invisibility of such frames
  • in archive/museum studies: the archive as frame for the primary text, tensions between physical and intellectual frames for archival holdings, the curatorial frame, its neutrality, transparency or mediating effect
  • in law/politics: the frame as set-up, conspiracy, the frame imposed against one’s will

This colloquium is limited to Draper students and provides an excellent opportunity to speak about a project you are working on and get input and ideas from your fellow students. Presentations will be 15-20 minutes long and do not have to be based on a completed project. Often a paper that is still in progress will yield a more fruitful discussion. That said, completed projects are very welcome as well.

For those interested in helping out with the selection committee, organizing the colloquium, or moderating please email Christine at

The DSO Colloquium on The Frame is scheduled for Friday 26 March at 6:30.

Proposals (200 words) are due by 28 February to
Please feel free to contact Christine with any questions.