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.

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