Tag Archives: Guest Post

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.

Guest post part two, by Rick Halmo

If you missed it, part one of Rick’s account of his recent travel was posted on this blog on Nov. 25th. Enjoy!

Jerusalem: The Holy City

I had the opportunity to spend a full day in Jerusalem, although given how much Jerusalem has to offer for a history buff like me one day was not enough in this intriguing city. The security presence was apparent everywhere once we entered the city limits. Coming off the hour-long bus ride from Tel Aviv we were immediately subjected to a security screening into the bus depot/full-scale mall. In lieu of describing the history of the city, I think it is more interesting to discuss the manifestations of “modernity” that have been attempted in the “Holy City,” particularly in the realm of architecture and infrastructure.

One of the more astounding things I had learned during my trip was that the city of Jerusalem has a law stating that anyone wishing to put up a building within the city limits could do so but if they hit an archeological “dig” site that company would have to stop its construction and finance the remainder of the dig. Also, the new buildings would have to be built with the same old-looking stone with which the rest of the area is built. What an interesting roadblock to future development and construction. Only currently is Jerusalem putting in an aboveground rail line (think of the T train in Boston’s suburbs) through the city, and the project has apparently taken a long time to develop.

As I was leaving Jerusalem, I had the sense that this city had trapped itself in the past. Proud of its immense history, I felt that it attempted to retain that history by keeping the city’s entire character contained in the past as well, as if its incredible history could not stand on its own. More likely, perhaps it was just that the city’s inhabitants yearned for the past, a point that gains even more credibility when you consider their reaction to a place like Tel Aviv.

Tel Aviv: Sin City

Tel Aviv is your standard beach city. Its characteristics mirror that of other beach cities that one can think of; the city is relatively more progressive than the rest of the territory, people regularly walk around in bathing suits, and there are abundant clubs and bars that you certainly would not see in other parts of the country like Jerusalem. Tel Aviv has corporate parks and a highly developed, futuristic downtown. Balancing this modern flare, there are a plethora of quaint marketplaces where bargaining is also part of the culture. Around the city there are a number of large parks and exercising areas, and while one may not feel alien in this area coming from America, the feeling of separation between Tel Aviv and the rest of Israel seemed quite palpable.

One of the more incredible things I picked up during my trip to Israel was a free magazine in the Jerusalem tourist headquarters. It was from the “TimeOut” publishing group (from “TimeOut New York”) and they had a magazine cover with the headline “JRS vs. TLV: Holy City vs. Sin City.” Two of their comparisons will do just fine to show how the area views these two distinct cities.

Under the comparison of “Architectural Trademark,” Jerusalem’s section describes, “Jerusalem stone and ancient ruins,” while Tel Aviv’s states that they have, “Bauhaus alongside indistinct contemporary architecture.” In the “religion” comparison, Jerusalem is said to be a place where “Judaism, Christianity and Islam are practiced in synagogues, churches and mosques, built in the name of God, Jesus and Allah, respectively,” while Tel Aviv’s religion is “Hedonism. Practiced in bars and nightclubs. God is a DJ.” The comparisons seem to reflect a kind of distaste for the modern and a preference for the past. Given the history of this region, it is hard for me to blame the inhabitants of the region for that mentality. Even so, I felt my experience of these two cities to be enhanced by experiencing the other one.

As you can see, a weeklong trip provided a lot of memories and lessons that one can only get by living what they learn in class. The trip gave me a better perspective not only on what I am learning in my classes, but also on the way in which people interact in other societies. I look forward to applying what I learned here to future scholarship and future travels.

Special “Thank you” to my professors, Mrinalini Rajagopalan and Maia Ramnath, for being so supportive of my travels to this incredible area.

Heather Paulson on the American Comparative Literature Association Conference

Draper student Heather Paulson recently attended the American Comparative Literature Association Conference at Harvard University. She shares on the experience below:

This past March I attended and presented a paper at the annual conference of the American Comparative Literature Association (ACLA), held at Harvard University. I went to Harvard with feelings of great trepidation, as this was the first academic conference I had attended, not to mention the first academic paper that has seen the light of day outside a professor’s office or classroom.

The ACLA conference is unique in that it is organized around seminars, not panels, which allow for each presenter to share his or her work and then discuss it with the other participants and public attendees. My seminar, entitled “After Everything is Said,” revolved around ideas of translation, production, and the role of the author/producer in shaping experience with a text. Most surprising was the diversity of the other participants: a professor from Boston University, two others from University of South Carolina, doctoral students from the University of Minnesota and University of Iowa, and an independent scholar from the UK. I was the sole MA student, but felt completely welcomed and inspired by my colleagues, whose work was as diverse as their backgrounds. Along with the seminar I participated in, ACLA had over 200 other seminars that ran from 8:30 in the morning to 4:30 in the afternoon. Needless to say, choosing which seminars to attend was a daunting task, but I managed to see several NYU professors present their work, including Mark Sanders (Comparative Literature) and Emily Apter (French), ran into Professor Shireen Patell (Trauma and Violence) in another seminar, and attended over six different seminars with topics such as, “Worlding of Worlds,” and “South Africa in Translation.”

Although I was uncertain what to expect from the conference, I came away with a greater confidence in my own writing and scholarship. I am also inspired and overwhelmed by the infinite possibilities for study—with every paper that was read, I realized how little I would ever truly be able to know about anything. If any Draper student is considering submitting an abstract or attending a conference, I would highly recommend ACLA; the diversity of seminars makes space for almost any field of study, and the attendees are welcoming and open-minded.

Heather Paulson is a currently pursuing a dual-degree MA/MLS with NYU’s Draper Program and Long Island University’s Palmer School of Library and Information Science. Her interests include the literatures of Sub-Saharan Africa, political writing, memory and memoir, and academic librarianship. She also works at the New York Society Library and assists Professor Shireen Patell with the Trauma and Violence Transdisciplinary Program.