Research, Teaching, and Scholarship

I’ve been on the faculty at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario since 1984 – one of the most secure jobs there is, once you get tenure. That makes me a professional scholar: “scholar” in Sense 2a of the Merriam-Webster dictionary (a person who has done advanced study in a specialized field), and “professional” in the sense of getting paid for it. Maybe I can even claim “scholar” definition 2b (a learned person), albeit rather more narrowly “learned” than when the word entered the lexicon centuries ago. But I’ve been a scholar in some sense since I was a child: I love learning new things, and finding ways to explain them. I noticed during this A-Z blogging challenge that I carry scholarly attitudes over into my writing hobby.

(A-Z challenge R logo)

The essence of scholarship is to explore what others have done, especially what they have written, develop a coherent understanding of it, and do something with what you’ve learned. That’s what I wound up doing for several of my blog entries, albeit not with as much rigour as one expects in a scholarly discipline: I’ve found a topic I didn’t understand well enough, done some reading on the subject (albeit on the Net of A Trillion Lies, a.k.a. the Internet), and written it up. Recent blog entries that fit this pattern include:

as well as some from the more distant past. Even some of the no-research ones have an “explain things” element that probably arises from the scholarly mindset.

Scholarship requires more than just providing a list of links (or a bunch of citations, for a scholarly journal paper); it requires organizing what you’ve read, looking for commonalities, relationships, and contrasts. Ideally, this produces insights that are a worthwhile original contribution, though I can’t claim such lofty results from any of my blog posts.

In Academia, this is sometimes called “custodial research.” Producing a new interpretation of past work in some fields is a respected intellectual endeavour. Not so much in scientific and engineering fields; you do a bit of custodial work in your “literature review” but are then expected to produce something quite new, “original research.”

Both kinds of research are necessary, but after roughly 45 years in academia in one role or another, I’m of the opinion that I’m better at the first than at the second. It seems to me it’s the kind of scholarly work most suited to informing one’s teaching, because in involves trying to explain things to people who haven’t absorbed the source material. But it requires other people’s original research, without which there wouldn’t be anything to build on.

Of course, my posts aren’t the last word; there are many sources out there I never consulted, which might have insights and information that would be as valuable (or more) as what I found. What should happen in an ideal world for scholars is that others would comment “I think this work by X is relevant” or “Have you considered this other perspective?” Both are things aimed at exploring and improving the work.

In the scholarly world this is what’s supposed to happen through “peer review” where a few other scholars examine and critique your work before you publish it. Unfortunately some reviewers don’t take such a supportive attitude; some reviews read like they were intended for the comments section of an Internet post, which so often are vituperative. To a certain extent academia involves dominance games: “my research is better than your research.” It can take the form of trying to deny publication to rivals, or insisting that a paper reference your own work, however irrelevant, to increase your publication count, which increases your chance of getting research funding. But it’s like Churchill’s comment about democracy: the worst system, aside from all the others. When they are doing their jobs properly, peers are the only ones with enough knowledge to decide when your work is sound.

I’ve many times heard arguments that people who focus on research do so at the expense of their teaching – that the two are fundamentally opposed. I’ve seen evidence that this is true for some people, but by no means all. A few months ago one of my School’s most eminent researchers said to me “the last act of research is an act of teaching” – that it is the duty of researchers to pass along what they have learned to others. In my remaining years as a professional scholar, I hope that whatever research I get done will make me a better teacher.

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