Wednesday, May 25, 2011

What Scholars Do

Scholars are participants in a conversation. Their job is to make claims and defend them, and to provide occasions for their peers to defend the claims they make. This job description is as general as saying of dancers that they make movements in front of an audience. Or of musicians that they make sounds for others to hear.

In the development of a craft, it is important to see yourself as a maker of something, not a particular kind of being. It is true that becoming a scholar will change you as a person, but it is your activities that will change you, not some act of will, and certainly not some state of mind. I have found, for example, that many students, and even young faculty, need to become much more assertive, much more confident about what they have to say. Some of them think they are following the example of the self-deprecating scholar who always reminds you how little they know, how new this topic is to them, how difficult it is even for them to understand. The students who witness this performance forget that it is an exercise in irony. The pose of the searching, uncertain scholar is grounded in an underlying confidence in one's ability to speak intelligently on a range of subjects (those that define the field). Don't think that if a famous scholar admits to being uncertain then your uncertainty, and your willingness to admit it, is a sure sign that you've got a future in scholarship. Look at what scholars do, not what they say they are, and ask yourself whether you can do it too.

Notice that even someone with no musical training can appreciate, and to some extent evaluate, the ability of a professional musician. I may not be able to select from among a group of aspirants to the Berlin Philharmonic who would be best for the job, but I can hear whether or not an individual is a reasonably accomplished cellist simply from listening to her play. Likewise, I can hear, simply from listening to someone speak, whether or not she is a learned scholar of the subject she is speaking about. The cellist is able to articulate sounds (produce them and join them together) into melodies; the scholar is able to articulate claims into arguments. I can follow the tune or the argument without being able to produce it myself.

The novice musician or scholar, having tried for many years to make what the experts make, is able to also appreciate the difficulty. The aspiration to become a scholar is always tempered by this awareness. One may have some basic intelligence, just as one may have some basic musical ability, but one may have failed to develop this ability, to overcome a particular set of difficulties. The particularity of this development is worth keeping in mind.

Obviously mere "musical ability" is not enough for a cellist. The cellist may be good enough to play in the finest orchestras in the world but only, precisely, as a cellist. Her general musicality will not help her play the same pieces on the piano or the violin at the same level. Likewise, the scholar must recognize that merely being intelligent is not enough. That intelligence must be applied to the formation of a particular set of strenghts, an ease and gracefulness in a particular area of scholarship, an ability to participate confidently in a particular conversation.

The musician naturally develops her talent by practicing. She takes out her instrument and tries to get it to make the sounds she wants. She is rarely satisfied with the immediate "result" (i.e., the actual sounds she produces while practicing), of course, because she is practicing precisely those sounds and phrases that she wants to get better at. But she knows that she is getting better with each attempt. She knows that she is learning how to do something, how to make something.

Scholars are in the same situation. They too often forget this. They should spend more time making claims and supporting them. Even when there is no one around to hear them.

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