In Action

Just before the fall semester convenes one month from now, my graduate
program will hold its annual Community Day event. The day-long event
includes faculty and grad student symposia, a lunch, a conversation with the new cohort of students,
and, in the evening, a potluck. The theme for this year’s event is
"Scholarship In Action," one of the hinge phrases in SU’s mission
statement. Scholarship In Action, as I understand it, is a positive
designation for scholarly activity undertaken in such a way that it circulates
broadly, intervening in the
world beyond the academy. Community engagement, boundary-spanning
initiatives, and participatory dynamics are entered into play. SIA complicates
traditional models of research. I’ve been asked to talk for ten minutes
about how the research I’m doing matches up with SIA, and so, largely because I
agreed to do it, I’ve been walking the perimeter, getting bearings on the phrase, tracing it back
through some of the references to it in recent campus discourse, keeping on the lookout for a eureka or

I read the
university-wide shared reading
for the fall, which, in one sense, presents
TB-expert Paul Farmer as the consummate scholar in action. Also, I have
had a few conversations with people about SIA or overheard it discussed in
relationship to more inclusive sensibilities about tenure and promotion. While it might seem an
over-statement to call SIA controversial, it’s an idea that, because it jostles
with traditional definitions of scholarship, strikes up some hard questions. For
instance: Is SIA, in itself, adequate for progress toward tenure and promotion in all
disciplines? Whatever the answer to this first one, what is the optimum ratio
between SIA and traditional scholarship or, that is, basic research? And
how does the ratio shift depending on rank? What
are the risks involved in building one’s own research agenda on SIA before
establishing much of any record with basic or traditional research in a given
field? I raise these questions mostly to begin to get at some preliminary
ideas about how to talk for ten minutes about SIA relative to what I do (and
what ‘what I do’ does). I
mean that I want to understand the correspondence rather than just insist
on it. I can see that these questions would imply that SIA and traditional
scholarship are at odds. That’s not necessarily the case. They might just
as well be considered integral. Still, SIA implies an improvement upon
basic, traditional scholarship.

Farmer’s research agenda as well as his publication record is downplayed in
Mountains Beyond Mountains. Occasionally, Kidder mentions that
Farmer was dashing off an article late at night or during one of his
trans-Atlantic flights.
Often the article was solicited by a reputable journal, and, of course, the
writing was
tightly interwoven with his on-ground, applied research in the clinic. I mention
this because I didn’t have the impression that Farmer was exerting himself as a
scholar, traditional or in action. I mean that SIA wasn’t
explicitly his

I’m not sure that it’s my plan, either. I mean, I hold SIA in favorable
regard, and I think it is an especially crucial intervention where it expands
definitions of tenurable (i.e., traditional, recognizable) scholarly activity,
even if hasn’t caught on at many institutions. SIA stretches these
carefully defined domains, and it does so, in part, to re-integrate the
university with the world at-large. To blend them together again while
warding off the many pressures, forces, ivory towerisms, and economies of scarcity that
hold them apart in far too many ways. SIA reverses the caricature model of
traditional scholarly production: curmudgeonly hermits turning out article after
unread article, monograph after unread monograph, reproducing a narrow-band
echo-effect among a highly specialized in-group.

But then there are more hard questions: Another concern is that as a graduate student
preparing at SU (an institution where SIA is valued), what bearing will it have
in an institution where SIA is not valued, not recognized? Could SIA have a negative
impact for a freshly minted Ph.D. seeking a faculty appointment at another
institution? Perhaps. Again, the question of ratios in the
combinatory mix–of balancing an SIA agenda with traditional, recognizable scholarship, and
of doing so in such a way that SIA doesn’t merely amount to yet another set of tasks. I suppose this
could be read as cynical, but I don’t mean it that way at all. I’m only
trying to anticipate questions of whether (and to what degree) SIA introduces greater risks
(or greater rewards) for graduate

I haven’t even touched upon the intersection of SIA and digital research and
scholarship, but this is what my ten minutes will sort through. To what
extent is keeping a account a form of SIA? How about blogging? Online teaching?
CCC Online Archive? I can make a case for it, I suppose, but
there’s also a way of dealing with the question that boils down plainly to what is included on one’s
CV. Others have talked about this at length–whether to include one’s weblog on a CV.
I would guess that most people, other than those who have won awards for it,
don’t include it. Obviously, I don’t hide it (under what rug would it
fit?), but neither do I list Earth Wide Moth (not even any of my favorite
entries) on the CV under "scholarship."

In a similar vein, I know there are discussions at old U.
about counting the development of online courses as publications. Online
courses involve a sizable chunk of work and a lot of writing, but are they more
article-like than syllabus-like? More review-like than teaching-statement-like?
I don’t know (er, perhaps I do know this tacitly, considering I don’t
list the courses I’ve developed as publications). Without putting SIA, applied
research, traditional research, or basic research into tidy, discrete
categories, I still need to sort through just how much of what I do matches with
SIA and, as well, take stock of what it is worth to call it by that name.