Tuesday, July 24, 2007

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 two.

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 plan.

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 students.

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 del.icio.us 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.

Bookmark and Share Posted by at July 24, 2007 9:45 AM to Academe