This post is a preview of my new book, which I just published with Kindle. It’s available on Amazon both as an e-book and a paperback. The title is Being a Scholar: Reflections on Doctoral Study, Scholarly Writing, and Academic Life. Below is the book’s introduction, which provides the rationale for the book and summarizes the eleven pieces that you will find there.
The book is quite short — only 36,000 words, a spare 118 pages in print — and, while its focus is on being a scholar, its approach is not very academic. As a result, I didn’t seek out a university press to publish it. They wouldn’t be interested and their reviewers would have demanded something I didn’t want to provide, so I decided to publish it myself through the medium of Kindle Direct Publishing. There you can upload a manuscript and cover, pick a sale price, and click “publish.” An hour after I did so, the digital version was ready for purchase on the Amazon site, and the next morning the paperback version was also available. A dramatic change from the process I was used to follow in putting out a book — from two years of reviewing, revising, copyediting, and printing to over night. Gotta admit, I like both the speed and the freedom. And the price. The digital version sells for $4.99 and the paper edition for $10 (which is printed to order; no inventory). Talk about accessible.
Ok, enough about process, what’s the content? It’s a collection of pieces I’ve been writing over the last half dozen years — mostly for online and nonacademic venues, such as Inside Higher Ed, Aeon, and my blog — that seek to provide guidance for doctoral students heading for an academic career and for new faculty members just starting in the business. The result is a book is less scholarly than teacherly. It’s me trying to exercise my teacher voice now that I’m fully retired.
Hope you like it.
This book is the product of 40 years of teaching. For most of this time, I was working with graduate students in education at Michigan State and Stanford, an experience that gave me a great opportunity to reflect on what it means to be a scholar and to work toward becoming a scholar. The eleven essays I’m presenting here are the product of that reflection. I wrote them over the last decade and published them in a variety of venues. Recently, my friend Ed Schein suggested that I collect them into a little volume, which I decided was a good idea. My hope is that this book can serve as a useful guide for students entering into doctoral study and for scholars early in their careers in the academy. Its particular focus is on scholarship in the social sciences, but much of it may be relevant to people in other fields as well.
These essays vary considerably – in length, from 600 words to 6,000 words; and in form, from simple exhortations to analyses with lots of citations. But what I hope they all have in common is a straightforward conversational tone and broad accessibility. These pieces spring from my eagerness, as I neared retirement, to shrug off the stilted academic voice I had to adopt four decades to clear the hurdle of peer reviewers and instead apply my teacher voice directly to the page.
Because of the way in which these essays were written, the book’s structure is less planned than emergent. Instead of trying to weave them into a single coherent narrative, I decided to leave them in their original form, where they can be read independently of each other and in any order. This necessarily leads to a certain amount of repetition across the volume, but the structure allows students and instructors to pick out particular pieces that meet their needs. The result is a book that is organized into three overlapping sections, which are largely chronological across the early years of becoming a scholar: doctoral study; scholarly writing; and the academic life. Let me say a little about each essay.
Advice for New PhD Students
At both Michigan State and Stanford, I taught a required proseminar for incoming doctoral students, and this primer distills some of the key bits of advice I found useful to offer them as they entered into the world of scholarship. Stop being a good student. Take control of your doctoral program. Build your own conceptual framework. Learn how to skim. Resist the lure of professionalism lite. Don’t forget what brought you to doctoral study in the first place. Develop your own academic voice and academic brand. And have some fun.
Sermon on Educational Research
This essay also draws on my experience over the years working with doctoral students in education. The advice is for these students to approach their apprenticeships in educational research by doing the opposite of what everyone else tells them to do. The standard model encourages scholars to be scrupulously careful about being accurate above all else, to be hyper-diligent in incorporating all of the data and literature into their research, and to pursue what is most relevant to current policy concerns. My counter-advice is for students instead to be wrong, lazy, and irrelevant. In the end, scholarship really comes down to the pursuit of truth, justice, and beauty; and the greatest of these is beauty.
We’re Creating Academic Technicians and Social Justice Warriors
Here I explore concerns I developed late in my career at Stanford about the way in which I felt our doctoral program was pushing students into one of two dysfunctional directions. On the one hand, we seemed to be training them to be academic technicians, whose focus is on rigorous methodology and technical proficiency at the expense of substance and meaning. On the other hand, there was a tendency to push students to frame their approach to research around promoting a particular vision of social justice at the expense of intellectual integrity and liberal values. Research is either all about methodological finesse or all about race and gender, all means or all ends. The good news is that most students were not comfortable with either model; the bad news is that this left them exposed in a free-fire zone between the extremes.
The Esthetic Pleasures of Scholarly Writing
In this miniature essay, I argue that academic writing is not just a demonstration of professional competence and an exercise in developing valid scientific arguments. It’s also an act of literary creation that can provide esthetic pleasures for both author and reader.
Academic Writing as an Exercise in Arrogance and Humility
Here I briefly examine a tension that lies at the heart of all scholarly writing, and maybe of any kind of writing directed toward a public audience. Such writing requires a strange mixture of arrogance and humility. It’s remarkably arrogant for a writer to command the attention of the reader. You’re saying, hey, I’ve got something important to tell you, so put down what you’re doing and give me your undivided attention. And this very act means that you the writer are risking public humiliation if what you’re saying fails to convince the reader and keep the reader’s attention. Writers need to be sufficiently confident to say what they have to say with enough conviction to be persuasive, and they also need sufficiently cautious to make claims with enough validity to be credible. A delicate balancing act indeed.
The Five-Paragraph Fetish
The presentation of scholarship is highly formulaic. The emblematic product of this professional domain—the academic journal article—is less a lump of clay waiting to be molded than a set of fired jars waiting to be filled. Not only are the jars unyielding to the touch, but even their number and order are fixed. There are five of them, which need to be filled in precise order: research question, literature review, methodology, results, and conclusions. Don’t stir. Repeat. Here I explore the form and function of this formulaic medium. I trace its roots to a series of earlier formalisms that dominate American schooling. First comes the five-paragraph essay, a form that is chillingly familiar to anyone who has attended an American high school. This model continues to hold sway in college. Then in graduate school comes the five-chapter doctoral dissertation. Same jars, same order. By the time the doctoral student becomes a professor, the pattern is fixed. The Rule of Five is thoroughly fixed in muscle memory, and the scholar is on track to produce a string of articles that follow from it. The formula is useful for all of the actors involved, making it easy to write acceptable academic papers, to skim and evaluate these papers, and to build a credible CV and a high citation journal. The only thing it’s not good for is transmitting meaningful academic insights.
Adventures in Scholarship
This is an essay on the doing of scholarship that draws on my own checkered experience for insight. The first thing I discovered is that research trajectories are not things you can carefully map out in advance. They just happen. You learn as you go. And the most effective means of learning from your own work — at least from my experience — arises from getting it wrong, time and time again. If you’re not getting things wrong, you may not be learning much at all, since you may just be continually finding what you’re looking for. It may well be that what you need to find are the things that you’re not looking for and that you really don’t want to confront. The second insight is that it’s good to know what are the central weaknesses in the way you do research. These weaknesses don’t discount the value of your work, they just put limits on it. Your way of doing scholarship is probably better at producing some kinds of insights over others. That’s OK. Build on your strengths and let others point out your weaknesses. You have no obligation and no ability to give the final answer to any important question. Instead, your job is to make a provocative contribution to the ongoing scholarly conversation and let other scholars take it from there, countering your errors and filling in the gaps. There is no last word.
The Lust for Academic Fame: America’s Engine for Scholarly Production
Most employers motivate their employees through a mix of fear and greed – the threat of firing and the lure of higher pay. In the university, however, material rewards are modest and tenured faculty have total job security. Yet faculty nonetheless often work like crazy throughout their careers producing scholarship. The reward that animates scholarly actors, I argue, is semiotic rather than material. The system provides a wide array of symbolic goods over which academics fight: titles, awards, named professorships, membership in prestigious committees and national academies, visibility within professional organizations, and so on. We’re not looking for rewards from superiors but for recognition and respect from peers. The result is a self-generating system for academic publishing that minimizes supervisory costs and maximizes productivity. What a great deal for the university: a self-generating faculty publishing machine. The downside of this system is that it leads to a large amount of scholarly output that is less a contribution to knowledge than an accumulation of merit badges to decorate our CVs. But I suggest that maybe that’s ok, as long as there is sufficient gold mixed in with the dross. It’s messy and massively inefficient, but it works.
College Teaching Is Better than You’d Expect
Everyone complains about the quality of college teaching, and there’s some truth in the critiques. The institutional incentives certainly seem to be stacked against good teaching. Universities tend to reward scholarship more than teaching and for good reason. People don’t pick the college they want to attend based on the quality of teaching. And the socioeconomic payoff of graduating from a college comes from its scholarly reputation regardless of teaching quality. But I argue that college professors actually teach better than they need to in order to meet the demands of the job. What we crave is recognition from our peers more than approval of administrators. We avidly seek to accumulate the symbolic goods that are pervasive in the profession. Like members of a street gang, members of a college faculty operate within an economy of respect. We work hard to achieve the respect of our peers, and – this is key – we are particularly concerned about avoiding any signs of disrespect. We don’t want to be the faculty’s “dead man walking,” the one whose scholarship is no longer up to standard. And this carries over to teaching. I want the word in the hallways to be that I’m a good teacher. But most of all, I don’t want to occupy a place in the college teacher hall of shame.
Giving Away Knowledge and Selling Degrees: US Universities as Institutions of Higher Schooling
This brief sketch focuses on the peculiar business model of universities in the US: They give away knowledge but they sell degrees. Their brand is to be institutions of higher learning, but they don’t actually sell this learning. You can go to the library or look online and read for free all of the cutting-edge advancements in knowledge that their scholars have produced. Of course, students have to pay tuition in order to attend the university, where they get instruction in this knowledge. But when you look closely, you see that they are not paying for the knowledge so much as paying to have the university certify that they received this knowledge. And it’s this certification rather than the knowledge itself that gives them privileged access to the best jobs.
Luck and Pluck: Competing Accounts of a Life in the Meritocracy
Occupants of the American meritocracy are accustomed to telling stirring stories about their lives. The standard story is a comforting tale about grit in the face of adversity – overcoming obstacles, honing skills, working hard – which then inevitably affords entry to the Promised Land. Once you have established yourself in the upper reaches of the occupational pyramid, this story of virtue rewarded rolls easily off the tongue. It makes you feel good (I got what I deserved) and it reassures others (the system really works). But you can also tell a different story, which is more about luck than pluck and whose driving forces are less your own skill and motivation and more the happy circumstances you emerged from and the accommodating structure you traversed. As an example, here I tell my own story about my career negotiating the hierarchy in the highly stratified system of American higher education. I ended up in a cushy job as a professor at Stanford. How did I get there? I tell the story both ways. The first version is all about pluck, the second all about luck. One has the advantage of making me more comfortable about how things turned out. The other has the advantage of being more true. Turns out I was just entering the family business.