Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Scholarship as a Way of Life

[On April 14 I was asked to give a brief opening address to the West Michigan Honors Conference hosted by our own Honors Program here at Calvin College.  The conference was an opportunity for students from several colleges and universities to share the fruits of undergraduate research. These are my notes for the talk which might be of interest to others. (The talk was more conversational, so these points were more developed in the oral version.) I hope this might also address the misguided but persistent impression that somehow my recent work is "anti-intellectual."]

It's a Saturday morning, late in the semester, and you're here for a scholarly conference?  I love you guys!   Welcome to the club of freaks and geeks who pursue scholarship as a way of life.  

I hope that's a club you want to join (granted, there are Woody Allenish worries in the ballpark here).  I hope you're here contributing to the conversation because curiosity gives you an adrenalin rush, because generating new knowledge makes your heart sing.  Because the life of scholarship is not something that should be instrumentalized for other ends; nor should it be reduced to a particular profession; scholarship is a way of life--one I hope you'll pursue in your years ahead even if you never go to grad school or entertain becoming a professor or professional "scholar." 

The scholarly life is its own reward: it is a good life--it is the sort of reflective pursuit that has been valorized by the ancients.  It is also the sort of life that is increasingly difficult to sustain in a sound-bite culture of perpetual distraction.  In the age of the Kardashians and iPhone Twitter feeds, finding joy in the slow-food of scholarly reflection is a counter-cultural pursuit.  

Let me highlight three joys of scholarship as a way of life.

The Joy of Finding: Seeing New Corners of the World

The scholarly life is its own reward: joys of being a perpetual student (cp. my own continued experience of the joy of discovery, e.g., in returning to Jonathan Edwards' Freedom of the Will this past semester; I love teaching what I don't know!).  

Don't let initiation into the guild beat that out of you.  Build habits that will continue to propel you into new arenas in your future.

The Joy of Making: Unpacking the Potential of the World

We might be wrongly tempted to think of scholarship as a very passive way of life: observing, analyzing, describing, criticizing.  But in fact scholarship is a fundamentally creative way of life: it certainly requires us to be attentive and attuned to the world--to texts that are in front of us, to slides under the microscope, to data generated by experiments, etc.  Scholarship makes us accountable to a world.  But if we are really doing scholarship, then we are not just passive consumers of information, nor are we merely passive observers.  By posing questions and confirming hypotheses and arguing with the literature and making an argument, we are making.  We are unfurling more of the potential that is latent in the world, unpacking new possibilities.  Scholarship is a mode of poiesis, of making, creating.  It is a generative way of life.  Good scholarship is not unlike good craftsmanship: there is a special joy in the product of our labor.  

And let's remember: you don't have to be in a lab or a studio or a library to be doing this.  The best entrepreneurs are some of our best scholars.  A scholarly way of life contributes to culture and the common good.

The Joy of Collaborating

You might be tempted to picture scholars holed up in their offices or studios or laboratories, sequestered from the world, hunched over as they work in isolation. But the scholarly way of life is richest and most innovative when it is pursued collaboratively, through "wisdom networks" and in life-giving teams.  Ideas percolate communally.

-Jon Gertner's new book about Bell Labs, The Idea Factory, who shows us that "most sustained feats of innovation cannot and do not occur in an iconic garage or the workshop of an ingenuous inventor.  They occur when people of diverse talents and mind-sets and expertise are brought together, preferable in close physical proximity where they can have frequent meetings and serendipitous encounters" (Isaacson).  This has found expression in recent architecture for research facilities (Per Paul Goldberger's analysis in "Laboratory Conditions," New Yorker, Sept. 19, 2011, pp. 88-89).

This week I've had two wonderful interactions: with Jim Olthuis, my advisor through my master's degree and long-time mentor; and with Nathan Sytsma, a former student who worked as my MacGregor Fellow.  As a scholar, there is a unique joy in being both a "son" and a "father." 

A scholarly way of life is fundamentally collaborative--fostered in a community of friendship.  So remember your mentors and pay your debts: build into the lives of others; contribute to a team; mentor someone, explore and think and create alongside others.


To say that scholarship is a way of life is to emphasize that it is characterized by certain habits--of reflection, exploration, creativity, and collaboration.  These are habits that you have already learned and valued (you're here on a Saturday morning, for goodness sake!).  As move beyond your undergraduate education, resist the siren calls that would lure you away from this way of life.

For some reason, this brings to mind one of my favorite passages from Plato--a passage that called me to the way of life of a scholar:

"This much I ask of them: when my sons grow up, avenge yourselves by causing them thte same kind of grief that I caused you, if you think they care for money or anything else more than they care for virtue, or if they think they are somebody when they are nobody.  Reproach them as I reproach you, that they do not care for the right things and think they are worthy when they are not worthy of anything.  If you do this, I shall have been justly treated by you, and my sons also." -Socrates in Apology, 41e-42a