Deeper Understanding: On Scholarship

Last weekend I attended the Northeast Regional Honors Conference with two of our senior University Honors students, both of whom presented papers. I was immediately struck by the quality of scholarship occurring at the undergraduate level. For the most part, all of the students delivered focused, well-researched papers that put forward a comprehensive and cohesive argument.

However, what really struck me was the degree of interest and passion for the subject matter that came through during the presentations. I attend a lot of conferences, both nationally and internationally, and I have seldom encountered the excitement and enthusiasm for subject matter as I did in Portland, Maine last weekend. After thinking about it for a few days, I have come to the conclusion that what is missing from more professional conferences (read graduate and professional level here) is the degree of passion for one’s subject matter. This is where undergraduate Honors programs can really impact the way scholarship is done.

Two of our students gave presentations at last weekend’s conference: Haley Webb and Kristin Diezel. Both students conducted themselves with professionalism and passion. They have opened the door to what I hope will become a recurring event for our program. The senior project in Honors, the Honors 401, can be a wonderful capstone experience for a student’s undergraduate career. More importantly, it can be the beginning of a project that articulates a life-long affair with knowledge and thinking as such.

Too often, the securing of a tenure-track position is dependent upon publication, and publication in the right type of journal to be specific. It seems to me that this can only cause a level of anxiety in the scholar that actually impedes the imaginative process. We “professional scholars” are looking to publish at all costs, and for all the wrong reasons. The desire to publish just to publish is reprehensible, and yet the practice is promoted actively in academe. Why? The further I went with my graduate degree the more cynical and depressed I became about the state of scholarship. The imaginative process, no, the imagination itself, is not celebrated, but the ability to use secondary sources is. Using secondary sources to join in a scholarly conversation and build upon the arguments of others is an obvious skill one must acquire when pursuing an undergraduate and graduate degree. But I cannot help but feel as if we place far too much emphasis on what constitutes solid, scholarly research and at the cost of what Northrop Frye calls “the educated imagination.”

In his autobiography, This is Orson Welles, Welles tells the story of meeting Peter Bogdanovich to discuss a book Bogdanovich was writing on Welles. Bogdanovich showed up with piles of research under his arm. Welles asked him to throw it all out since it would only “Spoil the fine art of invention.” I like this story because it tells us a great deal about the importance of invention and imagination. Yes, research is incredibly important, but it is also what comes from the heart that should be celebrated and rewarded. Instead of articles on the use of codpieces in Shakespeare, I would much rather read about what it is in Shakespeare that moved the writer. There simply is not enough passion in scholarly writing and thinking today—if ever. Not all scholarly is dry and passionless, but most of it is. Just look at the articles published over the last decade in the PMLA for proof.

The Regional Honors Conference I attended last weekend reaffirmed my faith in the power of a passionate, engaged scholarship. We “professional scholars” too often forget that our students have as much to teach us about subject matter, as we have to teach them. It can be much more satisfying and relevant to gage a first time reader’s reaction to Faulkner than a more seasoned scholar’s, despite what Marjorie Garber says in her latest book, The Use and Abuse of Literature. (I will speak further on this in a later blog.)

I’m not sure where professional scholarship is headed, but I do know that we should pay more attention to the passionate engagement of certain undergraduate scholars making their way into this problematic and murky world. Certainly, the current crisis in scholarly publishing is in many ways a symptom of the bigger issue of increasing specialization and professionalization within and beyond the humanities. I call for a turn toward a more passionate, engaged scholarship, a scholarship that is not conducted mainly for purposes of obtaining tenure, but, instead, to search for and obtain a deeper understanding of the work, and what makes us essentially human. That is really literature’s greatest gift—it helps us to understand what it means to be human.

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