What Scholars Are Good At

A while back I wrote a post on my own blog describing my lecture to undergraduates about what they should be becoming good at at university. The goal is not just to acquire knowledge, but to become “knowledge-able”, i.e., able to know things. In short, a university education makes you a better knower. It doesn’t just stuff knowledge into your head.

A very successful university education, then, makes you a very able knower. People who distinguish themselves in this regard will be encouraged to become “masters” and then “doctors” in their field, with the hope that they will take over the function of developing the talent for knowing things in the coming generations from their elders. I know that this all sounds terribly old-fashioned and naive, but if this isn’t what it’s all about then I don’t know why anyone would bother working in a university.

It’s possible that there is a kind of “peak performance” period for scholars, just as there is for athletes and musicians. The age of this period will vary from discipline to discipline, more likely, from person to person. (The old saw is that mathematicians start getting “old” in their thirties, unlikely to make any significant discoveries thereafter, while philosophers come into their prime in their fifties.) In any case, we don’t want to get rid of knowledgeable people just because they’re not still improving. They can serve as teachers and coaches. They have an ability, a developed talent, that society has an interest in exposing young people to in order to develop theirs. In my lecture I analyze this ability into three components.

First, scholars are able to accurately and efficiently make up their minds. They can form “justified, true beliefs” in a timely and orderly manner without relying on prejudice. By using the word “timely” I’m not trying to rush them. Some beliefs take a long time to form. The scholar’s expertise is visible in the awareness he or she has of how long it will take to reach a conclusion of a particular kind or on a particular basis. And when it’s simply impossible, given a particular deadline. This will be true even where the intercession of muses or other “intuitive” imponderables is called for. Having a good working relationship with the muse, the scholar knows roughly what to expect. The competent craftsman can give you a plausible estimate.

Second, scholars are able clearly and effectively  speak their mindsTo know something is to be able to hold one’s own in a conversation with another knowledgeable people. We call these people peers. Scholars don’t win every argument, but most of them are interesting, even just to watch. The arguments are supported by evidence that is valuable in its own right. The claims made are clear and important, and the scholar knows their importance. Finally, if the scholars provoke or offends, this is done intentionally, in the pursuit of truth not scandal.

Third, scholars are able to write it down. Specifically, for every thing they know, they are able to compose a coherent prose paragraph that makes a claim a provides support for it in at least six sentences and at most two-hundred words. Working from the center of their strength, under ordinary (i.e., not necessarily ideal) conditions, they can write such a paragraph in half an hour more or less at will. If we think of prose as a muscle we can say that scholars keep theirs in shape.

What I call “inframethdology”, then, is simply the development of the craft for scholarship. It’s the set of research practices and habits of mind that constitute the “scholarly imagination”  specific to a given field. The actual craft, of course, differs from field to field. But in all cases we can ask how does the scholar “know things”? How is the scholar is able to make up his or her mind, speak it, and write it down? That’s what the scholar qua scholar is good at.

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