Thursday, April 28, 2016

What is real scholarship?

Sometimes I bemoan the decline of scholarship in science, and in academia more broadly. About six years ago I posted about Ph.D's without scholarship, which generated a lot of comments.

This decline is reflected in a range of phenomena: hype, making hiring and promotion decisions based on metrics rather than actual scientific achievements, people writing more papers than they read, "review" articles merely listing references rather than providing critical analysis,...

But, this is all negative, it is what scholarship is not, ... what does real scholarship look like?

I think classic books give a feel for what scholarship is all about. For example, Eisenberg and Kauzmann on Water, Ashcroft and Mermin, Hewson's Kondo Problem, Coulson's Valence, and Mott's monographs. Consider the Oxford Classic Texts in the Physical Sciences.
Similarly, I am challenged by some of the monographs that some  humanities colleagues produce. (For example, Stephen Gaukroger's three volumes on science and the shaping of modernity.)
But, today I just don't see people in physics and chemistry producing books like the above.
Am I missing something?

There is certainly a subjective element. Here are a few possible ingredients to real scholarship.

1. Acknowledge the past.
Every problem, achievement, and discipline actually normally has a long history.
Even Newton said he was standing on the shoulders of giants.

2. Acknowledge and engage with the work of others and different points of view.

3. Acknowledge ambiguity, complexity, and controversy.

4. Comprehensive.
A wide range of topics are considered. The focus is not just narrow.

5. Synthesis and coherence.
A wide range of ideas, topics, and techniques are brought together.

6. Lucidity.

Do you think scholarship is declining?
What do you think are the key ingredients?


  1. Perhaps another key ingredient of scholarship is taking up the challenging problems. True scholars must aspire to solve important and difficult problems in their field rather than content themselves with low-hanging fruit.

  2. I agree. Good point.

    I mentioned in one post how this may be happening less.

  3. As an undergraduate student that covers topics according to interest, I somewhat tanked my GPA. It is still possible that I can make it into a PHD program to become a researcher, but given the (IMO undeserved) importance of GPA maybe not.

    Just last Friday I took a pen and paper exam in a computational physics course, made calculations with a handheld calculator using various algorithms. Needless to say there were mistakes and the whole thing was so futile, so fruitless an endeavor, I just didn't care what score I'll get from that exam. I left the obviously mistaken calculations as is. (I did comment on the futility though.)

    I'd say the whole thing (university level education first, then the rest) needs to be thought from the ground up. Maybe at that point assessment and teaching will also be split, and maybe even there will be several methods of assessment for a given course where a student chooses a few of those to cover a wider ground. Then, hopefully, not maximizing an outdated silly number will be a viable way of pursuing a career in research and people will pick topics of interest instead of courses in a narrow field and crank up their GPA.

    I obviously think the lack of scholarship you mention starts at undergraduate level, where students do have the time to cover a sub field in depth and auxiliary ones in addition. But I'm pretty sure we don't have much incentive to do it.

    I took several technical courses that I didn't need to, some of which I didn't get B's or A's. I'm still contended that I picked them. Though the main things that tanked my GPA were the "must" courses. It's not that the courses are bad (well.. maybe), it's that they aren't thought to facilitate comprehension. They are thought so that you can do some calculations. A computer can do those nowadays, why not teach me how to formalize an intuition? How to think so that I have more hunches? I learned that you can read a differential equation to get an idea about how its solution behaves, not in a course about DEs but in a homework question of that computational physics course. (That was done on the computer of course.)

    I learned more from Gödel, Escher, Bach (by Douglas Hofstadter) about how to learn than what I got from university courses. And that, is a damn shame.

  4. Ross - this is a very important topic. People who can truly synthesize ideas from multiple areas and move fields forward in a significant way are few and far between. And yet as a department head, if a faculty member said they wanted to invest a significant fraction of their time over multiple years to write a ground breaking book I would have ambivalent feelings, to say the least.

    As an example of someone pursuing great scholarship today, I would point to Nick Lane. His book "The Vital Question" is quite amazing (even though I suspect I only understood a small fraction of it). It is interesting to note that Lane has had (according to his wikipedia page) a highly unconventional academic career.