What is a scholar?

George Veletsianos’ presentation to Week 33 of Change Mooc  has been very timely for the First Steps in Learning and Teaching Mooc  that I am planning with colleagues  at the moment.

George has posted a recording of his presentation to his blog and it is worth listening to. (See also – http://change.mooc.ca/recordings.htm) Another very interesting part of this presentation was the chat that it provoked. This focused on the question on ‘what is a scholar?’ a question that novice academics must surely think about. I have pulled together some of the key ideas and questions that came out of this chat. I’m not going to try and identify those responsible for each comment – but these are the people who contributed (in no particular order): Lisa Lane, Keith Hamon, Stephen Downes, Verena Roberts, ljp and Bon

This is how I have interpreted the key ideas – but I have also included quotes from the chat below.

  • You have to be networked to be a scholar
  • These days you not only have to be networked to be a scholar – you also have to be networked online
  • As a scholar you need to have your work critically assessed and this happens by submitting your work online
  • Sharing is an essential element of scholarship
  • Blogging can be scholarship
  • There is no such thing as a non-connected scholar
  • Scholarship relies on interaction
  • Institutional management processes are a constraint on scholarship

The discussion started with the question of whether in this digital age a scholar can be a scholar without being online. The conversation (chat) included these comments……

‘the act of becoming a scholar is (now / in the future) the same as the act of *creating* an online social network’ 

‘your activities may be online and off, but your *scholarly* activities (papers, presentations, discussion, etc) ought to be online – otherwise the

y’re just private & therefore not very scholarly’

‘I think we all became scholars by participating in networks, online and off’

‘… the extent that they are not online I think they are over time becoming less and less “scholars”

I became a scholar BY participating in online social networks (no chicken, no egg)

Then there was the question of whether you need to have your work critically assessed by online networks to be a scholar

‘…you can’t submit your work to critical assessment (these days) without really being online, and a person who does not subject their work to critical assessment is arguably not a scholar’ 

Sharing was considered an essential element of scholarship

‘..sharing is what makes scholarship valuable’

‘I can’t think of any scholarship that isn’t shared eventually’

That makes most blogging qualify as scholarship?’

‘… no but it does mean that blogging can be scholarship’

‘Do you have to be with a University and digital in order to be a scholar?’


What are the institutional constraints on scholarships?

‘ …institutions cannot change quickly enough to support the kind of work we are doing’‘management is based on [a] measurement, and [b] best practices and these are antithetical to good work’ 

we keep having to go outside institutions to do good work?

as a grad student, this academia beyond the institution potential is what i find most profoundly absent withIN the institution. little support and no scaffolding. people can’t model or even recognize what they don’t understand.

because our institutions keep wanting to ‘manage’ us

because the institutions cannot change quickly enough to support the kind of work we are doing, for instance here today

& management is based on [a] measurement, and [b] best practices and these are antithetical to good work

I wonder whether creating an environment for scholarship is an institution’s responsibility any more?

Can a person working on his own be a scholar?

I don’t think you can say an individual working on his/her own can’t be a scholar.

if a person is working on his/her own, then, what is it that makes them a scholar (and not, say, a carpenter)?

no scholar works on their own – that pile of books IS a network of scholars

There is no individual working alone – we are all born out of a discipline, or network of study, and we conduct our study (even alone) within the context of that network, using its language, tools, resources, reference points, even if we extend them or change them

generally, I think we would agree that just reading a bunch of books is not by itself ‘scholarship’

Maybe its about the interaction as well? Its difficult to interact “with” a book…have to interact in order to be a digital scholar?

a “bunch of books” + peer review of ones own work can equal scholarship

actually successful readers are highly interactive with the books they read

All these comments and questions seem to me to be directly relevant to the work of lecturers in Higher Education, whether or not they are new to the job.

My question

Is the identity of people working in Higher Education changing?

Or do you keep your identity intact in a special place known only to you as one chat participant commented ……

Final quote from the chat…

I keep my identity in a small cardboard box in the attic

I love this comment 🙂

14 thoughts on “What is a scholar?

  1. Mark McGuire May 13, 2012 / 10:28 am

    Hi Jenny

    This is a good question to get things started.

    The comment that caught my attention is the one by the individual who pointed out that: “academia beyond the institution potential is what i find most profoundly absent withIN the institution.”

    Scholars are expert learners who engage in dialog in order to enhance their shared understanding about something meaningful. In order to do this effectively, we have to cast a wide net. We have to be inclusive, accepting, and open to collaborating with others who may not be our immediate peers, may not have advanced academic credentials, and may not identify with traditional academic institutions and practices. Scholarship is a purposeful conversation. When informed by a diverse network of individuals with a wide variety of expertise and experiences, these conversations can form and transform ideas, identities and institutions.

    Mark McGuire

  2. jennymackness May 13, 2012 / 3:43 pm

    Hi Mark – thanks for your comment. It does seem from this discussion that people new to academia might have to find the balance between working effectively within the institution whilst at the same time as drawing the benefits from working in an external network. But hasn’t that always been the case. Isn’t that what conferences are about?

    I’m not absolutely clear about how the institution is a constraint on scholarship. Any thoughts?


  3. jennymackness May 13, 2012 / 4:36 pm

    Many thanks for this Fred and for sharing the link. Hope you will be able to add further thoughts to your blog or the discussion forums once we get going 🙂
    Looking forward to hearing more about your thinking.

  4. George Veletsianos May 13, 2012 / 4:55 pm

    Thank you for the kind comments, Jenny, and for a great blog entry!

    I think you pose a very interesting question. Before I respond, I wanted to raise a related issue/question that I find myself struggling with a lot these days. Are we are attempting to impose our values (of openness, sharing, online learning as the future of education, etc) without a critical examination of what that means for practice and for individuals who are part of social organizations. For example, to what extent is it true that “as a scholar you need to have your work critically assessed and this happens by submitting your work online” rather than being value that we hold that we believe will enhance various outcomes. To illustrate: I have blog entries that received 0 comments and thus have not been “critically assessed.” Or, one could say, were not interesting, or were not worthy of assessment. On the contrary, all of the 30 or so papers that I have published in peer-reviewed journals were critiqued and evaluated. It goes without saying that some were critiques better than others. I guess what I am trying to say is that I question the notion of critical evaluation happening merely by submitting our work online. Perhaps the author meant “by submitting your work in a widely-accessible online space, such as an open access journal.” This would be a way to make that work available to a wider demographic, though if we are talking about original research wouldn’t the best place to to submit that work to receive critical feedback be where colleagues congregare? If colleagues don’t congregate on online social networks, or don’t use those networks for scholarly purposes, and if they congregate around Journal X, then, I might be doing a disservice to the field by not sharing my findings there. Of course, I could keep a blog where I share these findings with others, but that does not necessarily mean that I will receive a critical evaluation of my work. And we know that faculty members are generally not inclined to post critical evaluation of colleagues’ ideas in public fora. The reason I am sharing these concerns is because I am worried about imposing a single worldview that we view as “correct” on others. Freire talks about the oppressed becoming oppressors, and I find that without an uncritical examination of our practice we might be heading towards that direction. To make things more complex, as you correctly point out above, institutional values or desires shape practice.

    This has turned into a long response, but thank you for providing the space for this conversation.

    To respond to your other question: Is the identity of people working in Higher Education changing? I think there are socio-cultural pressures to change. Social software are omnipresent, and because higher education institutions are shaped by the societies in which they function, we see pressures towards more social and networked practice. At the same time however, there are people who have always had certain values that are now in alignment with affordances provided by social media. For example, one faculty member in a study that we did noted that networking with students online makes sense for her because she sees herself as a member of the community with her students.

  5. George Veletsianos May 13, 2012 / 5:01 pm

    I meant to share the study i mentioned. Sorry for the duplicate comment. That study is here:

    Veletsianos, G. & Kimmons, R. (in press). Scholars and Faculty Members Lived Experiences in Online Social Networks. The Internet and Higher Education.

    Click to access phenomenology_scholars.pdf

  6. Mark McGuire May 13, 2012 / 7:04 pm

    Although the purpose of the institution is to support scholarship, as George says above, “institutional values or desires shape practice.” Our institutions provide us with a position, an academic identity, and an opportunity to work as educators, researchers, and scholars. However, in the process of working within an institution, we become institutionalized. We internalize the values, assumptions, and practices of the institution of higher education as it is currently constructed, and we take on the mission statements, strategic plans, and objectives of the organization that pays our salary. We understand the incentive structure, and we learn what it takes to get ahead. Goal displacement — the process by which an organization acts to ensure its survival and to increase its competitive advantage, even at the expense of the principles and mission that led to its founding — is an ever-present danger.

    I don’t mean to sound unnecessarily negative or cynical. I have been fortunate enough to have been employed as an academic for many years, and I am grateful for the opportunities, intellectual community, and support (financial and practical) that the university that employs me continues to provide. However, I am aware that becoming institutionalized is like becoming acclimatized or acculturated — it is an induction into a particular set of habits, histories and beliefs that we come to accept as natural and right. If we wish to develop new ways of organizing our labour and our learning using more open networks, in keeping with shifts elsewhere in contemporary society, we must be prepared to examine and critique our institutions and our place within them. Self-transformation is a prerequisite for institutional transformation, since it is individuals, acting in concert, that constitute institutions.


  7. jennymackness May 15, 2012 / 5:51 pm

    Hi Fred, George and Mark – thanks for great comments. There is lots to think about here – so much so that I have written another blog post 🙂

  8. ljpother May 16, 2012 / 3:12 pm

    You missed my comment, which suggested that the view of scholar defined by sharing reflected the forum and it’s participants. My concern is why others should decide if a person is a scholar or define what a scholar is. It’s back to the gatekeepers saying who is us and who is them.

  9. jennymackness May 16, 2012 / 6:14 pm

    Hi ljpother – sorry that I missed your comment. That’s an interesting thought that you raise.

    Am I a scholar simply because I think I’m a scholar, or can I only be a scholar if someone else confirms that I am? Is it the latter in Higher Education?

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