Frame of the Day: Scholarship as Conversation

Posted: July 9, 2019 9:00:00 AM CDT

We’ve made it, everyone. We’ve arrived at my favorite frame: Scholarship as Conversation. Is it weird to have a favorite frame of information literacy? Probably. Am I going to talk about it anyway? You betcha.

What does Scholarship as Conversation mean?

Scholarship as conversation refers to the way scholars reference each other and build off of one another’s work, just like in a conversation. Have you ever had a conversation that started when you asked someone what they did last weekend and ended with you telling a story about how someone—definitely not you—ruined the cake at your grandma’s 80th birthday party? And then someone says, “but like I was saying earlier…” and they take the conversation back to a point in the conversation where they were reminded of a different point or story? Conversations aren’t linear, they aren’t a clear line to a clear destination, and neither is research. When we respond to ideas and thoughts of scholars, we’re responding to the scholars and engaging them in conversation.

So why do I love it so much? Let me count the ways.

Famous portrait of dogs playing pokerReason One:

I really enjoy the imagery of scholarship as a conversation among peers. Just a bunch of well-informed curious people coming together to talk about something they all love and find interesting. I imagine people literally sitting around a big round table talking about things they’re all excited about and want to share with each other! It’s a really lovely image in my head. Eventually the image kind of reshapes and devolves into that painting of dogs playing poker, but I love that image too!

Pencil sketch of Big FootReason Two:

It harkens back to pre-internet scholarship, which sound excruciating, but again, it was all done for the love of a subject! Scholars used to literally send each other manuscripts seeking feedback. Then, when they got an article published in a journal, scholars interested in the subject would seek out and read the article in the physical journal it was published in. Then they’d write reviews of the article, praising or criticizing the author’s research or theories or style. As the field grew, more and more people would write and contribute more articles to criticize and praise and build off of. So for example, if I wrote an article that was about Big Foot and then Sam wrote an article saying, “Emily’s article on Big Foot is garbage, here’s what I think about Big Foot,” Sam and I are now having a conversation. It’s not always a fun one, but we’re writing in response to one another about something we’re both passionate about. Later, Jaiden comes along and disagrees with Sam and agrees with me (because I’m right) and he cites both me and Sam. Now we’re all three in a conversation. And it just grows and grows and more people show up at the table to talk and contribute or maybe just to listen.

Reason Three:

And that’s reason number three: you can just listen if you want to. Sometimes we’re just listening to the conversation. We’re at the table, but we’re not there to talk. We’re just hoping to get some questions answered and learn from some people. When we’re reading books and articles or listening to podcasts or watching movies, we’re listening to the conversation. You don’t have to do ground breaking research to be part of a conversation. You can just be there and appreciate what everyone’s talking about. 

Reason Four:

You can contribute to the conversation at any time. The imagery is nice because it’s approachable, just pull up a chair and start talking. With any new subject, you should probably listen a little at first, ask some questions, and then start giving your own opinion or theories, but you can contribute at any time. Since we do live in the age of internet research, we can contribute in ways people never dreamed of! Besides writing essays in class (which totally counts because you’re examining the conversation and pulling in the bits you like and citing them to give credit to other scholars), you can talk to your professors and friends about a topic, you can blog about it, you can write articles about it, you can even tweet about it (have you ever seen folks in the Humanities on Twitter? They go nuts, having actual scholarly conversations). Your ways for engaging are kind of endless!

Reason Five:

It’s cyclical. Like I said above, it’s not always a straight path and that’s a perfect model of research. You don’t have to engage with who spoke most recently, you can engage with someone who spoke 10 years ago, someone who spoke 100 years ago, you can respond to the person who started the conversation! You can jump in wherever you want. And wherever you do jump in, you might just change the course of the conversation. Because sometimes we think we have an answer, but then something new is discovered or a person who hadn't been at the table or who had been overlooked says something that drastically impacts what we knew, so now we have to reexamine it all over again and continue the conversation in a trajectory we hadn't seen before.

Reason Six:

It’s about sharing and responding and valuing one another’s work. If Sam, my Big Foot nemesis, responds to my article, she’s going to cite me. If Jaiden then publishes a rebuttal, he’ll cite Sam and me, because fair is fair.

This is for a few reasons:

  1. Even if Jaiden disagrees with Sam’s work, he respects that she put effort into it and it’s valuable to her.
  2. When Jaiden cites her, it means anyone who jumps into the conversation at his article will be able to backtrack and catch up. A newcomer can trace it back to Sam’s article and trace that back to mine. They can basically see a transcript of the whole conversation so they can read Jaiden’s article with all of the context, and they can write their own well-informed piece on Big Foot.

The Takeaway:

There’s a lot to take away from this frame, but here’s what I think is most important:

  • Be respectful of other scholars’ work and their part in the conversation by citing them.
  • Start talking whenever you feel ready, in whatever platform you feel comfortable.
  • And finally, make sure everyone who wants to be at the table is at the table. This means making sure information is available to those who want to listen and making sure we lift up the voices that are at risk of being drowned out.

By: Emily Metcalf

Category: Library Hacks