Mosser on Scholarship

Several years ago Prof. Carl Mosser wrote a definition of scholarship that I found helpful.

Scholarship is the product of a certain kind of activity.  This activity can be done poorly or well, with varying degrees of precision and exhaustiveness, and by minds of varying cognitive abilities.  This results in qualitative differences in scholarship so that one can speak in terms of a continuum of bad, mediocre, good and excellent scholarship.

Pseudo-scholarship is the product of different kinds of activity but gives the impression that it is the product of scholarly activity.  Admittedly, drawing sharp lines of demarcation between poor scholarship and pseudo-scholarship can be difficult.  But this is no more a good reason for rejecting the distinction than evening and morning are good reasons for rejecting the distinction between day and night.

What is scholarly activity?  I don’t think anything like a list of necessary and sufficient conditions can be given.  Perhaps a basic working definition is that doing scholarship is to “openly study some issue or set of issues.”  This open study is characterized by such things as: investigation of evidence pertaining to specific issues to see what knowledge can be gained about those issues, a careful and controlled analysis of the evidence, a realization that evidence is sometimes ambiguous and open to multiple plausible interpretations that need to be considered, entering a critical but charitable dialogue with others who have investigated the same issues (past or present) to gain insights and correct errors, and constructing plausible hypotheses and cogent arguments.

Furthermore, this activity is requires one to reject epistemological dogmatism.  He/she recognizes that the results of the investigation cannot be determined before the evidence has actually been looked at and analyzed.  He/she recognizes that his/her preferred theories and positions must be adjusted in light of the full body of evidence and argumentation. He/she is committed to fairly representing and responsibly engaging the views of others.  He/she seeks to handle the primary and secondary literature in a responsible and critical manner.

The academic community has developed a number of practices designed to safeguard the integrity of the scholarly activity.  Most noticeably, this results in the use of precise technical terminology and the following of certain conventions when research is published.  For example, quoting authorities in a field, including bibliographical footnotes to the relevant literature one has consulted, using precise technical terminology are designed to help ensure that an author has engaged in the scholarly activity at some level (even if poorly).  However, the presence of these trappings of scholarship do not guarantee that this has in fact occurred. Thus, behind the scenes publishing houses employ editors and editorial boards that review the material they publish, journals have recognized scholars review articles being considered for publication, etc.

Pseudo-scholarship is what we get when somebody employs (usually quite heavily) the trappings of scholarship–quotations, footnotes, technical terms, etc.–without really having engaged in the scholarly activity.  I suspect that it could be a product of several different activities, some malicious and others entirely well-meaning.

The person who produces pseudo-scholarship confuses the trappings of scholarship with scholarship.  And they produce things that on the surface look like scholarship but really are not.  To do this requires that a kind of superficial research is done–one has to look up books in the library, consult lexicons, look up references to ancient texts, etc.  But the writer has not really investigated the issues being discussed in anything approaching a responsible manner.  The issues haven’t really been studied and considered–the answers were all known at the beginning.

One of the most common signs of pseudo-scholarship is that primary and secondary literature is not handled responsibly or critically.  For the most part literature is simply culled for quotations that appear to bolster one’s polemical claims.  There is an evident inability to discern qualitative differences between sources.  There is a lack of critical engagement with the sources–everything that appears to favor one’s point is taken as reliable.

Lastly, it should be noted that doing scholarship does not depend on having academic degrees.  Someone with a very limited education can learn to engage in the scholarly activity and even to do it well.  Most people without a formal education cannot achieve this on their own, but it can and is done by a few.  Formal education is a process whereby one is given instruction, resources, opportunities to practice and correction.  It is right to assume that the person who has made it through this process will have some capacity to do scholarship (especially if they have earned graduate degrees).  But the process cannot guarantee the outcome and the having of degrees does not guarantee that one is capable of doing scholarship or doing it well.

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