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Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Scholarship Base

Kenneth Koch had the concept of the "happiness base" and the "poetry base." The happiness base, for example, consists of all the elements supportive of happiness, like good health and relationships, a good attitude toward life, enough material comforts, etc...

Today, I'd like to consider the "scholarship base." This consists of things like your "cultural capital," the excellence of your training and education, your knowledge base, your access to a good library (plus the quality of your personal scholarly library), your ongoing activities and participation in networks of other scholars, and the momentum from previous scholarly projects: unused ideas and knowledge, logical next steps in your scholarly trajectory. A lot of the "work" we do serves simply to maintain the scholarly base, and thus is work that doesn't lead directly to publication. Nevertheless, an excellent base makes everything else far easier. I think of the base as about 75%, with the actual writing being the remaining quarter. Some refer to this as the iceberg theory. We are judged by what is above the surface of the water, but the iceberg itself is mostly submerged.

For example, suppose a teacher at a liberal arts college who doesn't get any research done during the academic year has the summer off. Probably the whole summer could be devoted simply to restoring the base to decent shape, without any articles being written. At the end of the summer, it is time to go back to teaching again. You wouldn't expect more than one article to be written every three summers on such a schedule. An active researcher at a Research One university with an excellent scholarship base might write one to two articles, on average, in a summer, finishing up one begun during the Academic Year and writing another from scratch. If you are already doing research it is easy to keep doing it.

That some researchers in very good institutions do not produce very much shows how difficult it really is to sustain a research program over the long stretch.

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