Scholarship in Time

Or, Sipping champagne from a fire hydrant

Bruce Knauft, Samuel C. Dobbs Professor of Anthropology
and Executive Director,
The Institute for Comparative and International Studies


Vol. 7 No. 2
October/November 2004

Upon Reflection
University leadership urges a new "discipline" of planning

My job is to make sure that the academic focus of the institution is always front and center.
Earl Lewis, Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs


If we’re going to be rigid, operating in the nineteenth century and resisting change, then we’ll go the way of the Light Brigade.
Kenneth Thorpe, Woodruff Professor of Health Policy and Management


Phase to phase

Strategic Planning Steering Committee

To learn more

Scholarship in Time
Or, Sipping champagne from a fire hydrant
Bruce Knauft, Samuel C. Dobbs Professor of Anthropology
and Executive Director,
The Institute for Comparative and International Studies

Is the Bible Green?
Ancient Israelite and early Christian perspectives
on the natural world
Carol A. Newsom, Professor of Old Testament

Further reading

The Mind and the Machine
A Review of Digital People by Sidney Perkowitz
Darryl Neill, Professor of Psychology

Endnotes

Return to Contents

If scholarship takes time, it also takes place in time. And the flow of time does not slow down for the pace of scholarship. Some disciplines turn this fact to their advantage. Historians emphasize that recent developments cannot be fully appreciated for years, decades, even centuries.

But with the speeding modern flow of ideas, people, and money, reflective scholarship seems under threat. The time-space compression of the contemporary world affects our work: it increases the scope and scale of our information while reducing our time to digest it.

This blurry tide of new information dovetails with our accelerating perception that time may be passing us by. In the bargain, the changes around us become changes of consciousness. Ideas, theories, and even personal identities are transformed over shorter and shorter periods of time.

These trends pose special challenges for scholarship. Both empirically and reflexively, it is increasingly difficult to delimit a “topic” or a “problem” for inquiry. If the world has always been interconnected, our awareness of and concern with these connections are increasingly great.

Against these trends, the defense of traditional scholarship can easily become a knee-jerk reaction. We may imagine an ancestral scholarly community for whom a leisurely pace of reflection crystallized Big Thoughts with the benefits of time. But such a time has never really existed. In anthropology, we sometimes call this pining for lost utopia the quest for the paleo-terrific.

If nostalgia is itself part of the late modern age in which we live (along with Elvis and Marilyn), it forms in reaction against the incoming swell of events and information. This reaction seems hard to resist. Even if one appreciates this postmodern excess, a morass of interesting and potentially important input easily turns the scholarly repast into an exercise—as one of our graduate students once put it—of sipping champagne from a fire hydrant.

To me, this stress provides not just a challenge but a potential. This is not the potential of postmodernism (which I have vigorously critiqued) but of greater creativity across geographical space and historical time. In recent years, I have tried to mine this potential in a range of publications and in the program called “Vernacular Modernities,” which flourished under the auspices of The Institute for Comparative and International Studies (see http://www.icis.emory.edu/programs/vm/index.html). This project explored how people from different world areas and across different time periods have become modern in their own distinct ways. As a practical exercise of “scholarship in time” we used creative modes of conference presentation, book contracting, and electronic revision to identify high-quality papers from Emory and non-Emory scholars—and to bring them to quick completion. Our collected volume, which I had the pleasure of editing, includes contributions by five Emory and five non-Emory contributors. The project progressed from initial presentations to final publication in just eighteen months (Critically Modern, Indiana University Press, 2002). In practice, the papers that were read in first draft by students during the first year of our program were read as a scholarly volume published by a major university press during the program’s third and final year.

In my present role as executive director of the Institute for Comparative and International Studies, I am less interested in cloning past programs than in extending their contribution in new ways. These initiatives can cross-fertilize our strong existing programs in world area and international studies. Many of these themes travel under our new signature theme of “Global Citizenship in a Plural World.” This theme was forged this past summer in strategic planning sessions with more than forty faculty and administrators. The full text of the plan can be found on the ICIS web site at http://www.icis.emory.edu/about/strategic_plan.htm.
In the present context, our strategic plan for global citizenship can also be seen as our plan for scholarship in time. At Emory as elsewhere, the biggest gripe about time is simply that we don’t have enough of it. Despite real and sometimes strong constraints on program funding, material support, and salaries, our time for scholarship—for considered intellectualism in research and teaching—is our scarcest and most precious resource.

It is ultimately hard to address this issue without confronting the larger place of scholarship in late modernity. In a historical and cross-cultural perspective, our concern with time reflects a modern sense that time does not repeat but flows into an uncertain but hopeful and expectedly better future.

Our notion of new scholarly knowledge is closely related to the notion of time as an arrow of expected progress. A number of historians, including Reinhart Koselleck, suggest that this notion of time was not widely evident in Western populations prior to the eighteenth century. This modern notion of time engages directly—and appropriately, in my opinion—with increasing demands for scholarly relevance and application. Here we confront academic life not just as cerebral understanding but as an engagement with issues with practical
relevance. This aspect of late modern scholarship is not just
a necessary but a powerfully important challenge. If scholarship needs to be managed within time, it also needs to be timely. In my own received discipline of anthropology, this impetus has informed the explosive growth of practical
or applied anthropology. In the process, it has spawned or invigorated fields as diverse as medical anthropology, the anthropology of education, contract archeology, and work with governmental organizations and NGOs.

The more protracted our scholarship becomes, the more it becomes potentially out of date. This risk of anachronism informs not only our interactions with our students but with our academic peers. In practical terms, knowledge delayed is often knowledge denied. Speaking yet more pragmatically, publication delayed is often tenure denied.

Our response to this dilemma certainly depends on our individual goals and projects. It depends on the scope of our research problems, the genres and deadlines of our publications, and our penchant for applied relevance. But the demand for scholarly relevance is both large and growing across disciplines and academic ranks—as well as among our students.

On the one hand, our work should continue to germinate over time. Scholarship takes more considered thought and longer reflection than is typically afforded the politician, the nurse, the accountant, the mechanic, and so on. The vocation of scholarship is seldom one of unrelenting application or pure activism. Accordingly, the time of scholarship should supply larger perspective on the developments, perceptions, and problems of the world around us.

On the other hand, scholarship needs to reduce its received license for the pursuit of knowledge that claims to be endless or timeless. That learning has intrinsic value cannot be its only justification. Our projects and reflections need to be strategically and creatively conceived not just in space but in time. They can pace back and forth more flexibly and creatively between collaborative efforts and individual ones, between short articles and longer publications, between alternative genres of writing, between private study and public intellectualism, between experiences outside the university and life within it. These articulations place a scholarly premium on flexibility, dynamism, and innovation not only in the choice of topic but in the use of time itself.

These challenges directly engage the process of scholarly review and academic promotion. Despite other great changes in the university, promotion and review still tend, on the whole, to favor the safety of narrow scholarship. Such scholarship privileges the singular over the general—and risks missing the forest for individual leaves on the trees. This is especially true at the formative early stages of a publication career. The safest advice is typically the most conservative: publish your data but leave the larger and more general ideas for later. In the bargain, flexible uses of time as well as topic are often precluded.

To take one small example (though it makes no difference to me personally, as an author of seven books), shouldn’t an article in the Academic Exchange form not just part but a legitimate part of an Emory faculty member’s CV? The point is not that articles in AE should be sufficient for tenure. Nor that all of them are necessarily good. It is rather that review committees should actually read such articles and assess if they contribute in a larger sense—including the contribution to scholarship in time.

This is not to license the superficial; scholarship needs to deepen and enforce academic rigor. But it can do this in a variety of ways and through a greater diversity of writing styles, experiences, and publications. By pursuing scholarship more flexibly—through the speeding of time rather than against it—we can make our work more timely. In the bargain, we can more effectively combine the pure and the applied, the classic and the contemporary, the domestic and the foreign, the scholarly and the pedagogical, and the academic and the public.

If this view is utopian, I see little alternative. Perhaps my suggestion is only a newly timed version of an old truism: that scholarship can neither be reduced to nor detached from the world around it. The trends of the present cross more than received boundaries of geography, history, and conceptual terrain. They offer us the challenge of scholarship in time.