Making Love to the World
The practices that sustain research
Carol Newsom, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Old Testament


Vol. 11 No. 5
April 2009

Return to Contents

The New Reality
Emory faculty respond to a transformed economic world

Schools adjust to hard times

“To suddenly have to do a complete, 180-degree about-face and think about where we can slow down, where we can cut, and constricting ourselves while trying to maintain some of our momentum and simultaneously go in the opposite direction—that's quite disconcerting.”

We are very stretched in a number of important areas. Our challenge is to find the right balance between reductions in staffing versus reductions in the collections.”

Conflict of Interest and Ensuring the Public Trust
Historical perspectives and current concerns

Hearing the Music
A composer considers audience response

Making Love to the World
The practices that sustain research


Recently, I was asked to participate in a panel discussion about the practices that sustain research. It seemed a particularly ironic request, since my main frustration in life is that I cannot figure out how to sustain my research in light of other demands on my time. I suspect I’m not the only person on campus struggling with this issue.

The request, however, caused me to reflect on what research means to me and how it fits into my life. As I cast about for various ways to say what research means, in the end I realized that it was a fundamentally erotic metaphor that spoke to me. Research is how I make love to the world. I love facts. I love ideas. I love hypotheses. I love all the crazy ways one moves from one focus to another as new hypotheses and information enter the mix. The thrill as ideas touch one another is, not improperly described, an erotic moment. Research is one of the ways we make love to the world. Now perhaps, if you will join me in the erotic metaphor, it may explain why so many of us are grumpy and grouchy when “we aren’t getting any.” When we are deprived of the opportunity to pursue our research, we feel that our lives are somehow diminished.

The panel addressed a diverse group of students. Some of them were in Ph.D. programs, but more were in professional degree programs—mostly law and theology. I realized that in talking with this group about research, it wasn’t entirely apt to think just in terms of my own paradigm as a professor at a major research university. What did research mean to them? Why were they wanting to know about research? For some it was a matter of improving their practices in researching and writing papers for their current degree programs. But it seemed to me that as part of our pedagogy, we need to say that research is not simply an academic practice but a life skill.

Research is actually something that we do all the time, even if we are simply going to buy a new refrigerator. Research is a disciplined and structured way of inquiring about something one doesn’t know about. And sometimes that is as simple as what “ENERGY STAR™” means and what reliability ratings mean. Research is going to be a significant part of our students’ lives, whether they are going to be lawyers, ministers, or something else. Lawyers have to research in order to prepare cases and to counsel clients. Ministers have to research in order to preach sermons, teach lessons, and counsel parishioners. Research is an integral part of the professional lives of many of our students, especially in the professional schools. Though we did not have medical, nursing, or business school students in the audience, one could easily extend the paradigm. Research is not just a “university” practice but a widely dispersed enterprise.

This line of thinking led to another. While some kinds of research end with ourselves (what kind of refrigerator do I want to buy?), most kinds of research are directed at others. We research because in some way we intend to share the results of our knowledge. And this, too, is an act of love. Whether it is with clients, students, or parishioners—or with fellow scholars—the fruits of research are other-directed. That is an important acknowledgment. Too often, even in research universities, research is somehow stigmatized as “selfish pursuit.” And while we all could probably tell of some instance in which someone’s research seemed so arcane that it did border on the obsessive, for the most part research is not at all selfish but deeply generous. It is an act of self-discipline in which we immerse ourselves in something that is often frustrating, because in the end we think we will be able to bring back a treasure that others do not have the time or energy to seek out for themselves. I think this characterizes both the research that we as university professors do but also the research that our students in their professional lives will do. And it is that sense of an ultimate community of knowledge that helps sustain our research practices.

As I thought about the students in the audience and about the faculty seated on the panel, I realized that we all have strikingly different styles of research. That is something to celebrate. There are simply so many ways to study questions. As I work with Ph.D. students, one of the things I ask them to start thinking about is what kind of mind they have. Often this process takes many years, but in the end, especially if they are academic researchers, students need to learn what kind of mind they have if they are to perfect their research. Some people excel at “drilling down” research. My first work as a scholar of the Dead Sea Scrolls was this type of research. Each bit of information could be broken down and analyzed and—hopefully—the presenting philological problem solved. But as I continued in my academic career, I realized that what I truly love to do is what I call “associative reasoning.” That is to say, I love looking for intellectual patterns across different literatures. Neither one of these is “better” research than the other. But they are very different. And the sooner students realize which is their preferred mode of “making love to the world” the better.

What final advice would I give to students about the practices that sustain research? Two things. First, take counsel with people you respect. Second, be willing to fail in the longer goal of being determined to succeed. Isolated research is discouraging. With each of the last two books I wrote I came to a point at which I was about ready to ditch the project. In each case a consultation with colleagues brought me through that low point to see that what had first engaged me about the topic was really worth pursuing and that I could work through the intellectual blockage. More recently, when I had the opportunity to present at a faculty research luncheon, where typically people present work already in polished form, I chose instead to bring a research project at a fairly early stage of development to my colleagues for their critique. It was an amazing experience. Not only did I receive superb guidance, but my academic community was invigorated by working collectively on the conceptualization of issues that crossed our academic disciplines. That was one risk. And it paid off.

But what about being willing to fail? At least in the humanities, we often don’t know if our ideas are sound until they have been tested in the laboratory of collegial opinion. If we are too determined to play it safe, then our research will not contribute much. It takes a lot of confidence in oneself and in one’s colleagues, however, to be willing to risk something that might be brilliant or just might fail. But it is a risk that the best researchers are determined to take. The wonderful learning that comes from doing something that doesn’t work is that a scholar learns how to distinguish a paper or an article from her essential self. Just because my argument in that particular case didn’t work doesn’t mean that “I” don’t work! As Linus Pauling said about genius, “Have lots of ideas—then throw out the bad ones.” Sometimes one doesn’t know what the bad ones are until one has put them in the public arena. But scholars will ultimately be judged not by one particular risky idea but by the whole shape of a career. And the risk takers are the ones who love the most passionately. And loving the world is what is it is all about.