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How We Describe Our Work

The vast majority of university faculty have chosen their careers because they treasure the life of the mind. They are driven by a set of interests in a domain of human knowledge. They seek deeper understanding of that domain. They bring intense critical cognitive skills to the work. They select into their career because they seek to improve understanding. This inherently requires a critique of the existing knowledge. They want to create the new.

However, they tend to use different words to describe their work. In the natural and social sciences, it is common to use the term “research” to characterize this work. “Research” appears to have middle French origins, with “re” implying a return, back to the original place, once more. With “secher” meaning a search. It is consistent with the notion that there is a goal of discovery of what is not yet known. It comports with the natural science notions of a quest for understanding basic principles of the organization of the world. There is an implicit assumption that there exist certain lawful properties of the organization of world that are relatively immutable, orderly, ubiquitous, and of long or infinite duration. The focus of the search is deeper and deeper revelation and understanding of these principles.

The culture of this research often requires new work to be explicitly built upon findings of earlier work. The products must communicate unambiguous findings. Any multiple meanings of the findings unnoticed by the author are cause for critique of the entire product. Much of the value of the product depends on its inclusion in the base knowledge used in future work of the field.

In the humanities, the word “research” is sometimes replaced with “scholarship.” The word has different origins. “Scholarship” can be broken into “scholar,” which, in its medieval Latin roots implies “of a school.” This morphed into Old English to “scoliere” or, as a person, a “student.” The connotation of “-ship” is a skill or power. So, a skillful student. This is compatible with the world of literary analysis, which rests on deep understanding of text that arises from broad and close reading.

The products of this work include book length interpretations of texts, video, or images. The value of the product is its power to present arguments that logically lead to the author’s conclusions, with persuasive evidence. Much of the perceived value of the product is related to how much commentary it generates.

But “research” and “scholarship” are not sometimes in the creative arts to describe the work of faculty. The word “art” has the more obvious origin as “ars” in Latin, originally implying a skill or craft. This is much in concert with the notion of creation in much scholarship in those fields, especially the creation of new text, new objects, or new ideas. So much of the expansion of human understanding in the arts comes from confrontation of the new ways of expression, of new understandings of the old. The products of these creative activities are new materials, objects, ideally richly evoking alternative meaningful interpretations to the observer.

The words we use across disciplines vary — research, scholarship, creative activities. Their products also vary. They enrich humanity in different ways. The passion underlying their work, however, is unvarying across the fields.

3 thoughts on “How We Describe Our Work

  1. I agree that the passion for research is a motivating factor for pursuing a career in academe. At Georgetown, scholarship imbues the life of many faculty members, both tenure line and non-tenure line. As the university creates career tracks for non-tenure line faculty, the division into “teaching” and “research” faculty should not diminish the role of research activity plays in the professional lives of many instructional faculty.

  2. Good comments. We were always taught that medicine is both a science and an art. Probably true of all academic endeavors. Peace to all Hoyas in the new year .

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Office of the ProvostBox 571014 650 ICC37th and O Streets, N.W., Washington D.C. 20057Phone: (202) 687.6400Fax: (202)

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