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Scholarship and Storytelling

Recently, Georgetown had the honor of hosting Ken Burns, the documentary filmmaker. He met with students, participated in discussions about educational activities among the incarcerated, and showed some of his film product.

Mr. Burns made one suspect a common tendency to overemphasize distinctions between academic scholarship and the kinds of documentary films he makes.

Regarding depth of archival research, Mr. Burns reviewed the making of several films that took over ten years of work, not unlike the length of time to produce a university press book. He cited the cataloging and digitization of hundreds of thousands of images (photographs, documents). He noted the aggregation of materials from multiple sites over many years. That feature of his work seemed very similar to what many academics do in the beginning stages of a research product.

Increasingly, modern academic scholarship involves interdisciplinary teams. His description of the close ties of his group and his respect for their diverse skills reminded me of interdisciplinary research teams describing their cross-functional strengths.

Regarding the rigor of review and rewrite, he cited the numerous iterations in the design and execution of the video product. He described the time and effort in the editing phase of a project, continuously squeezing the content to extract the most meaningful components of the overall message. It reminded me of precisely the same apparently-endless process of drafting any scholarly work, whether it be an article or a book.

Much of academic scholarship is devoted to assuring a balanced presentation of alternative arguments. Much scholarship clearly describes limitations on conclusions or presents conflicting perspectives. Mr. Burns repeatedly noted how he felt obliged to show both the good and bad of every character, even those for whom he had great sympathy. His goal was to make it difficult for a viewer to know how he felt about a character or an event.

Academic scholarship produces the raw material for teaching. Mr. Burns’ films produce the attention that all lecturers seek in the classrooms but few of us ever achieve. The awe that viewers feel in his films imprints permanent memories of their content.

Mr. Burns has another point of view quite consistent with that of many academics – true understanding takes time. The fleeting, mediated interactions of the modern world limit the likelihood of true insight into complex, elaborated, and interwoven pieces of knowledge. Indeed, at one point, he uttered a common refrain of a truly wise scholar – when you really understand a phenomenon, you have finally identified what the key questions really are, or when you really have deep knowledge of a field, you are focused more and more on what you don’t know. All of this takes time.

Finally, Mr. Burns knows deeply what many scholars are now just discovering. A very common discussion among the science and social science community these days is how the use of storytelling can motivate understanding of technical research findings. It is the stories that generate emotions, and the emotions that generate attention and memory. When stories generate the attention, more complicated facts can be communicated and remembered more effectively. On this, his mastery is unrivaled.

So, stepping back from the day, I find myself a little more puzzled about the perceived differences between academic research products and those products that share so many of attributes of academic work, but are designed for a broader audience. It seems to me that both sides are at least intellectual cousins, if not intellectual siblings. The goals are the same; the methods have more overlap than we sometimes may think.

4 thoughts on “Scholarship and Storytelling

  1. Very interesting comparison! Seems to ring true. Burns is a true American treasure. Georgetown is lucky to have such speakers.

  2. Interesting comparison that rings true. Ken burns is an American treasure . It’s Wonderful that GU Gets such great speakers.

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