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What is New; What is True

While there are a variety of cultures across disciplines, departments, schools, fields of a university, there are also commonalities. The commonalities are most vivid in the scholarship or research activities of the diverse fields. It is true that there are very diverse methods and styles of scholarship. One field may pride itself on the work of scholars working by themselves; others, the work of multi-person teams. One field may create book length products of their scholarship; others, produce smaller bites of work disseminated through journal articles.

The commonality in scholarship and research exists in the privileging of novelty and creativity. Fields are constantly innovating, continuously attempting to expand their bases. New ideas, new approaches, new interpretations are valued. It is through such work that fields advance. They build upon their foundations. They enlarge their influence. Doing the same thing as prior research is devalued as repetitive or uninteresting. (I’ve written earlier about a weakness of this culture, but here I want to praise it.)

PhD students are mentored to choose an unexplored area or select an unsolved problem. New assistant professors are encouraged to forge a clear new identity, to build a distinctive theme in their scholarship to succeed. Innovation is the name of the game.

While each discipline values innovation, how do they determine which innovations are of lasting value? What is both new and true? All fields rely on some sort of peer review. That is, others in the same field judge whether an innovative product is a valued new contribution.

Some fields have rather strong paradigms, consisting of principles and time-tested findings. In them, a novel result that solves a knotty puzzle within the paradigm, but is consistent with the body of principles, can be rather quickly accepted. A piece of work whose novelty violates some of the well-accepted principles, on the other hand, is often greeted with intense skepticism. In that sense, the peer review criteria rest on the large base of prior research results, which are the foundation of the paradigm. The new work is evaluated using the old as a lens.

In fields with much weaker paradigms or fields that are collection of diverse approaches and foci, peer review values new interpretations and new approaches. Such fields value critiques of past work, but demand evidence. Radical new approaches require larger evidentiary bases for them to be accepted. Glowing reviews of books, awards for books, and later publications that build upon an approach taken in a book are signals of acceptance of innovation. The author is sought out by others for commentary in his field of expertise.

The more radical is the innovation, the longer the process of acceptance might take. Such fields use the dialectic of argument as a tool for innovation. When counter-arguments to an innovation cease or are judged ineffective, the new creation is on its way to incorporation into accepted knowledge.

One of the greatest values of the thirst for innovation within academic disciplines is that erroneous findings or conclusions of little general value are effectively dispelled. The continuous effort to extend knowledge has the great value of purging that which does not stand the test of peer review.

2 thoughts on “What is New; What is True

  1. The need for enlightened innovation as delineated here is surely quintessential in advancing scholarship in any and every field. Then too, an interesting spill-over for teaching is that the pedagogic equivalency of innovation for students is wonderment, a sense of intellectual astonishment which challenges and expands the lens of previous mentation. Wonderment is a powerful motivational force for studying harder and going deeper. It, too, is crucial to our endeavors.

  2. Enlightened innovation is always a quintessential dimension of cutting-edge research. The pedagogic equivalency in the classroom is wonderment, the ability to expand the student’s lens of previous mentation and create intellectual and perceptual astonishment. This, just like innovation in scholarship, is a powerful motivational force to strive harder and go deeper.

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Office of the ProvostBox 571014 650 ICC37th and O Streets, N.W., Washington D.C. 20057Phone: (202) 687.6400Fax: (202) 687.5103provost@georgetown.edu

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