The Life of the Scholar

HomeEssaysEducation (Essays)The Life of the Scholar
Scholar Academia Education College University

Is Scholarship a “Product”?

New university faculty want to know what scholarship is in order to go do it. Not unreasonably, they are asking for a target. If “X” constitutes scholarship and the job requires that faculty engage in scholarship, then new faculty conclude that their own work must resemble “X.” This is not an irrational position to take. Nevertheless, let me suggest an alternative approach.

Often, we define scholarship in terms of books, articles, grants, and presentations—what we might refer to as the products of scholarship. Rather than define scholarship by its products and then figure out how to produce it ourselves, we might instead describe the life of a scholar. Scholarship does not have to be understood as a product, i.e. a thing or an outcome. It can also be understood as a way of life, a process akin to the spiritual disciplines or what Parker Palmer refers to as “monastic metaphors.”

Viewing scholarship as a way of life will draw attention to particular practices, like daily rituals that reflect and enrich the mind’s activity. From this perspective, books, articles, grants, and presentations are simply by-products, handiwork.

The Elements of Scholarship: Silence, Study, and Time

Just as I have no competence to prescribe specific spiritual exercises to other people, I also hesitate to recommend particular scholarly activities. To a great extent, these will vary from person to person. Far be it from me to declare the One-Right-Way to scholarship. Each of us has to take into account our individual preferences, powers, and personal circumstances. Nevertheless, I would venture to say that any scholarly practice will include the following three features in one form or another: silence, study, and time.

Silence. It is always difficult today to escape the buzz and blare of our technological age and find a quiet place to concentrate on the life of the mind. Some people are apparently better at blocking out the noise than I am. But the point I am trying to make here is that at least some of the work of a scholar occurs in the mind, detached from the press of circumstance, in a place that is private, without any particular external evidence that anything is really going on. You cannot document exactly what transpires at such moments, and to the curious observer, you might appear to be idle. Nevertheless, by means of terrific mental exertion, a scholar will work through the ideas, arguments, and evidence of particular relevance to the problem. Thomas Hollweck, for example, described a lasting image he had of the esteemed political philosopher Eric Voegelin:

Sometimes he would sit outside in the late afternoon after his nap. And a couple of times I would come across the courtyard, and he would sit there with a cigar, and there was something in his face that was very contemplative, absolutely peaceful. Something I noticed was a quietness of meditation that seemed to be habitual. 1

When talking about silence for the scholar, one might imagine a musty library, with a large clock ticking on the wall and an occasional flutter of pages, though silence could as easily occur on a solitary walk, at the onset of a nap, or on a train ride home. Silence in this sense is not so much the absence of sound as freedom from distraction, from the noise of other business clamoring for attention. No matter what might be going on out there, the scholar is regularly alone with his or her thoughts. As Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “A man thinking or working is always alone, let him be where he will.”2

When silence of this sort does not come easily, a scholar might have to become assertive and create that silence – leaving the noisy office for an hour or plugging into Mozart or simply inserting an entry onto one’s daily planner to remember to think. Then, protect that time from the rest of the world, from one’s spouse and from the boss, from other tasks and from plenty of temptations. The silence must be intentional. And it must be treated as one’s professional obligation.

Study. As scholars, we are fortunate to join a conversation that has been going on for millennia. We may consult a treasure of literature on the problems that interest us.In that sense, we are not alone, left to our own devices. The record of past scholarship is more voluminous than we can ever exhaust. And thanks to technology and our relevant affluence, today access to these materials is unprecedented. They do no good, of course, until we actually consult them. A library nobody visits is a waste of resources, a monument to our predecessors’ stewardship and nothing more.

Not only are we in a position to plumb the past, we also have colleagues around the world right now working on the same or equivalent problems. We can reach out to contemporaries and learn from them. Part of study is collaborating with others, sharpening our understanding and sharing knowledge in a cooperative venture. Whereas scholars are often drawn by temperament to isolation, working alone, they still work in a context. They learned from their mentors, to cite one example. They read the seminal publications. They present their findings to peers. Scholarship might reward ritual withdrawal from the external environment, in the silence of one’s own thoughts, but it also builds on interactions. One cannot remain completely apart. Instead, a scholar will be selective about those to consult, and this requires a certain amount of scanning the horizon, seeing who might be out there as a prospective source. Perhaps a scholar will form a team of researchers or partner with customers. Or the scholar will stay current reading the journals and attending conferences.

In his Autobiographical Reflections, Eric Voegelin observes “that one cannot be a successful scholar … unless one knows what one is talking about.” Voegelin continues, “And that means acquiring [comparative knowledge and] keeping that knowledge up to date through contact with the specialist sciences in the various [related] fields.” 3

The way to say this best, in my opinion, is that a scholar is like a shark in that he must constantly swim to stay alive. One cannot simply float and presume to be a scholar. Scholarship is a life spent en route, on the way, gathering information and new ideas, engorging the mind – not in a random accumulation of this and that, but methodically, ritualistically, with deliberation, forever learning from the past and from the world, sifting the flux with a purpose.

Time. The modern mass university, replete with bureaucracy, makes plenty of demands on its faculty. We all teach and serve, writing reports and attending meetings, building programs and adapting to shifts in organizational politics. Time for much of anything is scarce. One can easily lose the momentum required for scholarship by filling the day with other activities. And in the grand scheme of things, how anyone apportions their time on this planet is their business. Choosing to parent, to dance, to worship, to volunteer, to soak in the sun with gladness – these activities also deserve time.

But scholarship does not happen if it does not happen in time. And in my experience, good scholarship takes a considerable amount of time. Maybe some are so brilliant they can toss off gems like an afterthought, publishing every scrap of an idea in golden prose; bully for them! For the rest of us, however, scholarship requires exertion. And that work takes time. I will be honest: there is something dubious about a manuscript that comes too easily. If the project did not require an investment of time, then was it really worth doing?

Here I am not making the plea that one must set aside portions of the day for “scholarship.” That would probably be helpful, though I am emphasizing that scholarship takes a duration of time, that it requires patience to develop. Your promotion and tenure committee might like to see some results now, and your department head might need an accounting of your year before calculating raises. Contrary to these pressures, a scholar will not be rushed, taking shortcuts and sending off shoddy proposals to meet a deadline. The work will be done when it is done. Now, let me add that this unhappy fact might necessitate devoting more time per day to the work of scholarship in order to satisfy real world demands. Nevertheless, there is a craftsmanship to scholarship that rewards excellence and an extraordinary attentiveness to the quality.

And craftsmanship takes time, getting things just so.

Kairos vs. Chronos

Fortunately, from this perspective which the Greeks call kairos, time is the opportunity, the meaningful occasion that defines who you are, the breakthroughs and memorable events, rather than chronos, which is simply the apportionment of a diminishing resource measured in units – one hour, one hour, one hour. Chronos is to kairos as rhythm is to music. Lived then as kairos, life changes from an opaque unfolding of an unknown future into a transparent now – always now. And the posture of mind this “transparent now” encourages is contemplation. Contemplation converts the unceasing restlessness of the human mind toward a particular question. It is a harnessing of what we might call psychic turbulence, a channeling of our powers. (You are never more of a scholar then during contemplation.) Contemplation is neither a stultifying arrest of our thoughts on a single point nor a disjointed and random chaos of flitting images, impressions, arguments, and fantasy. Rather, it flows toward some resolution that the scholar hopes will approximate truth.

Paul Caringella, the personal assistant to Eric Voegelin during his last years, has noted that Voegelin had been working through some particularly difficult problems, with the result that over a nine year period he was averaging only about two pages of text on these problems per month.. This from a man who had once agreed to write an introductory political science text and found it explode into more than 6000 pages before he abandoned it in favor of writing his magisterial five volume Order and History. While working on that earlier textbook, he had been pushing through at a rate of a hundred pages per month. So, what explains the comparatively meager output, dropping from a hundred pages each month to just two? Caringella explained that Voegelin was doing this later work meditatively, reflecting all the time on the particular intellectual problems that were troubling him – even during social occasions. It simply took that much time to make headway.[4]

The Scholar in a University Setting

It would be a mistake, in my opinion, to expect a university administrator to supply the needed silence and time for study. Yes, administrators can be helpful. They can acknowledge that you will not see the products of scholarship without the process of scholarship. They can tend to the conditions of scholarship, providing space to work and incentives to labor and opportunities to flourish. And let us not ignore the myriad ways that administrators can inhibit, frustrate, or neglect the process of scholarship. That is no excuse.

The university can conduct workshops and formalize a mentorship program. It can alert faculty to opportunities for publication and grants they might never have seen otherwise. The university can adopt liberal policies about release time and the uses of sabbatical. Ultimately, the individual professor has to envision and structure the work and then do it, with a fidelity that borders on ferocity. Out of this commitment will come the books and articles, the grants and presentations that each of us can then record in our vitae – the indicia of what occurs in our capacious minds.

I tend toward anxiety. In my career, I have encountered plenty of obstacles. When I viewed scholarship as a product and then met with resistance of one kind or another, I panicked. I flailed my arms and stalked back and forth across my tiny office. Gradually, however, I discovered that scholarship is a way of life – a gentle, rewarding, and dignified way of life. And on occasion, I have had to fight for that. 

We in higher education struggle to define scholarship because the organizations to which we belong insist on it. Instead of hectoring each other to do more — to produce a minimum number of refereed journal articles, for example — I prefer to invite us all to develop habits, rituals, practices that bend our minds toward truth.

Only then, comes the harvest.



1. Barry Cooper, and Jodi Bruhn (Eds.).Voegelin recollected: Conversations on a life (2008), Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press p. 55.

2. H. D. Thoreau, Walden; or, Life in the Woods (1854), [from: online edition found at].

3. Eric Voegelin, Autobiographical Reflections. (E. Sandoz, Ed.) The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, Volume 34, (2006), Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press.

4. Cooper and Bruhn p. 21.

Nathan Harter

Written by

Nathan Harter is Associate Professor of Organizational Leadership at Purdue University. He is author of several books, with the latest being Leadership and Coherence: A Cognitive Approach (Routledge, 2014).