As a follow-up to yesterday’s post about synthesis, I wanted to mention this passage in Robert Scholes’s Rise and Fall of English, where he reminds the theory-struck (this was written in 1998, but it feels much older) about the importance of “truth” in academics:
My notion of academic truth . . . is not profound but neither is it nebulous . . . It resides in words at a lower level of abstraction: words like fair, accurate, and comprehensive. In a discipline called English the minimal requirements for academic truth include scrupulous accuracy in citation, regard for what is already known about our subject, and rigor in situating and interrogating whatever material we are considering (57).
This is a superb distillation of the scholarly discipline we expect and should expect from ourselves and our students. I would have loved to have had this little passage at my fingertips on many prior occasions.
As I think about this passage’s reception, however, I suspect that defining and applying these seemingly simple terms would fill many students with anxiety and confusion, especially in the context of the syntheses I discussed earlier: what does it mean to be “fair” to a 200-year old piece of writing that I am summarizing? Which details need to be present, and which should be absent, in order for my close reading or annotated bibliography to be considered “accurate,” or at least representative? Just how much research and background reading must I do, and how much of what I have done, should be reflected in my argument or footnotes?
These are the kinds of questions our curriculum is intended to answer, or stave off, but to the extent that the answers remain tacit, there will be surprises and disagreements for students and scholars alike.
PS: Even the most senior scholars in literary studies must confront these issues again when thinking about the issues raised by the new forms of dissemination and evaluation found in digital humanities. So these questions are by no means closed for even the most experienced scholars attempting to read and assimilate this kind of work.