There's a distinction between inquiry and presentation. Inquiry is the process of conceiving, researching, and composing a project or some other piece of work. Presentation is the finished product.
|Preparing a massive research and writing project is, oddly enough, a
difficult task that isn't perfectly conceived at the beginning. You'd
think that would make sense to people. Maybe it does, but they
don't actually care.
Inquiry is a great bloody chaotic mess. You redefine the scope, aims, and likely conclusions of the project several times over as you do research. Some angles and sources are thrown out entirely as irrelevant in the light of other discoveries. An argument that you think is going to flow in one direction ends up utterly rearranged. Inquiry is a state of flux.
It sounds so sensible. It sounds so obviously true. It makes perfect sense. So why do so many academics, in my experience and in the experience of many other people, ignore it?
I’m speaking to my experience mostly in philosophy circles, where a bit more emphasis is put on argument than in other disciplines. But I move in pretty interdisciplinary circles today, and what I’m about to describe is pretty common across the humanities and social sciences.
A younger student comes to a more experienced professor, or to a group of her peers, for advice about a project in progress. She lays out the skeleton of an argument, what some of her main sources are so far, what empirical content is coming into play. She asks for advice.
They’re treating an inquiry as if it was the presentation. A messy project in progress as if it was a polished final product. This even though she introduces her material with countless qualifiers – it’s a work in progress, she’s looking for advice, looking for any blind spots she may have, any research directions that may turn out to be blind alleys for her priorities.
Instead, her colleagues and superiors are more concerned with scoring points. Making themselves look good by making her look bad. Feeling better about themselves by cutting someone else down.
All too often, this is how academicians treat each other. I described it in self-consciously gendered terms because it does – on balance – happen to women much more often than to men. But it happens to men too. It happens to anyone who looks vulnerable in a research community where knowledge is seen as a battleground for prestige.
Do you do it for the letters after your name? For the professional designations to list after your email signature? We should be doing it for the progress of human knowledge. Typical humanity, we so often fall short of what we claim we’re doing because we aren’t really doing what we claim.