Scholarship as Conversation

Barry Mauer and John Venecek

We discuss the following topics on this page:

We also provide the following activities:

Related to Searching as Strategic Exploration is the idea of Scholarship as Conversation. From the Framework for Information Literacy: “Communities of scholars, researchers, or professionals engage in sustained discourse with new insights and discoveries occurring over time as a result of varied perspectives and interpretations.” They further add that, “Instead of seeking discrete answers to complex problems, experts understand that a given issue may be characterized by several competing perspectives as part of an ongoing conversation in which information users and creators come together and negotiate meaning.”

Entering the Conversation 

The conversation analogy can help us grasp the meaning and purpose of audience awareness, a concept that is new to many students. Academic communities revolve around questions researchers ask that move the conversation about a specific topic or problem forward. They converse with each other through the research they present at conferences and publish in scholarly books and journals. They also converse by email, in the hallways, and through discussion boards hosted by Humanities Commons, H-Net, and others.

Joining a scholarly conversation for the first time can be both exciting and intimidating. We might look to the more established scholars and think that they “belong” in the conversation and that we don’t. These established scholars, like other people, may be welcoming to scholars hoping to join the conversation or they may not be. If you meet first with scholars who are not so welcoming, keep trying (but maybe with other scholars)! Joining the conversation is less about who you are and more about learning the guidelines. Scholarly conversation often follows the principles of dialogue. Some of them are:

  1. Listen – a lot– before jumping in
  2. Learn the key terms, the key questions, the key theories, the key figures, etc.
  3. Be curious – ask questions
  4. Be respectful
  5. Offer information or perspectives that haven’t yet arisen in the conversation
  6. Don’t be afraid to state a claim about a subject, but be prepared to defend the claim
  7. Be willing to change your mind if challenges to your claims are warranted
  8. Be open and receptive to feedback
  9. Remember that the goal of scholarly conversation is to improve our shared understanding

One thing to know about established scholars is that they too have self-doubts. Many experience what is known as “the imposter syndrome,” the belief that they are a fraud and don’t belong in the conversation. Self-assessment is good and your level of expertise should be counted as a factor. But we should strive to create an environment where everyone feels they belong. Necessarily, such an environment must put restrictions on behavior that would make others feel unwelcome or that would threaten the project of gaining real knowledge. Thus to sustain a welcoming environment, we should follow the guidelines listed above and encourage others to do so as well.

Being open to feedback is absolutely necessary. We all make mistakes. When we do, and someone points it out to us, we need to recognize the value of this feedback and take it to heart. Your instructors are doing you a favor when they point to weaknesses in your work. Advanced scholars have to accept critical feedback as well – from editors, reviewers, other scholars, etc. The better we become at accepting this feedback, the more likely we are to improve.

Before we discuss this concept more in-depth, let’s watch Jada discuss her approach to entering the scholarly conversation pertaining to James Baldwin and “Sonny’s Blues.”

Literature Research Strategies – Part 2 [8 min 26 sec]

Key Quotes from the Video:

Entering the Conversation:

“The ‘Conversation’ really informed my research process because I knew that it’s important to value what these scholars are saying and that it can really add texture to my paper and texture to what I’m thinking about.”

Overcoming the Anxiety of Influence:

“Overcoming the Anxiety of Influence is really important when you’re entering the scholarly conversation … And I think the Anxiety of Influence really stops you from truly engaging [with] the text, [and with] what these scholars have to say.”

Identifying Gaps & Establishing Relevance:

“A gap in the research is really just like a hole that you find almost, where you don’t really see there’s a lot of people in the field talking about it … the gap that I found in my research was: why aren’t there scholars, literary scholars specifically, talking about the way that race and class function together in literature?”

Jada’s experience growing up in the Bronx, and her father’s interest in Jazz, gave her a natural connection to the themes in “Sonny’s Blues”, and served as her entry into the conversation about Baldwin, class, and critical race theory. Jada’s background directed her to certain kinds of scholarship, which added texture and depth to her personal story as well as her reading of Baldwin.

For more advice on Scholarship as Conversation, consider the following from[1]

In order to easily identify a conversation between your sources, look at those sources (articles, websites, images, videos, books), and think of these questions:

  • What kind of conversation can you see happening between your sources?
  • How many sources are communicating with each other? How are they communicating?
  • Why don’t other sources join that conversation? Do they engage in another conversation? Can you link all conversations in one web?
  • How are sources in your bibliography communicating with one another?

Inform Your Thinking: Episode 1 – Research is a Conversation [8 min 26 sec]


Overcoming the Anxiety of Influence, or Making a Convincing Argument with You as the Authority

Many beginning researchers suffer from “the anxiety of influence”: the fear of appearing as a mere imitator to a more established scholar or writer. The anxiety of influence affects both creative writers and literary scholars. This fear often leads students to make the mistake of avoiding other texts because they believe it will influence them too much and thus will quash their original ideas. Nevertheless, original ideas don’t come from nowhere; they arise from our engagement with other texts. “Influence” is a tricky word since it implies that the past is acting upon you; however, you, as the scholar, are in the driver’s seat. You select ideas from those around you and arrange them in ways that convincingly make the case you set out to make. Of course, you need to cite ideas that are not your own and give credit where it is due, but you are the one responsible for the finished product.

Think of this responsibility – of being the authority – as being similar to that of a museum curator. The curator is usually presenting other people’s work but is doing so to support a claim or share a point of view. The curator is responsible for knowing about the material and not misrepresenting it. The same is true for you as you write your paper.

Another analogy for positioning yourself as the authority is the tour guide. The tour guide uses the following methods to establish authority and a point of view:

    • Tell people where you are going (introduction).
    • Along the way, tell them about the significance of what they will see.
    • While there, point to each item and explain its significance and its relationship to the other items.
    • On the way back (the conclusion of your essay), summarize the main points.

The key here is to decide what the significance is. For example, if you are taking a group of people on a tour of the pyramids in Egypt, your focus might be on Egyptian mythology, and your point might be that it contributed to Judeo-Christian beliefs and culture. Then, everything you point out at the site will keep to that original point.

Instead, perhaps you want to focus on the significance of the division of labor in ancient Egypt. Then, you will discuss work, technology, and money, and you might point to evidence about how workers lived and about the tools they used. In other words, we must decide what significance we make of the materials. The most effective way to convey significance is by focusing on the consequences of the argument. Since X is true, then Y is a result.

Example [Scholarship as Conversation]

Since ancient Egyptian society had skilled craftsmen and precise tools, they must have had a way to teach their technical skills to succeeding generations.

The anxiety of influence often leads students to the “hit and run” citation style: papers consisting of quotes strung together with little context or analysis. Always comment on quotes and incorporate them into your argument. Your readers want to know what you think and how you think. Show readers how you think by leading them through a series of inferences. Imagine your work as a conversation with others in the field; be engaged as well as engaging and always keep in mind why your argument is important.

For more advice on Overcoming Anxiety and You as the Authority, consider the following from Harvard College Writing Center:

As the writer of an essay, imagine yourself crossing a river, guiding a troop of avid readers. You bring an armful of stones to lay down and step on as you go; each stone is a sentence or paragraph that speaks to and develops the essay’s thesis, or central question. If you find yourself in the middle of the river with another mile to shore but only a few more stones, you can’t finesse such a situation. You can’t ask your readers to follow you and jump too broad a span. In such a case, stop. Ask yourself if you need more stones—more sentences or paragraphs—or if perhaps you have already used ones that more properly belong ahead. On a second look, you may decide that the distance between stones is not that great, after all; perhaps your reader only needs a hand of assistance to get from one stone, or paragraph, to the next.

Originality may or may not be the most important consideration for literary scholars and writers; we can be original by doing something strange or unexpected but that otherwise has no clear purpose or value. The most recognized works of literature, or criticism and theory, are often those that show startling originality and have extremely high value. Learning how to recognize value, in your own work and others, is the hallmark of excellence in our field. Typically, it involves acquiring a lot of knowledge about the field.

Identifying Gaps

Many researchers find productive problems by looking for gaps in the published research. “Gaps” refers to areas of research that have yet to be fully explored. They may be neglected or overlooked areas but they can also be tensions and contradictions in the research. To go back to the conversation analogy, gaps, tensions, and contradictions are identified through the ongoing debate among scholars. Identifying gaps is accomplished by conducting a literature review and asking critical open-ended questions – such as who, what, when, where, why, and how – about your findings. Your goal is to contribute something unique that will generate new knowledge, help solve a problem, and keep the conversation going. Filling a gap in knowledge is often a “low stakes” exercise since it accepts the paradigm of knowledge – the big picture – and strives to fill in the margins. Imagine a large mosaic where the general outline and main features are done, but not all the areas are filled in. Think of these unfinished areas as the “gaps.”

Establishing Relevance

We introduced the idea of relevance and purpose in Chapter 2 where we noted that relevance is an entry into the scholarly conversation, and that it can be evaluated against specific criteria. “Sonny’s Blues” raises questions about the impact of systemic racism on black individuals and families, and it celebrates the creativity and resilience of black culture, making the story relevant to a large audience many years later. The similarities between Jada’s experiences and Baldwin’s literary work and biography motivated her to conduct research, but Jada has to consider whether including her personal story in the writing will be relevant or necessary to her audience and research question.

Scholarship as Conversation [Refresher]

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Exercises [Discussion]

  1. Have you ever worried about the need to be “original” in your writing? Explain.
  2. Has the fear of being “influenced” by other writers held you back from reading them and studying their work? Explain.
  3. Do you agree with the idea that writers who make original contributions tend to know more, not less, about other writers in their field? Explain.
  4. If there are any elements of this assignment that need clarification, please list them
  5. What was the most important lesson you learned from this page? What point was confusing or difficult to understand?

  1. Mina, Lilian. “Conversation Between Sources.” Writing Commons, 23 Jan. 2020,
  2. OkStateLibrary, director. Inform Your Thinking: Episode 1 - Research Is a Conversation. YouTube, 18 May 2016, Accessed 3 Apr. 2022.


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