Paper #6: What It Means to Be A Scholar


Although over 175 years old, Emerson’s “American Scholar” still has nuggets of wisdom relevant to scholarship today. Source: Public Domain

Although perhaps an odd piece to consider when we’ve moved into scholarship on materiality, embodiment, chaos theory, complexity, and post-humanism, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1837 speech to the Phi Beta Kappa Society in Cambridge, MA, titled “The American Scholar” seems to still offer some nuggets of wisdom  on what it means to be a scholar today. To sum up his lengthy speech, Emerson essentially praises the observation of both human and physical nature, the study of history through books, and the value of labor and action.  Before regarding this as transcendental triteness, I ask my readers for a little latitude to articulate meaning here behind Emerson’s words because as a scholar wannabe of rhetoric and composition standing at the intersection of program administration, I think he helps me clarify my place in the field of English Studies.


While Emerson may romanticize the sun and its setting, the night and its stars, or the grass and its breeze.  He turns an interesting phrase when he mentions his observation of the everyday spectacle of “men and women, conversing, beholding and beholden.”  From that description, I can’t help but think about what’s at the root of scholarship or at least the scholarship that I’m interested in:  it is the nature of humans, the behaviors of students — their conversing about how they juggle work, caring for their kids, and somehow going to college. It is their beholding of new knowledge, at least some times, and of the nature of others around them, their culture, and their purpose. This importance of human nature upon scholarship is what drew me to make transfer of learning within first-year composition students my point of inquiry throughout the semester, for as the main objects of study across most all of the literature I explored, it is students — their behaviors, actions, reactions, memories, and losses — that problematize and promote my scholarship.

As an example of the study of human nature within writing studies, Howard Tinberg, in his article, “Reconsidering Transfer Knowledge at the Community Colleges,” asks: “What exactly is it that students [my emphasis] take from their required writing course that could enable success in those other domains? (8)” By comparison, Tinberg does not make course content his object of study, as Yancey and her colleagues do; rather, he focuses on human nature –- both beautiful and messy –- dabbling in psychological work of sorts concerning writing and its carryover to other subjects and situations.


Studying transfer requires one to think psychologically. Source:

Speaking of psychology, that area of study may be a good metaphor here, for like a therapist, Tinberg only has a select number of individuals — I will not call them patients, but certainly I can envision a comfy chair and a great deal of “so, tell me about your writing” — who he works with and interviews as case studies: five to be exact.  The narrow population and case study approach is interesting.  It speaks to a qualitative factor that I find missing in so much of the institutional data to which I’ve grown accustomed within community colleges, where the race to completion has us focusing on large student populations and scaled-up initiatives.  Instead of attempting to respond to student issues through conjecture based on big data, case studies can help us truly know our students.  These types of one-on-one, give-and-take sessions are powerful; however, I am also aware of their limitations, including perhaps their inability to offer generalizations or external validity, which is why a mixed-methods approach (e.g., surveys and reviews), such as Tinberg performs, are important, but for me, case studies as a methodology seem more manageable and meaningful.

Now, as may be surmised, I have been deeply involved in gathering and reporting institutional data in my current administrative capacity. In fact, I spent six months as departmental representative, reporting, each week, directly to senior leadership and over 100 staff and faculty regarding our support initiatives.  It was a nerve-wracking affair, to say the least!


Institutional data should be considered when a scholar has administrative responsibilities. Source: KPBC

With that in mind, I return to Emerson’s notion of observing nature.  He says, “[T]he ancient precept, ‘Know thyself,’ and the modern precept, ‘Study nature,’ become at last one maxim.”  While in its nineteenth century context, this thought plays to Emerson’s transcendental mindset, which I don’t care too much to make a digression or deconstruction of here, it brings to light, in my current context, the connections between institution and scholar; that is, because of my administrative responsibilities, students are not all that inform my scholarship; they are not all of the “nature” to which I am connected.  Rather, the institution and their discussions and requirements for  retention, persistence, and completion make up a collective nature –- a calculating, assessing, and legitimizing one –- that I feel obligated to listen to and observe, and likewise, this nature serves as an ulterior motive to scholarship on items such as transfer.

Tinberg recognizes a similar institutional responsibility in studying transfer when he writes, “Within the community college context, the ability of students to take what they’ve learned in a key gateway course—first-year composition—and to use that knowledge in a self-conscious way to achieve success in courses to come and, indeed, in a career becomes especially urgent. Retention of community college students remains a concern nationally, with a 58 percent retention rate from fall to fall” (10).


When Emerson speaks of years past he finds his muse in the most prominent text of the time: books.  He writes, “Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst. What is the right use? What is the one end, which all means go to effect? They are for nothing but to inspire.”  Similarly, books, texts – the literature in general — on rhetoric and composition offer a history, perhaps even a lore, as Phelps reminds us of in her “Practical Wisdom and the Geography of Knowledge in Composition,” that pushes me toward my own scholarship. Texts help me find seminal works and, most importantly, those gaps that offer potential for future study.  This semester, one of those gaps –- at least I think I found –- is the study of how digital learning objects improve or don’t improve transfer.


Learning Toolkits provide point-of-need instruction and offer a unique object of study for transfer. Source: SPC

I grew interested in this topic because currently at my institution I have been integrally involved in the planning and building of a digital repository that holds active learning toolkits, which are a collection of digital learning objects geared toward independent mediation or remediation.  So, I started thinking: What if a composition course promoted these digital learning objects, such as ones on paragraph development or finding sentence-level errors, and these learning toolkits were available to students throughout their time at the college?  Would they return to them?  Would they help improve transfer?  Is there any history of research here? How would I measure it anyway? Well, in looking at theory I found the ideas of boundary crossing and boundary objects within transfer of learning, and this discovery inspired me, perhaps similar to how Emerson was so inspired by books he discovered.

To elaborate, boundary crossing, according to Akkerman & Bakker (2011), is defined as the ability to “face the challenge of negotiating and combining ingredients from different contexts to achieve hybrid situations” (qtd. in Middleton and Baartman 134) and boundary objects, as Star and Griesemer’s 1989 work points out, are “both plastic enough to adapt to local needs and the constraints of the several parties employing them, yet robust enough to maintain a common identity across sites” (qtd. in Akkerman and Bakker 134).   Doing more research, two FemTech scholars, Alexandra Juhasz and Anne Balsamo, take boundary objects one step further and call them “Boundary Objects That Learn.” While originally I was not confident in my thought in attaching digital learning objects to boundary objects, this textual find, in the words of Emerson, became “the page . . . luminous with manifold allusion.”

To go along with this discovery, the intersections of administration and scholarship help out my case here, for I actually have the opportunity to put study into practice.  To explain further, I’ve been actively involved in creating a new standards-based Composition 1 course and serving as a course coordinator for it, and in this course, we have placed these toolkits (i.e., digital learning objects), so if I wish to pursue this study regarding transfer, I can look to the analytics and formulate some methodologies, such as case studies, to further investigate the point of inquiry.


Finally, to return to Emerson’s definition of scholarship, he praises action in his ultimate point.  He says, “A great soul will be strong to live, as well as strong to think.”  Emerson’s words here remind me of a couple of items I read this semester.  First of all, they are reminiscent of Phelps’ community of reflective practitioners (867);  that is, those who are working in the world and learning from it.  Likewise, it reminds me of a quote I recounted from Sid Dobrin when we were writing about theory and methods.  He says, [M]ost often theory is organic, receptive to new observations, additional facts, further speculation.  Theory accounts for experience and allows new experience to alter or contribute to the evolution of that theory” (Dobrin 8-9).

Overall, Emerson’s notion of action — and quotations such as those mentioned above — make me realize that where I stand in the major debates is in the middle of thinking and theorizing, acting and administering. It makes me remember that practice informs theory, and theory informs practice.  It also makes me think about the idea of the teacher-scholar, and it begs me to take it one step further as the administrator-scholar.

While mixing administration and scholarship may not be the most common way of applying the PhD, the argument for it has grown over the years, and it interests me as an administrator managing a writing center and as a faculty member teaching writing.  As a brief review of this administrator-scholar identity, I begin with Bullock, who perhaps was prescient when he wrote this in 1987:


Intellectual work in writing administration advances knowledge just like the design and construction of a building. Source: GoBloomberg

“Increasingly, faculty members are hired to use their expertise to design and run writing programs; the administration of those programs is an integral part of their jobs. Faculty in these positions are not caretakers of a slice of bureaucracy; they are experts and scholars testing and refining their knowledge in the practical arena of application. The administration of writing programs under these circumstances advances our knowledge of the teaching of writing. No less than an architect’s erection of a building or a playwright’s successful directing of his or her own play, it is scholarship (15).”

Then, in 1998, the Council of Writing Program Administration took a stand on the intellectual and scholarly work of writing program administrators, saying “it is worthy of tenure and promotion when it advances and enacts disciplinary knowledge within the field of Rhetoric and Composition” (Schuster, et al.)

Even more recently, Debra Dew (2009) argues that rhetorical work, when applied to writing program administration, should be considered intellectual work. She writes, “Rhetorical advocacy is an area of inquiry that is epistemologically integral to our field’s methods of generating, integrating, and applying knowledge. Our standards of excellence in writing administration include evaluative criteria and outcomes that depend upon advocacy. . . [thus,] advocacy as the WPA’s applied rhetorical work is essential” (42).

Such groundwork with regards to the scholar-administrator gives me hope for the future, and it helps me create a framework to identify the world of scholarship and my place in it. To paraphrase Emerson, this discovery becomes me, as the scholar, “to feel all confidence in myself,” and it reminds me to pay attention to nature, texts, and action, for “[s]uccess treads on every right step.”

Works Cited

Akkerman, Sanne F., and Arthur Bakker. “Boundary Crossing and Boundary Objects”. Review of Educational Research 81.2 (2011): 132–169. JSTOR.  Web.  29 Oct. 2015.

Bullock, Richard. “When Administration Becomes Scholarship: The Future of – Writing Program Administration.” Writing Program Administration 11.1-2 (1987): 13-18. Web. 9 Dec. 2015.

Dew, Debra Frank. “WPA as Rhetor: Scholarly Production and the Difference a Discipline Makes.” CCC 61:2 (2009): 40-62. Web. 9 Dec. 2015.

Dobrin, Sidney I. Constructing Knowledges: The Politics of Theory-Building and Pedagogy in Composition. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997. Print.

Emerson, Ralph W. “The American Scholar.” Phi Beta Kappa Society. Cambridge, MA. 31 Aug. 1837. Web. 9 Dec. 2015.

Juhasz, Alexandra, and Anne Balsamo. “An Idea Whose Time is Here: FemTechNet – A Distributed Online Collaborative Course (DOCC).” da: a Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, 1 (2012). Web. 29 Oct. 2015.

Middleton, Howard, and L K. J. Baartman. “Transfer, Transitions, and Transformation?” Transfer, Transitions and Transformations of Learning, 2013. 1-11. Print.

Phelps, Louise Wetherbee. “Practical Wisdom and the Geography of Knowledge in Composition”. College English 53.8 (1991): 863–885. Web. 7 Dec. 2015.

Schuster, Charles, et al. “Evaluating the Intellectual Work of Writing Administration.” WPA. Council of Writing Program Administrators, 1998. Web. 9 Dec. 2015.

Tinberg, Howard. “Reconsidering Transfer Knowledge at the Community College: Challenges and Opportunities.” Teaching English in the Two Year College 43.1 (2015): 7-31. Web. 5 Oct. 2015.