Being a learner versus being a scholar

Being a learner versus being a scholar

When life gets especially difficult, it forces you to fall back on your identity. Who are you? And what kind of person do you want to be? Throughout 2020, which was a profoundly difficult year for me and my family in several ways, I've been asking these questions of myself. They are answered on several different levels all corresponding to the roles that I play in my life. I could go into a lot of detail about each of those roles. But here, I just want to focus on one of them: The slice of my professional life that I have always labelled as scholar.

That label "scholar" when applied to me seems pretentious. I am not a great researcher or even an above-average one. And yet, I've always adopted this label for the role that I play in my career, and indeed we faculty are usually expected to engage in, and are evaluated on "scholarship" — broadly defined, but still scholarship. Except, when I did my most recent trimesterly review last month, I found myself trying to make sense of 2020, and as I was picking up the pieces, I decided that I'm going to trade in the term scholar for the term learner.

There is nothing wrong with being a scholar. Some people are very good at it, and it defines their work and the way they engage with the world very well. But for me, instead of aspiring to be a scholar I am now aspiring to be a learner. Let me explain, borrowing from the Agile Manifesto:

Through my work in higher education and experiences in life, I have come to value:
Inputs over outputs
Growth over production
Sharing over publishing
Identity over status
That is, while there is value in the items on the right, I value the items on the left more.

Inputs over outputs: It used to be that scholarship was about the entire process of generating new knowledge, including learning things. Nowadays, being a scholar is more about output than anything. You do have to learn things to be a "productive" scholar (see the next bullet) but most of the time that learning appears to be simply a means to an end: You learn things in order to increase your output. Being a learner on the other hand is about inputs. If you learn something and there is never a measurable result other than you understand the world a little more and are happier as a result, then you've succeeded as a learner but not necessarily as a scholar. At this stage of my life and career, I know which of those I want to actually count as a success.

Growth over production: Your value as a scholar is inextricably tied to your production: how much you produce, how often you produce, where you produce (based on bizarre numerical rankings), and whether the things you produce are useful for other people's productions. To be clear, this production — the supply chain of ideas — is important. Peer review is important. There is nothing inherently wrong with being productive as a scholar in this sense, and I value that. But I value growth more. As with GTD and other productivity philosophies in general,  once they become an end in themselves, they lose all their power. Being a learner values the supply chain but doesn't focus on it. Instead, learning focuses on the person. Learning is about growth: a change in behavior, a change of mind, a change in your existential state that happens because you thought about something and discovered something. Many scholars are learners in this sense, and the best ones are. But many scholars stopped being learners a long time ago.

Sharing over publishing: Again, publishing in peer-reviewed outlets is a good thing because it holds ideas up to the light and purifies them with scrutiny. That is, assuming that the peer review process itself is done in good faith. We all need to value this more than we do. But still, publication is just a subset of something larger that belongs more properly to learners than scholars, namely sharing. If  you learn something or have an idea, something that can contribute to the world and make it a less horrible place, then you share it or else you're not really a learner but just an intellectual hoarder. Or as Seth Godin put it, "If it doesn’t ship, it doesn’t count." We often share ideas that turn out to be flawed or wrong. Some people do it on purpose. But it's worse to withhold ideas because they're not peer reviewed, than it is to share them and be potentially wrong. Learners learn through feedback loops; this doesn't happen unless we share.

Identity over status: Success in scholarship these days is not only about productivity but also status. It's awesome that you published your article in a peer reviewed journal, but was it a competitive journal? What was the altmetrics score? What's your current h-index?  Again, while there is value in these things, they can make scholarship an end in itself, a Ponzi scheme for nerds. At age 50 and in the second half, possibly the final third, of my career, I'm a lot less concerned with status as I am with my own identity. Identity determines how you face down the real issues of life, including the important problems that you focus your scholarship on but also things like global pandemics, family issues, and more. Identity shapes your approach to those problems and is shaped by that approach. There's a simply a much richer and more applicable sense of identity in being a learner than there is in being a scholar. You'll be a learner, or not, long after your career as a scholar is over.

Finally, a disclaimer/caveat: I'm in a fairly privileged position, as a tenured full professor, to say all this. There are some — many — reading this who are not, and at least for the time being have to play by the scholarship rules that currently prevailing in higher education, who will be evaluated year after year on "scholarship" but never on "learnership". So, I speak only for myself. However, one day I hope we'll have an academic system that has a place for scholarly output that doesn't require the closeting of learning, as if it were a odious lifestyle choice. And I'm looking for ways in 2021, not only to be a learner, but to use that privilege to make it easier for others to make the same choice if they want.

Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

Mathematics professor who writes and speaks about math, research and practice on teaching and learning, technology, productivity, and higher education.