From the Archives: Competition, Collaboration, and Writing

From the ArchivesI was browsing through some of my old documents, and came across a piece I wrote in grad school about competition and collaboration in academia, and how academics practice their craft via writing. The course was on creating an academic career for yourself, in the loftiest and most philosophical of ways. The professor was someone I admired deeply; he was generous with his feedback and so smart you couldn’t help but learn from him. This particular paper caught my eye because even though I opted out of academia entirely (no fault of this course!), it presages some of the themes I still think about: Balancing individual and group success. Being authentic. Expressing yourself through writing.

So, with apologies for the more academic prose, here is an edited version of that paper I wrote way back in October of 2002 when I was just starting to seriously think about the professional I’d become. Any bolding was added by me for this post.


There is a tension between colleagues in academics: On the one hand, the academic community exists to support and nourish each other, while on the other, the structure of universities forces scholars to compete with each other for resources and recognition. Potential trade-offs abound within the field; often career options for academics are presented as if there is only one desirable goal (becoming well-known, oft-cited, and admired by most, if not all, your colleagues). But, there are other options as well—for instance, Marx (1992) talks about the need to balance personal relationships with academic work. Finally, scholarship is an effortful act, and a scholar needs to practice his or her art and improve his or her technique.

The tensions in the community: On the one hand, colleagues can be a valuable source of information about both topics in and related to the field, and about the social environment of the field. They are potential collaborators and possible friends. Conversely, the tenure system is structured such that faculty have an incentive to hoard their research ideas (lest another scholar take them and become famous) and generally insulate themselves from potential competition, making sure to advance their own research while limiting any contributions to other tenure hopefuls. Competition for valuable and limited rewards reduces the goodwill and cooperation among researchers. Schwalbe (1995), for one, directly links success as an academic to competently navigating the social environment of the field: “Fitting in socially can be more important than being a good scholar and teacher” (316). Similarly, Marx (1992) writes that scholarship “involves a job or career carried out in a competitive milieu where the usual human virtues and vices are never far from the surface” (260). Unfortunately, it seems unavoidable that the aspiring scholar will have to learn his way through the political complications of his field. Hopefully, Schwalbe’s belief that tenure actually does engender academic freedom will prove true for most people; perhaps tenure signals the close of the most hazardous aspects of the political game.

You can’t have it all but you can have what you most want: A career in academics can be described as a trade-off between the recognition of other scholars and personal control over your research. Marx (1992) explains, “A virtue of obscurity is greater control over your time and greater privacy” (269). At this point in my academic career, my future options often seem limited to: a) being famous or b) being nothing. Marx has pointed out—reassuringly, wonderfully, and I hope, honestly—that to lack fame and recognition as a scholar is not to have become a scholar in vain. Rather, it is to have less worry about others’ reactions to your work and more worry about your own reactions to your work; to have more time for family and friends; to be more free to investigate a question out of curiosity or compassion, rather than it is what is expected or asked of you. Moreover, this perspective suggests that an appropriate professional goal is to complete research that is truly compelling to you as a researcher. After all, if others don’t embrace it, it will nonetheless continue to be yours. A good rule of thumb, therefore, might be, “Don’t research a question you wouldn’t want to work on if no one were to notice.”

Scholarship requires practice, like this!: Marx (1997) and Kerr both offer concrete suggestions to aspiring and beginning academics to hone their skills. While some of these suggestions are intuitive, others have added to my concept of what it means to be a scholar. For instance, Marx’s suggestion to write constantly, about everything, is a new and helpful idea for me. Although my inclination is to lay down my pen once my course work has been written, I can see how maintaining a high level of writing and cultivating an intimate connection between my thoughts and my expression of them would improve my scholarship. Moreover, writing about non-academic topics could be as helpful as writing about academic ones; who knows what research ideas might grow from ruminations on the change of seasons or my need for a vacation, and even if they don’t, my writing will have improved incrementally from the practice. By making writing habitual and loosening its connection with due dates and grading pressures, I can transform the process from a necessary drudgery to the joy of expression it once was.

So how has my idea of scholarship changed? The most fundamental change to my conception of scholarship has been that I now see it as a more personal process. Politics are thorny and it is difficult to know who your friends are. Therefore, it is vital that your reasons for being in the field are intrinsic, so that you can glean joy from your work even when no one is reading it. Finally, the work of becoming a scholar is deliberate and requires practice, and much if it must be done alone. Without dedication to the craft, the road to scholarship seems near impossible to travel.