Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Academic Virtue: Finesse

As Aristotle pointed out, there are certain virtues consonant with various disciplines: requisite standards epistemologically and ethically. Christ calls us to seek first the Kingdom of God and to teach the truth he brought to earth in person (Matthew 6:33; 28:18-20). Paul commands us to do all that we do to the glory of God and to teach with integrity (Colossians 3:17; Titus 2:7-8).

This invokes some rumination. What are the academic virtues a Christian should seek and flesh out? Certainly, we should be truth-seekers and truth-tellers, who desire to be transformed through the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:1-2). Our scholarship should not merely advance our precious careers, but the Kingdom of God. We should shun the pride, preening, and pettiness which are so common in the halls of academe (and elsewhere, of course).

My question here, though, has more to do with finesse. Some things in scholarship are unambiguously wrong: plagiarism, lying on CVs, fudging data, demeaning students, treating them unfairly, recycling teaching material without new research, and more. Other matters, however, are more matters of finesse or of taste. Here are some items for thought.

1. Is there such a thing as self-plagiarism? I have seen authors recycle large amounts of previous published material without saying so. What of taking previously published materials and revising it for an entry in a book or elsewhere? (Maybe this is clearly wrong--at in the most egregious cases of recycling many pages without changes and no confession one is doing so--and not a matter of finesse.)

2. When should one quote a source and when should it be paraphrased and referenced? Some philosophers, for example, seldom quote others, such as Keith Yandell. Others, such as Ronald Nash, quote others very liberally (probably too much so much of the time). This seems to be a matter of taste, at least to some extent.

3. How much should first person reference come into academic writing? Strunk and White, in their immortal Elements of Style, say didacticallyto root it out. I tend to agree (notice the first person reference there), but autobiography cannot be separated entirely from philosophy or other academic disciplines. I usually tell my students to eliminate the first person unless it is somehow pertinent to the argument. The contemporary trend toward vapid memoir (Blue Like Jazz, etc.) should be avoided.

I look forward to your ruminations on academic finesse. Be graceful.


Josh S. said...

You said: “The contemporary trend toward vapid memoir (Blue Like Jazz, etc.) should be avoided.”

Is it really so contemporary (other than, perhaps, the vapid part)? Autobiography, memoirs, informal essays, etc. have been around for a long time, and have had some excellent — and enlightening, at least for me -- results. A few come to mind: Augustine, Montaigne, Abraham Cowley, Samuel Johnson, Max Beerbohm, G.K. Chesterton, Orwell, Henry Adams, Thoreau, E.B. White, C.S. Lewis, Wendell Berry, Annie Dillard, etc.

In fact, some of the major writers of philosophy could also be seen as (somewhat) informal and (partly) autobiographical writers, like Pascal, Descartes, Rousseau, etc. They often use the first person.

It’s interesting that you cite White as the authority — I wonder if he ever wrote any type of nonfiction without some kind autobiographic content! And practically all of it is in the first person. Perhaps that is more Strunk talking and White just left it in when he revised it. White even uses “I” in the introduction to the 1979 edition, and begins with an autobiographic introduction recalling how he met William Struck in college.

I glanced through my Elements of Style and could not find the advice to “didactically root out” the first person. Could you give a page number or section title for that? I’d be interested in reading it.

Suzi said...

I think that self-plagiarism is possible. I do not think that re-working your previous writing into another style or for another type of plagiarism would fall into that category. Why not? Because it is so widespread and seemingly expected. I think it is a natural response, even if not the best, to the "publish or perish" dictum that rules in so many academies. If, however, you use the entirety of one work in another work, that would be self-plagiarism by my definition and inappropriate.

I think you should quote the source if the source says it better than you could -or more succintly, possibly. Otherwise paraphrasing is good. (That's the rule I give my students.)

I think that if you published on a certain topic, you can reference yourself. I would prefer the "I" to a possible misleading "last name and other guy." Many people might not realize immediately that the "last name" is the same person writing the work they are reading. I noticed it in a book I've been reading this week and it annoyed me. I thought he was "hiding" that it was his work. Maybe he was just "rooting out" the autobiographical aspects in order to seem more humble.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

Mr. Sowin:

Please don't put "Blue Like Jazz" in the same category as classic biographies, which are not vapid.

The postmodern memoir is another (and degraded) category, as I pointed out in my previous posting on "Blue Like Jazz."

Josh S. said...

Dr. Groothuis,

I was not putting Blue Like Jazz in the same category as “classic biographies.” I've not read that book, and was only meaning to point out that there has been "informal philosophy" for a while, and some has even been popular and influential.

So is non-vapid, first-person, autobiographical philosophy is acceptable (something like Walter Benjamin or C.S. Lewis)? Perhaps even encouraged?

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...


Of course, philosophical/ theological autobiography is acceptable. Consider Augustine's "Confessions" or Carl Henry's "Confessions of a Theologian"--both well worth reading, by the way. I am thinking of personal references in a paper or book that is not explicitly of that genre.

Jeremy said...


Dr. G's last point is the key. We are not discussing biographies or informal philosophical writings. We are talking about strictly scholarly work, such as that one might find in a philosophical journal.

In regards to using the first person in such cases, it is extremely hard to find a philosophical peice that does not make any reference to the first person, be it in a book, article, or something else. Yet, the trend seems to be advocating Dr. G's position--leave it out unless it's germaine to the topic/paper.

One reason that the first person is so pervasive in philosophical writing because it is the first person doing the thinking. These ideas are 'my' ideas, and as such 'my' presuppositions and pre-philosophical committments need to be understood in relation to 'my' point such that the reader can understand what 'I' am saying.

Philosophical writing is not like the cold reporting of unanalyzed empirical data. A philosopher's philosophy is deeply personal, and often flows out of a nexus of deep thought and personal experience. Given that personal experience is such a key ingredient, it would be virtually impossible to root out the first person if the criterion for use is "as long as it is germaine to the paper."

John Stockwell said...

Scientific journals have the requirement that the author transfer the copyright of his or her paper to the journal as a precondition of publication. This prevents an author from publishing the same paper in multiple journals.

Still, it is possible in symposia for an individual to give the same or a similar presentation multiple times. There is a certain amount of repetition to be expected, but one of the hallmarks of scientific research is the requirment of publications to contain new material. Rehashing old material may be permitted as a tutorial article, but such articles are not really considered research.

We expect a successful researcher to begin by publishing a few papers on a subject, and then, as the science develops, a "school" of research may develop, where the investigator an his colleagues will expand and refine the collection of methods and results. The end product will be textbooks, monographs, or treatises on the relevant material.

Most notably, the books do not begin the research program, but represent the consolidation of work that has been through scientific peer review a number of times.

(Compare this with the ID movement which began with manifestos and has continued with more manifestos, but the promised papers have not materialized.)