how to be a scholar

As a much younger woman I considered the possibility of an academic career, but in the end I didn’t do it. One of the major reasons was that, at the time and where I was, a lot of academic life seemed to be about single scholars beavering away, alone, intent on advancing their career regardless. Academic discussion was more often than not marked by the clashing of giant egos, and seemed to me to be more like thinly disguised character assassination than the lofty debates I was expecting. There were of course notable exceptions to this, but the consequences of a few bruising postgraduate seminars found me fleeing to a less brutal environment.

What caused me to come back, some twenty-five years and a whole career later, was meeting academics who didn’t behave in this way. While Alison Lee wasn’t one of the people I worked with – she was in another state – she was part of a national network of like-minded scholars (and she did appear in our research centre now and then ) who behaved otherwise, and who were other-wise.

The memories that were put on record in international networks after Alison’s death two weeks ago spoke of her generosity, her respect for the ideas of more junior scholars, her encouragement of new postgraduates, her capacity to work collaboratively. This academic life is the polar opposite of the mean-spirited and self-centred way of being scholar that had initially so repelled me.

Alison’s practice – like that of the colleagues I worked closely with – was based in a feminist critique of bad academic behaviours as deeply old fashioned, masculinist and colonial. This was no way to go about becoming, doing and being ‘scholar’ in universities in which both staff and students were increasing diverse. It was important to Alison – and her colleagues – that ‘the personal’ of academic life was also ‘political’, not only individual but also located within a wider associational politics intended to change the academy from within and without.

Alison’s counter-practice was also grounded in deep pedagogical expertise and a commitment which held that learning at any level – including postgraduate and early career – was social, and a social responsibility. She was critical of doctoral education which relied on an old fashioned apprenticeship model, where doctoral researchers were treated as empty vessels possessed of no knowledge at all and fit only to kneel at the feet of supervisory masters behind closed doors. Her writing and research on professional doctorates is the intellectual marker of this belief, but this agenda was also embodied in the ways in which she approached less university-experienced colleagues. Alison understood all learning to be not only a question of cognition, but also to be profoundly about affect and identity. This can be clearly seen in her publications as well as in the ways in which her colleagues have spoken about her interactions with them. Alison brought together her research, her teaching and her institutional work to promote more collective and better-theorised research education for and in practice.

I am reminded strongly now, as I think about Alison’s life, that being a scholar isn’t all about getting publications and bids and getting the courses organized. It’s also about how you live the life, do the work and bring the two together. The performative pressures that now permeate higher education and the scarcity of jobs, money and prestige ‘outputs’ might lead us back to the bad old days of singular egos in virtual combat if we don’t watch out.

Learning to be a scholar isn’t just about getting by or getting on, it’s a choice about what kind of scholar we want to be. That’s what Alison believed, and what she worked for – and it seems to me like a valuable lesson to learn from her life.

I think that, in our quiet moments, it may well be worth further meditation on the question – what counts as a ‘good’ scholar and ‘good’ scholarship… Alison would, I like to think, approve of this.

Vale Alison.

See other blogs about Alison Lee from Mary Helen aka Witty Knitter and Thesis Whisperer.

Get to know some of Alison’s work:

Aitchison, Claire, & Lee, Alison. (2006). Research writing: Problems and pedagogies. Teaching in Higher Education, 11(3), 265-278.
Boud, D, & Lee, Alison. (2005). Peer learning as pedagogic discourse for research education. Studies in Higher Education, 30(5), 501- 516.
Green, Bill , & Lee, Alison. (1995). Theorising postgraduate pedagogy. Australian Universities Review, 38(2), 40-45.
Johnson, Lesley, Lee, Alison, & Green, Bill. (2000). The PhD and the autonomous self: Gender, rationality and postgraduate pedagogy. Studies in Higher Education, 25(2), 135-147.
Lee, Alison. (1998). Doctoral research as writing. In J. Higgs (Ed.), Writing qualitative research. Five Dock, New South Wales: Hampden Press.
Lee, Alison. (2010). When the article is the dissertation: Pedagogies for a PhD by publication. In C. Aitchison, B. Kamler & A. Lee (Eds.), Publishing pedagogies for the doctorate and beyond (pp. 12-29). London: Routledge.
Lee, Alison, & Boud, David. (2003). Writing groups, change and academic identity: Research development as local practice. Studies in Higher Education, 28(2), 187-200.
Lee, Alison, Green, Bill, & Brennan, Marie. (2000). Organisational knowledge, professional practice and the professional doctorate at work. In J. Garrick & C. Rhodes (Eds.), Research and knowledge at work. Perspectives, case-studies and innovative strategies (pp. 117-136). London& New York.
Lee, Alison, & Kamler, Barbara. (2008). Bringing pedagogy to doctoral publishing. Teaching in Higher Education, 13(5), 511-523.
Lee, Alison, & Williams, Carolyn. (1999). “Forged in fire” narratives of trauma in PhD supervision pedagogy. Southern Review, 32(1), 6-26.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic life, Alison Lee, feminist critique, scholarly identity, scholarship and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to how to be a scholar

  1. lemexie says:

    “singular egos in virtual combat” had resonance for me – an MBA student thinking about the changing sector of HE in this global market place. The idea of a single academic from a single university serving any individual nation state’s desire to innovate through knowledge is to move away from why universities were invented.


  2. M-H says:

    A friend who doesn’t work in academia has recently become professionally involved in planning a new, prestigious research building on our campus. She described her initial meeting as “a whole bunch of egos banging round in a bottle”. No-one treated her as a professional who knew what she was talking about; her questions (about how various legislative requirements would be met) were batted away as irrelevant. Sadly, there’s a lot of this arrogance in academia. Academics like Alison, who are both broad-minded and generous about the limits of their professional knowledge, are very precious.


  3. Pingback: Vale Professor Alison Lee « The Thesis Whisperer

  4. Pingback: Remembering Prof Alison Lee, writing mentor and friend « Doctoral Writing SIG

  5. Pingback: researching on someone else’s project – it’s a relationship | patter

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