Tag Archives: scholarship

  • “Inside the box, outside the box, and among boxes”

    Written by guest blogger, Steven C. Muir.

    People are encouraged to “think outside the box,” and while this is worthwhile advice, it does not tell the whole story of doing effective and innovative research. Below are some observations on this process, and how I go about it. These issues were at work in my article for Mouseion.

    Inside the box. Dive deep! Don’t settle for a superficial reading or quick assessment of data. Go over the material very carefully, multiple times. Investigate the context of the phenomenon you are investigating. Things not only reflect but are a product of their time and setting. In your research, sometimes the background may need to be moved into the foreground. Have a good grasp of the relevant methodologies and theories. Consult assessments within secondary scholarship, but don’t be locked into those. They are relative to the perspectival context of the researcher. Finally, always check primary data. Don’t rely on footnotes and what others say. Others may be wrong, incorrect, or only have a partial grasp of the issue. Come to your own conclusions and don’t just parrot what others have said.

    Outside the box. Question old paradigms and theories. Seek new connections and explanations in data. Look for patterns. Assume very little. Investigate as much as possible. Cultivate your intuition and don’t be afraid to be creative and imaginative. In research, I empathize with others – walking the paths they walked, seeing the sights they saw, feeling what they felt. Have a sense of humour, for whatever humans do may seem surprising or even odd at first. Have fun in your research! “The devil is in the details” – and so is the fun.

    Among the boxes. Choose and combine fields and disciplines. Particularly within the Humanities, there is nothing which cannot fit together and inform your research. You will be learning not only about your topic, but about what it means to be human. Be interdisciplinary in your research and eclectic in your interests. In my Mouseion article, I deliberately brought Classics, Philosophy and Religious Studies into dialogue. That synthesis helped me produce new insights and challenge previous scholarship. A new project I am working on will bring together Archaeology/Architecture, Performance and Ritual Studies, and Pilgrimage Studies. Remember, boxes are always a construct, even when they are academic fields. We build and work within structures to help us manage and analyze data. But, those structures are not absolute. When we can achieve new insights by moving outside them, we are at liberty to do so.

    “A wheel has spokes,
    but it rotates around a hollow center.

    A pot is made out of clay or glass,
    but you keep things in the space inside.

    A house is made of wood or brick,
    but you live between the walls.

    We work with something,
    but we use no-thing.”

    Tao te Ching #11, in Getting Right with Tao (a modern translation) by Ron Hogan

    photo of Steven Muir

    Dr. Steven C. Muir is a professor of Religious Studies at Concordia University of Edmonton. He has published in the areas of Biblical Studies, Classics, History of Early Christianity, Healing and Identity in Religious Communities, Pilgrimage Studies, Ritual Studies. His most recent book is a co-edited volume, titled, Ritual Life in Early Christianity (Routledge 2018). Read his recent article in Mouseion “Greek Piety and the Charge against Socrates”—free for a limited time here.

  • Adventures in Blogging: Bringing Anthropology to the World

    For World Anthropology Day, we asked Paul Stoller to share his thoughts on the urgent need for a more public anthropology, as well as his ideas about blogging as one particular way to reach that public. Paul’s forthcoming book, Adventures in Blogging: Public Anthropology and Popular Media, will be available in April. Read an advance excerpt here

    We live in troubled times. In North America there is a wholesale assault on science, which, following longstanding practices, produces “inconvenient truths.” These truths stand in stark contrast to “alternative facts,” a patchwork of “big lies” that create a tapestry of untruth on media and social media. Taken together, these untruths have created an alternative universe of meaning. In this alternative universe, up is down, fiction becomes fact, and the truth, the ultimate objective of science, no longer matters. We are fast entering a seemingly limitless Orwellian space in which conspiracy theories are used in the blunt exercise of power that trumps the quest for truth and wisdom—the foundation of scholarship in the world.

    You can’t fight big lies with small truths.

    In this distressed environment, it is time for scholars, guardians of inconvenient truths, to meet their fundamental obligation: to produce knowledge that makes life a little bit better for us all. Although the pursuit of wisdom has long been the central obligation of scholars, we now live in a different climate than in years past. Most anthropological insights, for example, have been conveyed by way of scholarly essays and/or monographs. These texts have usually adhered to a strict set of rules. In science you are expected to present your findings and analysis in the bloodless prose of plain style. In so doing, we have let the power of our findings and our analyses—the facts, if you will—speak for themselves in an abstract and inaccessible language. For some time now, the persistent presence of deadly academic prose has meant that the public has little, if any, knowledge of our rigorously derived insights—insights that are important in the contemporary battle for truth.

    How many people, for example, know about important anthropological insights regarding climate change, racism, the re-emergence of Social Darwinism, the nature of religion and belief systems, the linguistics and cognitive science of propaganda, or the courage and resilience of peoples from what the American President has referred to as “shithole” countries?

    Not many!

    It’s true that anthropologists are waking up to the political and epistemological realities of a socially mediated world. An ever-increasing number of anthropologists now convey their slowly developed insights in documentary film, in drama, in poetry, in museums, and in media installations—all accessible ways to spread anthropological insights about a wide range of issues of social, economic, and political importance.

    I am one of many anthropologists who have felt the need to go public. In 2010, I realized that very few people had read what I had laboriously written in a narrative style designed for a broad audience. Despite my best efforts I understood that fewer and fewer people had the inclination to read anthropological works, including, of course, my own books and articles. I didn’t think it wise to abandon my professional writing, but felt compelled to blog anthropology by transforming complex ideas into simply stated and crisply written posts of 750 to 850 words.

    Could I do it?

    At first it was difficult to simplify tried and true academic prose, but after some false starts I found my blog rhythm and moved forward.

    I pitched an idea to HuffPost.

    They signed me up.

    I’ve been blogging anthropology ever since. In eight years of HuffPost blogging, some of my posts have spread far and wide in the blogosphere where readers liked, favorited, shared, and re-tweeted them. In some cases, 50,000 to 75,000 people would read my posts, meaning that the blogs had informed them of anthropological insights about US politics, the practice of social science, trends toward corporatization in higher education, critiques of shallow media representations, and narratives about the texture of human wellbeing.

    These days there are increasing numbers of scholars who are blogging anthropology. Most of them write skillfully about more or less anthropological subjects—especially emerging topics in archaeology and biological anthropology. In my blogs, by contrast, I have tried to bring anthropological insights to newsworthy events—the Presidential campaigns of 2012 and 2016, the dysfunction of the US Congress, the anti-intellectual war on science and social science, climate change, superstorms, and social dislocation. In the blogs, I make sure to highlight examples of apt anthropological concepts and demonstrate the wisdom non-western knowledge.

    I wrote Adventures in Blogging to show—rather than tell—anthropologists how they can use the medium as a powerful tool for mass education, a platform that connects disparate audiences. In this way, the book underscores how blogging anthropology increases cross-cultural understanding in a globally inter-connected world.

    Blogging anthropology is a different way of sharing anthropological knowledge.

    In today’s world, it’s a difference that makes a difference.

    Paul Stoller is Professor of Anthropology at West Chester University. He has published 14 books, including ethnographies, biographies, memoirs, and novels, and is a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Robert B. Textor Award for Excellence in Anthropology. In 2013, King Carl XVI Gustav of Sweden presented him the Anders Retzius Gold Medal in Anthropology. In 2015, the American Anthropological Association awarded him the Anthropology in Media Award. He lectures and conducts writing workshops in the United States and Europe.

    This piece is cross-posted on our Teaching Culture blog.

  • The First Five of Many

    We in the Higher Education Division have spent the last few months describing and reflecting on the work we’ve been doing in the five years since joining UTP in this textbook adventure. Through a series of connected blog postings about who we are, where we came from, what kinds of authors we publish, and how we craft, market, and sell our books, we’ve tried to explain why we come to work each day. It comes down to a few simple things: we love ideas, we love books, and we love sharing them with as many people as possible. The publishing and university teaching systems are exciting, intricate, and sometimes uncertain worlds. They are worlds, however, that we understand and value greatly. They are worlds that we feel privileged to participate in by publishing great books for students and teachers.

    We owe a great deal of thanks to all of our authors. We appreciate our recent authors, and those who followed us from Broadview Press, for bringing their book projects to us, for sticking with us, and for believing that a teaching book and a scholarly book aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. Thank you for spreading the word about UTP: a Canadian press with an international vision; a friendly and creative home for books of sound scholarship and pedagogical value; and an academic publishing house with active sales representatives who spread the word about books that matter.

    The Higher Education Division is not an island, and five years is not a tremendous milestone (we have no illusions about this). But by celebrating these first five years at UTP, we honour the 112 years of publishing experience behind us at this press and thank those colleagues who have worked with us and supported us as we became ambassadors of every facet of our organization. The Higher Education staff represents UTP to prospective authors regardless of whether they are looking to publish a monograph or a textbook, to university bookstore managers and buyers, to instructors looking for their next course text, to students when they are buying online from our website, and even sometimes to a customer of Amazonian proportions.

    Finally, a tremendous thanks goes out to those instructors who support the Higher Education Division’s publishing program and who continue to assign our books in their courses. We value your feedback and we acknowledge your quest for accessible, well-written course books that have a point of view. Tell your friends about us! We know you have lots of choice and we appreciate your support of our books.

    The next five years at UTP Higher Education will likely be very similar to our first five. We will publish more, thoughtful, well-written course books and make them available in a variety of formats. We will continue to provide accessible and clear options for instructors and students. Also on the horizon: more ancillary materials to help new and overworked instructors design and implement thought-provoking courses; flexible and affordable custom publications of UTP content to provide even more options for instructors and students; ongoing marketing with clarity and personality; and a further reduction of our environmental footprint through electronic delivery of examination copies and other course materials.

    But perhaps that’s enough reflecting for now. Thanks for the first five years. We look forward to many more years to come!

    -University of Toronto Press, Higher Education Division

  • Five Ways to Think Differently About Textbooks

    The Higher Education Division of UTP is quickly approaching its fifth anniversary, and in advance of this hallmark, we will be contributing monthly blog postings on the purpose and various functions of our division. Our first five years have been set amidst a background of rapidly changing technologies and shifts in the needs of teachers and scholars, and we would like to contribute our voices to the wider conversation. Our Executive Editor, Anne Brackenbury, continues the conversation with her list of five ways to think differently about textbooks.

    Textbooks have a bad name these days, but not all textbook publishers are the same. The Higher Education Division at UTP is relatively new, having come into being just five years ago in the midst of an emerging open access movement, a backlash against textbook prices, and massive technological change. We tend to take nothing for granted, and since we don’t have deep pockets to invest in expensive technological solutions, we have to think creatively about what we do.

    As an acquisitions editor whose job it is to inspire people to write textbooks, I’m continually surprised by the lack of imagination shown in this sphere. Even as the sage-on-the-stage model of lecturing in the classroom has been thrown into question, and more creative approaches to teaching and learning are emerging daily, many people cling to their limited ideas of what a textbook should look and sound like. To be sure there are changes happening, but most of it so far seems to be focused on pricing, and most of it is coming from those who support open access or low-cost digital alternatives.

    But what about the form itself? What can the latest research in teaching and learning tell us about how we can change textbooks to be stronger pedagogical supports? Here in the Higher Education Division we are happy to produce straight-up textbooks that meet high scholarly standards, and deliver them at reasonable prices, but we also believe there is plenty of room to push at the edges of the form. What if a textbook looked and sounded different? What if it were more than just a reference tool? What if the text was actually enjoyable to read and could translate sophisticated scholarly ideas effectively?

    Below is our list of five ways to think differently about textbooks. It is by no means exhaustive, and these forms are not particularly new. They are, however, rare to find in most textbooks. We welcome your additions or comments. Either log in below or catch us on Twitter (#UTPHE5).

    1. Textbooks with (Smart) Voices

    The comprehensive textbook is still very much alive and well these days. Many instructors, even those who employ innovative pedagogy in their classes, still rely on these texts as both a reference and security blanket of sorts for students. There is a difference though between a textbook written in a dry, third-person voice, and one told as a masterful story. The first invokes yawns and drooping eyelids; the second aims to engage the reader from the get-go. There’s also a difference between a textbook that provides standardized, lowest-common denominator information and one that integrates cutting-edge scholarship. The latter, if written in an engaging narrative style, not only encourages reading, but influences the direction of research and teaching practices.

    2. Textbooks that Establish Relevancy

    One way to engage students in reading a textbook is to ensure that they actually care about why they are doing so (beyond trying to get good marks). An effective textbook—the kind the student might actually read, not just skim—takes the time to establish why the subject matter is important. Whether it’s beginning with an invitation that acknowledges and validates where the student reader is coming from before challenging them, or using contemporary controversies from their everyday worlds to talk about key concepts, this breed of textbook starts from one basic question: why should the reader care? Once relevance is established, reading follows more easily.

    3. Textbooks that Ask Questions

    Some instructors, often those who avoid using textbooks altogether, prefer to assign course materials that foster critical thinking. In this instance, they are looking for pedagogical tools, not information vessels. A textbook serving this purpose is brief, covers a broad scope, and employs techniques like debates, case studies, thought-provoking scenarios, or creative assignments. The textbook that supports this kind of pedagogy is likely to look friendly, and is written in a highly accessible style, but it asks questions that require sophisticated decoding skills. It may be easy to read, but it is far from easy.

    4. Textbooks that Employ Humour

    When all else fails, the dedicated instructor looks to humour to keep students awake. So why is humour so rare in textbooks? Imagine a text that shows rather than tells about key concepts by using funny anecdotes to illustrate not just the right answer, but the wrong answer as well. Don’t we learn from making mistakes? Aren’t we more relaxed about learning if we’re laughing and nodding our heads in agreement at the same time? These texts are approachable and well written and they use humour and storytelling to translate sophisticated concepts and ideas for a less-sophisticated audience. To be sure, they are funny and light-hearted in tone, but readers can’t help but come away with a deeper respect and understanding of the need for rigorous analytical thinking and research.

    5. Mixed Media Textbooks

    Lest you think this list is a little light on technology, we do think textbooks should use a mixed media approach where appropriate. We know that technology has become a powerful way to engage students—whether it’s using PowerPoint, YouTube videos, Twitter, or Wikis in the classroom. Most comprehensive textbooks now also come fully loaded with companion websites that provide interactive digital support. These include instructor support materials, PowerPoint slides, student self-study guides, online links and references, image banks, etc. But do students and instructors really use this material to their full advantage? Do students use them to avoiding having to read the book altogether?

    What if digital technology could be used not only to engage students but also to help lure them into a more immersive form of reading? What if a newer digital technology could be used to support analogue technology (i.e. the book) rather than replace it?

    In this, we have a good example from our own publishing program: Andrew Walsh’s new ethnography, Made in Madagascar: Sapphires, Ecotourism, and the Global Bazaar. Walsh’s book is a straight up ethnography in many ways, though written for introductory-level students with a highly accessible style and a tone that establishes both relevancy and personality. What’s different is the way he uses his blog as support for the book. The introductory chapter of the book is available in a hyperlinked version, providing a fun and interactive way for students to immerse themselves in context with visuals and text. An added benefit is the way this experience is used to illustrate the limits of internet searches. Walsh could have written the entire book in this format, but he ultimately wanted to encourage students to learn the value of ethnographic writing as a form to present original research. With student interest already established, Walsh then begins to tell his story. What results is an enhanced learning experience that draws on the unique strengths of each media format.

    -Anne Brackenbury, Executive Editor

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