Making knowledge together: Voice, identity, agency, and communal effort (by Dr. Anthony Paré)

Anthony Paré is a professor and head of the Department of Language and Literacy Education in the Faculty of Education, University of British Columbia. Before moving to UBC, he worked at McGill University for over 30 years, where he served as Chair of the Department of Integrated Studies in Education, Director of the Centre for the Study and Teaching of Writing, and Editor of the McGill Journal of Education. His research examines academic and workplace writing, situated learning, school-to-work transitions, the development of professional literacies, and doctoral education. He is presently studying the writing of the dissertation, with a particular focus on the supervisory dyad and its role in the rhetorical apprenticeship of doctoral students.

The BILDers would love to hear your responses to Anthony’s post. How does it resonate with your experiences with academic writing?

Over my 30+ years of teaching academic writing, I have often heard students express concern about adherence to academic style or scholarly genres. The anxiety is expressed in various ways, but generally relates to a belief that they will lose their “voice” or their “identity” or their “agency.” I don’t wish to minimize the apprehension students feel at the prospect of relinquishing creative control over their texts, but I think there are some problematic assumptions at play in this fear that increase the time it takes for doctoral students to master scholarly writing and that decrease their ability to publish their work. In this entry, I’d like to suggest that an understanding of scholarship as a profoundly social activity reframes such notions as voice, identity, and agency and can allow doctoral students to feel like they are part of a collective project rather than independent scholars.

It helps to recognize that significant change takes combined effort. New knowledge doesn’t spring from the mind of individual geniuses—even Darwin and Einstein were influenced by others, and were working on some of the same questions and problems as others at the time of their greatest contributions. Paradigm shifts only come about by building a consensus through discussion and persuasion. The process is long and deeply collaborative. And the ability to effect widespread intellectual change—that is, to have agency within a disciplinary conversation—is characteristic of groups rather than individuals. Unfortunately, much of the scholarly apparatus still supports a Solitary Thinker model of knowledge-making: prizes and awards go to individuals, citation practices favour first authors, tenure and promotion regimes focus on individual achievement, and some granting sources require identification of a “primary investigator,” even when there is a highly cooperative and leader-free team.

This is not to say that individuals can’t have an enormous influence on the nature and direction of discussions within a field. Those who initiate a new line of thought, those who first articulate a compelling argument against a dominant position, or those who turn a common sense belief on its ear will be more cited than others, but only if their contribution picks up adherents. And, anyway, no one develops those influential perspectives without drawing on the work of others. For an argument to resonate, it must be timely and relevant. The scholarly contribution that lacks contemporary relevance will be ignored, like an awkward non sequitur at a dinner party. Often, the most compelling arguments are those that others in the field are on the cusp of making—that is, the author is simply the first to put into words a growing dissatisfaction with an old way of thinking and a proposal for a new way, but a way which others recognize as significance.

Unlike poets or novelists, individual scholars stand out less for their particular writing style than for the elegance and resonance of their ideas. And whereas poets and novelists work in flexible genres, where variation and experimentation are welcomed, scholars are somewhat restrained by the rhetorical conventions of their disciplinary debates. Not entirely restrained, of course, as we’ve seen with experimental scholarly genres that mix poetry, narrative, visual representations, and other non-traditional modes of discourse. But scholarship is a conservative activity, and the great majority of academic journals and institutions still expect adherence to convention.

There is enormous space for creativity and individual contribution in the scholarly conversations, and as we join with others to make change in our discipline’s thinking and acting, we exercise considerable agency. The loss of voice and identity that some fear in the passage to scholarship is a misunderstanding of how knowledge arises through social action. In scholarly work, the individual joins her voice with others, and identity becomes membership rather than singularity. Until doctoral students realize that they are part of a collective effort, they often work alone, on the margins of the discipline’s conversations, and from that lonely position it’s difficult to create change. My greatest moments of pleasure in scholarly work, and I suspect this is true of many, have come through participation in collective effort, when I have been an active member of a community seeking to change ways of thinking and acting. In the midst of that activity, I have found voice, identity, and agency.

BILD Symposium 2.jpgBILD symposium 1.jpg

Photos taken at the 2015 BILD symposium “BILDing Research using Innovative Methodologies”





3 thoughts on “Making knowledge together: Voice, identity, agency, and communal effort (by Dr. Anthony Paré)

  1. The BILD group discussed Anthony’s post in one of our bi-weekly meetings and I wanted, on behalf of the, to share some of our thoughts:

    Two BILDers (Mela and April), were in Listuguj with Mi’gmaq teachers at the time of our last meeting. They commented on how Anthony’s entry reminded them very forcefully how DIFFICULT it is for people outside the mainstream to find a voice within the scholarly community. Their voice is always collective; they don’t see themselves as solitary thinkers, as far as I know. The insight that Anthony is trying to convey through his piece is one they never lost. So, how can we think about ways to revolutionize academic work – ways to give credit to more than one person for ideas, since, as Anthony argues, ideas are generated collectively anyway. Or even to remove INDIVIDUAL credit-giving! The whole concept of BILD, and the way we have insisted on being allowed to participate in the May conference as a collective, is EXACTLY the kind of thing Anthony is talking about!

    The discussion we had in our meeting touched some other points:

    Some of us thought the blog post is optimistic and misses the tensions that emerging academics are dealing with (the need for x number of publications to be competitive). Others commented on how, on the one hand, we feel pressured to ignore the social aspect of our scholarship and work alone. But, we are also expected to cite constantly and that is social work that has to do with finding our place within a group and taking a stance; that is, using (recognizing, citing) the work of others to support your position.

    What are other doctoral students’ perspectives or responses?

    How can we change conventions of scholarship to lessen pressures on the individual and better reflect the collective nature of scholarship?


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