Octopus or butterfly?
In anxious anticipation of our meeting today, I wanted to lay out a distinction that I make in conversations with students about scholars and scholarship and to relate it to our discussion about social media. I suggest to students that their future professional career has already started and that they should not abandon any purposeful intellectual property they produce. In my field this could be collecting information about a building or block of Fredericksburg in an assignment I make. Intellectual property is something to share. I regularly suggest that students can profit from sharing, just as social networks provide. Collected observations, analysis, and the supporting documentation are the first steps in research. It isn’t professional research unless we package and disseminate to others for their consideration, review, and appraisal. The knowledge and information we receive as scholars can be honorably shared provided we provide attribution–cite the source. But while I suggest that students provide their opinions, I also insist that they have an honorable reputation and that is something they should guard zealously.
In our review of research methods and the writings of others then I ask them to read the works of scholars who spend a professional lifetime in a single topic or theoretical perspective. I use the metaphor of the octopus because this creature builds a home and embellishes it over a lifetime. My students and I also read the works of scholars who are constantly in search of the next new intellectual metaphor to explore. These scholars borrow from other disciplines and then look for novelty and fit within our disciplines. These are the butterflies of scholastic life constantly moving from one intellectual flower to another.
Both of these approaches have value and neither (to my mind) makes a superior contribution to scholarship. However, the octopus by focusing often might find value not in the widest exploration of possible collaborators, but on cultivating that cohort of individuals whose research interests most closely align with theirs. The Blog and Listserv appear more useful to these individuals because it is the quality of the interaction, not the quantity that make the posts, or notes most valuable. Conversely, the scholar who would be a butterfly is constantly seeking the flower or source that the scholar has not yet found. It is the finding and the more limited engagement that fills the need of this approach to professional activity. Social media and especially hash tags would appear to best serve the goals of this style of scholarship.
This metaphorical distinction is of course too coarse (in several ways). I do not intend to suggest that long term research is ugly or misshapen in the vision of the octopus. Nor do I mean to imply that every flower has equal engagement. Most important to my post, I would suggest that all scholars are both octopus and butterfly–synchronously or asynchronously. We draw boundaries of our research interests, or professional intentions, and our contacts using a variety of goals and objectives–hopefully always honorable.
But a scholar need not believe themselves less effective because they choose to employ one metaphor or the other at that moment.