Scholarly arbitrage

Converse Hall (JMU)

Converse Hall (JMU) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There’s always been tension between pure scholarship and the pragmatic. Those out in the trenches of the real world have been known to scoff at the impracticality of the “ivory towers.” Those cloistered in towers have been known to look down on those with noses pressed firmly to the grindstone.

But should it be so? Is this wrong thinking? At least it creates a question worth asking: In a horrible job market shouldn’t practical skills and technical understanding trump the more esoteric learning that some imagine “ivory tower” scholarship to be?

In this morning’s Chronicle of Higher Education, writer Peter A. Coclanis proposes an interesting idea for businesses. He writes:

I’d like to propose the creation of a new position called the CIAO, or chief intellectual-arbitrage officer: Someone … not only to generate new ideas but also to ask new questions, identify new trends, explore new niches, expand geocultural boundaries, project forward, and remember the past. The CIAO would not necessarily have a science/tech or business background—in fact, such a background might detract from his or her effectiveness. Rather, I visualize the perfect CIAO as a liberal-arts type, someone who reads broadly and voraciously, is articulate, knows how to do research, can count a little, has backbone, and likes to argue.

But given the need for practical skills in the marketplace, and given the clamor for skilled workers coming out of the business world, does pure scholarship fit?

Coclanis goes on to write:

What a successful intellectual-arbitrage officer would bring to the table are questions, ideas, connections, and possibilities from other intellectual, disciplinary, geographic, and cultural “worlds.” Lots of “what ifs,” “why nots,” “did you ever think abouts,” “X seems a lot like Y’s.”

The idea of arbitrage implies a seamless exchange. It also implies mutual benefit, and that’s exactly what I think the author sees. What if the world of ideas and the pragmatic worked together, not as the separate, competing camps as we sometimes view them. A kind of scholarly arbitrage.

James Madison University has long taken this approach. One need only look at the work of student nurses who are researching best practice methods and sharing them with working professionals. And then there is JMU’s lauded COB 300 course; graduates resoundly praise it for its ability to merge the theoretical with the practical. There are artists in the Institute for Visual Studies program designing the very necessary and practical interface between the public’s perception and the handicapped. Theory and pragmatism. Together.

On JMU’s website right now, you can read about students doing exceptional scholarship as they research and study literature from the early 20th Century. Detectives scour rare periodical for clues to 20th century life. By studying the Black Mask periodicals, these students are gaining insight into a period of history which, one might argue, saw more dramatic change than any period in history: The move from an agrarian society to an industrial society. Transportation. Indoor plumbing. Rural electrification. Airplanes. The first true world war. Changes in mores. The reverberations of Darwinism. The sad and shameful rise of eugenics and the roots of the Civil Rights movement. The emergence of feminism.

By pursuing this kind of pure scholarship, these students are learning the incredibly valuable skill of learning to ask the right questions, thinking beyond the ordinary and understanding the critical need for knowledge to help move us forward. They’ll be filling those roles in scholarly arbitrage.


About James Madison University
This blog is about the people of James Madison University — a caring, committed and engaged community spread all over the world, making lives better and brighter, healthier and safer, kinder and bolder. As Gandhi suggested, we are taking steps to BE the CHANGE we wish to see in the world. And these are our stories....

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