Why Academic Humility Is an Essential Part of Research and Writing
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Why Academic Humility Is an Essential Part of Research and Writing

In this series, we examine how Umberto Eco’s book, ‘How to Write a Thesis,’ can be used to help writers improve their focus, research smarter and get any writing project done faster. In part four, we dive into the concept of academic humility.

When doing research, have you ever felt you were without the evidence that helps prove your theory? Or that you’ve been ignoring some evidence that speaks to the contrary because it just doesn’t fit?

This blog post aims to help writers turn this no-clear-evidence problem on its head.

When doing #research, have you ever felt you were without the evidence that helps prove your theory? Here's how writers can turn this no-clear-evidence problem on its head. #freelancing #writing Click To Tweet

In his recently released English-translation of “How to Write a Thesis,” famed writer Umberto Eco finds himself in a predicament: After extended research and reading of direct source material by St. Thomas Aquinas, Eco cannot find anything explicitly written about the role judgment plays in the contemplation of aesthetics.

Yet from Eco’s interpretive research, he is convinced that if St. Thomas Aquinas was alive to answer a question about this question, the saint-scholar would say judgment is essential in the contemplation of beauty.

But to Eco’s chagrin, the Saint never wrote this.

How academic humility can keep you going when you can’t find the evidence to back up your theory:

academic humility: even researchers will hit a wall

When researchers hit the wall

Writers lost in the thicket of their postulations often hit this wall — when what they want to say isn’t explicitly backed by the big thinkers of yesteryear.

How do you go about engaging as a new voice in an age-old conversation, when so much has already been written? And what if what you want to write about isn’t explicitly written by the very author you’ve spent years researching and writing about?

This problem is larger than a question of attribution (for some rules on attribution, check this Guide to the Rules of Attribution). What this situation presents is a gap, a blind spot, a vacancy or an unwritten assumption.

Don’t fret, extols Eco. Instead, rejoice! And write through it.

If you do find yourself in this wonderful-tough pinch, between a rock and a hard place, take stock and change your attitude because it is a launching pad for a host of original ideas.

Eco’s telling of the story of his struggle with a saint

In telling his story about his struggle with St. Thomas Aquinas, Eco describes a leisurely walk through the streets of Paris, and being drawn to the binding of a beautiful book which happened to be titled: L’idee du Beau dans la philosophie de Saint Thomas d’Aquin (The Idea of Beauty in the Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas). 

Voila! thinks Eco. “Eureka!”

But the real reason he tells us the story of this book of little consequence is to teach us about something much bigger and much needed in today’s world. In reading this 19th-century text by a long-forgotten scholar, and allowing these observations to percolate in his mind, Eco explains the idea of academic humility.

He writes:

“The point is that we must listen with respect to anyone, without this exempting us from pronouncing our value judgments; or from the knowledge that an author’s opinion is very different from ours, and that he is ideologically very distant from us. But even the sternest opponent can suggest some ideas to us.”

As a matter of principle, Eco chose not to exclude any source from his research, and ferociously sought material related to the subject he studied. He encourages writers to uphold this creed, because our creativity and academic rigor relies on it. So does our democracy.

What does this mean in practical terms in an age where polemics are the norm?

umberto eco believes everyone can benefit from academic humility

Author and professor Michael Patrick Lynch wrote an article called, “Teaching Humility in an Age of Arrogance,” and offered these suggestions for strengthening your intellectual humility:

  •  Recognize your own fallibility
  •  Realize that you don’t really know as much as you think
  •  Own your limitations and biases
  •  Take an active stance, by allowing your views to improve because of what others contribute

It’s when you see your blind spots and write your way through them, that real revelations and excitement about writing can take place.

As a writer, such turns of phrase help build in a sense of concession:

  • “Given the limited resources on this topic…”
  • “The vastness of research allowed for only a limited reading.”
  • “The researchers had a limited data set and a limited number of participants.”
  • “The contributions of so many researchers helped in the writing of this report.”

Naturally, we don’t want you to go in the opposite direction and present a false humility, but making space for the contributions of others helps you to improve your perspective.

When you uphold a principle of allowing others to get their points across, you are truly putting your own ideas to the test, and it can only open up new avenues and new concepts in your research and work.

Elizabeth Chey

About Elizabeth

Elizabeth Chey consults international, community-based, and small nonprofits on communications, advocacy, strategic planning and capacity building. Her passion for arts, peace building and development compels her to tell complex, intimate stories about people working for social justice. She earned her MFA from New York University and a Journalism degree from Northwestern.

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