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The perfect scholar

Dr Deborah Cleland

The first paper I ever submitted received a review that read: “This [paper] is akin to a non-musician trying to play a Bach concerto. There are likely to be rough patches in the actual implementation”. And if a Bach concerto is a perfect piece of music, capable of being played perfectly, then I, at that moment, never felt further from any kind of desirable ideal in my chosen course of study: sustainable development.

It is a relatively small thing, this reviewer’s incivility. Pointing out the disparity between the newcomer and the expert through the clever metaphor of the non-musician and the virtuoso is of no lasting consequence. Certainly, compared with the grave global inequalities that are the subject of my research, it seems petty to harp on about it. Best keep my eyes on the prize: contributing through research to that utopian vision of sustainable development.

All struggles for perfection in human organisation – think of democracy and justice – have thousands of years of failure behind them. Sustainable development, as a relatively newer idea, only has around 50. Is it even possible to study, and write about, this imperfect process, perfectly? As scholars are we bound up in the flaws of our research matter? Are we obliged to interfere, to make better what we see as wrong in the world – whether peer review processes or the unequal distribution of resources? And, if so, what principles may guide us in doing so?

A perfect scholarly performance must also be co-created: the right person with the right idea, at the right time, in the right place, for the right audience.

Leaving aside these existential questions about the nature of scholarship, after some additional revision and a letter to the editor, the paper was published. It is a good example of how ‘contributing to knowledge’ – the mark of a passable, if not perfect, scholar – is always inseparable from the eye of the beholder. The judgment is an entanglement: of reviewer/examiner, manuscript, editor, the vagaries of scholarly trends and untold other influences. And so, a perfect scholarly performance must also be co-created: the right person with the right idea, at the right time, in the right place, for the right audience.

I received the comment about being a ‘non-musician’ just as I was about to embark on my doctoral fieldwork in the Philippines. My idea was to conduct research on the helpfulness of computer models and games in improving the management of overfished areas, with hopes of improvement for both fish and fishers. At the time, the review still plagued me – what would it mean to have perfect execution of the research equivalent of a Bach concerto? Why ‘non-’? Why not ‘amateur’, ‘beginner’ or even, to borrow one of the PhD’s favoured metaphors, ‘apprentice’? ‘Non’ is stronger: the ‘non’ is the one attempting something for which they neither have raw talent nor training. It is, emphatically, a signal of non-belonging. Not just imperfection but out-and-out inadequacy.

Now, if you are a classical musician, as you might be (I am not!), you may know that ‘non-musician’ is a term used by (some) classical musicians for musicians who are not classically trained. Non-musicians are those who play rock, not Bach. Understood in this light, the reviewer could have meant someone trained in another discipline. Someone whose skills and knowledge are ill-suited to the particular context of that particular paper, but perhaps perfectly skilled in another. This would imply that with appropriate training, the rough patches would disappear: perfection as process, a destination to travel towards. Does it follow that a perfect scholar should only attempt the required movements, flawlessly accomplished? Follow, as it were, the written music, not improvise or invent?

Only musicians are familiar with this equation of non-musician equals not classically trained. If the reviewer meant it in this way, it was an insider comment – designed to be impossible to understand for those outside a system, and indeed its intended recipient (me). In research papers, ‘non-musicians’ generally refers to control groups for testing the special abilities of musicians (broadly defined). Without knowing the reviewer’s background, it is impossible to say which was intended: niche joke, or wholesale rejection.

We must also consider that classical musicians are likely to know Bach wanted his music to be accessible to non-musicians for both playing and listening, at least according to my classically trained friends. So a non-musician would make less of a hash of Bach, say, than they would of Tchaikovsky. Accessibility: could this actually be an indicator of perfection? To be perfectly inaccessible is a negative stereotype of the scholar. Surely in these days of impact and engagement we are aiming for clarity in communicating our research?

This brings us to the idea that the quality of a scholar may indeed be judged on their acceptance by and accessibility to non-scholars, their ability to speak outside scholarly boundaries. Maybe the perfect scholar in my field would not court the approval of reviewers and examiners, but those at the front line of sustainable development – say, fishers or farmers?

What would it mean to judge a scholar for non-scholarly success in this way? Would the idea of transdisciplinarity – across and beyond disciplines – then imply movement towards perfection, in that sense of whole and complete, rather than partial and divided?

So far, so many questions. As questions are the engine of research work, perhaps the perfect scholar is the one asking the perfect questions?

I ended up with a lot of questions that had little to do with my original topic of fish and fisheries while I was on the aforementioned fieldwork in the Philippines.

Questions like:

  1. Why were all the local research assistants being paid US$4 an hour while the foreign ‘consultant’, doing next to nothing, earned US$9,000 seemingly just for being an old mate of the project leader (it seems; it is unseemly)?
  2. Why did I, an inexperienced student, end up doing the work of this ‘consultant’?
  3. Why were the research activities of the local scientists constantly interrupted by the visits and demands of visiting scholars/‘consultants’?
  4. Why were foreigners with inadequate language skills even there?
  5. How could we change all this so it was not expected or routine, but rather inconceivable?

These are worthy questions, more important, I think, than any that actually got answered in my thesis (accepted eventually as imperfect, that is, requiring revisions).

The ‘fail differently’ principle means: research boldly and invite failure on a small and large scale, do not timidly attempt micro-variations on a rusty theme, and do not compromise your values for dollars or academic accolades.

But perhaps the perfect scholar should be one who shapes the world of research. This would mean doing more than merely contributing papers acceptable to peer reviewers, even if they were papers that answered curly questions like those posed above. Perhaps perfect scholarship would mean working to make sure these scenarios are not repeated, not just understanding why they exist. This is a departure, I know, from the traditional view of the neutral academic, but it seems to me that our entanglement with the world around us means we must always be participant as well as observer.

This shaping work would apply to the scenario introduced at the beginning of this piece, in which a (classically trained?) reviewer felt it acceptable to provide such an uncivil comment. It also applies to the more serious scenario sketched out above: the uneven remuneration; the patchiness of global funding that repeatedly results in exceptional ‘third-world’ scientists rerouting their activities and energy to fit in the fly-in-fly-out priorities of foreign researchers; and the project-scarred landscape where poor people accommodate an endless stream of unrelated research activities, which manifestly fail to make any material difference to their everyday lives.

Addressing these incivilities and inequalities would be the principled work of my perfect scholar. Is it possible to sketch some kind of road map to guide us in this bold dream of working for and not merely in sustainable development in a way that is ethical, fruitful, creative and hopeful?

I have three ideas to offer for those looking for such pathways. They are informed by a decade watching projects reinvent themselves time and time again, yet not having watched a single small-scale fisher or beach gleaner (the ‘end users’ of our research) celebrate a transformation in their ability to live a safe, good life that looks anything like mine. Similarly, I have not witnessed anyone like me, with relatively high levels of economic, environmental and social security, achieve a transformation in their own materially and energetically greedy lives.

What follows is a manifesto for a research practise I can live with:

  1. Offer something.
  2. Fail differently.
  3. Do not tell a single story.

Firstly, researchers should offer something to participants. In the Philippines it is customary to give a gift when visiting or returning from a visit. The gift is called pasalubong, and is usually small, decorative or consumable rather than functional and long-lasting. Like other ritual exchanges embedded in an evolving culture, pasalubong cannot be precisely translated nor pinned down to a single meaning. A key aspect, however, is how the practice recognises the giver’s luck and gratitude – to be able to go visiting, to return from visiting – as marks of a blessed life.

And so for the foreign researcher, who has historically taken so much, even under continuing assumptions of contribution,  it is incumbent to make a sincere yet inevitably inadequate gesture of acknowledgment: to give pasalubong. To attempt to make a material offering, yet recognise and commit to repair and redress the incommensurate nature of the exchange, and remain entirely aware of the people to whom we owe gratitude. It is not enough, but it is better than nothing.

Secondly, scholars should encourage deep, radical, alternative failing, when attempting to create change in our life-worlds and those of others. For all but very few researchers, the material conditions for life are guaranteed in ways that are utterly inaccessible to so many others. And so, we must risk more, not insist on continuing incremental success in grooves that have cemented and rewarded inequality on every scale conceivable to our species. The ‘fail differently’ principle means: research boldly and invite failure on a small and large scale, do not timidly attempt micro-variations on a rusty theme, and do not compromise your values for dollars or academic accolades. Be bold. Improvise.

My final principle for a perfect research practice is this: do not tell a single story. Novelist Chimamanda Adichie in her speech The Danger of a Single Story wrote: “when we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise”. And what is paradise if not perfection?

By contrast, it is a core belief of the university-as-institution that a dissertation – and by corollary, the-scholar-in-becoming – needs one central argument. I recall having what is best described as a tantrum after being told for the umpteenth time that I needed to work out what mine was. I declared that, at the final moment of distilling, my message was exactly that: do not tell a single story. Refuse, resist, deny until your last breath, the existence of a single story. Tell the small and the big, the side-paths and the main event, the emotional and the cerebral. Tell the contrast and confirmation, the confidence and the doubts.

Through these the principles – offer something, fail differently and do not tell a single story – we can begin to construct an ethical framework for worldly engagement with research and beyond.

I feel thankful to my reviewer, for enabling this reflection on the scholarly production process (the production of scholars, what scholars produce, what scholars should produce). We are here, I believe, to think deeply and critically about what it is and what it ideally would be, then act on what we find out. To borrow the reviewer’s words again: “There are likely to be rough patches in the actual implementation”. But if perfection is indeed something to yearn towards, at least these principles may put us on the right path.


Steve Dovers pointed out that democracy and justice have comparatively longer histories of imperfect implementation, compared with sustainable development. Bec Taylor told me that she was a non-musician, on account of playing pop and punk, and Hannah de Feyter alerted me to the accessible aspirations of Bach. Gratitude also to Millie Rooney, Hedda Ransan‑Cooper, Jack Fenner, Shameem Black and Matt Tomlinson for very helpful comments on drafts.

Dr Deborah Cleland is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the School of Regulation and Global Governance (RegNet), ANU College of Asia and the Pacific and ANU College of Science. She brings her research into social justice, inclusion, sustainability to life through writing and performance. She is a researcher by day and an acrobat whenever her supervisors are not looking/anyone else is. Inspired by combining her background in sustainable development and interest in creative research approaches, she has spent much of the last 10 years designing and developing interactive games and shows. In her academic life she works on how regulation can improve quality of life and citizen engagement in our democracy. In her other life she works on how play can do the same thing.

Header Image: Traditional Philippines fishing boats


Updated:  24 April, 2017/Responsible Officer:  Dean, ANU College of Asia & the Pacific/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team