Demystifying the difference between “Drama Dressed up as Scholarship” versus “Deep, Essential Work” aimed at scholarship that matters

This post is written by a guest contributor.

Many early-career scholars begin their dissertations with lofty ambitions of doing work that is significant, original, and widely appreciated. However, by the time many find themselves negotiating precarious transitions between dissertation defense to postdoc and beyond, high hopes have all too often been replaced by relentless, mind-numbing routine that many (prematurely) accept as “academic reality”.

Many scholars come to believe that this reality is the “price that must be paid” if they someday are to become a respected member of academia. Bullshit. Without totally dismissing anyone’s current perception, I’ll instead paraphrase an important truth I first heard during my own graduate school coursework. “Highly productive scholars ‘do it all.’ But they don’t ‘do it all at once’.” (Fairweather 2002).

Shallow work vs deep work

The real killer of early-career dreams is that it’s currently too easy – even encouraged – to spend an inordinate amount of our time on shallow, non-essential work, rather than the opposite. In more simple terms, as Cal Newport warns in his Ted Talk, if the majority of your time is spent on activity that could be replicated by a 14 year-old with a smartphone, it should come as no surprise that your current ideas about what scholarly work could be are FUBAR (Newport doesn’t use this acronym – I’m using it because he can’t say that in a Ted Talk).

I’m not doing rocket science here. Intellectually, the heavy lifting has been done by two authors whose key ideas I juxtapose, in order to challenge some key myths that might spotlight the tension between what scholarly work could be, rather than what many believe it is.

Full disclosure, I’m not sure these ideas work. They’re a working hypothesis I’ve been experimenting with for the past couple years. That said, the more I’ve reflected on these ideas and put them into practice, the more I routinely find myself happily engaged in an integrated, rewarding program of scholarship, together with students, colleagues, and interesting stakeholders. Because this seems to be working, it makes me want to challenge prevalent ideas about what scholarly work is (at best) and what it is not.

It’s important to note that it’s easy for me to offer these insights as I’m in a position of privilege, far more professionally secure than most people who might benefit from these ideas. Nonetheless, the fundamental argument I’m making has been continuously validated by my closest collaborators, most of whom began developing similar ideas about focus and our own process when our careers were defined by precariousness. Most of them, like me, developed our awareness of alternatives to answering work-related email at 11:30 pm on a weekend night, missing children’s soccer games because of funding deadlines, or agreeing to serve on a committee that will accomplish nothing – at the expense of working on a novel idea that might actually make a difference.

The reason I’m writing this is because I believe higher education needs far less “drama dressed up as scholarship” and more “scholarly work that matters”. If you’d like to try more of the latter and actively avoid the former, I invite you problematize how you’re focusing your time with respect to two key dimensions.

The dimensions I juxtapose to challenge your thinking are argued in detail in Greg McKeown’s (2014) Essentialism and Cal Newport’s (2016) Deep Work. The key ideas and focal points of each book are very powerful in and of themselves. But combined, as intersecting dimensions, they reveal something even more interesting and powerful.

In a nutshell, McKeown argues essentialism is a disciplined approach to seeking out and committing to exceptionally novel, out-of-the-box or game-changing ideas and systematically ignoring mediocre, ok, good, very good and even excellent ideas. What is essential, McKeown argues, is the “greatest potential contribution” of a person, team or organization. Essentialism, he posits, is a philosophy that explains out-of-the-box outcomes. Whether or not McKeown’s ideas would satisfy a philosopher is arguable, but he leaves that to his readers. This dimension, essentialism illuminates why time spent focused on a very few essential outcomes, at the expense of many non-essential acts (translation: tweets, likes, meetings focused on superficial outcomes, “as if” social media debates on intellectual roads to nowhere.)

It’s not very hard to find settings where these things are routinely combined, fragmenting your time exponentially beyond the ridiculous. Unlike many books that purport to address the whys of what we choose to focus on, Mckeown stresses “Essentialism is not about how to get more things done; it’s about how to get the right things done”.

Norton argues, on the other hand, about process. Deep work, he explains is how seminal thinkers made the breakthroughs that come to define – and refine – the cutting edge of knowledge work. And it’s not by tweeting at all hours, posting on Instagram, nor does it have anything to do with email, WhatsApp, Teams, Zoom or much of anything occurring on social media. Deep work is about the intense, long-term focus required to truly understand the fundamental elements that define boundaries of cutting-edge science, because you’re already working or aiming to work – well past those boundaries and trying to understand how you got there. Deep work is a process that entails a type of extended, intense focus – over the long term – that’s inconceivable for many of us mere mortals and rarely modeled. Norton’s book is not for you if you’ve grown attached to committee work, need to put in your time on those Twitter threads and feel more accountable to your email box than to your significant others. Or maybe you don’t have anything really to add to your discipline? I routinely encounter early-career scholars who I feel have a lot more to offer, but do not spend much time critically thinking about their process or if they have one.

While Essentialism and Deep Work are each powerful ideas on their own, my personal working hypothesis is that the underlying dimensions of Outcomes (Essentialism) and Process (Deep Work) are very powerful. I currently conceptualize the relationship between outcomes and process by contrasting four focal outcomes.

Ideas and processes that “move the needle” (deep, essential work)

When your focus is locked on a game-changing idea and you figure out a process that frees up the time necessary to think-through – and work-out – a break-through, you’re following in the footsteps of several highly interesting people whose ideas, and the processes they used for traction on their ideas, changed the world. Both McKeown’s and Norton’s books feature several examples, both historical and current. Most of us will never be as famous as these examples, but what drove the people, teams, companies, and organizations whose ideas and process ‘moved the needle’ in a particular (or even across several) domains was not fame.

These examples are not about “being something”. Together the understanding of relationship between outcomes and process is about “doing something that matters”. Often that something is beyond state-of-the-art in a particular setting, domain, community, or situation where that “something” has never been done. My argument is that many more could pursue the type of highly interesting outcomes McKeown talks about if we focused, using the process Norton illuminates. Further, it is never too late to challenge the assumptions that we hear every day that govern our focus (or alternatively, explain overwhelming fragmentation) and a well-thought-out process (versus reaction to every possible stimulus).

“The Whirlwind” (shallow, essential work)

Even if my argument convinces you to think more carefully about what you’re focused on, why you focus your resources in a process that makes your scholarly dreams feasible, this will not eliminate what McChesney et al. (2012) term “the Whirlwind”. The whirlwind is comprised of the emails that actually need an answer; meetings that are necessary for your organization to function; programmatic work; teaching, guidance, and coaching that all need to occur for your students; service to your wider organization and discipline; journal article reviews; attendance of conferences; participation in professional associations; editorial boards; and partnership in efforts aimed at real needs in your community or region, beyond your campus. All words in bold in the previous sentence are essential in higher education. That said, in and of themselves, these are often shallow commitments with the exception of initial or exceptional efforts. None of these activities are inherently and exceptionally interesting or novel – although several of them they could be (even should be more than they are. I’m particularly thinking of programmatic work, teaching and guidance.) All organizations have their own whirlwind.

The point I’d stress about our whirlwind in higher education and knowledge work is the distinction between the generic skill set and activities that we all become competent at (read: interchangeable) versus putting the whirlwind into perspective and pursuing a novel scholarly agenda, using a process that minimizes the whirlwind and makes it manageable. I’m not minimizing the importance of the focal points that make up our whirlwinds in the academy. They are very important. But, in contrast to novel, out-of-the-box outcomes on wicked problems, much of the whirlwind that brings our skill-sets into focus is ‘as routine’ as it is ‘in demand’.

A final word on the whirlwind: I work with many interesting colleagues doing very deep-dives within the focal points I’m describing as “routine”. All of those focal points are topics in their own right and many implicate vibrant communities of scholars. Every focal activity that takes place in higher education is a (potential) point of departure for critical re-thinking, refining and improvement. But that’s analytically distinct from “the routine” whirlwind.

Collaboration (deep, non-essential work)

When I initially problematized the two dimensions of outcomes and process, the four-quadrant contingency table highlighted the initially puzzling idea of “deep, non-essential work”. “What could that be?” was my first thought. But the answer – collaboration – came to mind almost immediately. What constitutes ideal collaboration (for me personally) is the topic for another blog, but for the purposes of this post, I would argue deep, non-essential work is what you’re counting on from team-mates, especially in collaboration focused on exceptional outcomes that could never be ever achieved as individuals. This is especially the case concerning breakthrough efforts in design, theory, methodology, methods, or an analysis that’s interdisciplinary or trans-disciplinary.

The collaboration, process, and type of focus I’m thinking of is rare compared to rudimentary, instrumental “cooperation” on the mundane and routine, i.e. the whirlwind. That said, highly satisfying team breakthroughs in exceptionally interesting and novel collaborations are not uncommon in academe. I’ve been lucky enough to have experienced exceptional collaboration, dating back to high school, in other domains, situations, and occupational sectors. When I began a career in higher education, it was no surprise to find them here as well. However, what I’ve also found are far too many colleagues, especially in their early career who have never been fortunate enough to have experienced intense, challenging collaboration with colleagues focused on out-of-the-box outcomes coupled with a critical focus on process. What prevents breakthrough scholarship as an individual or collaboration? Too much time spent on “drama, dressed up as scholarship” or shallow, non-essential work.

Drama dressed up as scholarship (shallow, non-essential work)

Cal Norton is correct in his 2019 deep-dive into Digital Minimalism where he drives home his argument that there’s no Nobel Prize for tweeting, liking, reacting, or otherwise fanning the flames of the whirlwind. There’s a deeper point, though. Scholars unwittingly screw themselves by mindlessly reacting to “stimuli in the ether” because too many of us have convinced ourselves that swimming around in The Shallows (Carr 2010) is “what academics do”. Again: Bullshit.

Bourdieu (1988) analyzed how power-relations reproduced by a generation of professors who were collectively “asleep at the wheel” and controlled academia through a particular form of what he called “academic power”. Translated from his sometimes overly complicated dense French (and overly complicated dense English translations), academic power meant “has no original, nor interesting ideas about the acute challenges of our generation”. That damning critique lost Bourdieu a lot of friends, especially because of his analysis of how professors with no major ideas or nothing to say held on to their jobs.

Adding insult to injury, Bourdieu convincingly completed his argument by contrasting the scholars who actually made the crucial breakthroughs of his generation with those who maintained their status and position though “drama dressed up as scholarship” (I recommend his book to anyone who thinks this sounds familiar). Norton’s critique is similar and easier to understand. Essentially he argues that much of our time in this generation of knowledge work is flushed down the toilet, in shallow “activity”, in contrast to the deep work that leads to breakthroughs, no matter what your field, discipline, or domain.  

Everybody is busy: But why, on what and how?

My strategic approach to time, since I began reflecting on the distinctions I draw (above) are as follows:

  1. I continuously maximize and spend the majority of my time on deep, essential work focused on the ideas, topics, and activities that matter most, to my closest colleagues and I.
  2. I continuously minimize, my organization’s “whirlwind”, wherever, whenever and however possible. The whirlwind is important, but it is routine. Do your part, but keep it in perspective and learn to say “no”.
  3. I lean heavily on collaboration, especially with others who get the difference between 1. and 4., while studiously avoiding those who do not.
  4. I ruthlessly cull, eliminate, and have no tolerance for shallow, non-essential activity during the time I’m being paid to work.

I realize not everyone has the type of position that allows this type of approach to time. I’ve have spent a great deal of time in (and escaping from) positions, career phases, and time-periods of my life when these choices were not mine to make. That said, the focus on the essential advocated by McKeown and the approach to deep work analyzed by Newport highlight options and choices. In other words, their relationship explains the difference between how you could be focusing and using your time versus how others have suggested or modeled how you should be using your time. I generally disagree with people – especially scholars – who use the word “should”.

The main challenge I’d pose to early-career (and even mid-career) researchers is this: How do you really want to spend the next five to ten years of your life? There are lots of traditional and conventional answers to that question “inside the box” of “what’s trending” and talked about ad nauseam by “most scholars most of the time”, especially in “the whirlwind”. The point of this blog is that there are other paths to consider and conversations well off the beaten path. I can’t offer any advice about what’s better or worse for your particular situation, but instead I argue that an awareness of the distinctions (above) might lead to questions and hopefully conversations on paths forward not visible within your organization’s whirlwind or the activity it’s generating 24/7/365.

Becoming preoccupied with saying something new and bold on topics and issues that matter is not for everybody. It’s unlikely to be lucrative nor very appreciated, especially in the incessant, conventional howl of higher education’s whirlwinds. Critically answering questions that nobody is asking, as Bourdieu (1988) noted, is a great way to alienate colleagues and author “books for burning”. All that said, the company you’ll meet on this road (far) less traveled are the most interesting you’re likely to meet in the higher education landscape. Personally, problematizing my time in this way, regularly brings me into contact with extraordinary scholars who regularly move the needle on topics that matter. A key defining feature of these colleagues? They don’t take 20 minutes to describe how busy they are if someone asks them “How are you?”. While they do have interesting conversations about what we’re all working on at the moment, most of them would rather talk about their families, other key interests, and “real life”.

Life is too short to not question the uncritical thinking, unquestioned assumptions, and unexamined blind spots that govern the relationship between focus and process. What I found when I turned my work in this direction was deep, essential work on topics that matter and a set of colleagues and friends who have turned their back on the oxymoron of “conventional wisdom”, except when we’re getting paid to study it and debunk it.

A last word of caution: don’t confuse “what works for me” with “what might work for you”. You’ll be more secure, progress faster, and for sure earn more money if you stick to traditional, conventional work and carefully listen to the advice “they” (whoever “they” are) offer you about what higher education is all about. Be very alert for advice – especially mine – that essentially boils down into “I think you should do X, because I did X”. The danger there is often that the person offering you that advice got the same advice for the same reason – in other words, the path of least or no resistance. This well-intentioned “advice”, absent critical reflection, may very well have nothing to do with the most acute, unresolved tensions and challenges in your field. And bogus advice that rests on unquestioned assumptions may very well prevent you and your colleagues from posing game-changing questions.

Tradition and convention within the whirlwind and the shallows of “activity” probably work well for many who “helpfully” offer up career advice that “worked for them”. The question McKeown, Norton, Bourdieu and I are asking is quite different. Is conventional work for you, really? Or might something else be more interesting, challenging, relevant and profound?

Photo by Paul Skorupskas on Unsplash.

The work and collaboration that brought some of these ideas into view was an award winning six-country comparative study in which I – along with a few colleagues – learned a lot of this stuff the hard way. (Hoffman & Välimaa et al. 2016). In my current book, on contract with Routledge, I ask if “Lessons from Finland” are actually applied to all populations within our education system and society: or just some populations.


David M. Hoffman (Ph.D. Social Sciences) is a Senior Researcher at the Finnish Institute for Educational Research, University of Jyväskylä, Finland. He is also a Senior Editor of Journal of Praxis in Higher Education.

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