Steal Like an Artist for Scholars

Austin Kleon is one of the creative people who have had the greatest influence on my thinking about art, life, and parenthood. I actually had a bit of a freakout tonight whenI couldn’t find my copies of Steal Like an Artist and Keep Going. (I’ve loaned my copy of Show Your Work to a friend.) They turned up, though, and thank goodness.

For years, I’ve thought someone should write up how his work is particularly relevant for scholars, researchers, and academics. (Often, one person is all three, but it felt worth listing them separately here.) Maybe somebody has, but I haven’t seen it, so I’m going to do it. For a quick overview of Steal Like an Artist, you can watch Kleon’s TED talk.

I’m going to do this as a series of 10 posts, one post per point on Kleon’s list/chapter in the book. First up:

1. Steal like an artist. Kleon points out that nothing is wholly original. With scholarship, it is a key part of designing research to situate our planned work in the work that came before it. We have a whole section of most scholarly writing devoted to this: the literature review. Kleon suggests that we build a family tree of thinkers, finding one who influences us and then learning everything about them, then learning about three people who influenced them, on and on up the chain as far as we can go. This is basically what citation chaining is. Kleon focuses on backward citation chaining. I wonder if the academic’s process of forward citation chaining might be useful for other creatives; what would Kleon think about finding other people who have the same influences as you and exploring their work downstream? I imagine this wouldn’t be as easy to do as it is for researchers, who can simply pop a reference in Google Scholar, Scopus, or Web of Science and track down the things that reference it, but it might still be valuable to do.

Kleon recommends saving your “thefts” for later. Scholars can do this by keeping up with the work in their field (I’m personally a fan of subscribing to journal table of contents by email and setting up Google Scholar alerts), skimming it, and keeping a research notebook to help them keep track of all of the things they’ve read.

One thing that applies perhaps more uniquely to scholars - though maybe works for other creatives, too - is to look for places where other scholars have explicitly called for work that builds on theirs. I don’t know to what extent other people mine the “Future research” sections of studies for their own work, but I have found it immensely valuable. Both my Master’s paper and dissertation topics came from paying close attention to where other scholars have called for work that builds on theirs. It’s been particularly rewarding to do this with my dissertation, as Dr. Crystle Martin, whose dissertation inspired mine, is on my committee and this is the first time she’s really seen someone build on her work. Why do we do all of this work if all that is going to happen is that it will sit unread somewhere? I suppose some people do it because they have to for job security or being competitive on the job market, but I like to imagine that most of us at least started with a plan for doing our research because we thought it could improve the world somehow. Drawing on other scholars’ work to build ours brings that work out of archives and into the world.

As Kleon quotes Mark Twain saying,

It is better to take what does not belong to you than to let it lie around neglected.

Next time: Don’t wait until you know who you are to get started.

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