When you think of a steward, you might imagine someone in a manor who ensures the household runs smoothly, the tenants are cared for, and the buildings are kept in good repair with an eye toward preserving the enterprise for generations to come. In short, a manager.
Your work as a scholar is in fact not much different from the work of a steward. As a graduate student and scholar, you are a steward of your discipline. To better understand what this means, we’ll look more closely at the role of scholars managing the discipline, or what Chris Golde, Associate Vice Provost for Graduate Education at Stanford University, describes as the “stewards of the discipline.”
Stewardship means that you manage resources effectively. Golde argues in “Preparing Stewards of the Discipline” that stewardship in scholarly work involves a “set of roles and skills” and “a set of principles, the former ensures competence and the latter provides the moral compass.” Mastered skills vary from discipline to discipline, but they may include collecting and analyzing data, synthesizing an argument, or developing a new scientific theory. Within this role, scholars are not simply looking narrowly at their own research topics to create knowledge for their own personal advancement, but are looking to transform the field by sharing their work. This taps into the moral aspect of stewardship.
All scholars contribute to a body of knowledge within the discipline. To contribute, the work must be good in a moral sense, which means that the researcher follows a code of conduct or a set of ethics. Working within this system means that the work is reliable (it has not been falsified) and has been conducted in good faith (the researcher has no hidden agenda or conflict of interest). The moral aspect establishes what Hyman Bass, mathematician at the University of Michigan, calls the “integrity of community” (113). Simply put, the community will not be corrupted by academic work that contributes to the larger goal: Good scholarship not only maintains the field; it also pushes the field forward by building the community of scholars.
Work can contribute to the community of scholars within a discipline or, as is increasingly the case with scholarship in the 21st century, contributes to interdisciplinary work that transcends a single discipline’s boundaries. Beyond that, stewards of the discipline also contribute to the greater society by preserving previous knowledge, developing new knowledge that supplements and illuminates previous knowledge, and finally disproving previous knowledge when necessary.
So what does being a good steward look like for graduate students? As developing scholars, you’re learning the roles of an academic. You're gaining the skills you need not only to create new research, but also help run a department and educate the next generation of stewards. You are also part of a closely-knit group, a community of scholars, that can rely upon one another for good work. Graduate education prepares “those to whom we can entrust the vigor, quality, and integrity of the field” (Golde; Preparing the Stewards of the Discipline 5). Take pride in your work as a scholar, and do your best work. Add to the good work that contributes to your field and inspires the next generation of stewards.
Bass, Hyman. “Developing Scholars and Professionals. The Case of Mathematics.” In EFDE. 101-119.
Elkana, Yehuda. “Unmasking Uncertainties and Embracing Contradictions. Graduate Education in the Sciences.” In EFDE. 65-96.
Golde, Chris. “Preparing Stewards of the Discipline.” In EFDE. 3-22. Republished in abbreviated from on www.carnegiefoundation.org/print/3295