How researchers get heard
Abstract lines

How to Get into The New Canon

“The canon” used to mean “mandatory, “ponderous,” “dead,” “white,” “male.”

More recently, that definition evolved to include “exclusionary,” “imperialistic” and “oppressive.”

Both equaled: largely ignored.

Late last year, The Chronicle Review asked 21 scholars each to nominate the most influential book published in the last 20 years. The Review gathered the nominations — and short essays from the scholars explaining their choices — into a feature titled “The New Canon.”

The Review cleverly sidesteps the 20th century traps of “the canon” by defining entries in “The New Canon” must only be “influential” — and then asking the nominees (a diverse set) to define “influential” as they wished.

Most of the choices are research-based. Many are fascinating; they could provide a great supplemental reading list for your year.

Some of them: Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow”; Arthur C. Danto’s “What Art Is”; Jessica Riskin’s “The Restless Clock”; Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone”; Antonio Damasio’s “The Feeling of What Happens”; Yuval Noah Harari’s “Homo Deus”; and Jo Guldi and David Armitage’s “The History Manifesto.”

Here’s what jumps out at me: the commonalities among these books — down to some of the very words the scholars use to describe them. By these shared words, today’s canonical book far more often than not is:

  • Known well beyond a narrow circle of scholars — even if you haven’t read it, you know the thesis ;
  • A crucial, paradigmatic pivot that transforms the way we make sense of the world;
  • Accessibly written and distributed;
  • Steeped in research;
  • Founded on persuasive arguments;
  • Unafraid of provoking controversy and prompting robust debate;
  • A catalyst for policy or practice change;
  • An anchor for future debate on the issues it deals with , forcing even those who disagree to be aware of it and feel the need to respond; and
  • Inspiring a rich vein of follow-up research, opinion writing and books.

What defines a New Canon book, it turns out, matches the definition of research thought leadership.

Expert = credentialed. Expert + authority = influential.

Not ignored.