The Ivory Tower Jailbreak

1. Scholarship That’s Not Really Scholarship

Recently, Erin O’ Connor of the blog Critical Mass pointed readers to an article by Marc Bauerlein of Emory University, wherein Bauerlein discusses the state of academic publishing, specifically the type of readership that such material actually commands. Though Bauerlein confines his study to four English departments at public universities, the findings seem to confirm or at least bolster every stereotype about the academia as being incestuous, secluded, and irrelevant to anyone on the outside.

Bauerlein’s most salient points cover the shocking discrepancy between the output of academics along with the costs required to maintain such an output and the actual relevance achieved by these publications. The numbers are rather disheartening. According to Bauerlein,

I calculated the impact of those publications by using Google Scholar and my own review of books published in specific areas to count citations. Here the impressive investment and productivity appear in sobering context. Of 13 research articles published by current SUNY-Buffalo professors in 2004, 11 of them received zero to two citations, one had five, one 12. Of 23 articles by Georgia professors in 2004, 16 received zero to two citations, four of them three to six, one eight, one 11, and one 16.

The argument that this article is making is essentially economic. The author is claiming that a good deal of labour and capital goes into producing a large volume of research publications in the form of books, monographs, etc. that are never really read or even cited by other academics. Bauerlein concludes what is likely true of many disciplines, not just English,

If a department produces six books in one year, each one the product of four years of labor by each author, and only one of them attracts significant attention, we should set that one book on the benefit side and 24 years of labor on the cost side. The unfortunate conclusion is that the overall impact of literary research doesn’t come close to justifying the money and effort that goes into it.

Given that publish or perish is the system on which one flourishes or founders in an academic career, one can advance Bauerlein’s claim just a bit to argue that academia is based on an inefficient model. With such a premium on research and publishing, and I am not attempting to discredit the value of those pursuits, academics at all level, in pushing to advance their careers, might often be contributing to this vicious cycle of inefficiency and irrelevancy.

Certainly, nothing produces a near-orgasmic sensation in a post-doc or adjunct than a citation or publication, but it is worth thinking beyond one’s own career and interests to consider the impact that this urge to publish, especially in light of findings like Bauerlein’s, has on the discipline itself and one’s own ability to actually use their skills and knowledge to make a meaningful contribution to society itself beyond the cloisters of academia.

With research being so inaccessible – try accessing content in academic journals if you’re not a member of an academic institution –  and so little of it actually being read, nearly all disciplines need to adapt somehow. Scholarship that is not making any kind of impact, that is not contributing to the public understanding of a subject, that is not igniting and strengthening passion in that subject, is not really scholarship at all.

2. Increasing Irrelevancy

As previously mentioned, the journal fetish is strong among academics, and in my experience, was seen as the gold standard of professional achievement and ability. Having spent my time in university as both an undergraduate and graduate student, it was not just the case that these works were buried in the annals of research, but that they were also strikingly incestuous.

This is not always the case, of course, but in a good number of instances, it is impossible to follow an argument or debate unless you had been immersed in it for some time or were absolutely familiar with the methodology and theoretical background of each debate. Only a few weeks out of graduation, I already doubt my ability to pick up a journal in my field and understand exactly what is going on.

The fact is, little of what is produced is relevant to the average reader. Again, and I can’t stress this enough, I’m not denying that academic research has value. I’m only claiming that a good deal of it can be obscure and contributes little to the knowledge of the subject among the public.

Coming from a political background, I felt this was especially unfortunate. In the last few years, a series of colourful occurrences in Canadian politics – I’m told this was my field – directly tested the public’s understanding of their government and relevant institutions. There was, first, the attempt by the opposition parties to form a coalition government in 2008, followed by the proroguing of parliament over the Afghan detainee issue, and then the fall of Stephen Harper’s government in 2011 after a vote of no confidence wherein the government was found to be in contempt of parliament.

Much of the public was baffled in each instance, wondering exactly how Stephane Dion could suddenly make a push to be the Prime Minister when Stephen Harper had been elected to this position, though we do not actually elect our Prime Minister in Canada. Why was it, that in 2011 we were having another election so soon after the last and what exactly was bringing the government down? What exactly had they done and why was that wrong?

The actual constitutional issues at play in these instances are not my focus here. The point I want to make is simply that it became clear that much of the public did not understand how its government functioned and lacked any basic understanding of Canada’s constitution and electoral process. Many of us who were intimate with these matters lamented the proclamations that a coalition government was unethical and unconstitutional and grated our teeth at Stephen Harper’s claim that Canadians simply did not care about these matters and that the election triggered by the vote of no confidence in 2011 was unnecessary.

What did those of us who studied the process of Canadian government do in the long run about this gross lack of knowledge among the public? Nothing, really. I can only speak to my own experience and what I saw, but it seemed that we were more eager to measure voter apathy and discuss amongst ourselves this lack of knowledge, which I’m sure became the subject of many studies that will advance the career of many political scientists, rather than actually do anything about it.

The public role of the academic seems to be almost non-existent. Their work in the social sciences and humanities, and perhaps other disciplines as well, seems to have become almost entirely insular.

3. Breaking Down the Walls of the Ivory Tower

If I had but one wish for academia, it would be nothing less than a complete reconceptualization of professional obligations and the notion of publishing. Rather than simply mass producing esoteric studies and papers laden in academic-speak that are likely to be read by no one, academics would adopt new platforms and means of contributing to their discipline. Traditional research and publishing does not have to disappear, but a more public role for academics would emerge, most likely online. This new role would engage non-experts and readers outside the Ivory Tower and achieve some sort of balance between different means of communication and engagement.

In my own field, now former field, I would imagine something so simple as a collaborative blog featuring contributions from graduate students and faculty in a department that speaks plainly about the research they are doing and why it is important. In the aforementioned instances of debacles in Canadian politics, an ongoing blog featuring contributions from experts from different institutions would have served to clarify exactly what was taking place in government.

Public lectures outside of university discussing matters relevant to their studies or organizing reading groups would allow academics to expand their audience to those who might have no access to a university environment but would benefit from at least some engagement with academic material, whether as a means to bolster literacy or to simply spread the passion for a subject through a form of community service.

One might object that such material is boring, but there is a need for it. Whether in the social sciences, humanities, or life sciences,  making relevant knowledge more public and accessible cannot be a bad thing. Certainly, there are cases wherein such initiatives have been implemented and managed to gain a significant audience. The blog network at Scientific American boasts a wealth of posts every day from professional scientists, academics, and graduate students providing insight into the latest research in their field, all in a manner that is accessible to non-experts.

Marine biologist Kevin Zelnio argues that enriching public knowledge is and should be an integral part of any university’s mission:

The problems herein are cultural and ethical. How are you going to define academia? What is the purpose of an academic education and environment? Naturally, this will vary among institutions but there needs to be a movement toward rewarding public engagement. It makes sense: improves the institution’s image and by becoming a strong leader in the community public support can be more easily wrangled in leaner times.

The fact is that the current model cannot sustain itself and will do nothing but serve to render the very institution of academia obsolete. Knowledge is to be shared, and is no good so long as it is confined to such narrow parameters, especially when the opportunity to enrich public knowledge is so easily available through other platforms. I agree with Zelnio and believe that his claim is relevant to other disciplines as well.

The aforementioned Erin O’Connor says it better than I ever could. O’Connor writes,

…humanist scholarship has harmed itself by over-professionalizing and by confining itself to the exclusive gated ghetto of peer-reviewed journals and university press monographs. While the market for such work is saturated and was never big to begin with, there is a market for genuine public intellectuals who write about literature, history, and culture in ways that take an intelligent and curious non-academic audience seriously. We could do with a little more common culture than we have now — and academic humanists could do a lot to help reconstitute and revitalize that, if –

It all does come down to “if.”

Indeed, the profession has to save itself and prove that all the stereotypes of a stuffy and incestuous intellectual elite are wrong. Doing things the old way in a rapidly changing environment has never worked before, and doesn’t seem to be working now. Though I am no longer in this environment, my passion for my subject remains strong and the thought that it may become so obsolete so as to play no role beyond the confines of a university is a sad prospect.

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