Risk, responsibility, and public academics

This piece addresses the way that early-career academics feel encouraged to engage in public or interactive communication, yet find that the professional assessment of these activities is still fairly low – and that the professional “risk” isn’t the same for everyone. It was re-posted on the LSE Impact Blog, titled “More attention should be paid to the risks facing early career researchers in encouraging wider engagement”. Here is a link to the original post, from July 3, 2013: Risk, responsibility, and public academics.

As my last academic event of the season, I attended Worldviews 2013: Global Trends in Media and Higher Education in Toronto on June 20th and 21st. I’m not going to write about the panel in which I participated (“Who are the MOOC users?”, with Joe Wilson, Aron Solomon, and Andrew Ng), since I’ve already spent enough time thinking and writing about that issue of late. But there was another very interesting theme that I noticed coming up throughout the conference. In a number of the sessions I attended, I heard emphasis being placed on the need for researchers and academics to communicate more with publics beyond the specialist audiences that have, until recently, been the norm.

This language of “engagement” has been taken up ever more enthusiastically by funding agencies and universities, often alongside the concept of “impact”, the latter term having already become influential (and embedded in the logic of research governance) in the UK. However, in all this talk about “engagement” and public communication it seems that less attention is being given to the question of which academics participate in this process – who can make use of the opportunity to “engage”, and why.

For a start, it’s somewhat disingenuous to discuss the “responsibility” for academic public engagement without considering the risks that this involves, and for whom that risk is most significant  – i.e. most likely those already in marginalized positions in the institution and in society. The point about risk was not addressed explicitly in discussions I heard at the conference. In spite of the rhetoric about “impact”, the fear that many graduate students and early career researchers (ECRs) feel – and the anecdotal evidence of folks being told not to get involved in certain kinds of activities – suggests that “engagement” must happen on terms explicitly approved by the institution, if those involved are seeking academic careers. Grad students are not generally encouraged to become “public intellectuals”, a concept that regularly provokes critiques from those both within and outside the academy.

Not only was risk left out of the picture, but the discussion wasn’t adequately placed in the context of increasing amount of non-TT labour in academe. Those not fortunate enough to be on the tenure track still want to be (and are) scholars and researchers too; but it’s harder for them to contribute to public debates in the same way because they don’t tend to have a salary to fund their work, or a university “home base” to provide them with the stamp of academic credibility. I noticed at one panel there was also a discussion about tenure and academic freedom, and the argument was made that profs with tenure don’t speak up enough, given the protections they enjoy. Again, I think the more interesting question is about who gets to speak freely, with or without tenure, and why. Do all tenured faculty get to assume the same kind of “freedom” that someone like Geoffrey Miller does (or did)? What will happen to such freedom when the work of academics is further “unbundled”, as with the growing proportion of low-status contract faculty?

Blogging of course falls into the category of “risky practice” as well. Writing a good blog post actually takes time, effort, practice, and a lot of thought. But what’s interesting, and perhaps predictable, is that blogs were dismissed as not credible by at least one participant during a Worldviews panel that was about the future of the relationship between higher education and the media. In fact a specific comment referred to ECRs “trying to make a name for themselves” through social media, as if this is merely a form of shallow egotism as opposed to a legitimate means of building much-needed academic networks.

This seems particularly short-sighted in light of the intense competition faced by graduate students and other ECRs who want to develop an academic career. To suggest that ECRs are simply using tweets and blogs as vacuous promotional activities is an insidious argument in two ways: firstly because it implies that such tools have no value as a form of dissemination of research (and development of dialogue), and secondly it invokes the idea that “real” academics do not have to descend to such crass forms of self-aggrandizement. Both of these points are, in my opinion, simply untrue – but then again I’m just “a blogger”!

If universities are going to help educate a generation of researchers who will cross the traditional boundaries of academe, they will need to support these people in a much more public way – and in a way that will be reflected by the priorities of departments and in the process of tenure and promotion. Yes, we have the “3-Minute Thesis” and “Dance Your PhD“, but not everyone enjoys participating in this competitive way – and myriad other forms of public, critical engagement may be less well-accepted. Universities may make the claim that they value such forms, but who other than well-established researchers would be willing to speak up (especially about the academic system itself) without the fear of making a “career-limiting move”?

Those starting out in academic life need to receive the message, loud and clear, that this kind of “public” work is valued. They need to know that what they’re doing is a part of a larger project or movement, a more significant shift in the culture of academic institutions, and that it will be recognized as such. This will encourage them to do the work of engagement alongside other forms of work that currently take precedence in the prestige economy of academe. Tenured faculty are not the only ones with a stake in participating in the creation and sharing of knowledge. If we’re looking for “new ideas”, then we need to welcome newcomers into the conversation that is developing and show that their contributions are valued, rather than discouraging them from – or chastising them for – trying to participate.

Interview: @Home in the public sphere

In February and March, 2012, Dr. Grace Pollock of the Public Intellectuals Project (at McMaster University) published a written interview with me; it was published in two parts, and the links to the original posts are provided below:

@Home in the Public Sphere – Part 1 (February 28, 2012).

@Home in the Public Sphere – Part 2 (March 21, 2012).


The aims of education?

Sometimes (well, often) when we engage in debates about education, we take for granted the ways in which underlying concepts provide a basis for assumptions about education’s purpose – and thus a framing for the discussion. In this post I discussed the critiques of education that we often see in media coverage and political argumentation, and how education is perpetually “failing” because it’s assigned a task that can never be complete. Here is a link to the original post from November 18, 2011: The aims of education?

Something that characterises education, as a practice and as a discipline, is the constant stream of public critiques levelled at education systems, educators, administrators, parents, researchers, and on and on — by each other and also by those not immediately involved in education. This kind of sustained contentiousness is not the same as the assumed trajectory of “progress” in which one theory or practice trumps another after a time, such as generally happens in other academic and professional fields. Education is distinctive not only because the critiques come from many different groups and are very highly politicised, fracturing and emotionally fraught, but also because the same kinds of theories, remedies, assumptions and attacks seem to be repeated over time in an almost cyclical fashion, which is both fascinating and deeply troubling.

I’ve been considering this again recently, after I began reading Kieran Egan’s book The Future of Education. Egan describes a version of the long-term conflict over education in chapter 2 of the book, where he argues that over time the same few strands of argument have underpinned most debates about education, its theory and its practice. Because the existing arguments assume contradictory purposes for education, there are perpetual problems with reconciling the many demands being placed on education systems over time.

Following the path of “unpacking” education’s assumed purpose rapidly leads us to some deep and difficult questions, the answers to which reflect our most basic assumptions about who we are, how our minds work, and what kind of world we should live in. What is “knowledge”, and how do we acquire it? Do we begin life with minds that are “blank slates”, ready to be inscribed with culture, or are we biologically determined to behave the way we do? Should education be elitist, cultivating only the “best minds”, or equitable, offering a fair chance to everyone? Should educational methods employ rational discipline, or give students total freedom? Should learning be about memorising facts, or understanding broader ideas and theories; should it be standardised, or individualised?

Education in the present is perpetually concerned with the future, which may explain the comparative lack of emphasis on the study of education history. There is another cause for conflict here, because our assumptions about education involve the fundamental dream of shaping and controlling the future, of providing a form of certainty in an uncertain world. Education becomes a means of realising desires for the future, for individuals as well as for states and societies. This is why education is so vehemently contested; because they who can make a claim to control the future, to show that their version of the future will be better, can make a claim to power. The close relationship between education and governance lies here, where prediction lays claim to political authority.

Perversely, education’s full effects are unseen until the future, which is why the “impact” of education is so hard to measure. And yet we continue to try to do so, because of the idea that the (potential of the) future should somehow be demonstrable in particular ways, in the present. This is a heavy demand; not only is learning simultaneously an individual/subjective and a social phenomenon, but its effects are not “complete”, nor fully visible in the present. The time of learning continues even when the time of assessment is over. For this reason the measurement of learning is one of the biggest stumbling blocks in education governance, even as governmental and public desire for certainty — validated by numbers — increases.

The task of education is never complete. Criticisms continue in perpetuity because education never achieves the aims and goals set out for it, which appear to be a series of moving targets that multiply as oppositional viewpoints battle it out in the spheres of policy and public debate. Education has never “succeeded” because we have not yet had a utopia by anyone’s definition, and because there are some problems that simply defy the remedy supposedly provided (the mitigation of capitalism’s negative effects by literate democracy is one that comes to mind). All this is not to say that we should be losing hope or giving up on some idea of education as a good thing, as important. My view is not one of cynicism. Rather, I’m keen to know and understand the past and in what ways we may be unconsciously reiterating historical problems in the present; my hope is that we can somehow avoid perpetuating what we continue to critique.

More than a storm in a teacup – the debate on academic blogging

This was a follow-up post that I wrote (published on October 21, 2011) after a briefer article of mine on academic blogging was published in University Affairs. I wanted to get into some more of the reasons why blogging is still considered a lesser form of communication, and therefore isn’t something that usually contributes to building an academic career. Here is a link to the original post from October 21, 2011: More than a storm in a teacup – the debate on academic blogging.

Last week an article I wrote about academic blogging was published in the print and online editions of University Affairs. I decided to provide a follow-up to the article, because there were so many interesting comments from bloggers that couldn’t be included in the scope of the original post.

I also want to take time to link their points to those from another discussion over at The Guardian, involving the critique of academic publishing and the call for its reform. Many of the issues mentioned by bloggers were clearly entwined with this recent thread of criticism that targets academic journals and their business model, one that is described by its current critics as restrictive, exploitative and out-dated.

A benefit of blogging cited by most of those who commented was the development of a public profile independent of the regular channels of academic validation. This visibility tended to lead to more (and diverse) opportunities because of exposure to different audiences. Having a public “face” meant being recognizable as an expert on a particular topic, and PhD student Chris Parsons (UVic) explained that “this is important for graduate students, in particular, given that most of us lack established publishing records.” Because of his active construction of a body of “alternative” online work, Parsons has been invited to contribute to more traditional peer-reviewed publications, the accepted signifiers of academic success.

The bloggers also described using social media for professional networking and collaboration. Blogging sparked dialogues and exchanges across disciplines, facilitated by what David Phipps (of York University) describes as “enhanced reach and two-way communication,” enabling new connections that were unexpected, serendipitous, and productive. Blogs were also viewed by students as more inviting and accessible than traditional publications; UVic professor Janni Aragon discussed how students have become engaged with her online work, many of them reading and responding to her posts.

A related theme was that of the benefit of gaining access to different audiences. Academic publications are associated with specialized audiences confined not only to the academic realm but also to disciplinary areas. Professor Marie-Claire Shanahan (U of Alberta) discussed how blogging has helped her to build a research community, allowing her to “meet people with similar interests who work in different areas” and also to reach out to audiences for whom the research is relevant but who don’t normally have access to it. All the bloggers who sent me comments made mention of this relationship between development of a public profile, and the ways in which “blogging extends our ability to communicate our research beyond academic circles in an accessible and timely manner” (Alfred Hermida, UBC).

Several bloggers expressed their frustration with traditional academic publishing, including complaints that the regular publication process takes too long and that the resulting publications are inaccessible to non-academic audiences. Sharing ideas through accessible online sources is more efficient because it isn’t hindered by the gatekeeping function of peer review (part of what validates academic knowledge). Chris Parsons described how his work has been cited in “government filings, academic papers, news sites, and so forth […] none of that would have happened if I was constrained to the slow process of peer-review or forced to utilize traditional media outlets.”

The publishing model that currently dominates renders research inaccessible to the publiceven though much of the research done in universities is publicly funded, and the journals technically acquire their content for free. Parsons argues that his work “is publicly funded, so it should be available to the public” and blogging is a part of this. The current model reflectsthe concept of knowledge as a “private good” rather than a “public good” (Slaughter & Rhoades, 2004, p.28). A private-good model goes against an ethic and practice of sharing as discussed by PhD student Rebecca Hogue who explained, “I like to get my ideas out there, and by sharing them (and writing them down) they become more solid […] I hate to hold stuff back because someday it might be published.” In spite of the myth of the lone scholar, collaboration has been an essential feature of academe in the past. How does an increasingly proprietary, private model of knowledge affect collegial work?

Those academics involved in blogging are engaging with new modes of communication and new models of scholarly collaboration and research dissemination. The vehemency with which this practice is debated by bloggers and non-bloggers alike speaks to the deep roots of the issue; because academic publishing is key to professional advancement in academe, everyone has something at stake. This debate touches on the heart of the university’s mission, and what accompanies it — a continued struggle over the definition of authoritative knowledge.

Should you enter the academic blogosphere?

This article appeared in both the print and online versions of University Affairs; it addresses the pros and cons of engaging in blogging, for academics. 

The article was re-published on the LSE Impact Blog site on November 30, 2011. I also wrote a follow-up blog post dealing with some of the issues I couldn’t include in the original post (due to lack of space). Here is a link to the original article from October 11, 2011: Should you enter the academic blogosphere?

Blogging, the practice of updating a personal website with “posts” or short articles including news, commentary and journal-like content, is making inroads into Canadian academia. While the “blogosphere” has always included sites by students, professors, librarians, administrators and other university members, more scholars are now tying their blogs to their work-related activities and making the connection between online presence and career development.

Academic blogs by definition tend to focus on professional rather than personal topics, showing explicit connections between blog content, research issues and academic life. However, blogging is not viewed positively by all members of the academic community, and recent exchanges online – including on the Guardian UK and London School of Economics websites – reflect the controversial position of blogging in a new debate emerging around the issues of open access to research, public scholarship and expert knowledge.

Peer-reviewed articles are still the benchmark for academic professionalization, and some graduate students and early-career academics feel that blogging is a waste of precious time that could be spent on “legitimate” publishing. Because it’s a form of self-publishing that lacks peer review, blogging isn’t usually viewed as a legitimate form of scholarship. Chris Parsons, a PhD student in political science at the University of Victoria who writes the blog Technology, Thoughts, and Trinkets, has experienced “dismissal of my work because it’s online [and] criticisms that my work isn’t good enough to be published anywhere else.” Sometimes blogging is even seen as disseminating one’s ideas too freely. In a competitive academic field, research ideas could be “scooped” from a blog, while established journals may not want to publish work that’s available in some form online.

Yet, for a growing number of academics the benefits of blogging outweigh the drawbacks. Those who blog – including me – agree there are positive outcomes, such as networking and collaborating, finding new audiences and opportunities, disseminating research more widely, and building one’s reputation. Bloggers argue that far from diluting scholarly success, online writing can be a serious tool for academic practice.

David Phipps, director of the office of research services at York University and co-author of the ResearchImpact blog, explains that “rather than replacing traditional scholarly activity, blogging amplifies the reach and thus the impact of those messages derived from your research.” Academics can use blogs alongside formal research to form collaborative networks and to disseminate their work to different interest groups in new ways.

For example, Marie-Claire Shanahan, a professor from the University of Alberta, uses her Boundary Vision blog “primarily for outreach. I work in science education and there are lots of people (including scientists, science writers, museum staff and parents) that have an interest in science education, especially in schools.” The public, collaborative nature of blogging has helped writers to develop new relationships with students, peers and other audiences and to build new partnerships across disciplines.

Another benefit of blogging is that accessibility and exposure to different audiences tend to broaden academics’ reputations, which opens up new professional possibilities. Blogging can lead to contract and consulting work, public presentations and interviews, as well as invitations to write for academic publications. “This kind of exposure is important for graduate students … given that most of us lack established publishing records,” says Mr. Parsons, the PhD student at UVic.

Most academic departments don’t yet recognize blogging in any formal way – though this could change. Alfred Hermida, newly tenured at the University of British Columbia graduate school of journalism, saw his blog Reportr.net recognized as Best Blog at the 2010 Canadian Online Publishing Awards. Because of the blog’s success and the close relationship between his research, teaching and online work, Mr. Hermida included social media materials (including blog and Twitter statistics) in his tenure portfolio.

More formal recognition may come when academic administrators and established scholars begin to take more seriously the importance of engaging with publics in ways that show what academics do. This kind of transparency helps counter the assumptions that can circulate in the media and highlights the notion of knowledge as a public good, as something that shouldn’t be confined within university walls.

Universities and the media, part 2: Why the media matter.

This is the second of two posts that I wrote following the Worldviews conference in June 2011. Here is a link to the original post, from June 23, 2011: Universities and the media, part 2: Why the media matter.

Yesterday I wrote about some of the main themes we find in current media coverage of post-secondary education, and of universities in particular. Much of this coverage is highly critical of various aspects of university education and in many cases these criticisms are entirely justified, particularly from the perspective of students and parents, who represent a large audience for education coverage.

In spite of highlighting relevant issues, the critical arguments made in the media and in the “crisis literature” (and even in the comment sections of news websites) often seem ill informed. So while there are serious problems with some of the changes happening in universities, the debates that happen in the media don’t necessarily contribute to public debate in a productive way.

This is why one of the themes throughout the WorldViews conference was the presence or absence of “trust” in the university-media relationship and the ways in which the university can be “mis-represented” when it does not actively seek to inform publics about the nature of its role, its functioning, and its usefulness to society.

The assumptions underlying many critiques of post-secondary education tend to be the same assumptions that then frame suggestions for the reform, or renewal, of universities. It’s often argued that we must either return to (the best aspects of ) the university of the past, or destroy the institution utterly and begin again with a lighter, cheaper, more innovative and adaptable model, one that can somehow resolve the weighty tension between democratic and meritocratic that has become so much more evident in recent years; all the while becoming financially self-sustaining.

By some commentators, the techno-futuristic (and somewhat libertarian) argument is made that the introduction of new disruptive technologies, particularly the Internet and digital media, will force universities to change themselves and offer “value beyond content” as it were–since all “knowledge” will be available to students on the Web.

I think these arguments often ignore or discount the relational nature of education and conflate information with knowledge, assuming that education is the “delivery” of a product. They also reflect commitment to technological determinism, the idea that technologies drive social and cultural change; and they seem to assume that a high degree of individualism is necessary/desirable.

One issue I did not hear discussed at the WorldViews conference was whether post-secondary education earns more media attention now than in the past, and whether the nature of the coverage has changed over time. Because this question informs a part of my dissertation, I had it in my mind throughout the conference. I became interested in the question through having done media discourse analysis in the past, and through analysing universities’ public relations materials for my MA project.

The small amount of preliminary research I’ve done shows an increase to the amount of coverage universities receive, over a 30-year period. I’ll need a much more exhaustive corpus of news coverage from the 1970s and 1980s before I can say for sure, but I think the coverage has probably changed quantitatively as well as qualitatively, and that that’s the case then there are plenty of reasonable explanations for the change. (I was focussing only on one university, as well; I’d love to expand that and study the issue in more depth for a larger project.)

For one thing, universities now receive far more “exposure” to different publics; more people come into contact with universities than in the past. This is a process that began decades ago and has waxed and waned over time, but at the moment PSE enrolments are higher than ever before and so the student exposure alone has increased significantly. This process of massification (which I’ve also discussed here) was mentioned by Philip Altbach at a panel on the second day of the conference, but that was the only time I saw the issue raised explicitly.

Not only are there more students in the universities, but these students are paying more for their education. Tuition tends to be on the rise in the U.S. (e.g. in the collapsing California system), in Canada, and most notably of late, in the U.K. where the government has raised the tuition cap from about £3,000 to £9,000. The cost of education is being transferred onto the individual even as the value of education to the individual is seen to be in decline.

This form of privatisation tends to encourage a consumerist attitude towards education, and changes the dynamic between universities, students, parents and also the media. Rankings tables create comparisons between institutions that allow for informed consumer “choice” (among other things); Macleans magazine designs its yearly university rankings issue as a guide for student/family stakeholders. Because students are assumed to rely on their parents or families for this money, parents too become increasingly invested in the “quality” of university education.

Universities have responded to marketisation, and to the privatisation/diversification of their funding sources, by investing more in strategic communication including advertising and branding, various forms of public relations, and reputation building efforts aimed at different key stakeholder audiences (public/taxpayers, students, parents, the government, granting agencies, donors, alumni and so on). These efforts tend to affect media coverage as well.

Why does media coverage matter? With all the trends taken into account, it’s clear that government policy, not only in post-secondary education but also in science and technology, intellectual property, and other knowledge policy areas, affects more people than ever. It’s therefore more likely to be the subject of heated public debate.

Universities need to pay closer attention the ways in which universities and PSE in general are discussed in newspapers, on TV, in magazines, and on the Internet, because these media have a strong hand in setting the terms of that important discussion. This is also where the terms of policy may be set out openly, where members of the voting public begin to make choices about what they support politically.

Attitudes and beliefs are circulated, reinforced, and re-formed both in the news and in the discussions that happen that are based on or triggered by media coverage. And what people believe, they tend to act (or vote) on. Universities have ramped up their efforts to present themselves positively, yet coverage of university education has been dominated by overwhelmingly negative discourses.

What is the disconnect happening here, and what can universities do to better inform the debate about them that ultimately happens beyond their walls, and beyond their control? How do universities adapt to this fast-paced communicative context wherein critiques and problems are amplified so rapidly? I think this is one of the major challenges not just for universities but for all organisations, at a time when negative messages can easily “go viral” through social media.* Universities, with their deep institutional roots and their immediate connection to young people, may feel this pressure even more. They’ll also need to find an answer to it, since the (real and mediated) experiences of today’s students will eventually shape the decisions they make about the educational systems of tomorrow.

[*I’m interested to see whether universities begin to engage differently with students who already attend, and to enlist them in ongoing efforts to build reputation and shape expectations of future students and their parents.]