what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Why academia is irrelevant

The snow has at last reached Bucharest – although it’s fairly wet. We walked yesterday to Strada Doamnei (just off Piate Universitate) which has 3-4 second-hand bookshops but got no further than the first which has a uniform price (7 euros) for its entire stock – most of which are large expensive (and heavy!) glossies in English. We staggered out with 9 real bargains – including a superbly crafted and illustrated account of an art dealer’s life (focussing on his trading with van Goghs and Cezannes); a large and well-illustrated book on Antique Prices; and one on Chinese Art.
The American Association of Political Science has just held its Annual Conference – and a fascinating summary is available here Nothing could confirm more strongly my allegations against the pointlessness if not damage the discipline of political science has done to the study of politics. The article also put me on to a great website of an academic, inspired by C Wright Mills, who is trying to make his work relevant to public concerns and who uses the concept of public sociology for this purpose.
I had no sooner finished reading that than I came across an article in the latest issue of New York Review of Books on the role performance indicators play in making academic writing so irrelevant.
Some of the most telling testimony on the damage to British scholarship inflicted by the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) carried our every 7 years has come not from an academic but from Richard Baggaley, the European publishing director of Princeton University Press, and an acute observer of the quality of British scholarly output.
Writing in the Times Higher Education Supplement in May 2007, Baggaley deplored what he saw as “a trend towards short-termism and narrowness of focus in British academe.” In the natural and social sciences this took the form of “intense individual and team pressure to publish journal articles,” with the writing of books strongly discouraged, and especially the writing of what he calls “big idea books” that may define their disciplines. Baggaley attributes this bias against books directly to the distorting effects of the RAE. Journal articles are congenial to the RAE because they can be safely completed and peer-reviewed in good time for the RAE deadline. If they are in a prestigious journal, that is the kind of peer approval that will impress the RAE panelists.
The pressure to be published in the top journals, Baggaley wrote, also „increases a tendency to play to what the journal likes, to not threaten the status quo in the discipline, to be risk-averse and less innovative, to concentrate on small incremental steps and to avoid big-picture interdisciplinary work.
„In the humanities the RAE bias also works in favor of the 180–200-page monograph, hyperspecialized, cautious and incremental in its findings, with few prospects for sale as a bound book but again with a good chance of being completed and peer-reviewed in time for the RAE deadline. A bookseller at Blackwell’s, the leading Oxford bookstore, told me that he dreaded the influx of such books as the RAE deadline approached”.
A further set of practices, above and beyond the RAE, that push British academics toward “short-termism and narrowness of focus” in their research are the reporting and auditing burdens imposed on them by its sister bureaucracies such as the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) and by the administrators of the academics’ own university. This is the “pressure for internal and external accountability” to which the Universities UK refers in its report, and is known collectively as the “audit culture.” The audit culture requires academics to squander vast amounts of time and energy producing lengthy and pointless reports, drenched in the jargon of management consultancy, showing how their chosen “processes” for the organization of teaching, research, and the running of academic departments conform to managerial “best practice” as laid down by HEFCE, the QAA, or the university administration itself. Words like “quality” and “excellence” have become increasingly empty. For the handful of British universities that are world-class—Oxford, Cambridge, and the various components of the University of London foremost among them—the HEFCE system is especially dangerous, because the reputation of these universities really does depend on their ability to do first-rate research, which is most threatened by HEFCE’s crass managerialism. In Britain there are scholars who will continue to produce exceptional work despite HEFCE and the RAE. But by treating the universities as if they were the research division of Great Britain Inc., the UK government and HEFCE have relegated the scholar to the lower echelons of a corporate hierarchy, surrounding him or her with hoards of managerial busybodies bristling with benchmarks, incentives, and penalties.
I need to emphasise that I'm not an academic but simply someone who was exposed in the 1960s to social science writing - and had high hopes of its potential contribution to social improvement efforts. Not only has this not happened - but those in academia have given us a double whammy of obfuscation and Candide-like justification of the status-quo.

Gerry Stoker said it was important for the discipline to grapple with the criticism that it has become irrelevant, but he also said that there were "tricky issues" that made it difficult for scholars to become more relevant without sacrificing key values. "Truth and evidence and reasoning are not in the forefront of political decision making," he said, and yet political scientists revere those things. In the political sphere, "we are competing with ideology, pragmatism, interests," he said. And Stoker also said that the discipline doesn't reward relevance. A young scholar is more likely to be promoted for "the novelty of methodological contribution" than for "research that actually has an impact."
A Swedish colleague Bo Rothstein was even tougher - he described his experiences teaching at Harvard University, where he was tremendously impressed with the 20 seniors in his seminar on comparative politics. One day he asked how many were planning to go to graduate school in political science and was "stunned" to find out that the students -- many of them idealistic about changing the world -- had to a person ruled that out in favor of law school. Their view was that "to be relevant, you have to have a law degree."
In Sweden, Rothstein said, this would be viewed as a terrible thing. "No such persons" like those Harvard seniors he taught "would dream of going to law school," which they would see as "boring and technical." But while American universities tell those who want to change the world to go to law school, they attract other kinds of students to grad school. "I was not at all impressed by the graduate students" at Harvard, he said. "They wanted to stay away from anything relevant."
Political scientists are too focused on developing theories about government, ignoring the huge impact -- a life-and-death impact, he noted -- that government has. Tens of thousands of people die each year because they can't get safe water or health care from corrupt governments, but political scientists prefer to theorize about the governments rather than thinking about how to change them with the goal of getting them to provide their people with water and health care.
As an example, Rothstein cited a session he attended on "clientelism" in Africa, a form of corruption that is widespread and damaging. Rothstein said he asked the presenters about comparisons to countries that have moved past clientelism, and that they had no answers. "The discipline is organized" such that African area studies scholars will simply compare various forms of the practice and "never ask how you can get out of clientelism," since that would require looking outside their region and focusing on solutions, he said. "The discipline is organized to avoid interesting comparisons of issues," rather than "on actual people."

No comments:

Post a Comment