Thursday, July 29, 2010

How Higher Ed Makes Most Things Meaningless (Long Version)

This is a longer version of a post that originally appeared through the University of Venus blog on Insidehighered.com.



My academic research will not change the world. Don’t get me wrong, I love the authors I am currently studying, found fascinating all of the topics and areas I have previously written about. But at the end of the day, most people are not really interested in what I am doing, including most people in the academy or in my discipline.

I am creating new knowledge. For my dissertation, I wrote about the relationship between author, translators and publishers using archival documents, many of which had never been read. The result? An archived dissertation and a conference presentation. My masters thesis examined two postcolonial dystopian novels that, I theorized, force us to reexamine how we look at science fiction. The result? A journal essay that I can’t even get for myself through inter-library loan.

Please don’t mistake this as me feeling sorry for myself. I continue to do research and write on what I enjoy, with or without an audience.  I know I am not alone in my current academic obsession, author Dany Laferrière, because I unearth articles from all over the world on various aspects of his writings. There have been conferences that have dedicated multiple panels to his work. But outside of these conferences, accurate databases and wild Google Scholar searches, we remain for the most part isolated and disconnected, despite our shared interest.

Recently, however, I began blogging and Tweeting, not about my current academic research interests, but more largely about education and the direction of higher education. This work has the potential, if not to change the world, then at least to be an active participant in changing academia. Through social media, I have reached a broad audience of academics, teachers, parents, professionals, non-profits and other people who are interested and care about education.  I have been invited to contribute blog posts for a number of different sites. My writing has been featured on other sites, UVenus included. Suddenly, not only am I working on a topic I am passionate about, it seems to matter.

With a foot in both worlds, there are a number of questions about what academia really values from its (theoretically) most important employees, the professors.

Are Academics really interested in “sharing”?
We, as academics, are not really encouraged to share our research and our knowledge. We are encouraged to “share” our findings in limited environments: the conference or specialized journal.  For example, I was unable to attend a conference this past year because I was unable to afford it, even though it was the largest collection of academics working on author Laferrière I had ever seen. Outside of the abstracts, there is currently no way (that I can find) to access the complete presentations, limiting the audience to the few who were able to attend.  These papers are mostly likely being “saved” for publication in an obscure journal or academic book, both highly priced (for the consumer) and highly valued (by the academy), giving the research meaning.

While more and more scholars are using sites like Academia.edu or SlideShare, and even self-publishing, this type of sharing isn’t rewarded when it comes time for decisions on hiring, tenure and promotion. We are taught instead to hoard our research and findings to share with a potentially smaller audience in venues with more “prestige.”  Why not work to improve Wikipedia in whatever field you specialize in? The entries on Dany Laferrière’s works are lacking, calling me to improve on them, hopefully introducing and informing a broader audience about the author. But because the medium is “crowdsourced” instead of peer-reviewed, career-wise, my work there would be meaningless.

Instead of having to travel to conferences, forcing our academic libraries to pay obscene fees to subscribe to journals, or waiting for years and years for our research to finally appear in print, why not harness the power of Twitter and other social media outlets to share information and research in real time? In the field of education alone, there are at least 27 weekly Twitter-Chats that take place on various sub-topics (http://www.cybraryman.com/chats.html). Each chat takes place at a set time, is usually archived by the host, and lasts about an hour. The chats bring together teachers, researchers, and other interested people to talk about a pre-determined topic, often decided by online vote. People link to relevant research, sometimes their own, sometimes from others.  These Twitter Chats represent an opportunity to learn, connect and share in real time without the hassle. Why can’t academics organize their own Tweet chats about their field (the Digital Humanities are a large exception to the rule; they tweet just about everything)? Because hiring committees and tenure committees wouldn’t care, making the work meaningless.

Are we allowed to be ourselves?
When I first decided that I was going to be an academic, I was told that I had to give up my online life (I blogged before it was even known as blogging) if I ever wanted to be taken seriously as an academic. While I agree that I needed to give up those subjects that an undergraduate would write about, I wish I would have been encouraged to blog about my research interests or life as a graduate student. Instead, I was encouraged to give up every part of my life that didn’t have anything to do with my research, lest it make me appear unprofessional or that I lacked dedication to my chosen profession.

I have written about this before, but it bears repeating: browse the blogs of junior faculty members, graduate students and recent PhD graduates and you will notice one thing – they are almost all anonymous.  Why? Why can’t we blog about not just our narrow research interests but everything we are interested in or want to write about?  Is academia that insecure that it can’t take a little criticism or allow for a professor to be more than a talking head in front of the classroom or byline on a book or article? Outside of those two functions, the person behind the professor would appear to be meaningless.

Deciding that I didn’t care about any of that anymore was freeing in many ways. It allowed me to blog and engage with a larger peer group as myself: my own name and all of my interests in tact. Yes, I am a mother of two young children. Yes, I swim and watch TV and movies and have a messy house and a messy life. Yes, I care about the future of higher education and no, I do not agree with much of what is going on right now (#higheredapocalypse, anyone?).  And, yes, I read and write about Dany Laferrère and other materials related to my academic interests that have nothing to do with my PhD (writing, college readiness, testing, standards, social media in teaching). But only one of those areas has any meaning for the academy.

And perhaps the most liberating part of no longer trying to be someone I wasn’t in order to be valued was that my research improved; it improved because I allowed the research to be what it was, not what I thought it needed to be in order to have meaning by someone else’s standards. I am no longer desperate to make my research sound like it will change the world in one way or another in order to fit myself into a job or funding opportunity. I continue to publish and present at conferences, but I choose the opportunities that fit with the research, with me, and not the other way around. 

My research may not change the world (or ever be read), but it is far from meaningless. My outside interests may be meaningless according to the academy, but may help change the world. Academia has such a narrow view of what is meaningful, and I, for one, have stopped listening to what higher ed narrowly thinks I should be and started defining it for myself.

14 comments:

  1. Great post--it has always amazed me that journals don't have open access (as if they need less people to read them) and I agree with everything in your post, especially the degrading of online writing and blogging which is without a doubt a second Gutenburg...To call yourself a writer or thinker and not use the power of blogs to get your ideas out into the world is just silly. Academia is always behind.

    Dr. Brent Chesley recommended that I check out your blog as I run something similar--selloutyoursoul.com (recently mentioned in the Chronicle's article "Master's in English: Will Mow Lawns.")

    I'm looking forward to reading some more of your posts and sharing them with my readers.

    Thanks

    James

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  2. Great post...I suspect the reason why profs and grad students are either anonymous or write under pseudonyms is that the blog provides a medium where they can say what they really think. I suspect that if they had to provide their names we’d never hear their pains, gripes and traumatic experiences in the academy. Just my two cents!

    http://www.senseworlds.com/bewilderness/

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  3. Even with pseudonyms there is some issue about giving out your traumatic experience. I PM'ed you about how facebook sunk a search, but I haven't posted on that because I actually did (eventually) get a job at that university and I don't want to poison the well. But there is so much that remains hidden, even when we blog.

    Granted, I'm far less hidden than I used to be as a blogger, but still it is not obvious to a casual reader who I am. They have to make some effort to check through my blog to find me. I admire your forthrightness, though.

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