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Speculative Diction

By the numbers


In a recent Chronicle Of Higher Ed article Dr. David M. Perry asked the question, “but does it count”? with regards to public engagement in academe. Perry argues that while there’s a perception that academics don’t communicate with non-expert publics, in fact they’re doing this kind of work all the time. What we really need, therefore, is a means of formal recognition for public work within the tenure and promotion system.

Like Perry (and many others), I’ve written about the issue of public engagement and the lack of recognition for it in academic promotions; I discussed the reasons why it’s hypocritical to ask young scholars to “engage” with broader publics, when clearly this kind of work does not contribute towards a scholarly career in the way that peer-reviewed articles do. If early-career researcher (ECR) workloads increase, they may then reasonably de-prioritize this kind of work since it adds few or no points to their academic scorecards. The work is even more risky for members of traditionally marginalized groups who already have difficulty gaining access to academic capital.

Here I’m going to return to the points I wrote about a few weeks ago, regarding “productivity”; I want to draw some attention to the connection between what we “produce” and aspects of academic work that encourage us to see ourselves in a particular way. For me this is part of an ongoing exploration of what factors affect our understanding of “knowledge work,” in particular the way it happens in universities. In this case, the right kind of self-governance means understanding that if a certain kind of work doesn’t “count” then we are not being “productive” when we do that work.

That’s why I’m more interested in the answer to a second, unasked question that’s implicit in “does it count?”: count for what? In most cases, it’s an academic job, one with some security and stability; so whether something counts towards tenure is the point, with all the implications this brings. This question of “what counts” – whether it’s articulated explicitly or operating as an underlying theme in academic conversation – reveals something about the ways in which academics’ decision-making is influenced by perception of what will be rewarded with advancement in the existing system.

All this probably sounds obvious, but as usual there’s the bigger picture to consider. The current competition for long-term academic jobs means that “to innovate in form means to risk one’s career” (Perry) and that future academics may become more conservative about the work they do, if that is what’s required to remain in the running for scarce positions. Even those who have faculty jobs must compete for research funding, and/or face some form of professional evaluation based on measurable criteria. With teaching, there is a parallel situation wherein precarious employment means that job assignments become more dependent on student evaluations. Making decisions about how we work is not merely dependent upon personal preferences, but also on our need to remain within the bounds of recognizable merit in a “meritocratic” institution.

At the Governing Academic Life conference in London, UK, last week, this context was the focus of the discussion as participants took time for a more detailed critical examination of the form and experience of contemporary academic work; speakers included Dr. Stephen Ball, Dr. Chris Newfield, Dr. Wendy Brown, Dr. Mitchell Dean and Dr. Richard Hall. While I wasn’t able to attend in person, the conference topic was directly relevant to what I’m writing and thinking about, so I followed along with the discussion on Twitter as much as I could.

One example that came up in the discussion was the UK’s Research Excellence Framework (REF, formerly the RAE), a framework and process of research assessment that determines the direction of HEFCE funding through grading “research output items” (e.g. books or articles). The “impact model”, or the assessment of the effects of research beyond academe, was a particular focus of debate.

This performance-based funding model, built on an instrumental notion of prestige, has been critiqued from a number of angles. For example, Dr. Andrew Oswald makes the point about scholarly conservatism when he argues that “People routinely talk in terms of journal labels rather than discoveries…That is a palpable sign of intellectual deterioration…if you design a Soviet-style planning system, you will get tractors.” Oswald argues that the REF discourages risky research and leads ECRs to focus on instrumental publishing rather than the kind of innovative work that might not check the REF’s boxes. This effect is not specific to the UK; in Canada, with no such formal system in place, Dr. Li-Shih Huang writes that she has “been bluntly asked to change [her] priorities by focusing on publishing only in high-impact journals”.

This example brings us back to the question not only of how academic life is governed, but how academics govern themselves. As I mentioned in my previous post on this issue, the conditions of academic work are also the conditions in which knowledge becomes authoritative and is communicated as such. Dr. David Perry argues in his article that “we…have a problem with how we define, count, and value many types of public engagement.” But what effect do we see from this process of having to define and count our work, and are we considering how this this may change what we can “know”?

I’ve had to think about my own position in this context, since I know I haven’t assessed myself based on how my work “counts”, and worse – I don’t really want to. The price to be paid there is exclusion from the system of academic prestige and from the institutions that value it. But just as “productivity” isn’t the same as getting things done, something can “count” within a system without it having meaningful effects otherwise. And it can matter elsewhere without signifying anything in this system: I can care about whether people read what I write, whether it prompted them to think about something differently, or whether someone else is drawing on my ideas and doing something interesting with them; those are some of my goals. But that’s not the same as the “impact factor” of a journal, or the number of citations an author or paper receives.

Based on the Governing Academic Life conference tweets, it seems that there was also discussion about whether there’s a way to appropriate or change the tools and norms that feel as if they work “against” us (or against the kind of knowledge we want to create). How can scholars continue to work in academe but also challenge its norms on an ongoing basis? This is a question about cultural absorption but also one about the limits of professional validation and advancement. In other words, if challenging the system doesn’t allow you to enter into and progress in an academic career, then how will those who want change find a way to stay and make it happen?

We can’t limit our critiques to those that are acceptable within the existing frames. Yet at the same time, as anyone in a marginal position in academe knows, trying to make change takes a lot of time and (emotional) energy; it can drain you to the point where you can’t do the work that…“counts”. So then what? – you’re discounted.

I was thinking about this issue last year when I wrote a post on academic disciplines and what happens when critical work on the university becomes formalized into its own “field” within academe. Formalization can only happen in this way if it’s sanctioned by people who have already achieved success on traditional academic terms. It also leads to further entrenchment of the work within regular professionalization. So how can we effect the change we speak about so often, when its form is being imagined within these restraints? Are there examples can we see outside the institution that might help with the task?

Because my research is about institutional change and how it looks and happens at different levels, I’m interested in these questions of individuals’ self-governance and its relationship to academic structures and norms. The problem of whether work will “count” for advancement within an academic career is important because it tells us what kind of work will likely be prioritized by successful academics, which in turn has an effect on others’ (future) careers and on PhD education and mentoring – and on knowledge.

All these things will shape the academe of the future; change happens not just through grand external “disruptions” and/or engineered unbundling but also through small actions and decisions – and the resistance – made by people every day. Asking how those things occur, and how they’re affected by context, is another step towards figuring out what kind of academic life we’ll have in the future and what will “count” towards it.

Melonie Fullick
Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate at York University. The topic of her dissertation is Canadian post-secondary education policy and its effects on the institutional environment in universities.
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