Beki Grinter

Professionalization of Academia

In academia, academic management, discipline on January 14, 2010 at 7:06 pm

Louis Menand has a new book out about academia. A short excerpt was published in Harvard Magazine, which I found fascinating.

For the relatively new reader, let me begin by saying that I have a “one-woman” interest in disciplinary business and academic organization. I can’t yet say that my thoughts are coherent, but I know that the more I experience academia, the more I find it very intriguing in many different ways.

First, I still find the calls for transparency in decision-making, at times, curious. I think that the ways organizations make decisions can not always be made transparent, the processes are too distributed, so it’s hard to trace results back to root causes. There’s also temporal lag in processes. These and a myriad of other things make organizational sense locally, but make transparency difficult to achieve. I have referred to this in the past as the fallacy of transparency. I also wonder about how the tools we use to organize academia work, since they were designed to work in corporate and commercial contexts… and academia is different, (do I have bosses, why do you increase the reporting lines rather than replace them when you take on administrative assignments).

I also find the changes in the discipline of Computer Science fascinating. Not just the rise of the iSchools, but also how CS is separating organizationally and what that might mean for the discipline as well as what new fields, like ICT4D, can teach us about Computing’s disciplinary business.

So that brings me back to Menand, who clearly has thought a lot more about academia than I have…

“Since it is the system that ratifies the product—ipso facto, no one outside the community of experts is qualified to rate the value of the work produced within it—the most important function of the system is not the production of knowledge. It is the reproduction of the system. To put it another way, the most important function of the system, both for purposes of its continued survival and for purposes of controlling the market for its products, is the production of the producers.”

In this quote he argues that the mechanism of peer review basically leads from a community that values products, to a community that values the reproduction of the community itself. I am still thinking about whether I agree with that statement. I don’t want to agree in all honesty, and I believe that the work that I see done is done by people who are passionate about the products, the results. It’s hard to work up the energy needed to do research if you’re not worried about the products. It does also seem like an argument for interdisciplinarity, reaching across communities to have a broader judgement. I think that’s a good thing.

What I do wonder is whether Computing is headed towards a time when at least at the Ph.D. level the market might be shrinking, or at least stabilizing. One reason this is certainly happening in the short-term is the economy. And last year, in CS we saw an NSF funded post-doc program. While there have always been post-docs in Computing, I am pretty sure there are more. The program had the goal of helping to alleviate the consequences of the economic recession after all.

So if there is a shift, and particularly if the shift is long-term, and if Menand is right, then there must be some effect on the system somewhere. If Menand is right then the production of producers must change if labor patterns are changing. Only his subsequent focus on the humanities suggest changes that at least I don’t find satisfying… he suggests that the economic downturn led to increased times to graduation and increased difficulty in finding employment. And so Menand has caused me to reflect… whether or not I agree with his arguments, I think that they are very worthy of thought, and also on what happens in a time of economic recession and what my responsibility is as a member of a professional academic community.

Whatever I conclude, he concludes with an argument that I hear more often from a variety of people who I know have given the future of the academic enterprise considerable thought. And what I hear over and over again is that change is coming. And I hear it from very different types of people. When different people with very different perspectives say the same thing, it makes the point stand out in my mind because I find myself thinking how did they all get to the same conclusion. Of course, I also believe, see above, that that change will be slowed down by the institution itself but I find myself disposed to the argument about change. Indeed, one glimmer is already a reality, that there are Universities out there that can and do graduate people but do not look like traditional Universities.

I’ll leave you with his parting thought…

“My aim has been to throw some light from history on a few problems in contemporary higher education. If there is a conclusion to be drawn from this exercise, it might be that the academic system is a deeply internalized one. The key to reform of almost any kind in higher education lies not in the way that knowledge is produced. It lies in the way that the producers of knowledge are produced. Despite transformational changes in the scale, missions, and constituencies of American higher education, professional reproduction remains almost exactly as it was a hundred years ago.”

What I do look forward to is a conversation about production and reproduction of the academic profession. What does that mean for Computing, what does it mean for HCI (which is my speciality). And how might this change, in what ways….

Update: Slate reviews the book.

  1. is this academic orientation toward professional reproduction that new? really, what this suggests is that many disciplines are wandering back into the increasingly abstruse (ie irrelevant to those outside) – but through mere overspecialization rather than some underlying intellectual element (like, i don’t know, monasticism or hermeticism).

    his points in this excerpt are fairly obvious to anyone who has observed the following behaviors:

    (1) sci/tech faculty saying: “the real impact of my career is not my research but my great students.” sure, many programs do have a partial education mission, but nobody (else) thinks that gov’t research funding is mainly aimed at producing students…

    (2) the degree to which many faculty push their students to validate their own life decisions by becoming faculty. even those who don’t really want to be faculty. this makes me sad.

    i don’t hate academia or faculty; not at all. but it does bug me when the value systems above lead applied academic research to take shortcuts because “academic work only has to be real enough to get a paper onto my CV.” it’s not everyone doing it, not by a longshot, but it’s enough to flood the journals and conferences with crap.

  2. I find your comment a bit funny, because I regularly say #1. The reason is not that I don’t think my research is good. I think it is good and I think it has had impact. But, much of the impact of my research is beyond my control. There are far too many factors that have to go right for the research to see the light of day in industry (eventually). But, I can control the quality of students I produce. And, they have a huge multiplier impact on the students they both teach (at the undergraduate level) and train (at the graduate level).

  3. that is a fair comment (in essence, that the implicit meaning for you is “the immediately-observable impact of my career is my students”). but nevertheless there are folks out there whose main end result really is professional reproduction – students trained to do epsilon research. look at computer systems conferences, where papers often cite 40 other papers that study exactly the same thing (often a made-up problem) aside from one technical difference. *sometimes* that’s good normal science (in the kuhnian sense), but most of the time…

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