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SPECULATIVE DICTION

Risk, responsibility, and public academics

By MELONIE FULLICK | July 3, 2013

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.

A note from the web editor: A related story that you might also find interesting is the recent University Affairs article Nothing about us, without us, which looks at community-engaged scholarship in Canada.

ABOUT MELONIE FULLICK
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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  1. Sean Lawrence / July 3, 2013 at 1:03 pm

    You’re assuming that everyone has an opportunity to be a public intellectual, as do those who call on academics to accept a responsibility to “engage.”

    On the one hand, it would actually be irresponsible to talk about areas in which I am not an expert as though I were, but those are the major areas of public discourse.

    I’m happy to talk about my own rather esoteric area of interest, but it isn’t like the CBC is calling.

  2. gerardrodgers / July 8, 2013 at 10:47 am

    Melonie, very thought provoking and necessary to be talking and thinking the way you are doing here. Being fearless is critical

  3. El Bee / July 8, 2013 at 5:58 pm

    Sean,

    What you need is a manufactured crisis.

    Then the CBC will come calling and the funds will flow.

  4. […] a transient competitive workforce, postdoc-to-postdoc solidarity is hard to build. Melonie Fullick has described how under the apprenticeship framing of academia, it can be ‘risky practice’ for junior […]

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