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SPECULATIVE DICTION

Tracing our words down the academic rabbit hole

Considering the abundance of media nowadays, whose contributions are ultimately considered legitimate and credible?

By MELONIE FULLICK | APR 27 2015

Recently, while looking for sources to include in a talk on “online presence” for graduate students, I read this blog post by Lee Skallerup Bessette wherein she discusses “academic conversations.” Lee describes what it’s like to search her own name in Google and come up with dozens of references and direct responses to her academic work, many of which she hadn’t seen before. She captures the odd sense of being present yet somehow absent from a discussion – “I’ve never been so thrilled to see myself being talked about like I wasn’t there.”

As usual after reading an interesting post, I was left with a series of questions that complicated the issue: is academic writing a “conversation,” really? If so, what kind of conversation is it, and where does it happen? Who is allowed to participate? For those of us blogging about academic topics, how does that fit in?

One of the reasons I started blogging in the first place was that I wanted, if possible, to be a part of the current lively discussion about postsecondary education. But I hadn’t thought much about where my words might end up. If I had to Google myself, what would I find? I hadn’t checked in a while, so after reading Lee’s piece, had a look on Google Scholar and ended up falling down the rabbit hole of links that led all over the place. From what I was able to find, these were the pieces cited:

Other blog posts that had been referenced, though they didn’t show up in the Google Scholar search, were “Punching for Pedagogy”; “Filling in the gaps: Questions about the goals and outcomes of PhD education”; “Thinking beyond ourselves—the crisis in academic work”; “The politics of the public eye”; and “The national path to internationalization.” These are just the ones that I’ve found (sometimes by accident), and only the academic publications that show up, e.g. in peer-reviewed journals or books; one citation in a government report also appeared. It’s not as if academic citations show up as “pingbacks” on WordPress. I wouldn’t see them unless I searched, like this, on a regular basis.

Why is it so hard to keep up with this trail of words, let alone respond to what’s been said? I agree with Lee’s point that academic discourse is a fairly messy landscape: multi-channel, multi-layered and taking place in both formal and informal settings, synchronous and asynchronous. We have conference conversations and peer review of research, but we also have lengthy exchanges on Twitter and comment threads on news articles and blogs. So academic exchanges are visible at different levels, and in different forms, according to your professional privileges: a pay-walled journal is not going to be as accessible as a blog post, but the journal article is more likely to be cited because of its credibility (attained through academic process). A conference presentation allows for more depth and specialization of topics, but it also tends to have a much smaller audience than, say, a public panel.

The academic conversation has, arguably, been expanded in various ways during the past 50 to 60 years. There’s the simple matter of volume: the “production” of scholarship has expanded, not just because of the development of fields and subfields but because academic systems have grown, and academic careers depend on publication for advancement. Expansion also means we simply have more people doing research; we can’t really know everyone else in the field, and thus we aren’t plugged in to every exchange that’s happening. Although some fields (such as astrophysics) are still focussed around just a few journals, most other areas have expanded, and interdisciplinary work has increased.

Aside from academic journals, there are the online platforms. When I did a broader Google search for references to my blog or other work, there were too many links to list (I stopped on page 15). Some of these were almost wholesale re-posts of my work, on sites I’d never seen before. Others were references in everything from meeting minutes to media articles; and those are just the ones that mentioned me by name. Overall, it can be very hard to track what’s going on in this maelstrom of content (which is one of the challenges for the use of altmetrics).

Another issue that arises now, as it has done before: considering the abundance of available media and the many writers and creators who contribute to it, whose contributions are ultimately recognized as “legitimate,” credible, worthy of acknowledgement? For example, I may not be aware of where I’m being cited, but I’m lucky to receive some credit for the work at all. On social media, some authors face the all-too-dubious honour of having their words and ideas repeated without acknowledgement. In a Twitter discussion, Lee Skallerup Bessette pointed to writers like Lauren Chief Elk and Trudy at Gradient Lair whose work “gets discussed in academic circles without their participation.” These are activists and writers with large, engaged audiences on Twitter and on their blogs, and their work has been used without credit or consent.

So along with amplification of some voices, we have others who are shut out because the work is “about” them or comes from them, but isn’t in dialogue with them, and is taken up in a context that excludes their participation. While important intellectual work has always been happening in non-academic settings, it’s possible that social media helps to make this more visible and thus more vulnerable to appropriation by those who already have professional status.

I understand academic citing as a practice of crediting the ideas and contributions of others, noting the ongoing discussion and connecting both others and oneself to a particular discourse and debate. To come back to the circulation of words, how does this exchange work out in practice? In the great stew of knowledge and commentary, what bubbles up is not what is necessarily meritorious (something I’ve written about in a previous post on academics and self-promotion). In a current of exposure that lifts up some content and more or less buries the rest, visibility is no indicator of merit. Yet where visibility and authority bring recognition, ideas too often become attached to the one who was first seen to articulate them.

In such a large pool of information, what we “see” is biased in various ways. Yet the assumption of meritocracy that underlies so many aspects of academic culture is also operating here, when we assume that a text’s visibility reflects both its origin and its worth. Given this context, graduate programs should incorporate ongoing discussion of the ethics of academic communication, both regarding their own work and other people’s. This is even more important if we’re going to take into account that not all conversations are pay-walled or peer-reviewed, and not all participants are academics. Doctoral students who may be embarking upon university careers later on, or participating in academic discourse in various ways, need to cultivate an understanding of the effects of these practices. Maybe this starts with thinking about where others’ words come from and where ours end up – and why.

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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