The Discontents of Modern Academic Life

Academic specialization is a rather novel phenomenon. We can say with great confidence that biology was formalized over the last 400 years, sociology has perhaps half that lifespan, and if we go into the foray of literary theory or gender studies, we cannot speak of more than the last 60 or 70 years (instructive summaries of the history of science in Wikipedia and Collins 1994). The strengthening of independent academic institutions and universities certainly help to facilitate the division into many different disciplines. We could also argue that the sheer amount of collective knowledge which humans have produced over so many thousands of years makes it simply impossible for a person to have much knowledge about many areas of life. A polymath today would have a much harder time being a polymath, because there are just so many things to know.

Literacy and book printing certainly helped people to spread knowledge. Not too long ago, there was no script, and there was no way to critically assess any knowledge. Societies were heavily reliant on old members of the community, who would recite poems and songs to transmit the limited wisdom of the community. Such limited wisdom could never be questioned or substantially modified, because it would risk being forgotten. Script changed all that. It first made bookkeeping and the settling of debts possible. Then it made chronicles and histories possible. No more reliance on old people’s memory. Then people, who were interested in philosophical ideas, were also able to formulate their ideas (on the difference between oral and literate societies, see Ong 1982; Havelock 1988). But creating script and teaching a few priests how to read and write is no panacea. Public administration and philosophy had now been made possible with script, but most people simply could not read. Illiterate people are masses that are easily controlled.

The next innovation was book printing, which is what really destroyed church authority in Europe. The classic story prioritizes on Martin Luther’s challenge to Catholic authority, and his 95 theses, which he placed on the church door in Wittenberg. But his ideas would not have been able to be spread widely without print. The printing press had just been developed by Johannes Gutenberg (who was ironically bankrupted because he borrowed so much money to create his Gutenberg Bible and could not repay his debt). Book print allowed Luther to spread his message across the continent. The popularity of the Protestant idea is what offered him the political protection against papal assassins, who would not have minded to kill him otherwise.

School instruction was the next great frontier of innovation. It relied heavily on the capitalist requirement for educated workers, who could follow instructions, and the desire to give peasants and workers a chance to participate in society. As more people are educated, credential inflation started to happen, where more and more people get an education without receiving much validation in the labor market (Collins 2011). Initially, only very few people imagined they would complete more education than secondary school. But the post-World War II expansion of higher education to the masses, once again helped in the spread of knowledge to people in the previously less educated classes.

The most recent frontier has been the computer and the internet, where all kinds of information can be easily transmitted online and does not require physical paper or book copies. It is very easily possible to write multiple hundreds of thousands of pages of writing without absorbing more than a few megabite on the server. A lot of information is easily accessible on the web, and it would be hard to imagine what one would do without Wikipedia.

Now what has the spread of knowledge got to do with academic specialization? If knowledge spreads, then more knowledge gets created, but because we only have a limited amount of time in each individual lifetime, we have to block out most of the knowledge that exists in the world, and instead concentrate on the knowledge that we are interested in. We specialize. When we think back to our primary and secondary school days, we remember how the teachers are trying to cram so much knowledge into us. Reconsidering it we notice that the teachers were only scratching the surface and merely picked the canonical texts and the canonical knowledge for teaching. Individual humans only have a limited capacity to receive information. Even the smartest academics now have to admit that they only have a rather limited knowledge about the world, let alone their own subject. In a more ignorant time, we would praise Aristotle and Confucius as the wise men of the world, who could just about tackle any subject that they came across. Even if we need to laugh today at their simplistic insights, we have to recognize that they did not have many peers in their era who could criticize them.

But today, there are many academics and there are many scholars out there, who are spending most of their waking life on pursuing research. But does the proliferation of academic texts really produce qualitatively greater insights than what the scholars in the old days were capable of producing? Not necessarily. One thing that is for sure is that as academia became institutionalized, and the job market became much more competitive, the requirement for multiple publications in a short span of time has massively increased. This is what is referred to as “publish or perish” academic environment. This is felt most acutely among young academics today, who are trained in these major graduate schools so they can put out a publishable paper after their second year in the PhD program, another 2 or 3 papers by the time they finish their PhD (maybe chapters from their dissertation), 3 more during their postdoc, and then 6 more as assistant professor before they come up for tenure review.

Whenever quantitative requirements take overhand, research results suffer. Why might that be the case? Think of the frequency of sex example: if couples were told to double the frequency of sex, their happiness and satisfaction decreased. Sex may be something great, but only if it happens at the frequency that is desired by that couple. Research is also great, but forcing academics to push out so many papers in so little time, makes the researchers less careful about their research content, and more careful about what can get published. It makes it more difficult for young researchers to walk along the research path, which they are truly passionate about.

Now let us briefly consider the factors which contribute to the predicament where young researchers are very exclusively focused on methods:

  1. Measureable impact factor on journals
  2. PhD glut
  3. Fewer tenure-track positions among professors
  4. Reliance on outside funding
  5. Young researcher’s inexperience with methods makes them focus more on methods
  6. Path dependence and changing norms about good research

Parallel to the rising publication pressure is the fact that there are only a limited amount of top journals in a given field, such that most academics are only inclined to publish their papers in a few very reputable, ‘high-impact’ journals. Given that Google Scholar and other online profiles make it easily possible to track citations, there is much less ambiguity about what a high impact factor is. I have heard of an anecdote of one assistant professor, who almost had his career ruined because he refused to submit the dozen or so working papers that he had ready to submit to secondary journals, because he insisted on having them published in the top journals that had rejected his drafts in peer review.

There is an explosion in submissions, which results from the scarcity of high impact factor journals, the easy identification of such, and the glut of academic PhDs eager to have their research recognized somewhere (the glut itself being a reflection of the lack of availability of tenure-track positions). This explosion then induces editors and reviewers to increase the criteria requirements on the articles (often using young academics as reviewers, who are obsessed about methodology- more below). Now you have so-called “sloppily” researched papers thrown out during peer review. That should be good, right? Because reputable journals should only publish reputable papers. No, because a rejection of a powerful finding with unpopular methodology (which is by itself not bad) makes young researchers pay more attention to ‘proper’ methodology rather than pursue their research interests and their findings. (Older researchers already have tenure and feel less stress publishing in top journals. They also have a lot of experience in what it takes to get it published.)

Donors (governments and private foundations) also create the expectation to produce findings that have some relevance to them and to larger society. To the extent that the corporatization of higher education makes professors more reliant on outside sources of funding, these outside donors’ wishes naturally shape the path of research, and the kinds of questions and methods, which researchers are using.

Whether it were the fascists or the communists, each authoritarian government knew that they could assert the greatest political control over the country when it controlled the hearts and minds of young people, because they are the most easily influenced demographic. They have very few preconceived notions about society, and it is the easiest to indoctrinate them in any desired ideology. The same logic applies to researchers. Even though, researchers and scholars belong to the higher echelon of society, they are not all intellectuals, who can easily deconstruct propaganda. A young undergraduate student, who enters a PhD program with little knowledge about the esoteric language of senior academics, has almost no preconceived notions of what is “proper” research. He or she relies on the “wisdom” of his older peers to tell that person what “proper” research is.

In today’s PhD programs, there not only is an increased pressure toward publication (resulting from the PhD glut and lack of tenure-track positions), but also an increasing emphasis on methods, so young researchers often internalize what is being expected of them, which is to adhere to research guidelines. Their lack of experience makes them adhere more strictly to proper methods than is the case for older researchers. When these young researchers go on to peer-review articles, their trained technician eyes scrutinize the methodology rather than reflect on the insightfulness of the finding. Young, methodology-driven researchers taking on editorships and peer-reviews create a massive change in norms and a path dependency against which only old faculty with tenure seem to be immune to. This process within the social sciences has been the worst in economics, where historical and political-based researchers have long stopped publishing with the mainstream economics journals, but it starts affecting political science and sociology journals as well.

I don’t want to make the argument that researchers today are no longer able to pursue their own research agenda. But the formalization of academics and the heavy emphasis on methodology substantially reduces the original joy of being a researcher. This joy is comparable to being a wanderer at night on the street, who is amazed by the formation of the stars, and why they are arranged in such order and not in any other way. I am also not making the argument that methodology does not matter in scientific research, because any finding relies on some kind of method. But the method should be flexibly chosen and needs to appear sound, and should then be tried without fear and get published somewhere.

I need to make a note of the difference between older and younger academics. What is interesting to note is that formerly academics who were still training in graduate schools received much less training in methods. That is partly because methods were not so sophisticated in the past, and so there were not so many fancy methods that needed to be taught to students. But the job market was more relaxed, when a limited number of people trained in a PhD program, and the expansion of postsecondary enrolment implied that there would be an increasing demand for college professors. So it was easily possible to land a tenure track job without a single publication fresh after submitting the dissertation. A few publications were also sufficient to land tenure, and then life was generally much more relaxed.

As an undergraduate and now graduate student, I have noticed that it was not only more fun to talk with older, more experienced faculty, but they were also better to work with than younger faculty, who are much more steeped in developing, using and critiquing methodology (for the reasons mentioned above). With older faculty, you would walk into their office, and waste half an hour on small talk, which is linked with what one has read in the newspaper, or reporting on interesting bits of research findings. Then the second half of the conversation would revolve around one’s research project, and they would give very helpful advice about what books to read and which people to talk to. As they are older, they generally have developed an extensive network, which are useful as interview subject for social scientists. They also tend to be rather agnostic about the methodology as long as it sounds sound, while they are very curious about one’s findings. Contrast that with younger faculty members, who don’t hide their rushed appearance, their need to spend time on doing their research and publishing their own work, and their meticulous attention to methodology. They spend much less time talking about findings and implications, and are much more concerned to talk about things that one can do to increase the likelihood of having the paper published in a journal.

This behavior is not surprising given that they need these publications for their own career success. But to the extent that their emphasis is so methodology-heavy, they are more technicians rather than academics or intellectuals which they thought they would be when they entered the academic profession. Talking with many younger faculty is like going to the dentist, and having your teeth fixed. It is a formality which needs to be done rather than an intellectual journey that can be enjoyed. “Don’t forget to brush your teeth properly”, then becomes indistinguishable from, “Don’t forget to include this variable in your regression.” Like a hamster in a wheel, the proletarianization of the academic class is getting completed.

Let me list a few examples: I went to a young professor and then an old professor to ask them for a research job. It was the old professor who gave me the job, not only because we talked about all sorts of things (research, politics, history, education etc.), but also because he did not care about my methodological background. He was a fairly qualitative researcher, who was interested in what happened in the world, and was happy to let me do literature reviews which he did not want to do himself. He was quite perceptive, and genuinely curious. The job interview was more like talking to an old friend. And I never ever got a job so effortlessly again. The young faculty member, however, treated it like a real job interview, and asked me about my knowledge of Stata. Of course, I did not do any statistics in the past and said so. He replied to me that once I had acquired some statistical and software knowledge I should come back to him to ask for the job again. That was it for me then. It was only the method which mattered, not my persona and not my interests. And that was not the only example.

The other example is the difference between two classes that I have taken here, one of them was taught by a young professor (in his mid-30s) and another by an old professor (in his 60s). During the last class, the young professor discussed possible exam questions, and what the things are that we should add into our writing to get a distinction on our diploma. He was teaching us the formal methods to receive a grade, and the content of what we had learned in class was totally secondary to achieving the grade. In the last class with the old professor, he did not even talk about the exam. He had placed his entire focus on asking insightful questions about his research subject, sharing anecdotes of encounters he had with other people, and inviting students to make their own observations of the world. He was clearly only interested in the content and the findings in his subject, and not about formal requirements to steer student behaviour. The old professor pursued the intellectual principle of projecting with confidence his fascination about his subject, and then expecting that a few people pick up the knowledge and become inspired. This is knowledge as pollen. Even if he inspired a few people to research in his area, his teaching would have been a resounding success, while the young professor, who wanted us to do well in the exams, can expect nothing more out of his students than to perform well on the exam, and then hopefully forget as much as possible after they completed the exam.

With the older faculty, I would talk about God and the world. With the younger faculty, I could only communicate on the level of methodology. Also it was interesting that the older faculty were much more relaxed about the broad range of research interests, while the younger faculty preferred a rather narrow research focus and being an expert in only one area. No polymath, no bon vivant for the young scholars.

I will end on some solutions for this hamster-in-the-wheel predicament of the academic class:

  1. Found more journals
  2. Increase higher education funding
  3. Grant more tenures

The major underlying factor for the changing norms in academia is the lack of resources. Methodological sophistication has to shift upward, because we are facing a scarcity of high-impact journals, a scarcity of higher education funding, and a scarcity of tenures (being the flipside of the PhD glut). The best way to reduce the anxiety among young academics in the academic labor market is to remove the conditions of scarcity. Scarcity is the single factor, which makes lives for many people very miserable. While I sit very comfortably in the library and in a computer room and dwell on my thoughts without having to worry about a stable supply of electricity, food and other relevant inputs, the homeless people on the streets, who lack all of these things, could not care less about the academic predicament that I have described above. In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the homeless people are located so low in the hierarchy that they cannot begin to appreciate the more complex challenges in the world. If you did surveys of what people of different socio-economic classes are interested in or concerned about, you will find that working class people are more interested in bread and butter issues (wages, benefits, social spending), while middle class people are more concerned about broader concerns (environment, health, lifestyle, women’s rights etc.).

Returning back to the academic context, we have to imagine the impact of increasing the availability of resources in higher education (which would also result in more tenure and more journals if these resources are well managed) on the current methodological obsession. For a start, the plentiful availability of tenure-track positions would immediately downgrade the requirement to publish at a highly-ranked (high ‘impact-factor’) journal. The point of publishing a paper with a highly ranked journal is not vanity, but the desire to land a tenure-track position. But if these positions become easily available there also is no need to publish at journals with high methodological threshold criteria. By massively increasing the supply of journals, there will be a market niche for only lightly reviewed journals. Of course, any academic journal will have minimum standards (e.g. length, grammar or formatting requirements), but the methodological requirement will be sharply reduced on average. With that we might also see more interesting research findings and topics.

More tenures and less restrictions on journal publications is certainly good for professors, but is that good for the quality of the research output? We cannot know for sure, but it cannot be much worse than today, when overt methodological focus and permanent publication pressure produce plenty of poor research papers, which do not have exciting findings, because of the pre-set constraints on what is a ‘publishable’ paper. ‘Be fruitful and multiply’ might, in fact, be a strategy that will increase the quality of research, because novel ideas that do not get vetted can then be read by other researchers, who can then push the knowledge frontier even further. If Hegel, Marx or Kant had to submit their writings to journals, they would have been torn to shreds by peer review. But the fact that we are still using their ideas, they were among the greatest thinkers of all times. Every intellectual still owes a great debt toward them. In today’s academic environment, it is hard to come up with great thinkers of such kind.

As more papers get published, logically there will also be more rubbish that gets published. But the rubbish does not compete with the high-quality material, and should be of no concern to good researchers, who produce good findings (because the total number of journals is not capped). The pond should be large enough to feed everybody. Academic stratification will not be dissolved for the same reason that other human organizations do not lose their stratification. Academics of like-mind will get together and set their own standards of research, and have their fellow researchers publish within that journal. So the higher-ranked journals where most scientists continue to congregate will still exist. We will just have made lives easier for more academics.

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2 Responses to The Discontents of Modern Academic Life

  1. Pingback: Why the Grading and Examination System Is Harmful for Students | Mr Liu's Opinions

  2. Pingback: On Priests and Jesters | Mr Liu's Opinions

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