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Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Blindly counting academics’ publications ‘is the road to hell’

Photo: Jenny McDonald
Jenny McDonald, lecturer in higher education at the University of Otago, examines the response to calls for academics who are not highly productive researchers to be given more recognition. 
Photo: Times Higher Education (THE) (blog)

Reading a comment posted in response to an article in Times Higher Education caused me some unpleasant feelings, even while enjoying my Christmas break.

The article by Chris Havergal was reporting on a new study by Angela Brew, David Boud, Karin Crawford and Lisa Lucas, “Absent research: academic artisans in the research university”. The study suggests that academics who are not necessarily high-performing researchers nevertheless play an important role in the functioning of the university.

I had never thought of academics who devote a lot of time and energy to what one might call academic citizenship as artisans but that is a good label for them. People who recognise talent, skill, passion and commitment in others and who use their skill, experience and wisdom to labour, nurture, shape, carve, create…not a functional work of art but something far more extraordinary: people working together towards a shared goal.

The academic trinity of research, teaching and service fails to capture the artisanal trait. The dominant discourse privileges individual research excellence but, it seems to me, marginalises the art, craft, creativity and teamwork required to foster productive academic environments.

So, it was with a heavy heart that I read the comment, posted in response to the article: “This is straw manism… this all seems like an exercise in making non-research ‘academics’ feel better about themselves.”

The full comment is here and you can decide for yourself about the merits of their argument. 

Here are my reflections:
  • I’m not sure just who or what the straw man is in this instance. The study sought to describe and illuminate the role played by “those people who have not developed a recognised or ‘accepted’ research profile for research assessment purposes”. Such people exist – they are not made of straw, nor, on the basis of the study findings, are the roles they play inconsequential. The straw man, if he is there at all, seems to have been raised by the person who posted the comment.
  • There are some fairly compelling reasons to ensure people do feel good about themselves and their role in the workplace. For example, how hard would it be to perform at a high level if you felt undervalued and invisible? Are you likely to operate effectively as part of a team if you feel that what you do is worthless?
  • I assume that the scare quotes around “academics” are intended to emphasise that a non-research academic is an oxymoron. Yet, there do exist teaching-only academic positions in many institutions including my own, so that can’t be right. Or, maybe this is a cunning case of Grice’s conversational implicature and we all just know that non-research academics aren’t real academics.
But, what I found really disturbing was that I could almost hear the closing words from this comment echoed closer to home: “This is the game we’re in, we need to play it (counting publications); stop whinging, start publishing; if you’re not likely to make at least a B in the next Performance-Based Research Fund round your job could be at risk…”

This post originally appeared on Jenny McDonald's blog

Source: Times Higher Education (THE) (blog)

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