Wednesday, May 7, 2014

An ongoing conversation on the relevance of the academe!

As the world experiences dramatic inequalities, an increasing burden of these inequalities are being transferred to the youth.

Employment and access to a basic standard of living have emerged as vital concerns among students.

Add to this the large amounts of student debts in countries such as the US that students have to take out in order to simply afford the exorbitant tuition fees, large parts of which go toward supporting large administrative structures and other parts go toward large unsustainable departments.

The student loans often come with interest rates that add up to substantive amounts of debts that students have to pay up once they graduate.

Naturally for the students and their parents, employment remains a major concern. Am I going to find a job? What I am going to do with this degree? how does this degree help me?

As a Professor of Communication, I find these questions to be excellent. Indeed, students should be asking these questions. How are we preparing them through our pedagogy for the world in which they are going to need to make a living?

Unfortunately, for academic disciplines that have been long entrenched in university structures that are not used to being accountable, the growing sentiment among students creates resentment.

I have seen large proportions of my colleagues either live in anguish at the prospects of having to justify their existence or vent in frustration now that they are being asked to translate for parents the relevance of the education in the particular field. You see, part of the traditional structures of power enjoyed by universities has been shaken up by students, parents, and communities wanting accountability.

Part of the reluctance in academe to this shift in the traditional university-community relationship perhaps connects with the walls that have safe guarded the ivory tower image of academe over the years. These walls are often put up in the name of rigour, to enable supposed teaching and research on high theory, and yet in many instances, contribute to the perceived irrelevance of the particular discipline. This then is just as much a problem of what we teach as it is a problem of the research we do.

To the extent that disciplines truly remain nonchalant about the ongoing social, cultural, political-economic phenomena that emerge everyday outside of the safe spaces of academe, the perception of irrelevance is somewhat correct. Parents, students, communities are indeed right to state that academics don't care because this becomes the prevalent attitude.

We don't ask questions such as, "Does my work have impact? Does it make a difference?" What is the value of the next academic piece I write on sources of health information? How does it add to not just the existing body of knowledge, but the ways in which things are done in the world?

More importantly, what is the value of the work I do?

For the social sciences particularly, this then relates to the problem of external validity. To the extent that one does not care about the relevance of theories developed in academe to practical problems of the world, theories suffer from poor external validity. They are not tested in the context of the world we live in.

In the extreme of such examples in the social sciences, you have study after study tested on student samples that get published in the top field journals.

You have for instance studies on social support that are published on the basis of role playing scenarios given out to convenient samples of student participants. Once again, challenging these existing ways of doing things is not easy because they also mean we fundamentally reconsider what it means to do the research we do.

Both for theory and research, stepping out of the ivory tower then is the first step toward finding and sustaining relevance.

For many arcane disciplines used to arcane ways of doing scholarship, this is not easy.

Yet, our times demand this from our disciplines. Gone are the days when departments with small numbers of students, conducting work of little relevance to communities could continue to justify their large unsustainable size (with large faculty numbers) by appealing to some elite non-transparent logic of superiority/standard. Increasingly, there are demands for making transparent the metrics of quality in ways that these metrics are accessible to everyday people. After all, for universities that are funded by the people, this is natural. That I would need to justify the findings from my grant to the taxpayer is a given. The challenge then for me it to work on dissemination, in writing up the findings of my studies in ways that are accessible not only to policymakers but also to taxpayers. And all of this is a lot of extra work to what we are used to doing.

The natural response of course then for the mediocre or the lazy academic is to use some kind of elitist language of high theory to justify the lack of transparency and accountability.

Ultimately, the test of the value of the research and the teaching we do lies in the relevance of this work to our communities, to parents, and more importantly, to our students.

I believe there is much room to do this well and in creative ways without pandering to the least common denominator logic of a massified market.

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