What Happened to our Academic Culture?

Universities – along with their centers, departments, and colleges – vary greatly in the vibrancy of their respective academic culture (intellectual climate). Nevertheless, no university can be complacent about the vitality of their culture for academic excellence – least they lose it.

Of course, there is no single academic culture. There are differences in the values, attitudes, and priorities of academics cross-culturally and at teaching versus research institutions, for example, but some of the same questions are relevant: Are the faculty and students engaged with each other over important issues and questions in their fields? Are they open to new ideas, but also are they actively scouting for new ideas in areas close and far from their primary areas of study or research? Do colleagues exhibit a healthy analytical skepticism – questioning the validity of assumptions and arguments, regardless of their prominence among their colleagues or their field as a whole?

Arguably, if you feel that you need to build an academic culture at your institution, you might have already lost it. But in many respects, even institutions with a strong academic culture need to continue building on their success, and not taking it for granted. There are too many pressures in modern academe across all institutions to ignore the forces that could undermine the openness and engagement of academics.

Competition for Time and Attention

These pressures include a nearly universal sense of increasing time pressures. Traditional images of the academic sitting comfortably reading while smoking a pipe seem increasingly romantic to academics multi-tasking online to handle never ending streams of email, deadlines, reviews, and the pressures to publish. Time to think and write seems to be shrinking for many if not most and not only among early career scholars, but across the range of temporary, fixed term, and tenure-track faculty. With attention appearing to be spread more widely across multiple demands, it is understandably difficult to take the time out to have lunch with a colleague, meet with students, go to a seminar outside your immediate area, listen to a lecture, or even read a book!

Unfortunately, this can lead academics to prioritize their activities in ways that can be counter-productive, such as going only to seminars central one’s areas of research and teaching, if at all. However, it is so often the case that it is in a seminar outside of one’s immediate areas of interest that you can find new ideas, new methodological approaches, and analogies with one’s own research. Many activities that appear unproductive, such as having a relaxed lunch with colleagues, are central to building an academic culture. For example, you learn about developments outside of your normal field of view, or discover how to better explain your own work.

A risk is that a focus on publishing can lead to more of a culture of production than a more genuine academic culture. A production culture could lead to publishing more work, but in a day when virtually anything can get published, this can undermine the quality of the academic process, such as leading us to do more incremental versus more innovative research, in addition to creating an academic treadmill for yourself and your colleagues.

Change in Collaborative Research Practices

A related driving force is a move from the traditional model of the lone scholar to more team oriented research collaboration. There is a degree to which a lone scholar values interaction with colleagues, such as over lunch or through seminars, as a stimulating approach to their own thinking. As academics move more into collaborative teams, often distributed geographically, they are more engaged in communication online and offline with their team, potentially undermining the attraction and value of spending more relaxed time with colleagues that are not closely tied to their work. Of course, the resources available online for collaboration and research generally are enabling individuals to work on their own in more productive ways, but nevertheless, there is arguably more reliance on distributed team research that can supplant more informal collaboration (Dutton and Jeffreys 2010).

Of course, the move to online collaboration and teaching creates more pressures. It might be easier to meet with people at a distance, but this means we meet more often and about more things. Online courses might make life easier for students, but they are harder for teachers to produce, and put more pressures on the time of academics. But as they are a new source of revenue for universities, and a means for increasing the productivity of faculty, these pressures will increase, or create more teams for the delivery of courses, which reshape the collaborative culture of teaching as well as research (Dutton and Loader 2000).

Jobs, Jobs, Jobs: a Focus on Careers versus a Liberal Education

Another pressure is the move of many universities to focus more on ensuring that their graduates get good jobs rather than a liberal education. Decades ago, I was intrigued by arguments that a university should train students for their ultimate job, and not simply their first job. I wasn’t sure if it was right, but it certainly seemed closer to what universities did in trying to provide a liberal education to students on how to do such things as communicate, listen, reason, appreciate new cultures, create new ideas and approaches to old ideas, and challenge conventional thinking. But as more pressure is placed on more universities to train students for their first career if not their first job, the priority of a liberal education diminishes and so do aspects of university life tied to an academic culture. Of course, this focus on a student’s first career is problematic when students are likely to have not just multiple jobs, but multiple careers over the course of their working life.

From the Ivory Tower and into a Political Cockpit

Another pressure worth mentioning is the politicization of education, including universities. In the US, for example, there is a growing disparity of trust in universities across political parties (Geiger 2016). Universities seem to be increasingly lumped into a category of liberal-elite institutions that are out of touch with popular criticism of the status quo. As politics becomes more prevalent and perceived as more partisan in the climate of universities, it is possible that universities might become less open and more self-conscious about expressing viewpoints, such as on politically sensitive issues. Moreover, as competition between industries – which often cuts more deeply than politics – becomes more politicized, such as in the EU and US, then there are even greater political tensions in the Ivory Tower that can undermine free and open inquiry. Already in the USA, it is difficult to get federal funding for policy research, given the partisan concerns that surround funding decisions and research outcomes.

To Build a Culture from Yourself Up

The pressures of the digital age, the economic imperatives to train for jobs, and the growing political visibility of academia might combine to undermine academic cultures across many institutions of higher education. This makes it even more important to constantly think about building the academic culture of your institution. Don’t be defensive – this is a general problem, not just a swipe at your institution, but more of a note to myself.

There are steps you can take. My suggestions are first to start with your own willingness to take the time to engage, participate, and be open to and challenging ideas in areas close to and also far from your primary areas of inquiry. The moment you hear yourself think that you are not interested in a topic, that is the moment you should make an extra effort to engage, hear more, and see what you can learn. An academic culture can’t be driven from the top-down, or required by the instructor. But an academic can teach by example. So make an open, inquisitive, skeptical academic culture your priority, and other good things will happen.

References

Dutton, W. H. and Loader, B. D. (2002) (eds.), Digital Academe: New Media and Institutions in Higher Education and Learning, London: Taylor & Francis/Routledge.

Dutton, W. H., and Jeffreys, P. (2010) (eds), World Wide Research: Reshaping the Sciences and Humanities. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Geiger, A. (2016), From Universities to Churches, Republicans and Democrats Differ in Views of Major Institutions, Factank, September 26th. Available online here.

University Rankings

Years ago, I was always amused by a refrain to the effect that my university – at that time -was one of fifty universities in the top 25 across the USA. I read today in a story about American college basketball that ‘a whopping 42 teams have spent time in the top 25 this year’.* So maybe my old colleagues were right and there has been more parity among the major universities than I thought to be credible. That said, it is far more amusing as I originally understood this refrain.

 

*Nancy Armour, ‘Wide-Open Season Keeps on Bouncing’, USA Today Sports, 2-24-16.