Sunday, February 27, 2011

Academic Cliché Watch Volume 4: Admitting Defeat

I had a very dispiriting exchange recently on one of the mailing lists I subscribe to.  The main topic at issue was the accessibility of research online and/or through illegal means.  The two separate issues got a little blurred, but my position basically was that it is our job as academics to work for the good of all, and that making our work available as widely as possible was part of our role in society.  Separately from the issue of the survival of institutions such as journals (which I agree are very important), several other discussants took the position that academic research shouldn’t be widely available because it might be subject to misinterpretation or misuse.

This is a position that I’ve seen surface before in the reticence to publicity of a lot of graduate students I studied with.  I always supposed this was simply a lack of confidence that people would grow out of.  Imagine my surprise to find that, quite to the contrary, it is a fear that only becomes formalized and rationalized as individuals of a certain type progress through the academy.

One of the responses was borderline offensive, equating the work of academics with that of the research subjects who we interact with, as deserving of careful protection as the cultural practices of isolated primitive tribesmen.  This is a complete abdication of the responsibility of representation that is inherent to the role of the academy.  It is our job, quite literally, to frame the world carefully and knowledgably for those who want to learn about it.  Saying that the public is somehow ‘unprepared’ for our work reminds me of nothing so much as those who complain that their students aren’t smart enough for what is being taught.  You’ve got it backwards.  It is not the job of your audience to interpret your work in the way you intended – it is your job to make your intention clear and accessible to your audience.

I received a response to this sentiment that dug even further into the depths of blinkeredness.  Essentially it boiled down to: “Yes, it would be great if we could all write material that represented our subjects responsibly, but we don’t live in a utopia like that, so I’m going to continue arguing for limited access to academic work.”  I find this absolutely stomach-turning, as it boils down, not to an admission of defeat, but a desire to eliminate the possibility of failure by getting rid of any condition for success.  “We are imperfect and therefore should not strive to work up to a standard that will withstand scrutiny.”  What this boils down to is professional irresponsibility.

Obviously, the audience for academic work is not often going to be a broadly-defined “general public,” and not all researchers have the skills as writers to push their agenda along those channels.  But consciously talking only to those within the academy is the height of ridiculous self-defeat - the world is full of thoughtful and inquisitive people, often in better positions to make practical use of researchers' insights than other researchers will ever be. We have to be willing to let our work into the world, realizing that it is subject to misinterpretation or misuse, but working to the limit of our various powers to limit that risk.  Anything less is simply cowardice.

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