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The Inanity of Academic Publishing

From Verena Hutter and Karen Kelsey:

I have made it clear how I feel about book chapters in edited volumes or editing volumes (read chapter 16 in the book, and don’t publish in edited volumes, and don’t EDIT VOLUMES, until you are tenured). If my advice has come too late, and you have no other publications, it’s fine to mention the book chapter in your publication para, but don’t try to pass it off as an article. Some edited volumes are in fact peer-reviewed, but your contribution is still not an article.

It drives me nuts that edited volumes are given so little prestige compared to journal articles. There is a general position in academia that book chapters are not rigorously reviewed as compared to journal articles but, really, this has more to do with the publishing outlet than anything else. I’ve published with some journals where the review has been a joke and vice versa. The same is true of edited volumes.

But what bothers me even more about the focus on journal publications over edited volumes is that academics are encouraged to publish places where only the wealthy universities can afford to access/read what is written. I was given advice as a very junior scholar that almost no one in government will read academic journal publications because they can’t justify the per-article cost, whereas departmental and government libraries can justify purchasing books.

If you want to make a public policy impact, or want to generally have your work theoretically more available, then publishing in books (or putting pre-pubs in public repositories like SSRN) is a must. But academics are disincentivized from such practices: they’re punished for trying to actually expand the numbers of people who could read and use the work. So while they’re actively glorifying knowledge production they’re simultaneously hindering the dissemination of what is produced.

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George Yancy: I Am a Dangerous Academic

It is deeply concerning that faculty in American universities are being ‘put on notice’ even before the President-Elect takes office. The solution is to stand with them and speak, and argue, and fight against efforts to silence such academics regardless of whether we individually agree with the targeted academics’ respective philosophical or political leanings. The goal of the academy is to further thinking and thoughtful analyses rather than collectively advocate for any particular political leaning.

In Yancy’s defense of himself, the academy, and philosophy itself he succinctly explains the value and importance of a philosophically-influenced education:

To be “philosophically adjusted” is to belie what I see as one major aim of philosophy — to speak to the multiple ways in which we suffer, to be a voice through which suffering might speak and be heard, and to offer a gift to my students that will leave them maladjusted and profoundly unhappy with the world as it is. Bringing them to that state is what I call doing “high stakes philosophy.” It is a form of practicing philosophy that refuses to ignore the horrible realities of people who suffer and that rejects ideal theory, which functions to obfuscate such realities. It is a form of philosophizing that refuses to be seduced by what Friedrich Nietzsche called “conceptual mummies.” Nietzsche notes that for many philosophers, “nothing actual has escaped from their hands alive.”

In my courses, which the watchlist would like to flag as “un-American” and as “leftist propaganda,” I refuse to entertain my students with mummified ideas and abstract forms of philosophical self-stimulation. What leaves their hands is always philosophically alive, vibrant and filled with urgency. I want them to engage in the process of freeing ideas, freeing their philosophical imaginations. I want them to lose sleep over the pain and suffering of so many lives that many of us deem disposable. I want them to become conceptually unhinged, to leave my classes discontented and maladjusted.

Philosophy, like the Arts and Social Sciences more generally, ought to leave students upset. Confused. And disturbed. Not for the purpose of causing harm but to generate an unrootedness; as students re-plant their roots following a period of unrootedness they may return to the same political and philosophical positions as before but with stronger rationales that are girded in a deeper ethical and normative appreciation of reality. But maybe they subtly, or significantly, shift in their understandings of the world and their ethical commitments within it. In either situation the student has changed by broadening and deepening their ability to consider the different aspects involved in holding their respective positions. And that’s absolutely fine to my mind.

The goal of philosophically-influenced education isn’t to force a reversal in view, belief, or understanding but to compel students to better consider why they hold the positions they do and better appreciate those positions’ implications. The very act of reflecting upon oneself invokes the opportunity for change, but to prompt such change the academy (and its students) need to support and protect those who prompt such uneasiness in students. Silencing such academics-of-change thus constitutes a directed threat to an essential aspect of what the University is meant to provide to society.

The Only Thing Worse Than Getting a Ph.D. in Today’s Academic Job Market

The Only Thing Worse Than Getting a Ph.D. in Today’s Academic Job Market:

Dissertations—some 250 pages of original research in the humanities, and topping 400 in the social sciences—are objectively, indisputably difficult. It sometimes takes years just to collect data or comb through the necessary archives, and then the damn thing must be written, often in total isolation. Dissertations are not impossible, but they are very hard, and most people in the world—including, perhaps, you, my friend—cannot complete one.

… there are the inner hindrances, the ones that cause procrastination, and then shame, and then paralysis. Here’s my favorite: believing, erroneously, that one must read and master every single word of existing scholarship before even beginning to write. Here’s my least favorite (which happens to my clients all the time): refusing to turn in any chapter that isn’t perfect, and thus not turning in anything at all—which results in the adviser getting irate, which puts even more pressure on the student to be even more perfect, ad infinitum. This is how dissertations are stalled, often forever.

So what can be done to fix this? The Izzy Mandelbaums of academia may argue the system is fine the way it is: In a field that requires extended independent work to succeed, the trial by fire of the dissertation is an apt initiation. (“All aboard the pain train!”) But does it have to be this way? I see no reason why, for example, more dissertation advisers couldn’t be enthusiastic about seeing early drafts, to provide guidance and support. Some already do this (mine did), but far too many of my clients say their advisers won’t even look at anything that isn’t “polished.” Every adviser who says this is part of the problem.

Another step in the right direction would be not just to hold dissertation workshops, but also to make them mandatory. A lot of grad students are simply too paralyzed (or ashamed to admit they don’t know what they’re doing) to attend one of their own volition. A mandatory workshop frees them to get the help they need, without having to admit they need help.

The belief that someone has ’failed if they do not complete their doctoral degree is absolutely frustrating and absurd; I’ve seen brilliant people leave not because they couldn’t write, not because they couldn’t publish, but because there were bureaucratic hoops they were emotionally ill-suited to handle. And instead of working with them – people who could have easily been the next leaders of their respective fields, and who were already emerging as such as doctoral students – they were instead cast aside. This is pre-defence of comprehensive exams, pre-defence of dissertation proposal, and thus way before the defence (or writing of) their dissertation itself.

For those ‘stuck’ at the dissertating point, I think that having regular (ideally weekly) meetups is incredibly helpful for successful completion, second in value only to regular (ideally bi-weekly) meetings with one’s supervisor. I was blessed to have an outstanding advisor who was willing to read early-draft work and provide valuable feedback, with most feedback returned in 2 weeks or so of me giving it to him. He shared with me thoughts and guidance, as well as tactics for moving forward. Sometimes I didn’t understand why he wanted what he wanted, to the point where it sometimes took years for me to implement the changes. Not because I didn’t want to, not because I wasn’t willing to (somewhat) blindly accept his proposed revisions, but because I wasn’t at a stage to understand what he was even proposing. Only by having regular, ongoing, contact with both dissertating peers and one’s supervisor does such nuance and advice become tangible and real in my experience.

The other helpful thing about regular peer-based meetings is you can set weekly goals, monthly goals, and semester-length goals. And you just chip away at them, every week. Ideally the group has at least one person who can drive a meeting so it’s quick and efficient and often asks pain-in-the-ass questions (e.g. It’s great that you’re working on that conference paper, but can you state how it fits with the dissertation, and what working on that paper will do over the next week/month/term in terms of advancing the dissertation)? In my experience, when I ran such meetings, they would take the following format:

  • meet at coffee shop, order coffee (5–10 minutes)
  • go around the table, reminding the group what each person committed to accomplishing and then asking whether each member met their goals (5–10 minutes)
  • go back around the table, getting members to commit to next week’s/month’s goals (5–10 minutes)
  • meeting adjourned
  • Total time: 15–30 minutes

Our meetings typically had been 4–7 people and, for those who attended and committed regularly, worked out well. We also had a deal where if you failed to accomplish any of your weekly goalsyou bought someone a coffee next week. It was a very small, but useful, measure to ensure that each person accomplished at least one of their goals set the prior week. And, if they failed, to have some ‘pain’ associated with that failure.

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The lack of teaching skills means we are supporting institutions that not only don’t do what we idealize them to do, they don’t value and professionalize the things that we expect them to do well. In fact, we have gone to extremes to prevent the job of university teaching from becoming a profession. The most obvious example is hiring adjunct professors. These are people who are hired for about the same wage as a fast food server, and are expected to teach physics or philosophy to 18 year olds. They don’t get benefits or even long-term contracts. So, in effect, they never get the chance to develop into highly skilled teaching professionals. Instead, they spend most of their time worrying about heating bills and whether they can afford to go to the doctor.

Now, of course, universities will argue that they are research organizations. And that is true. Universities do value research over teaching. Meaning that tenured and tenure-track professors, even if they love teaching, cannot prioritize it, because their administration requires them to be good researchers. Indeed, if you admit that you are a middling to average researcher and want to focus on teaching, you become viewed a burden by your department.

Yet, for the great majority of people, their only interaction with a university is through the people doing the teaching. It’s as if a major corporation, say General Motors, decided that their public face would not be their most visible product—hello Chevy Volt—and instead decides to place the janitorial service front and center. Then, just to top it off, decided not to train the janitors.