The Reading Room at the British Museum

Recently read… (24 Feb – 2 Mar)

This week’s collection of stories, articles and posts invites you to reflect on the limits of academic freedom; suggests effective ways to deliver criticism; discusses how blogs can help or hinder a job search; problematises issues of control in higher education; and asks whether it is possible to publish too much…

The Reading Room at the British Museum
© ceridwen CC BY-SA  Source:

Are there limits to academic freedom?

I am sure most readers of this blog will agree that academic freedom is the cornerstone of the scholarship, and I have repeatedly made the point that it needs to be safeguarded in the face of especially in the face of societal pressures to conform. In this blog post,  Ferdinand von Prondzynski (Principal and Vice-Chancellor of Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen), discusses whether this principle can be extended to the right to offend. Here’s how he describes what prompted this post:

Every so often some academic will […] make it harder for the rest of us to stay true to our principles. […] This year it’s a professor from Loyola University in New Orleans. Professor Walter Bock, a libertarian economist and (for those who may understand the significance of the name) a member of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, delivered himself of various comments not exactly in tune with modern principles of equality and diversity. Slavery, he suggested, was flawed because a slave’s status was not voluntary, but ‘otherwise … wasn’t so bad’. He also declared that shops should be allowed to refuse to serve black customers because ‘no one is compelled to associate with people against their will.’

How to provide fair comment

Whether providing feedback to a student’s work, or examining a PhD, or engaging in peer-review, academics are regularly asked to comment on other people’s ideas. Considering how integral this aspect is to our work, it is perhaps surprising how carelessly or insensitively it is done. Patrick Dunleavy’s post, Fair Comment in Academiacontains a useful list of guidelines, which I invite you to read in their original context. I will limit myself to copying some advice which I wish I could follow more often:

Dennett concludes: ‘It is worth reminding yourself that a heroic attempt to find a defensible interpretation of an author, if it comes up empty, can be even more devastating than an angry hatchet job. I recommend it’.

Read more: If you are new to peer-review, here are some pointers.

Blogs and the job search

The status of blogging as a legitimate academic enterprise is still debatable, and probably even more contentious in the context of academics looking for a job. In a post titled Should You Mention Your Blog in Your Job Application? Karen Kelsy asks readers to consider the style, content and context of their blogs, and provides tips on how to discuss them in the job application documents. Here’s one of the points she brings up:

Are you engaging with themes and topics of the discipline in a substantive way? Many people use blogs to vent and rant. That is a valuable function, and it’s one I endorse. However, rants don’t really serve you well in your job search. You can absolutely be critical, but check that your tone and approach are thoughtful and constructive. This includes the comment threads.

Read more: Here’s some advice for setting up an academic blog, a discussion of the impact a blog can create, and some reminders to be cautious.

Worker control and the university

Concerns about high tuition fees, zero-hours contracts, the decline of tenure and neo-liberal measures of accountability are common in discourse about Higher Education. Less common, perhaps, is a theoretical account that attempts to explain all these aspects of modern academia, relate them to the society at large, and provide a sense of historicity. Noam Chomsky’s essay How America’s Great University System Is Getting Destroyed is a good example of how to bring all these together in a coherent narrative. Here are some extracts that give a glimpse of what Chomsky has to say:

The university is probably the social institution in our society that comes closest to democratic worker control. Within a department, for example, it’s pretty normal for at least the tenured faculty to be able to determine a substantial amount of what their work is like: what they’re going to teach, when they’re going to teach, what the curriculum will be. And most of the decisions about the actual work that the faculty is doing are pretty much under tenured faculty control. […]  There are more and more professional administrators, layer after layer of them, with more and more positions being taken remote from the faculty controls. […]  There are more and more professional administrators, layer after layer of them, with more and more positions being taken remote from the faculty controls. […] The idea is to transfer instruction to precarious workers, which improves discipline and control but also enables the transfer of funds to other purposes apart from education.

Is it possible to publish too much?

Yesterday, I wrote about the effects of the pressure to publish, which has to concerns about research quality. Shortly after posting that blog post, I came across a story about an academic who is credited with 2,215 publications since 1953 (or one paper every ten days over sixty-one years). If you are wondering how that might be possible, here are some explanations:

First is group size. If you have 36 subordinates, each publishing one first author paper a year […], you easily get a paper every ten days. […] Second is collaborations. If you’re highly collaborative, other groups could be doing the bulk of the work and writing, while you contribute a section related to your expertise, but which still is enough to warrant a co-authorship. […] Finally is courtesy authorship. They’re increasingly frowned upon these days, but especially in the past there were people who got co-authorship simply for providing materials or being the department chair.

Read more: For a discussion of the effects of the ‘publish or perish’ mentality, you may want to read what Jean Colpaert has to say.

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