academia, grammar, and getting things done

by Hugh

I’ve had a few verbal (written or out loud) jousting matches with a number of academicy people of late. Curiously, all the debates were with women doing interesting things, mostly with an academic background: data liberationist, and GeoGal Tracey and I had a discussion about theory and practice as it relates to rethinking how politics happens. You can see most of that conversation over at the old dose. Web maestra and Atwater Media Centrist Miriam and I had a long debate about lists of people doing things on the web, and women, and technology, and various things like that. We’d previously had a more drunken exchange about the relative merits “meritocracies” and … well I’m not sure what the alternatives are, but maybe “fair-ocracies” or something. I’m all for meritocracies, as long as you define merit in interesting ways. Then I got into a heated exchange with mcluhan scholar, netizen and new media pioneer Liss Jeffery, about… well I can’t quite remember what, but it was interesting. It was partly about podcasting as one-way (rather than two-way) media (which I disagree with); and partly about open projects and getting things done. We’d crossed paths on the civicaccess mailing list, and Dr. J told me she thought I was a “60-year-old schoolmarm.” Which I am not. I am, however, a keen believer in anarchy with an iron fist, otherwise, in my opinion, things just don’t get done. But we had a spirited exchange about my apparently heavy-handed approach to things in civicaccess. I wasn’t conscious of being so … agressive … but looking back I can see why it might have seemed so. I’m keen to find out how civicaccess can be made into something more than a mailing list, and to date it’s been hard to marshall troops in any one direction. Which is frustrating. But we seem to be converging, with the instigation of Stephane on one small project, which is a good start. Finally, Charlotte and I had a conversation about clarity and linguistics.

Anyway, why the post?

Well I’m not quite sure what I’m getting at. I think part of why I got in all these fights (nice fights, but fights) is my distrust of academic language, and academic approaches to things. I think that academics are by definition removed from the real life of things. The institution of the university promotes something quite different from the rest of life: one is encouraged to think, to write, and to invent theories, much of it geared towards academics and students, much of it self-reflexive, and much of it totally removed from citizens. And nothing has to work in practice. It makes me angry when I read obtuse academic language when it is discussing life out here. And it makes me angry when I hear theories (such as those against meritocracies) which really make no sense if you are interested in actually getting things done. Academia is cloistered and removed, by design, and that has some good parts, but other dangerous sides to it. Or rather, an academic approach is not necessarily a good one, if your objective is to get things done with many people.

By the way this is not a reactionary critique of academia, but a progressive one. I admire much of the intention behind academia, but it seems to me a system where publishing in specialist journals is the main criterion for advancement encourages everything but hands on engagement in the real world. Which is fine, but limits academia’s usefulness. It limits academia’s ability to change society and solve problems (tho maybe that’s not their role?).

And also, by the way, this is in no way a critique of any of these women or the work they do – I just find it interesting that I butted heads so frequently over the past couple of months, often around the same issues of language and approaches to solving problems.