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academia, grammar, and getting things done

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.


  1. imo – you’re not heavy handed at all in the civic access space. You have to keep it up or else s__ won’t get done.

  2. Mat Mat 2007-03-07

    I could not agree more. Academia is too often insular, and when it does look outwards it does so in a way that is not particularly useful, at least immediately so, for action in society. It’s frustrating.

    As a corollary, I get frustrated with our society’s incessant focus on academics as the One True training/proving ground for our youth. Increasing numbers of young adults are getting Masters degrees and PhDs. To what end? How is such specialized, incremental knowledge generation ultimately useful for society?

    We need to escape from our narrow perspective and think of new ways to train young people for a world that is no longer even remotely similar to that which our edu-political masters grew up in. How to do so, I guess is the Big Question, and comes back to your comment on action. Always the hardest step, to go from words to results…

  3. Hugh Hugh 2007-03-07

    hey mat,

    i think there’s such an important place for academia – it’s one of the few remaining bastions, supposedly anyway, where thinking is protected from the need for *results.* where commercial or market success are not the prime driver. there needs to be space for just thinking, for just theorizing, because that outter edge is where innovation comes from.

    but i’m not convinced that universities, as they are, are doing the best job of this. but maybe they are the best we have right now. and they should be protected, but they should also be better. more innovative. on the net, for instance, it seems to me unis are far far behind the rest of us working in the space. with their resources, there is so much great stuff they should be doing… and there are bits here and there, but not nearly as much as there shouold be.

    esp with the possibilities of the net (as you suggest) … new tools have changed completely the way we interact with information, and I think we’ll see a radical shift in social mores and the philosophical underpinnings of our world (it’s happening,eg, with the gnashing of teeth about kids & myspace).

    but even that’s not new. it happens all the time, and the Iliad still tells you much of what you need to know about human nature.

  4. Char Char 2007-03-07

    In my experience, Universities are driven by their funding. Unfortunately, this means there needs to be “results”. Things need to be published to get money. And for some areas, this is harder than others. The sciencey faculties get all the dough cause they’re producing papers and curing things. Not to say they shouldn’t get money for that, cause they really should.
    But there is no funding for those of us who are theorising and discussing things like English, Philosophy and Linguistics (unless of course we’re talking about Cognitive or Behavioural Linguistics and stuff that can be measured because that can contribute to speech pathology and help people).
    I think it’s important for people to be able to think critically and analyse the world around them, but I think it’s equally important to be able to apply our analysis and change the world. I think more universities should be doing interdisciplinary studies (one of the changes being made to our Linguistics department) so that we can see how the theory can be applied to the world.
    I like having discussions with non-academic folk (or at least people who aren’t in that mindframe at this point in time) to keep myself grounded and see how the things I’m learning actually apply to the world. So thanks!

  5. Hugh Hugh 2007-03-07

    mike: thanks … appreciate that.

    char: universities are constrained by outside forces, but they are also big institutions, and suffer from the stasis that comes with an entrenched system. there is little incentive to change – except, as you say, when money is offered, or revoked. and change is difficult.

    and its up to the academics themselves to do some of that changing. which means there will be a lag – as far as web goes – because most current academics don’t live in the web the way younger people do. it’ll change in 5-10 years… but that just proves my point, that in general unis are not at the forefront, but probably somewhere in the middle.

  6. Mat Mat 2007-03-07

    I hear the phrase “creating critical thinkers” thrown around a lot – especially by academic types. The sad truth is that university classrooms are probably one of the WORST places to go to learn critical thinking. At least that was my experience. The rote learning system that permeates the large majority of undergraduate classes is an uncreative and sad consequence of the low priority placed on teaching in our places of higher learning. This creates an embarrassing situation for the institutions that like to pride themselves on “critical thought” (or so they say) but instead actually provide a largely vacuous learning environment until grad school rolls around.

    But note that I specified that the “classroom” part of education is lacking. The true benefit I experienced was in the exchanges I had outside of class. I learned more from debating and sharing with colleagues and friends I met from all over the world than I did from any (or even the sum) of the classes I took.

    The lesson I draw from this is that peer learning in the university community is what makes it thrive, and should be something schools start thinking about fostering/encouraging as much as possible. At the same time, class time should perhaps be minimized or at least radically rethought.

  7. Hugh Hugh 2007-03-07

    right… i guess universities have 2 different roles – and that’s part of the problem, since they don’t necessarily interact well – at least not till grad school when the ranks thin out.

    so role 1: providing a place for people (ie professors and grad students) to do innovative thinking

    role 2: educate people…

    totally different beasts, each with their own problems, both housed under the same roof.

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