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How Higher Ed Makes Most Things Meaningless
July 22, 2010 - 9:34pm

Lee Skallerup

My academic research will not change the world. Don’t get me wrong; I love the authors I am currently studying and I found fascinating all of the topics and areas I have previously written about. But at the end of the day, most people are not really interested in what I am doing, including most people in the academy or in my discipline.

Recently, however, I began blogging and Tweeting, not about my current academic research interests, but more largely about education and the direction of higher education. This work has the potential, if not to change the world, then at least to play an active role in changing academia. Through social media, I have reached a broad audience of academics, teachers, parents, professionals, non-profits and other people who are interested in and care about education. I have been invited to contribute blog posts for a number of different sites. My writing has been featured on other sites, UVenus included. Suddenly, not only am I working on a topic I am passionate about, but it also seems to matter.

With a foot in both worlds, there are a number of questions about what academia really values from its (theoretically) most important employees, the professors.

Are Academics really interested in “sharing”?

We, as academics, are not really encouraged to share our research and our knowledge. We are encouraged to “share” our findings in limited environments: the conference or specialized journal. If you miss a conference, you must typically wait years for the presentations to appear as either journal articles or chapters in books. These forums (conference, specialized journal, academic book) are highly priced (for the consumer) and highly valued (by the academy), giving the research meaning. We are taught to hoard our research and findings to share with a potentially smaller audience in venues with more “prestige.”

Why can’t a professor be rewarded for sharing her research through sites like Academia.edu or SlideShare? Why can’t a professor receive credit for creating or participating in Twitter Chats related to her discipline or sub-field (for an example of the power of Twitter Chats, browse the number of weekly discussion focused on education-link)? These means of communicating our research are “crowdsourced” instead of peer-reviewed. Hiring committees and tenure committees wouldn’t care, making the work meaningless, even if the reach, influence and impact of the research could be greatly expanded by using social media and the Web 2.0.

Are we allowed to be ourselves?

When I first decided that I was going to be an academic, I was told that I had to give up my online life (I blogged before it was even known as blogging) if I ever wanted to be taken seriously as an academic. I was encouraged by my professors and more senior grad student colleagues to give up every part of my life that didn’t have to do with my research. A professor is expected to be nothing more than the talking head in front of the classroom or a by-line on a book or article. Outside of those two functions of teaching and research, the person behind the professor would appear to be meaningless.

Deciding that I didn’t care about any of that was freeing in many ways. It allowed me to to engage with a larger peer group as my whole self, with all of my interests intact. And perhaps the most liberating part of no longer trying to be someone I wasn’t in order to be valued was that my research improved. I am no longer desperate to make my research sound like it will change the world in order to fit myself into a job or funding opportunity. I continue to publish and present at conferences, but I choose the opportunities that fit with the research, with me, and not the other way around.

Academia has such a narrow view of what is meaningful, and I, for one, have stopped listening to what higher education thinks I should be and started defining it for myself.

Lee Elaine Skallerup has a PhD from the University of Alberta in Comparative Literature. She has taught in two Canadian provinces and three States, and is now branching out as an Edupreneur. You can visit her blog at collegereadywriting.blogspot.com and follow her on Twitter (@readywriting).

 

 

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