Friday, October 15, 2010

Engaging Conversations

(This post is a continuation of Wednesday's post.)

During the seminar on the relevance of scholarship last week, not a few disparaging remarks were made about the pressure (and desire) to publish in high-impact academic journals. Several speakers contrasted "engaged" or "relevant" scholarship with the sort of scholarship that is published in the Academy of Management journals, ASQ, and similar outlets. One version of this point targeted people who pursue "the ultimate truth" about things; a related version targeted those who think of publications and (somewhat contradictorily) conference presentations as the "end product" of the research process. I think both of these targets are straw men, and I think they misunderstand the reasons people should (and like to) publish in quality journals (and attend major conferences).

There is no ultimate truth and publication is not an end in itself. But this cannot be an argument for a new kind of scholarship because traditional scholarship has been well aware of these facts since, well, time immemorial. People who think publications contain ultimate truths and are ends in themselves are not just rare; they don't exist. But there are many people who think the fact that there is no ultimate truth and publication isn't a worthwhile end-goal is a "game changer"—a good reason not to spend very much of their time getting published.

That brings us to a third straw man: the idea that people who publish in so-called A journals don't do anything else. This is the image of the radically disengaged scholar who collects data, reads in the library, and sits in her office writing. All three straw men are figments of the imaginations of people who don't publish very often (or at least only very much against their natural inclinations). No productive (regularly published) and happy writers devote all their time to the task of getting published. They don't believe in ultimate truths and they don't see publication as an end in itself.

They approach the journal literature as all writing manuals and composition teachers these days suggest they should, namely, as a conversation. They do write every day (again as all manuals and teachers suggest), but not all day. Morten Vendelø, who said many insightful things at the seminar, made one suggestion at the end of the seminar, and at the end of a series of really great observations about the conversational nature of research, that totally missed this point. Maybe researchers could be allowed (and encouraged) to forget about publishing for awhile, he said, so that they could devote more time to actually having that conversation.

This takes the idea that research is a conversation way too literally. Research is a virtual conversation that goes on in the academic literature and at academic conferences. It is true that practitioners don't get very much out of reading these journals and that they feel "out of the loop" on the rare occasions that they attend the conferences. (It is also true, as Chris Grey emphasized, that many academics today feel alienated by the highly specialized themes and jargons that dominate the literature. That's the subject of another post, coming soon.) But that is simply because they don't have the time, training, and interest to participate in conversation in these contexts. (They have the need, as Rikke pointed out, for speed.) As many academic writing instructors have pointed out before me (most of them inspired by Kenneth Burke's image of the "parlor") the relevant conversation was going on before we got involved (and before we were born) and will continue after we retire (and after we die). Research as a conversation takes a long view, and a slow one, of what it means to "talk". It is "the conversation of mankind" (a metaphor that is so old, you'll notice, that it's still got a gender).

We should always be writing (every day, but not all day). As I've said before, we should always be "glossing" our ideas for publication, which is to say, as a contribution to the ongoing conversation. But we should not fixate only on "academic journals". We can participate in multiple conversations. So, I've also long been suggesting that people spend some of their time glossing their work for practitioner reviews, like the Harvard Business Review. Like I said on Wednesday, they should also engage with the conversation in the classroom (at undergraduate, master's, MBA and executive levels).

People who publish often in A journals also participate in other fora. Majken Schultz, one of our hosts last week, is a great example. She is regularly published in the journal literature, regularly seen at conferences, and, as she emphasizes in a recent piece on the issue of relevance (PDF, published in an A journal, you'll note), writes a regular column for a major Danish newspaper. That's engaged conversation. To have it, there is no need to disparage the journal literature. On the contrary. Publish or perish, friends. Seriously. That is: engage in the conversation or find something else to do.

No comments: