Sunday, August 24, 2014

Academic Virtues

On the way back from the Academy of Management's annual meeting in Philadelphia, I fell into conversation with the woman in the seat next to me who was also returning from the meeting. She told me about a plenary session she had attended in which a large panel had extolled the virtues of social media in getting their research "out of the ivory tower" and into places where it "really matters". They were dissatisfied with the prospect of merely making another "contribution to theory"; their aim was to transform the practice of management. And they were full of helpful advice about how to get this done.

The most memorable part of the session, my seatmate told me, was when a member of the audience stepped up to the microphone and made an impassioned plea for staying in the ivory tower. The panel, after all, had been almost unanimous about the pointlessness of publishing still more boring, unreadable (and therefore unread) journal articles. And their enthusiasm for social media extended even into the classroom where they were increasingly using social media to better engage with their students.

The speaker pointed out that the panel seemed to have given up on the idea that academic knowledge has its own particular ethos. It takes years of research to make an interesting discovery, and takes much more than a tweet to communicate that discovery to people who are qualified to assess the validity of the discovery and determine the significance of its contribution. More importantly, there was a time when everyone understood that our knowledge was not the sort of thing that could be disseminated by op-ed or blogpost but required the long term mutual commitment of students and teachers in the classroom to be properly understood. What the panel was really doing was redefining what it means to know something. By abandoning "old school" lecturing and classroom discussion, and traditional academic prose, they were simply giving up on the sort of care and attention that makes it possible for us, as a culture, to understand complicated facts. As an academic writing coach, he said, choking up a little, it was breaking his heart.

At this point in my seatmate's account I was, of course, able to introduce myself as the very speaker she had been so moved by, and if this had been a movie I would now have been more charming and she less married and the whole thing would have become a beautiful romance. But this was not to be. Instead, which is almost as good, I found another like-minded scholar, someone who is worried about what is happening to academia today, and until we were hushed by the people around us who wanted to sleep on the flight across the Atlantic, we discussed this sorry state of affairs.

In my speech from the floor, I had suggested that our admiration for people like Malcolm Gladwell (with whom many of the members of the panel were of course impressed) shows that we are now trying to get people to believe things they can't possibly understand. We are telling them what we think the truth is but without allowing them to engage critically with it. That's precisely what our classrooms and journals are for. They are situations in which ideas can be presented along with their justifications, and where those justifications can be questioned before the proposed belief is adopted.

Academics who have stopped believing in academic virtues and are turning to social media to "get the word out" have an exaggerated sense of their own authority. They think the world will change for the better if busy managers, inspired by a tweet that links to a blogpost, adopt their views about one thing or another. (This, I pointed out, is a bit like thinking that if Harry Styles* would only tell his twitter followers to read Plato...) But the world will only change for the better if they devote their time to carefully explaining to their peers what they have discovered, and then still more carefully and patiently explaining themselves to their students, year in and year out, so that the next generation of managers will be better informed than the last.

Perhaps the greatest academic virtue, that is, is patience. Too many academics today think of themselves as public intellectuals whose job it is to "spread ideas" through the most efficient media available to them. Such academics are, literally, ideologues; they think universities produce and distribute ideas. What universities really "produce", friends, is more articulate and knowledgeable students. People who are less likely to be immediately impressed by a TED talk, in fact, because they have a higher standard of belief.

*I'm embarrassed to admit that during the plenary I retold this anecdote as being about Justin Bieber. My apologies to Harry Styles.


Brad MacMaster said...

Thank you, Thomas, for courageously standing up for what you believed in at the AoM venue.

I noticed in your post that, while we hope for critical engagement, ‘we’ offer up our current belief about truth. I am wondering if it is not time for significant change in our prevailing epistemological assumptions to accompany the changes in our social environment. I offer for consideration, reflection on the tenets of Pragmatism which is less about discovering the ultimate truth and more about coping better with our environment (I hold an expanded view of this original objective).

I find Pragmatism particularly relevant to my field of research (entrepreneurship) where there is some debate about the ontology of opportunities: objective existence vs. creation (I believe both can be appropriate). The point is, we could become paralyzed in searching for truth, when the rest of the world moves on creating a state where such a truth may ultimately prove irrelevant.

Any humble academic must embrace the fallibility of her/his knowledge, perhaps even some of their beliefs, as new knowledge is discovered / created that is worthy of our trust, and as a premise for action, for the time. The social world seems to be evolving by adding a new dimension: the capabilities of ‘the crowd’ (a.k.a. society) contribute to assessing the value of information / knowledge and contributing to its development (consider Wikipedia, other ‘open source’ forms of knowledge development, and crowdfunding for financing new ventures, testing acceptability of new products and initiatives). For me, the issue is whether or not putting our knowledge ‘out there’ can improve it. I grant you, we may not consider this ‘peer review’, but do you think this notion has some validity? What are the pros and cons? Is there a possible net benefit? How does protecting it in journals not read by non-academics benefit society (which is indirectly footing the bill)?

Thomas said...

Thanks for the comment, Brad. You might find this post from a few years ago interesting.

I'm basically a pragmatist, I think, which is to say I don't believe in an "ultimate truth". I also don't believe there is anything such thing as perfectly coping with the environment.

To use your formula, I would, then, I'd say that universities (where academics work) are more about discovering ultimate truths and less about coping with the immediate environment.

Basically, academic, "universal" knowledge (i.e., the kind of knowledge that belongs in universe), removes itself from immediate contingencies and seeks more ultimate verities.

There's a difference between learning from an experienced entrepreneur how YOU can go out and start a business NOW, and what the general conditions (historical, political, economic) for successful entrepreneurial activity are. The "academic" who knows that more IT startups succeed in California than in Nebraska does not thereby know how to be a successful app developer. But she may well know something that politicians in Nebraska could use to attract entrepreneurs, or something that entrepreneurs could use in locating their businesses. So, whether you're thinking of going into business or politics, and especially if you're undecided, this scholar will be "useful" to you because you're learning something that is more theoretical, less practical, more ultimate, less immediate.

Academic journals vet ideas that need to be more than merely inspiring for someone who's thinking about quitting his job and breaking out on his own. I like to put it this way: they're basically a way of facilitating communication among teachers about what it's a good idea to tell students ... whose "practical" interests are not fully formed yet, and the formation of which it is the purpose of an education to support.

For this reason, I see your "new dimension" more as a threat than an opportunity. What it does is to impose the contingencies of the immediate environment on research agendas and curricula. We need a place that operates on a different time scale, and at a higher level.

I have some experience with Wikipedia. Don't get me started! ;-) I don't think pitching yoru knowledge claims so as to get past whatever Wikipedians happen to be working in your area of expertise is an effective way developing knowledge. Not in my experience.

For me, in any case, it's a question of degree, and a division of labor. Let practically minded business people spend their careers coping with the (relatively) immediate environment and let theoretically minded academics seek those (more) ultimate truths. And then let their be some commerce between them. The classroom is a great place for that. As is the pretty common practice of hiring experienced business people back into academia, sometimes having them go back and earn a PhD.

Presskorn said...

This is a great story, which I've already had to the urge to retell several times. And I am all with you on staying within the confines of the ivory tower.

And I'm also with you on the point that pragmatism should only by embraced within the confines of Pound's warning of its cheapening effects on ideas. And your juxtaposition of the Wittgenstein and Pound quote in the post that you link to is just brilliant. After all, OC does not, despite rumors to the contrary (sometimes I even spread such rumours!), embrace (vulgar) pragmatism, cf. OC§94. The Pound quote, I think, is a quite clear explication of what Wittgenstein felt "thwarted" or alarmed by in pragmatism.

But there is also something right in pressing you on the issue of pragmatism and knowledge, as Brad does. In specific, I am thinking of what I worried about in your concept of knowledge in my comments to your previous post.

Sometimes your model of academic writing can make it seem like beliefs were the sort of thing that could be made explicit by means of giant questionnaire, which would have questions like "Do you believe that Caesar passed the Rubicon?" and "Do you believe that there are tigers in South America?”. Answer the questionaire and put them into writing by justifying them. But beliefs, I would like to say, are not like that. Not even in the ivory tower. Or perhaps more to the point: Pragmatism has taught us that that picture of belief has a very limited applicability.

But I don’t know. Perhaps academic writing is one those contexts, where it might have applicability. Perhaps I am just being thwarted by a Weltanschauung or perhaps even worse by the unprofessional Weltschmerz of late night writing.

Thomas said...

I would actually like to argue that academia is one place where Russell's "the essential business of language is to assert and deny facts" (i.e., to express beliefs) has some validity. It's certainly the essential business of scholarly writing. Maybe I want to say that academic ("scientific") beliefs are the sorts of things that can be made explicit by means, not of a giant questionaire, but a giant literature. The grammar of that literature is what people like Bolzano and Frege were trying to understanding. Wittgenstein is (to my mind) the Einstein of that project.