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The fads and fashions of academic life

19 May 2006

A critical and highly personal look at the latest trends in academia.

One doesn’t hear much praise these days for specialisation, individual expertise and lifelong obsession with the minutiae of some recondite area of knowledge. On the contrary, the fashion is ‘interdisciplinarity’, that is, academic research which crosses the boundaries of different disciplines. Given the hype that interdisciplinarity attracts, one might suppose that it refers to a startling new idea for researchers in different fields to talk to one another, or for a researcher in, say, history to inform their work by reading literature. But hasn’t academic research always been about this?

Consider a specialist in, say, 18th century French painting employed in a department of History of Art. They will no doubt be familiar with earlier periods of French painting and with painting throughout Europe, but also with the history, politics, geography, philosophy, literature and even the science of the period. In other words, there is an infinite amount of information that is relevant to most academic research and it does not come neatly packaged into one discipline or another. Furthermore, there is something unsettling about the current obsession with ‘interdisciplinarity’ that may be to the detriment of some of those who are engaged in academic research of the highest quality, namely, that it is insufficiently acknowledged that interdisciplinarity cannot flourish on its own and that it must be anchored in specialist knowledge of something in particular.

As we fill in grant forms, apply for jobs and promotion, and participate in quality assessment procedures – that sometimes seem as pointless as they are endless – we are given countless opportunities to emphasise our interdisciplinary credentials, and one cannot escape the feeling that someone who professes an interest in highly focused specialised research in a traditional academic discipline runs the risk of being regarded as some kind of dinosaur, ill-suited to the postmodern academy.

There is something unsettling about the current obsession with 'interdisciplinarity’

Along with treating interdisciplinarity as an end in itself, ‘themes’ are now being adopted by most universities in one form or another in an attempt to create a distinctive brand for each institution. After all, if you claim to carry out research in, say, history, literature and classics, you do not as such do anything to distinguish your identity in the marketplace from that of every other higher education establishment. However, we must not lose sight of the fact that research and teaching must be ongoing in all areas of study whether or not they are currently hyped or fashionable, and themes that are currently in vogue, like nanotechnology, will be actively researched in very many places and no one university can lay claim to them. I am not suggesting that it is inappropriate to draw attention to what we do well; however, I am concerned that too much emphasis is placed on themes when they are such short-term features of a university’s life. After all, if a few key members of staff go elsewhere, a theme can collapse overnight, and if someone good is appointed in a new area, a new theme is de facto created. It would be folly indeed to allow themes to determine appointments and library provision, as opposed to always appointing the very best scholar, and maintaining library provision for all subjects, even those that are currently out of the limelight.

What concerns me most is the widespread abuse of language and thought now so prevalent in university life, and the willingness of so many academics to go along with it. It is now routine for university documents to be laden with management-speak.

I once filled in a form so that a job could be advertised. Under the heading that referred to the main task of the employee I wrote ‘to teach philosophy of science’. Someone from personnel phoned the Head of Department to say this lacked content to the point of sounding sarcastic. When the Head revised it to say ‘to contribute to the delivery of our programmes in philosophy of science’, that was considered fine. So what we have is empty words being mistaken for content. Academics are supposed to be the guardians of clear thought and expression – not to collude in obfuscation.

It is now routine for university documents to be laden with management-speak

We are also required to produce endless lists of marking criteria, supposedly in the name of accountability and rigour in assessment procedures. The thought must be something like this: ‘We can’t have university teachers just giving marks for essays because that appears to be a totally subjective process. If there are some implicit reasons for the marks given we ought to be able to make them explicit and hence ensure the transparency of the marking process’. This seems reasonable for about half a second until one realises that of course those criteria must be applied, and if the original demand for criteria was legitimate, one might wonder what the criteria for their application is, and so on.

Ultimately, we use our judgement and as an examiner at whatever level, I only need to know the following to do this: what is the pass mark, and what mark does really distinguished work get? I am much more confident of my ability to mark work on this basis than I am of my ability to apply the supposed marking criteria. In practice, reference to marking criteria is always a post hoc rationalisation that wastes time and belies the real nature of assessment. The ineliminable need for academic judgement should be emphasised not disguised.

Like schoolteachers, academics find themselves in Trotskyesque nightmare of permanent revolution. We are often asked what we have done that is ‘innovative’, for example, in respect of teaching methods. The idea that the basic model of teaching via lectures, seminars and tutorial feedback on written work is incapable of improvement seems never to have been considered. It may be useful to use virtual learning environments and the like as a supplement to traditional methods, but it ought to be acknowledged that one can be an academic of the highest quality without ever doing anything particularly innovative in respect of teaching methods. Research in so far as it genuinely advances the state of the field is ipso facto innovative, and so, therefore, is teaching based on it.

James Ladyman/Philosophy

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