Inspired/provoked by an old Noel Malcolm piece that’s doing the rounds, Jacob Williamson has turned his attention to the state of modern academia, and the question of whether there’s just too much of it.
Both Malcolm and Jacob trade on well-established stereotypes: academia isn’t what it once was, with the pressure on young academics to publish voluminously and make a name for themselves sending them down increasingly esoteric alleyways as they struggle for something novel to say. The standard academic article, on this view, merely restates what dozens of others have said, with a minor twist at the end.
While that picture isn’t entirely false, I think that criticism is too easy, and that there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with publishing behaviour. Jacob and Malcolm seem to have two main problems with the volume of academic literature.
The first is that it is no longer possible (as Malcolm used to do with Hobbes scholarship) to keep up with all the literature on a particular topic. As Jacob says, “There’s a place for secondary texts to shed light on primary material, but this much light? It becomes blinding”. But why should you expect to be able to keep on top of all the thoughts that a whole world’s worth of scholars are having? Surely a field where ideas come slowly, drip by drip, is stagnant, or at least lacking in energy or vibrancy?
Two points can be made in favour of the arcane academic research that I think is worthwhile but that everyone within a field shouldn’t have to wade through. The first is that however obscure an issue is, it is worth discussing as long as somebody else, anybody else, is interested in it. The second is that apparently dull and narrow research can actually enhance what we might think of more worthwhile and consequential research, by sparking off new ideas, or being synthesised together.
It might still be asked how scholars can find work that interests them in this mountain of work, and this is indeed a problem. But there are mechanisms – the tiered pyramid of academic journals means that following the higher prestige journals should ensure you read the things of greatest general interest. Keyword searches and citations from fellow scholars can also help.
The second objection is that quantity is prized over quality. Instead of considering a topic in depth and thinking through their ideas, academics are forced to rush through superficial research in order to move onto the next publication. Worse still, they might shirk from considering really difficult questions because they require too much of an investment of time.
I don’t think this is entirely true. After all professional success for academics is not just a function of the number of publications a scholar has, but also of the prestige of the journals they are published in. Academics do have an incentive to polish their papers and seek out novel questions because they are likely to be published in better journals.
In any case, I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing if academics are given a bit of a nudge to share their ideas with the rest of us before they feel they are totally perfect. That Ralph Walker and Lesley Brown (praised in Jacob’s post for their sparse publication record) should hoard their ideas and views to share only with students and immediate colleagues tries me as a shame. I’m sure most of us have experienced the benefit of being forced to have work ready for a hard deadline, rather than being left to forge it in our own time – why shouldn’t academics be similarly galvanised by the demand that they produce visible output to show for all the time they spend thinking and reading?
Moreover, I’m a bit puzzled by the assumption that just because academics are asked to write a lot, they must be lacking for things to say. I find this particularly odd coming from Jacob, who is an intimidatingly prolific blogger. Academics, almost by definition, are people who have ideas. Usually lots of them. Not all of them are good, but it’s not always possible to tell how good an idea is until it is released into the world. I think that’s an experience most bloggers can relate to. So if Jacob can share four or five ideas a week on his blog, why does he feel unable to share four or five ideas a year in academic papers? It is the same impulse behind each – the same desire to throw ideas out into the world and see if they attract interest or provoke discussion. If it’s good enough for bloggers, why not academics?