David Silver and academia and publishing and…

I happened to see David Silver, professer in Comm at UW who is leaving soon for greener pastures, on the same bus as me yesterday morning and asked if I could sit next to him. I'm currently taking an Information School class taught by Terry Brooks on digital culture. Each week we have a guest who has a conversation with Terry for the first hour of the class. Last week, it happened to be David, and his conversation with Terry was refreshing and enlightening. So it was great seeing him on the bus.

Actually, 3 or 4 weeks ago, my group for a how-to-write-policy class was meeting with Beth Kolko to get feedback from her about our proposed policy at a local cafe here in Ballard, and David happened to stop by the cafe to get some coffee or something, and Beth introduced us there. Funny how things coincide from different angles….

Anyway, hearing about David's talk on academia, especially academia in a R1 institute, was very refreshing and gave me assurance that I'm not the only one who feels like there is something kind of strange about academia. When I said earlier that he is leaving for greener pastures…. that was slightly tongue-in-cheek. Arguably, UW is supposed to be one of the greenest pastures around.

But academia is totally "broken" (his word!). At the least, there is a very real tension between valuing teaching and learning and preparing people for the future versus valuing research and getting published. The fact that a R1 emphasizes research more than students is not necessarily the problem. The problem is that this R1 represents itself falsely to different audiences. Any student coming to UW thinking they are going to get a great education might get a shock when they realize not all professors actually care whether they learn. Actually, that isn't exactly right. I think almost all profs DO care about student learning, but the whole system–in terms of getting tenure, getting grant money, and gaining respect in the field–completely disregards student learning. Who gives a shit?

I sometimes feel that academia is an elitist club where ideas and knowledge is generated behind closed doors and sent out to the masses only in finished publishable form. And what a form… all that jargon… It's arguable that the knowledge is really only being shared with others in specific disciplines who can actually understand what they're reading.

And there is constant pressure. Even as a graduate student I feel the pressure. I have to get published, I have to get my name out there, etc. Well, I've read some of the stuff out there and I call bullshit. Some of it is total crap with no evidence. So, I'm going to self-publish everything I write and put it on this blog. I will try to get published in peer reviewed journals just like everyone else, too, but you know what.. I don't need a long list of published work to make myself feel legitimized. I'd much rather my work was out there for the gamers as my primary audience… which changes everything.

The web and digital culture has changed everything. Peer reviewed journals are antiquated. It's an old artifact of the totally borked tenure system.  If academics want to walk the talk of being a community of open sharing of ideas, they should be putting up their work for all to see and comment on with the understanding that all work is work in progress (Progress?). How many times do I have to read articles about Everquest or Ultima Online? I mean, who the hell still plays those? It would have been much more useful to read about the research studies while they were happening…

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2 thoughts on “David Silver and academia and publishing and…

  1. hello mark!

    first, that was a really enjoyable bus ride. it’s the first time in a while that i actually wanted the bus ride to be longer!

    second, thanks for the thoughtful and thought-provoking post. there’s so many directions to take it but let me just add a few points.

    1. as you note, the conditions that we are talking about are at research one universities. R1s are strange beasts but they do not reflect the entirety of academia – that includes smaller universities and colleges, community colleges, private liberal arts colleges, etc.

    2. that said, i do believe that for the most part R1s are, well, broken. it is not because they privilege research over teaching – although that’s the source of a lot of the mess. for me, it is because they narrowly define what research is. for most R1s, research means publication. and publication means peer-reviewed publication in narrow channels (ie: in academic journals that, for the most part, the overwhelming majority of the human population do not read). in other words, the thing that we are judged on the most is a thing that, by design, reaches a small and narrow segment of society. which begs the question: why would we want to work so hard on writings that are read by so few? to compound the problem, as noted in wired campus blog, academic libraries are, increasingly, unable to even afford the journals.

    3. so: scholars at R1 are required to spend the majority of their time writing for journals that few people read and that few universities can continue to buy. that, i believe, constitutes a broken system!

    4. all that said, i want to agree with you that so many professors – at R1s and not at R1s – truly do believe in teaching. some of us, myself included, think it’s the most important part of being a professor.

  2. First, thank you soo much for writing a comment. For some reason web legitimacy means more to me than getting published in a journal. 😛

    In my haste, after reading it over again, I may have been too general in my post, and, even though you say I singled out R1s, it looks like I might’ve lumped all academia together in certain paragraphs… Part of why I wrote it was venting… But the fun thing about the topic, like most fun things that are worth talking about, is that it is extremely complex and changes over time and place. The way I feel about this topic and many, many other topics also changes.

    That’s the beauty of the web. I’m not sure if I can say this well, but I think the web is great for capturing conversations in which opinions change, emotions change, and facts change. The flip-side is that it is often misleading to take little snippets of what people say out of context, since they don’t represent the person’s thoughts as a whole very well…

    But anyway, yeah… publishing for specific narrow audiences. I gotta think about that. I suppose more people in academia need to be asking themselves WHY they are in academia.

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