Sunday, February 28, 2016

You say publications, I say intellectual onanism

I am beginning to doubt Herb Stein's law that "if something cannot go on forever, it will stop,"  After all, the "publications" by higher education faculty shows no sign of stopping any time!

Well-meaning faculty have attempted to show to the world that publications, especially in the vast humanities and the social sciences, is a case of the emperor with no clothes.  But, apparently it is such a well-known fact that nobody raises an eyebrow and faculty continue to publish crap.  Peter Dreier, who "teaches politics and chairs the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College" writes that most publications are academic drivel.  Of course; what's new!  Dreier writes about his own experiment with generating garbage with highfalutin phrases, in a manner that resembles Alan Sokal awesome work exposing the bizarro world of academic publications.  Dreier notes:
I am more than willing to admit that just because I don’t understand something doesn’t mean it isn’t well reasoned or accurate. But the proportion of things published in academic journals has become less and less accessible to anyone who isn’t a specialist in that field. We live in an era of increasing academic specialization. As academia becomes more and more fragmented and balkanized into more narrow niches, an increasing proportion of what academics produce is unnecessarily obscure and obtuse, and, not surprisingly, poorly written. Graduate students read this drivel written by their academic elders, and then seek to emulate it, perpetuating the rule of pompous prose.
In the 39 years since I finished graduate school, specialization has become more and more narrow, so that even people in different subfields of the same discipline—say, Japanese history and colonial American history, or Renaissance literature and Southern poetry—aren’t expected to understand, or at least judge the quality of, others’ work.
Exactly.

But then he and I are fellow-travelers:
I am a professor with a Ph.D. in sociology who now teaches in a political science department and chairs a department of urban and environmental policy. In other words, I do not have strong disciplinary loyalties and think that the boundaries between many academic fields are pretty blurry. I believe that most social scientists—sociologists, historians, economists, anthropologists, geographers, and political scientists—should be able to read and understand most of what their fellow social scientists write, if only they would write in relatively clear prose. Although I’m not formally trained in English literature, or art history, or other humanities subjects, I can grasp the basic points, if not the nuances, of most articles published by scholars in these fields, if they are written to be understood rather than to impress and intimidate.
I did my graduate work in urban planning, then taught in the department of economics, and then in the geography department.  As much as I love being in the all-embracing geography, my identity is not tied to, nor dependent on, geography.

The other day, I was grading papers in my office with the door open. I heard a student ask a colleague across the hallway, "can you tell me about the sociology classes so that I can plan for the next term?"  A sensible question, right?  The response was so telling of the bizarre fragmentation of higher education and the related turf issues.  "I am a historian" was the reply before showing the student the office of a "sociologist."  Why the reflexive need to defend oneself with "I am a historian" is something I can never, ever, understand.

More from Dreier:
The problem of academic jargon is not confined to a single political or ideological wing, but it certainly dominates much of the writing by leftists in the social sciences and humanities. I consider myself a person of the left, and my research and writing—focusing on American politics, urban policy, social movements, and labor studies— generally explores issues of social justice and democracy. But I have little patience for much of what passes for left-wing academic writing in the social sciences and humanities, which emphasizes criticism (often called “deconstructing” or “problematizing” by academics) of conservative and liberal ideas and social institutions, but makes little or no attempt to figure out what to do to make things better.
I also have little patience for the kind of embarrassingly obtuse writing style preferred by many postmodern and allegedly leftist academics that obscures more than it enlightens and is often a clever mask for being intellectually lightweight. 
In case you, dear reader, are an outsider and have no idea how to "desconstruct" and "problematize", well, check with the youth in college and they will have plenty of stories to tell you while you will have to remind yourself to close your wide open mouth! ;)

What is even more depressing is this: there are plenty of real world problems and issues that need to be understood and solved.  From lead in Flint's water to the mayhem in South Sudan to the Hindutva tilt in India to ... and the real world with really curious and interested people will read what the "expert" faculty have to say--if only those who protect themselves "with feathers and robes, emblems and degrees" will look beyond their orgasmic intellectual onanism!

(Full disclosure: A few years ago, I was denied promotion to full professor because I refuse to engage in academic drivel and, therefore, will be stuck at the "Associate" level until it is time.)

2 comments:

Ramesh said...

Oh yes, nobody reads any of those research publications and the way some academics fall over themselves to be published and go for meaningless conferences is not funny.

The issue is not only of super specialisation. Its also of trivia. Research and papers are , at least in my field of management which I know, so obscure that they cannot be of any wider practical significance whatsoever.

Here are some gems from my alma mater

Stochastic Lotka-Volterra equations: A model of lagged diffusion of technology in an interconnected world

Allocating tools to index positions in tool magazines using tabu search

Multi-processor Exact Procedures for Regular Measures of the Multi-mode RCPSP

A New Formulation and Benders' Decomposition for Multi-period facility Location Problem with Server Uncertainty

I challenge any practicing business manager to claim that he even understands what the titles mean.

Sriram Khé said...

So, "tabu search" sounded interesting to follow up on ... a quick Google search yielded this: "Tabu Search is a Global Optimization algorithm and a Metaheuristic or Meta-strategy for controlling an embedded heuristic technique."
Now the world makes perfect sense ;)

Yes, most publications are trivial pursuits. Even crazier than faculty publishing such crap and other faculty praising them for crap is this--they write papers for free but then the companies that publish and manage the journals rake in huge profits thanks to university libraries paying the high subscriptions. It is one heck of a crazy system!

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