Monday, 14 December 2015

Academic quality

I've been discussing the meaning of “quality” in academic research and writing a lot with my colleagues at the minute – both as part of formal discussions about changing tenure and promotion (T&P) criteria and more informal arguments with friends over coffee or dinner.

What I've found interesting in these discussions is that many of my colleagues adhere to a similar set of assumptions about what constitutes knowledge, especially the type of knowledge we academics are supposed to produce as part of job. Surprisingly, many of my academic colleagues expound a rather positivistic notion of knowledge in which knowledge has an intrinsic quality to it. One example, usually aligned with ideas about the benefits of “slow scholarship” or suchlike, goes along the lines of:
“We shouldn't be forced to publish all the time [i.e. once a year according to T&P criteria] because good research takes time. In fact, it can take a lot of time. For example, it might take 10 years to write a groundbreaking book, which is fine since being forced to rush research simply leads to shoddy work”.

It is not really clear to me, in this context at least, what constitutes the intrinsic quality to which my colleagues – and many others I imagine – ascribe. Maybe it is “truth” ... or perhaps “truthiness”. By this I mean that maybe my colleagues define quality as the truthful representation of reality; the closer research gets, the higher quality it is. That's the sense I get at least, which seems to fly in the face of years of hotly contested debates about power-knowledge, performativity, social practice, etc. It's almost as if the whole cultural, performative, or post-structural turn in the social sciences never happened; no Foucault, no Lyotard, no Latour, no Butler, etc.

In contrast, I've ended up – somehow – supporting a rather metric-centred view of quality – maybe it's because I'm a British-trained academic socialized by the RAE/REF cycle. I view publishing in top tier journals as a way to achieve quality research. In these terms, I've ended up sounding like some unreconstructed promoter of the so-called “neoliberal university” because I support the idea that academics should write – and write a lot in many of my colleagues' eyes [i.e. two articles a year minimum] – in order to hone our craft and try to get published in “top tier” journals – rather than any old place. To be clear, I don't subscribe to the view that top tier journals are a marker of quality either.

I've ended up realizing that where I differ is in my view of epistemology itself – simply put, I don't think that knowledge has an intrinsic quality. Knowledge does not simply reflect or represent some reality out there waiting for us to discover/uncover it. Instead, I take the view from social epistemology that knowledge is a social process, it only exists as part of a broader set of social relations, values, institutions, performances, practices, and so on. Academic research, therefore, does not have an intrinsic quality – in fact, it cannot have an any intrinsic qualities since it is a collective act. Quality then is constituted by production, dissemination, use, performance, practice, visibility, etc.

And here is the rub ... that means that quality in academic research is really about ensuring that our research is actually read by peers, is cited by peers, is disseminated widely among various publics, is thought about by various people, and has some positive, public impact on the world. How we go about doing that, obviously, is a critical issue, one which I will duck for now.

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