13 April 2015

In Defense of the Academic Profession

It is interesting to see in my Facebook's newsfeed today several colleagues in the Philippine academia — mostly from the social sciences — sharing and commenting with a seal of approval on the recent commentary in The Straits Time entitled "Prof, no one is reading you." The commentary's main argument is that "An average academic journal article is read in its entirety by about 10 people. To shape policy, professors should start penning commentaries in popular media." I would like to offer here some personal observations and reflections on this topic based on my initial years in the academic career.

A Filipino professor who has been given a privileged space in a mainstream news website is one of the most supportive of the commentary's argument. Not all academics, however, have the time, PR skills, and extrovert personality like him. Personally, I also believe in a socially-relevant, reality-based, activist, and purpose-driven academic practice; but now I have learned to respect and appreciate the life choices and career goals of colleagues in the profession. Every academic, like any other professional or human being, has her/his own career plans and sense of life's purpose. The academia is also a profession which simply contributes its share to the society and performs its specific duties and responsibilities in the society together with the specific duties and responsibilities of other professions. Recall the concept of "division of labour" as key to social progress and harmony where we each share and perform our natural talents and enhanced skills for the betterment of society.

The two main duties of academics are: "research" and "teaching". Many universities have also added the peripheral duty of "other forms of knowledge dissemination to society", which includes media coverage and public speaking engagements. Except for the Philippines' finest universities — the University of the Philippines, De La Salle University, and Ateneo de Manila University — all universities in the country are "teaching universities", rather than "research universities." In fact, compared with global best practices of world's top universities, even UP, DLSU, and ADMU are yet to be organised as "research universities" — though undoubtedly these are great "teaching universities" with very good and dedicated teachers. 

In a "research university", research is the foundation of the other academic duties of "teaching" and "policy advice" — thus, the concepts "research-based teaching", "research-based policy making", and "research-based media commentaries". Importantly, successful economies today have had at the heart of their development strategies a "national innovation system", where there are synergetic linkages between universities, industries, and government. Historically, these innovation systems are conscious policy plans and strategies initiated by governments, providing a framework for the effective interaction between universities (doing basic scientific research) and industries (applying this research, or applied science).

My point here is that, considering the urgent necessity for higher education reforms in the country to effectively address national needs and keep up with global standards, Philippine academics should be encouraged and be given the generous time and resources to do more "research", which must be a prerequisite for their other knowledge dissemination activities including writing for and speaking at popular media channels. And yes, crucial to this endeavour is for academics to go through the tough publication process in peer-reviewed journals. I also have issues and frustrations with this prevailing "publish or perish" principle as well as the business of publishing in the academia; but with hindsight, I have learned so much from the thoughtful and conscientious feedback and reviews that I received for my submissions, especially for those which have been rejected. I have realised more how important feedback and reviews from peers are in refining our ideas and in keeping with the standards of scientific research. At the same time, the peer-review process teaches us humility.

While universities have started to reach out to media outlets to mainstream their staff's findings and ongoing research, the media must also be educated about academic work and practice. A few recommendations here.
  • First, Philippine media should be aware about academic rank structure, in the same manner they are knowledgeable about military and police ranks. They should be careful who they label as "professors", which is only reserved for a few accomplished scholars in the academia. The title "professor" is akin to the rank of "general" in the military organisation. (By the way, how come the media refer to Jose Maria Sison and Nur Misuari "professors" when they are not in the academic profession?). 
  • Second, the media should learn how to read research by academics in peer-reviewed journals. If they want brevity, the abstracts of about 100-250 words only are freely available for anybody who cares to read. If they don't want to learn this, academics can do this and may as well take over the jobs of journalists.
  • Third, the media should select well who to interview as "political analyst", "sociologist", or "psychologist". Those who really deserve airtime to shape public debates are real researchers who have contributed to knowledge through publication, or at least those scholars who are well-read on the classics and state-of-the-art in a particular social issue of inquiry. Their opinions shall be based on scientific research, rather than mere speculation.   

I believe that policy-oriented research must be encouraged, but not mandated. Diversity, including freedom of thought, in the academia has to be upheld. We should accept the fact that not all publications and academic theorising in the social sciences, economics, humanities, and philosophy have implications for public policy. Like other human beings, academics have their own personal and professional life choices and sense of meaning — hence, respect so long as they do no harm.

Popular media is not the academics' cup of tea. Interestingly, many of the most influential and must-read economists in the world today, have turned to blogging. Not all academics are media savvy, neither are all good at soundbites for radio and television, nor are they necessarily good writers for newspaper columns. Yet, many of those who can write well for popular media are simply smart enough, opting not to waste time dealing with online trolls and reading opinionated-but-unfounded comments from the anonymous and nasty haters who spend time by wasting others' productive time — the type of people who need and get the energy from spreading hatred and stupid comments as defensive mechanisms for their own ignorance and insecurities.

One could easily see how nasty Filipino netizens can be and have become. In countless instances in the comments section, it pains me to see how these unkind, unhelpful, and nasty commenters make  academic authors objects of ridicule to the point that they make fun of the academics' education, work, profession, and their very humanity, particularly the opinion pieces written by people whose integrity and intelligence I can personally vouch for - my friends, friends of friends, former professors, and colleagues. And I wonder why they choose to be rude and hateful in their comments when they could write their feedback in a constructive manner, or show at least some basic courtesy, or just exercise silence if they don't have anything sensible and important to write. As much as possible, I have long avoided reading Filipino netizens' comments on news reports and commentaries if I wanted not to lose hope for the Filipinos or just to keep the day's positive vibes. 

There are, of course, difficult personalities who are such a pain to deal with in the academia. There are selfish, megalomaniac, and arrogant people with all their respective eccentricities and fetishisms. But we can also find nice, generous and decent academics out there who are simply amazing human beings who are sympathetic, emphatic and supportive of colleagues, especially young scholars. The academia has somehow moderated the usually critical me and taught me an important lesson in human relationship - that one may disagree with an author's ideology, article, or book; but s/he may be good, nice, and wonderful as a person. 

Furthermore, just like other professions, the academia has its own language, vocabulary, terminologies, theories, methodologies, rules, norms, and practices. More and more academic journals, however, have been encouraging article submissions free of jargons with a view to being publicly understood. In other words, the goal is to be understood, rather than overwhelm general readers with academic jargons. An academic research may not be relevant or suitable for popular media's orientation at this moment, but it can and may be in the future.

I can understand from the point of view of serious academics and scholars why many opinion pieces in Philippine popular media nowadays would be rejected in academia's rigorous peer-review process. Media's trend has long been incompatible with the way academics have been trained. I identify and sketch out here some prevailing practices of the authors and essays that editors of popular media prefer as shown in many opinion pieces that won't be considered "academic enough" worthy of publication in the academia, notably:
  • [a] authors who are good at "telling", rather than "showing";
  • [b] authors who are engaged in "polemics", rather than "analysis";
  • [c] authors who write "poetically" and "lyrically", rather than "academically";
  • [d] authors who make sensational and provocative "assertions", rather than "analyses" based on empirical evidence, established theory, or sound logic;
  • [e] essays written by naturally "good writers", rather than "good academics" who mostly need help from professional editors and colleagues to edit, proofread, and comment on their drafts;
  • [f] essays that are very "descriptive", rather than "explanatory";
  • [g] essays replete with "assertions", rather than "explanations"; 
  • [h] essays that do not have a single, coherent, and unifying argument, thesis statement, or storyline;  
  • [i] essays that lack structure in presenting their arguments or main points in a consistent and coherent manner; and 
  • [j] essays without novelty, or those which do not give substantial — let alone, original — contribution to knowledge production or policy debate.   

Apparently, academic argumentation and writing practices can be beneficial to popular media and the objective of educating their target public audience and readership so as to stimulate the making of informed opinions, decisions, and discussions.  Media must indeed learn from good research and analytical practices in the academia. And academics must also learn to mainstream and popularise their research findings and theoretical appreciation by observing brevity, writing short sentences, communicating with simple words, and learning the art of public relations. In doing so, all academics will have to realise more deeply that academic research and teaching, indeed the profession itself, is a social endeavour that implicate the society and must carry a public responsibility.

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