Sunday, January 20, 2013

Historical Ethnography in the Academy: Academic Research

Part one of a continuing series of thoughts and reflections...

I have been in and around academic institutions, public and private research universities, public universities, private specialised universities, and state colleges, for some forty years. During those forty years I have seen a lot of things, made a lot of observations, and contextualised a lot of my observations within the broader frames of the history of higher education and its society and culture. Below are a few of my somewhat random thoughts on what I have seen in and learned about colleges and universities during my forty years of wandering and wondering in the academic wilderness.

Research and the publication of that research has long been at the heart, along with more recently teaching and "service", of the modern research university. Research universities were a new type of university that originated in particular in Germany and the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and experienced a massive expansion after World War II. The earliest research universities, new universities like Clark, Johns Hopkins, and Chicago, were graduate schools whose mission was to train the new professionals and new scientists for a Western world in the throes of mass modernisation. The old liberal arts college with a theology curriculum at its heart was not equipped to meet the ever increasing need of modern societies for professionals and scientists with the skills to staff the ever expanding bureaucracies, political, economic, educational, scientific, cultural, social work, of the modern Western world.

To produce professionals, including educational professionals, and scientists for the modern bureaucratised world the research university not only expanded the curriculum elevating liberal arts like Literature and History, new disciplines like Anthropology, Sociology, and Psychology, disciplines oriented toward the "scientific study of humans, society, and the mind, and the hard and applied sciences, and professions like the law and medicine, from the margins of the liberal arts college to the centre of the research university curriculum, but they created new professionalised and standardised rites of passage that graduates of graduate and professional schools had to pass through in order to get a degree. Over time, thanks to the success of the graduate research university model and the ever increasing prestige of science and the "benefits" it brought, what were once relatively small liberal arts colleges with theology at their heart were transformed into universities with the liberal arts, the sciences, hard and applied, and business at their heart.

At the heart of the new graduate schools, particularly in the retooled liberal arts and humanities, was training at the feet of academia's best and brightest researchers. Students did tutorials or sat in classes learning the ins and outs of the most recent research in their field from academia's "best and brightest". Once doctoral students completed their course work they--mostly he's in the early years of the research university--were required to write a thesis or dissertation based on "original research".

Eventually a degree from one of the handful of research universities became virtually essential if one wanted to teach in the research universities, a kind of bureaucratic tautology, and even if one wanted to teach in most midsize universities, research colleges, and increasingly in even the non-research college. In the research university in particular, though also in non-research universities, research and the publication of that research, the "publish or perish" syndrome of academic folklore, eventually became necessary if one wanted to continue to teach, to get tenure, in the now high status research university and beyond.

In many respects most of the "research" academics, particularly academics at research universities, publish in book, monograph, journal, and now online form--the major basis for status differentials in academia--is, at best, the academic equivalent of a short lived television programme show or a popular song with a hit life of about a month or so because most of what academics research and publish will never even rise to the level of a footnote even in academic disciplinary history. Only on rare occasions does the published work of academics gain more than fifteen minutes of fame even among those who are the audience for such research, other academics, other mostly niche academics working in niches within specific academic disciplines. Only on even more rare occasions does academic research find its way into the intellectual world outside of the academy and become the academic equivalent of a classic hit TV show still being talked about fifty years after it went off the air.

What is so interesting to me about academic research is that some of this research if not most of it is subsidised in some way shape or form by taxpayers. I find this interesting because I am not sure much of this tax payer subsidised research particularly in the liberal arts really has any practical applications for for those who end up subsidising it. I get it that taxpayer subsidised research in agriculture at places like Purdue, Cornell, Iowa State, and Wisconsin has and can contribute to changes in agricultural practise. I get it that engineering research at places like Purdue, Cornell, MIT, and Texas can help us build better bridges or faster trains and contribute to transportation and economic improvements. I get it that ethnographic research can help us understand our world and help us rise above our ethnocentric prejudices, though not all humans appear to want to do so. I get it that in some cases demographic research at Wisconsin or Michigan can contribute to an understanding of the United States even if some of it, that related particularly to class, many Americans don't really care to know. But I am not sure what a paper on say Slovaks in the Mohawk Valley of New York contributes beyond, at least potentially, providing a sense of pride for those same Slovaks in the Mohawk Valley of New York.

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