Quote: Rankings, reputation, and soft power


“Plentiful information leads to scarcity of attention. When people are overwhelmed with the volume of information confronting them, they have difficulty knowing what to focus on. Attention, rather than information, becomes the scarce resource, and those who can distinguish valuable information from background clutter gain power. Cue-givers become more in demand, and this is a source of power for those who can tell us where to focus our attention.
Among editors and cue-givers, credibility is the crucial resource and an important source of soft power. Reputation becomes even more important than in the past, and political struggles occur over the creation and destruction of credibility.”

Joseph Nye, The Future of Power, pp. 103-4

Quote: Universities and business models

There are three generic types of business models: solution shops, value-adding process businesses, and facilitated user networks. Each of these is comprised of its own value proposition, resources, processes, and profit formula. Universities have become conflations of all three types of business models. This has resulted in extraordinarily complex—some might say confused—institutions where much of the cost is tied up in coordinative overhead rather than in research and teaching. A key reason why the for-profit universities and other universities such as Western Governor’s have been gaining such traction in today’s higher education market is that they don’t conflate the three types of business models.


Universities emerged in the 17th and 18th centuries primarily as teaching institutions, but most gradually evolved to become expensive conflations of all three types of models with three value propositions: research, organized as a solution-shop model; teaching, which is a value-adding process activity; which is a value-adding process activity; and facilitated networks, within which students work to help each other succeed and have fun. A typical state university today is the equivalent of having merged major consulting firm McKinsey with Whirlpool’s manufacturing operations and Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company. They have three fundamentally different and incompatible business models all housed within the same organization.

Christensen, C. M., Horn, M. B., & Caldera, L. (2011). Disrupting College: How Disruptive Innovation Can Deliver Quality and Affordability to Postsecondary Education  [pp. 33-35]

Quote: Academics as the Four Yorkshiremen

While there are some, perhaps-justified, fears about modern academia effectively losing the insights of the next Newton, it’s worth recalling the circumstances in which many of the well-known figures in the history of science conducted their work. While they may not have been writing grant reports of marking exams, they were likely seeking patronage, carrying on journalistic careers, undertaking the duties of a doctor or a vicar, teaching, family business or otherwise making a – usually non-scientific – living.

Those who really were excluded were not solitary geniuses who could not find sufficient time for thinking, but those who were, as a result of class, geography, race or gender, never likely to have the opportunity to begin an education, let alone contribute to the established scientific societies and journals. And this affected the science that was done: ample research shows how the norms, assumptions and interests of elites have shaped supposedly value-free science.

Rebekah Higgitt, “Who’s missing in modern academia, solitary geniuses, or something much more significant”

This quote brings us to the heart of “well-in-the-bad-old-days-things-were-simpler ‘argument’, that has been trotted out since time immemorial. It’s the academic’s equivalent of the Four Yorkshiremen.

Right. I had to get up in the morning at ten o’clock at night, half an hour before I went to bed, eat a lump of cold poison, work twenty-nine hours a day down mill, and pay mill owner for permission to come to work, and when we got home, our Dad would kill us, and dance about on our graves singing “Hallelujah.”

But you try and tell the young people today that…

The demands made on academics are of course onerous, and we can’t deny that. But nor should we let this blind us to the situation faced by others in the wider academic and research world. We cannot let the poor working conditions of those who are employed blind us to the undermining of the work itself. We see this in the nouveau-indentured labour of the graduate students, the adjuncts, the non-tenure track lecturers, and the researchers on short/fixed-term contracts, all with little hope of security. Being aware of this casualization of academic labour, and the erosion of tenure, is imperative.

Getting rid of the academic as the heart of the academy is not a matter of ‘including stakeholders’, or ‘increasing efficiency’, or bringing better organizational models to bear. It is a coup against knowledge, and all the processes required to create it. Lecturers and researchers are at the heart of academia, as they live their lives in it. They cannot do what they do without the university. Administrators could go and administer anything, elsewhere. Students hang around for 3-4 years (any longer, and they cross over the border from student to researcher, on to the academic side of things) and then are gone. Presidents and Rectors always have the option to helm other forms of organization. But when we allow the role of  the academic as researcher and teacher to be shunted to one side, we lose something. It is not to suggest that, Smaug atop the horde, the academic is at the pinnacle of a hierarchy, and all others are subordinate to them. Rather it is that the academic has the centrality of the hub, the central node in the vast knowledge-creating network that is the university. Only by recognising, and asserting this can we preserve the workers as well as the work.

Enhanced by Zemanta

A structural reason for technology’s ethical blind-spot

I want to offer here a possible structural reason for why when technology is subject to ethical critique that their response is often all too insufficient. I am thinking primarily of the inability of the targets of Evgeny Morozov‘s broadsides to respond either tonally or in terms of content to what he has to say. One reason I have heard in discussions is that those who are subject to attack want to somehow “rise above” what is being directed at them, but to me this misses the point, and the dual failure here (of style and content) is connected to something broader.

Returning for a moment to those doing the attacking, such as Morozov or Dale Carrico, they tend to view the ethical blind spot I mention here as wilful, as a sin of commission rather than one of omission.  The sense one gets in reading their pieces is that technologists are dastardly and malevolent in their intentions. I shall add a caveat here, and say the positions of Morozov, but especially Carrico are considerably more sophisticated than this outline can do justice to, but that neither of these figures (whom I agree with across the board) are the focus of what I am saying. Their critique is a staging area for my observations here. I am less vituperatively inclined Continue reading

Redefining academic research – capital or plural?

“University scientists still do most of the research, but increasingly the allegiance of many is to the ‘research centre’, a quasi-academic institution which draws its heat and light from the university, its directions from elsewhere.”

“Cooperative groups, from the great industrial concerns to small research teams, inevitably tend to rely on what is already acceptable as common ground, and that means established, specialized techniques.”

“Companion to the team project and planning by committee is the blight of ‘research design’. Instead of being joined together in a flexible arrangement which allows the scientist to follow his own side roads, project members are bound up in a highly detailed, prefabricated master plan of research.”

The above three quotes are not from recent blog posts regarding higher education, or reponses to EU policy initiatives, but  from William H. Whyte’s 1956 work, The Organization Man, in his chapter “The Bureaucratization of the Scientist”.  Though over half a century old, the concerns and criticisms expressed here are as timely as ever they were (with the addition of there being organization women as well as men…), and the problems that prompted such reflections still exist. Indeed, in one form or another, I have heard similar remarks made by researchers, academics, and administrators in the last few years of working in higher education.  Continue reading

Quote: why consensus? Implications for research and knowledge

And why should there be consensus? Must consensus per se be the overriding goal? It is the price of progress that there never can be complete consensus. All creative advances are essentially a departure from agreed-upon ways of looking at things, and to overemphasize the agreed-upon is to legitimatize the further the hostility to that creativity upon which we all ultimately depend.

William H. Whyte, The Organization Man, p. 59.

The Organization ManWhyte makes continued reference to there being a stark difference in the requirements imposed on the member of an organization qua member-of-an-organization (that is, a constituent of a group) and what might in fact best suit this individual as an individual. It brings home to me how fecund the hermeneutic interpretation of how meaning is created can be in this context.

Paul Ricoeur made it a central part of his analysis of language that meaning does not come from denotation, from pure description as a one-to-one identity of meaning (univocity, akin to the Hebrew YHWH), nor a vector of signifier to signified (equivocity), but as  through tension, through the torsion and bending of language out of its old form into a new one (i.e., analogy – more on this in an old post, Being, metaphor, and “nothingness”). That is new meaning comes from metaphor, analogy, critique, and other ‘figurative’ forms of language. This is the analysis of meaning within language. We can extend this, however, and make analogy with society and the production of knowledge, information.

What Whyte is discussing here is the notion that consensus can be an obstacle to the discovery of solutions to problems, that consensus effectively means doing what we have always done and hoping that we will end up doing something new. Via this reductio the illogic of such a concept becomes apparent. It draws out the quite formal contradiction at the centre of this mindset. It indicates that any form of consensus (including the now fashionable consensus of so-called ‘disruption’) stifles the discovery of alternatives, or possibilities.

Making matters concrete for a moment, we find the kernel of an argument to be made for ‘blue-sky’ or pure research. Parsing current discussions of research according to the distinctions made above, consensus research is that research which is directed, which must have measureable impact. Consensus research must take place within a research framework, a research project, a research group, a research pillar, a research funding call, etc. The alternative (I don’t give it a distinctive name as that goes against its elusive, un-pin-down-able characteristics – better to define it negatively, in opposition) is not beholden to the stifling qualities of consensus, namely bureaucracy, conformity, and fitting oneself into neat boxes a-ready for the ticking. Is this a pure dichotomy, a clean distinction? Of course not. Is directed research to be done away with? Of course not. Is pure, non-consensus research more productive than it’s counterpart? Who can say. What is necessary here (in the spirit of critique, mentioned above) is to note that directed research, consensus attempts at creating knowledge and meaning are not the only game in town.

Higher education research, networks, and the new metrics

Reading about “The benefits of the research blog” at the Kpop Kollective, an interesting corollary of having a research blog springs to mind. William Gunn, who is Mendeley’s head of academic outreach, noted recently in a Research Trends virtual seminar (available here, along with the other seminars of the day) that when it comes to making your work/publications/etc. available for download on repositories (etc.) that “Readership patterns correlate with eventual citation patterns”, when we understand readership patterns here to be synonymous with actual downloads rather than just clicks. We assume here when somebody downloads the pdf (or recording, or whatever else) of your work, that they intend to read it (clicking on the page which has this download link usually just has the abstract, which is of limited use in deciding “I am/am not interested in this work”). This allows you, as a researcher, to know in advance of publication how your work will be received. Thinking about this leads to some interesting questions.

Fig. 1: Traditional research output model

Fig. 1: Traditional research output model

The older model of how we conceive publication is as in Fig. 1. We have a fairly direct vector going from research to output to the reception of this output. This reception, and all other related factors such as citation counts and other forms of bibliometric analysis taking place on a meso- and macro-level, is what influences a researcher’s continued work. Do I continue to focus on the same things? Is there an interested audience for this type of work, and am I connecting with them? This is one of the points which is often glossed over in discussions of bibliometrics. There is something of a binary attitude towards such forms of quantitative analysis, where by those in the sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematical fields (STEM) are held to be most readily catered for by bibliometrics, where as those in the arts, humanities and social sciences (AHSS) are not. In my work in this area, for both STEM and AHSS researchers, I take a somewhat tempered view. My philosophical background in hermeneutics and the philosophies of information and knowledge (Gadamer, Ricoeur, et al.) allows me to see that bibliometrics is a tool to try put a researcher’s work into context. That is what hermeneutics is all about. The difficulty is that this tool is extremely blunt, and that the results are far too slow in coming. Calling these “metrics” is misleading, as it arrogates a notion of precision and agreed-upon rules of measurement where at best we have indicators – and beyond that not much aside from a lot of disagreement!

Continue reading