Academic stereotypes

There is a recent piece in Times Higher Education talking about the loss of the ‘dusty’ archival experience of being an academic researcher via the digital revolution, which has instead put most of us in front of a computer for most of our days. It’s an interesting point – and there are far reaching implications for the changes that the digital revolution has brought to research. The number and diversity of resources I was able to access for my PhD, with just a few clicks of a mouse might have taken months to unearth in years gone by. It’s something I have paused to consider myself more than once. However, this is not the main reason I’m posting about it. One of the interesting things was the minor twitter storm caused by the THE use of the tired cliche of ‘dusty’ in their first paragraph. Several archivists wrote in defending their shiny, well kept, mines of knowledge, and the THE duly apologised. It got me thinking about academic stereotypes, what effect they might have on professional, social, and public relations, and what we can attempt to do to combat these negative assumptions.

So, we all know that crazy haired professors sit in ivory towers speaking jargon heavy and inaccessible theories which are not based in the real world. These several stereotypes conjure up images of academics not only as idiosyncratic and eccentric, but also as self indulgent, irrelevant, and incapable of stepping outside their own languages to speak to ‘ordinary’ people.

Regardless of the perceived reality of these stereotypes, there are various effects played out in academic work as a result of their existence. These are not all bad things, as they can push academics towards making the relevance and accessibility of their work an explicit focus. Nevertheless, the mere existence of these stereotypes means that often people have a wall of assumptions raised up against academics which means they might not engage in the way that our work may require. Much of our work is about getting beneath commonly held assumptions and presenting alternative viewpoints, and in order for this to have any impact we need receptive audiences.

There are various things we can do to try and present ourselves and our work in a way that might prompt audience engagement. Publishing in a range of forums besides academic journals is an obvious example – professional and trade journals, policy forums, newspapers, online chat rooms and blogs. The fact that you can create any number of online versions of yourself and your work is quite empowering and has the potential to reach a broader and more diverse audience.

However, there is also a bit of a policy mismatch here. I’m talking here about impact, well, I’m talking about one version of impact, the version that most people might understand by the term ‘impact’ and that is, your research getting to the people who it concerns and who can (hopefully) take action on the basis of it. This has become increasingly important in fighting off charges of irrelevancy levelled at academics. It is an important part of any funding bid, and also makes up part of the research evaluation framework (REF) and it’s ‘impact case studies’.

The REF is the most important evaluative mechanism for university research, it feeds directly into both international league tables and funding quotas. However, in spite of the existence of the impact case studies, there is a sense in which only lip service is really paid to this version of impact by the REF in comparison to the alternative definition of impact which they have developed, and which makes up the main basis for the overall institutional score, and that is, the number of articles each individual academic has published in internationally renowned peer reviewed academic journals (journals with high ‘impact’ factors), where they will never be read by anyone outside academia. Real impact (i.e. engagement and knowledge exchange) thus becomes something to be done once the narrow and performative journal impact has been satisfied. This leads to a de-valuing of these kinds of activities and means that they end up not being done well, or done at all, by many.

This leaves a contradiction in place between the the rhetoric of funding bodies, university communications, and continuing development literature, which always underlines the importance of definition 1 of impact – the good kind – while only supporting, incentivising, and performance managing in relation to the narrow version 2. It also reinforces tensions between rhetoric and reality in relation to stereotypes, and how likely they are to be broken down in an institutional context which does not provide real resource based support for doing so.


Ok. I’ve come to feel a little foolish in the past week or so, since writing this post, as I have started to discover the world of activity that is going on with blogging and its impact on impact – see the ever increasing list of blogs on the right of the page. However, I stand by the point, as I think the majority of this work is contributing to the already sizeable gift economy in academia. When blogging becomes more than a interesting footnote on a cv, when it becomes recognised by funding bodies and evaluation frameworks, then change will have occurred. I guess the only way forward is for as many people as possible to keep doing it.

Bloggers of the world unite!


2 responses to “Academic stereotypes

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