Tag Archives: non-academics

Academics and Their Publics

Misunderstood by Raffi Asdourian

Misunderstood by Raffi Asdourian

Academics are misunderstood.

Almost by definition.

Pretty much any academic eventually feels that s/he is misunderstood. Misunderstandings about some core notions in about any academic field are involved in some of the most common pet peeves among academics.

In other words, there’s nothing as transdisciplinary as misunderstanding.

It can happen in the close proximity of a given department (“colleagues in my department misunderstand my work”). It can happen through disciplinary boundaries (“people in that field have always misunderstood our field”). And, it can happen generally: “Nobody gets us.”

It’s not paranoia and it’s probably not self-victimization. But there almost seems to be a form of “onedownmanship” at stake with academics from different disciplines claiming that they’re more misunderstood than others. In fact, I personally get the feeling that ethnographers are more among the most misunderstood people around, but even short discussions with friends in other fields (including mathematics) have helped me get the idea that, basically, we’re all misunderstood at the same “level” but there are variations in the ways we’re misunderstood. For instance, anthropologists in general are mistaken for what they aren’t based on partial understanding by the general population.

An example from my own experience, related to my decision to call myself an “informal ethnographer.” When you tell people you’re an anthropologist, they form an image in their minds which is very likely to be inaccurate. But they do typically have an image in their minds. On the other hand, very few people have any idea about what “ethnography” means, so they’re less likely to form an opinion of what you do from prior knowledge. They may puzzle over the term and try to take a guess as to what “ethnographer” might mean but, in my experience, calling myself an “ethnographer” has been a more efficient way to be understood than calling myself an “anthropologist.”

This may all sound like nitpicking but, from the inside, it’s quite impactful. Linguists are frequently asked about the number of languages they speak. Mathematicians are taken to be number freaks. Psychologists are perceived through the filters of “pop psych.” There are many stereotypes associated with engineers. Etc.

These misunderstandings have an impact on anyone’s work. Not only can it be demoralizing and can it impact one’s sense of self-worth, but it can influence funding decisions as well as the use of research results. These misunderstandings can underminine learning across disciplines. In survey courses, basic misunderstandings can make things very difficult for everyone. At a rather basic level, academics fight misunderstandings more than they fight ignorance.

The  main reason I’m discussing this is that I’ve been given several occasions to think about the interface between the Ivory Tower and the rest of the world. It’s been a major theme in my blogposts about intellectuals, especially the ones in French. Two years ago, for instance, I wrote a post in French about popularizers. A bit more recently, I’ve been blogging about specific instances of misunderstandings associated with popularizers, including Malcolm Gladwell’s approach to expertise. Last year, I did a podcast episode about ethnography and the Ivory Tower. And, just within the past few weeks, I’ve been reading a few things which all seem to me to connect with this same issue: common misunderstandings about academic work. The connections are my own, and may not be so obvious to anyone else. But they’re part of my motivations to blog about this important issue.

In no particular order:

But, of course, I think about many other things. Including (again, in no particular order):

One discussion I remember, which seems to fit, included comments about Germaine Dieterlen by a friend who also did research in West Africa. Can’t remember the specifics but the gist of my friend’s comment was that “you get to respect work by the likes of Germaine Dieterlen once you start doing field research in the region.” In my academic background, appreciation of Germaine Dieterlen’s may not be unconditional, but it doesn’t necessarily rely on extensive work in the field. In other words, while some parts of Dieterlen’s work may be controversial and it’s extremely likely that she “got a lot of things wrong,” her work seems to be taken seriously by several French-speaking africanists I’ve met. And not only do I respect everyone but I would likely praise someone who was able to work in the field for so long. She’s not my heroine (I don’t really have heroes) or my role-model, but it wouldn’t have occurred to me that respect for her wasn’t widespread. If it had seemed that Dieterlen’s work had been misunderstood, my reflex would possibly have been to rehabilitate her.

In fact, there’s  a strong academic tradition of rehabilitating deceased scholars. The first example which comes to mind is a series of articles (PDF, in French) and book chapters by UWO linguistic anthropologist Regna Darnell.about “Benjamin Lee Whorf as a key figure in linguistic anthropology.” Of course, saying that these texts by Darnell constitute a rehabilitation of Whorf reveals a type of evaluation of her work. But that evaluation comes from a third person, not from me. The likely reason for this case coming up to my mind is that the so-called “Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis” is among the most misunderstood notions from linguistic anthropology. Moreover, both Whorf and Sapir are frequently misunderstood, which can make matters difficulty for many linguistic anthropologists talking with people outside the discipline.

The opposite process is also common: the “slaughtering” of “sacred cows.” (First heard about sacred cows through an article by ethnomusicologist Marcia Herndon.) In some significant ways, any scholar (alive or not) can be the object of not only critiques and criticisms but a kind of off-handed dismissal. Though this often happens within an academic context, the effects are especially lasting outside of academia. In other words, any scholar’s name is likely to be “sullied,” at one point or another. Typically, there seems to be a correlation between the popularity of a scholar and the likelihood of her/his reputation being significantly tarnished at some point in time. While there may still be people who treat Darwin, Freud, Nietzsche, Socrates, Einstein, or Rousseau as near divinities, there are people who will avoid any discussion about anything they’ve done or said. One way to put it is that they’re all misunderstood. Another way to put it is that their main insights have seeped through “common knowledge” but that their individual reputations have decreased.

Perhaps the most difficult case to discuss is that of Marx (Karl, not Harpo). Textbooks in introductory sociology typically have him as a key figure in the discipline and it seems clear that his insight on social issues was fundamental in social sciences. But, outside of some key academic contexts, his name is associated with a large series of social events about which people tend to have rather negative reactions. Even more so than for Paul de Man or  Martin Heidegger, Marx’s work is entangled in public opinion about his ideas. Haven’t checked for examples but I’m quite sure that Marx’s work is banned in a number of academic contexts. However, even some of Marx’s most ardent opponents are likely to agree with several aspects of Marx’s work and it’s sometimes funny how Marxian some anti-Marxists may be.

But I digress…

Typically, the “slaughtering of sacred cows” relates to disciplinary boundaries instead of social ones. At least, there’s a significant difference between your discipline’s own “sacred cows” and what you perceive another discipline’s “sacred cows” to be. Within a discipline, the process of dismissing a prior scholar’s work is almost œdipean (speaking of Freud). But dismissal of another discipline’s key figures is tantamount to a rejection of that other discipline. It’s one thing for a physicist to show that Newton was an alchemist. It’d be another thing entirely for a social scientist to deconstruct James Watson’s comments about race or for a theologian to argue with Darwin. Though discussions may have to do with individuals, the effects of the latter can widen gaps between scholarly disciplines.

And speaking of disciplinarity, there’s a whole set of issues having to do with discussions “outside of someone’s area of expertise.” On one side, comments made by academics about issues outside of their individual areas of expertise can be very tricky and can occasionally contribute to core misunderstandings. The fear of “talking through one’s hat” is quite significant, in no small part because a scholar’s prestige and esteem may greatly decrease as a result of some blatantly inaccurate statements (although some award-winning scholars seem not to be overly impacted by such issues).

On the other side, scholars who have to impart expert knowledge to people outside of their discipline  often have to “water down” or “boil down” their ideas and, in effect, oversimplifying these issues and concepts. Partly because of status (prestige and esteem), lowering standards is also very tricky. In some ways, this second situation may be more interesting. And it seems unavoidable.

How can you prevent misunderstandings when people may not have the necessary background to understand what you’re saying?

This question may reveal a rather specific attitude: “it’s their fault if they don’t understand.” Such an attitude may even be widespread. Seems to me, it’s not rare to hear someone gloating about other people “getting it wrong,” with the suggestion that “we got it right.”  As part of negotiations surrounding expert status, such an attitude could even be a pretty rational approach. If you’re trying to position yourself as an expert and don’t suffer from an “impostor syndrome,” you can easily get the impression that non-specialists have it all wrong and that only experts like you can get to the truth. Yes, I’m being somewhat sarcastic and caricatural, here. Academics aren’t frequently that dismissive of other people’s difficulties understanding what seem like simple concepts. But, in the gap between academics and the general population a special type of intellectual snobbery can sometimes be found.

Obviously, I have a lot more to say about misunderstood academics. For instance, I wanted to address specific issues related to each of the links above. I also had pet peeves about widespread use of concepts and issues like “communities” and “Eskimo words for snow” about which I sometimes need to vent. And I originally wanted this post to be about “cultural awareness,” which ends up being a core aspect of my work. I even had what I might consider a “neat” bit about public opinion. Not to mention my whole discussion of academic obfuscation (remind me about “we-ness and distinction”).

But this is probably long enough and the timing is right for me to do something else.

I’ll end with an unverified anecdote that I like. This anecdote speaks to snobbery toward academics.

[It’s one of those anecdotes which was mentioned in a course I took a long time ago. Even if it’s completely fallacious, it’s still inspiring, like a tale, cautionary or otherwise.]

As the story goes (at least, what I remember of it), some ethnographers had been doing fieldwork  in an Australian cultural context and were focusing their research on a complex kinship system known in this context. Through collaboration with “key informants,” the ethnographers eventually succeeded in understanding some key aspects of this kinship system.

As should be expected, these kinship-focused ethnographers wrote accounts of this kinship system at the end of their field research and became known as specialists of this system.

After a while, the fieldworkers went back to the field and met with the same people who had described this kinship system during the initial field trip. Through these discussions with their “key informants,” the ethnographers end up hearing about a radically different kinship system from the one about which they had learnt, written, and taught.

The local informants then told the ethnographers: “We would have told you earlier about this but we didn’t think you were able to understand it.”

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Privilege: Library Edition

When I came out against privilege, over a month ago, I wasn’t thinking about libraries. But, last week, while running some errands at three local libraries (within an hour), I got to think about library privileges.

During that day, I first started thinking about library privileges because I was renewing my CREPUQ card at Concordia. With that card, graduate students and faculty members at a university in Quebec are able to get library privileges at other universities, a nice “perk” that we have. While renewing my card, I was told (or, more probably, reminded) that the card now gives me borrowing privileges at any university library in Canada through CURBA (Canadian University Reciprocal Borrowing Agreement).

My gut reaction: “Aw-sum!” (I was having a fun day).

It got me thinking about what it means to be an academic in Canada. Because I’ve also spent part of my still short academic career in the United States, I tend to compare the Canadian academe to US academic contexts. And while there are some impressive academic consortia in the US, I don’t think that any of them may offer as wide a set of library privileges as this one. If my count is accurate, there are 77 institutions involved in CURBA. University systems and consortia in the US typically include somewhere between ten and thirty institutions, usually within the same state or region. Even if members of both the “UC System” and “CalState” have similar borrowing privileges, it would only mean 33 institutions, less than half of CURBA (though the population of California is about 20% more than that of Canada as a whole). Some important university consortia through which I’ve had some privileges were the CIC (Committee on Institutional Cooperation), a group of twelve Midwestern universities, and the BLC (Boston Library Consortium), a group of twenty university in New England. Even with full borrowing privileges in all three groups of university libraries, an academic would only have access to library material from 65 institutions.

Of course, the number of institutions isn’t that relevant if the libraries themselves have few books. But my guess is that the average size of a Canadian university’s library collection is quite comparable to its US equivalents, including in such well-endowed institutions as those in the aforementioned consortia and university systems. What’s more, I would guess that there might be a broader range of references across Canadian universities than in any region of the US. Not to mention that BANQ (Quebec’s national library and archives) are part of CURBA and that their collections overlap very little with a typical university library.

So, I was thinking about access to an extremely wide range of references given to graduate students and faculty members throughout Canada. We get this very nice perk, this impressive privilege, and we pretty much take it for granted.

Which eventually got me to think about my problem with privilege. Privilege implies a type of hierarchy with which I tend to be uneasy. Even (or especially) when I benefit from a top position. “That’s all great for us but what about other people?”

In this case, there are obvious “Others” like undergraduate students at Canadian institutions,  Canadian non-academics, and scholars at non-Canadian institutions. These are very disparate groups but they are all denied something.

Canadian undergrads are the most direct “victims”: they participate in Canada’s academe, like graduate students and faculty members, yet their access to resources is severely limited by comparison to those of us with CURBA privileges. Something about this strikes me as rather unfair. Don’t undegrads need access as much as we do? Is there really such a wide gap between someone working on an honour’s thesis at the end of a bachelor’s degree and someone starting work on a master’s thesis that the latter requires much wider access than the former? Of course, the main rationale behind this discrepancy in access to library material probably has to do with sheer numbers: there are many undergraduate students “fighting for the same resources” and there are relatively few graduate students and faculty members who need access to the same resources. Or something like that. It makes sense but it’s still a point of tension, as any matter of privilege.

The second set of “victims” includes Canadians who happen to not be affiliated directly with an academic institution. While it may seem that their need for academic resources are more limited than those of students, many people in this category have a more unquenchable “thirst for knowledge” than many an academic. In fact, there are people in this category who could probably do a lot of academically-relevant work “if only they had access.” I mostly mean people who have an academic background of some sort but who are currently unaffiliated with formal institutions. But the “broader public” counts, especially when a specific topic becomes relevant to them. These are people who take advantage of public libraries but, as mentioned in the BANQ case, public and university libraries don’t tend to overlap much. For instance, it’s quite unlikely that someone without academic library privileges would have been able to borrow Visual Information Processing (Chase, William 1973), a proceedings book that I used as a source for a recent blogpost on expertise. Of course, “the public” is usually allowed to browse books in most university libraries in North America (apart from Harvard). But, depending on other practical factors, borrowing books can be much more efficient than browsing them in a library. I tend to hear from diverse people who would enjoy some kind of academic status for this very reason: library privileges matter.

A third category of “victims” of CURBA privileges are non-Canadian academics. Since most of them may only contribute indirectly to Canadian society, why should they have access to Canadian resources? As any social context, the national academe defines insiders and outsiders. While academics are typically inclusive, this type of restriction seems to make sense. Yet many academics outside of Canada could benefit from access to resources broadly available to Canadian academics. In some cases, there are special agreements to allow outside scholars to get temporary access to local, regional, or national resources. Rather frequently, these agreements come with special funding, the outside academic being a special visitor, sometimes with even better access than some local academics.  I have very limited knowledge of these agreements (apart from infrequent discussions with colleagues who benefitted from them) but my sense is that they are costly, cumbersome, and restrictive. Access to local resources is even more exclusive a privilege in this case than in the CURBA case.

Which brings me to my main point about the issue: we all need open access.

When I originally thought about how impressive CURBA privileges were, I was thinking through the logic of the physical library. In a physical library, resources are scarce, access to resources need to be controlled, and library privileges have a high value. In fact, it costs an impressive amount of money to run a physical library. The money universities invest in their libraries is relatively “inelastic” and must figure quite prominently in their budgets. The “return” on that investment seems to me a bit hard to measure: is it a competitive advantage, does a better-endowed library make a university more cost-effective, do university libraries ever “recoup” any portion of the amounts spent?

Contrast all of this with a “virtual” library. My guess is that an online collection of texts costs less to maintain than a physical library by any possible measure. Because digital data may be copied at will, the notion of “scarcity” makes little sense online. Distributing millions of copies of a digital text doesn’t make the original text unavailable to anyone. As long as the distribution system is designed properly, the “transaction costs” in distributing a text of any length are probably much less than those associated with borrowing a book.  And the differences between “browsing” and “borrowing,” which do appear significant with physical books, seem irrelevant with digital texts.

These are all well-known points about online distribution. And they all seem to lead to the same conclusion: “information wants to be free.” Not “free as in beer.” Maybe not even “free as in speech.” But “free as in unchained.”

Open access to academic resources is still a hot topic. Though I do consider myself an advocate of “OA” (the “Open Access movement”), what I mean here isn’t so much about OA as opposed to TA (“toll-access”) in the case of academic journals. Physical copies of periodicals may usually not be borrowed, regardless of library privileges, and online resources are typically excluded from borrowing agreements between institutions. The connection between OA and my perspective on library privileges is that I think the same solution could solve both issues.

I’ve been thinking about a “global library” for a while. Like others, the Library of Alexandria serves as a model but texts would be online. It sounds utopian but my main notion, there, is that “library privileges” would be granted to anyone. Not only senior scholars at accredited academic institutions. Anyone. Of course, the burden of maintaining that global library would also be shared by anyone.

There are many related models, apart from the Library of Alexandria: French «Encyclopédistes» through the Englightenment, public libraries, national libraries (including the Library of Congress), Tim Berners-Lee’s original “World Wide Web” concept, Brewster Kahle’s Internet Archive, Google Books, etc. Though these models differ, they all point to the same basic idea: a “universal” collection with the potential for “universal” access. In historical perspective, this core notion of a “universal library” seems relatively stable.

Of course, there are many obstacles to a “global” or “universal” library. Including issues having to do with conflicts between social groups across the Globe or the current state of so-called “intellectual property.” These are all very tricky and I don’t think they can be solved in any number of blogposts. The main thing I’ve been thinking about, in this case, is the implications of a global library in terms of privileges.

Come to think of it, it’s possible that much of the resistance to a global library have to do with privilege: unlike me, some people enjoy privilege.