Saturday, June 22

The necessary death of the academic essay

One of the issues for universities that we fail to really account for is the realization that the majority of students will leave and never have to undertake another traditional academic assignment in their lives. Yes, we are training (and hopefully educating) that post-industrial workforce termed ‘knowledge workers’, but universities have not really got their heads around what ‘knowledge’ is outside the university. 

Once they leave university almost everyone loses access to the traditional repositories of university knowledge: academic books and journals housed in university libraries whether in physical texts and journals on shelves or, increasingly, online. Subscription and licensing fees coupled with strict copyright rules effectively isolate most academic books and journals within the confines of university libraries. Likewise, the very expensive costs of most academic texts put them well beyond the reach of most employers and employees- even if they were inclined to use them. To be blunt, academic publishing is a broken system not only in the costs involved but also in the way it is increasingly focused on citation rates for university and academic promotion.  The only people winning are the publishers with academic publishing profit margins often approaching 40%. This makes them one of the most profitable businesses in the world, even more than many tech companies. The basis of this is from purchase and subscription costs, with most e-books now also on a rental with caps set on the number of users before a new cost is required.  Where does the money for all of this come from? The majority is from the budgets of state universities with a supplementary flow of income from research funding that requires publication in top-ranked journals to ‘justify’ it.

Over the past decade, there has been a move to open-access publishing but again this is a heavily extractive model whereby researchers and their institutions pay the publishers to publish their work and make it ‘open-access’. In both models, academics are effectively ‘working for free’ for publishers; that is, academic publishing is based on making very large profits off the free labour of academics who are not even employed by the publishers. This is why there is such a push in academic publishing to journals over books because there are no royalties involved in journals. But even in books, unless you write that very rare thing, an academic best-seller, the most income an academic can hope to get from a book is to write a textbook and make it a set text for a large class and then regularly update it and so limit any secondhand or resale market. There are significant ethical questions here that academics don’t like to deal with, for such texts are usually hugely expensive and paid for out of student loans.

But this is only the background context. What I am interested in is why we continue to insist on students in most areas continuously undertaking writing an academic essay using academic library sources. There is still a place for the traditional academic essay as a base-level training in writing, arguing, and research skills.  But let’s be honest, most students will never carry on to postgraduate research in a discipline and even fewer will end up working in an area that aligns directly with their academic majoring subject or discipline.  But even if they do, they will never write another academic essay in their life. More so, in whatever writing they do undertake, they will not have access to the vast majority of academic sources we demand they use and focus on while at university.

The internet has radically changed the creation, circulation, and access of knowledge and information (for the two are not necessarily the same).  There is the assumption that those born into the world of the internet are digital natives who have an innate and contextually-derived deep knowledge and understanding of how to use and navigate this new ‘knowledge commons’.  But this is not the case.  Social media has shrunk and continues to shrink the internet for most of those born into the 21st century and in fact, for most of those born after 1980. There is the internet on one side and social media on the other and an increasingly wide and divisive gulf between them for most who rely primarily on social media for news, views, and infotainment.

Universities need to be facilitating future knowledge workers in how to properly access, assess, and use the internet. This means getting them to write reports and various documents based only on sources not locked behind university-only access.  But it also means expanding their use of such sources away from open-access academic journal articles as well, for there are significant limits as to what gets published in these. Such articles often tend to repeat the status-quo focus of much academic publishing.  Properly new ideas, blue-skies thinking, and disruptive analysis all tend to be ignored by most academic publishers. But just as importantly, most academic articles are in the main, unreadable for the educated general reader – and this is why open-access, is for most non-academic readers, an oxymoron.

So, what do we need to do?  Firstly, recognize the research and comprehension limitations of most of our undergraduates coming through from the New Zealand school system.  They are also social media natives, not internet natives.  Secondly, they have usually never properly used a library. Thirdly, most do not have the reading or comprehension level to properly engage with academic writing.  If you ask them for their honest engagement with such writing, they will state they bluff their reading of such material, skimming for set ideas and key phrases.  They know most academic assessment is regurgitation to a rubric. Fourthly, realize we have a responsibility to facilitate graduates who can take tertiary-developed skills and apply them critically and creatively to the non-tertiary workplace.  This means developing their use and writing of non-academic ‘knowledge work’.  

We need to move away from the ‘academic source only’ second and third-year essays and set new forms of assessment that are closer to the types of reports and presentations and analysis most knowledge workers do, which are, in the main, not based solely or even primarily on academic sources. This means facilitating and encouraging internet-based knowledge workers, not just academic journal, and book-based knowledge workers.

We also need to encourage our academics to do more public intellectual writing and publishing across a variety of outlets.  We are paid out of the public purse, both directly and indirectly, yet we tend to write not for the public. We hide ideas, thinking, and writing behind paywalls, academic and otherwise, while what is open-access is increasingly encumbered by jargon and technical language that renders most academic writing inaccessible and often, unreadable.

My point is that Universities have a societal responsibility that we are increasingly failing to properly develop and deliver.  The world has changed while we continue in thrall to the exploitive and extractive self-interest of academic publishers and in doing so, fail to prepare most of our graduates for the knowledge work they will undertake.