Scholarship By Metrics

Interesting article by Justin E.H. Smith on How Social Media Imperils Scholarship. It’s a long article, but well worth reading. A few highlights:

Eventually, those who do research simply out of love of knowledge might find it preferable to present their findings anonymously and gratuitously as Wikipedia editors rather than as members of the afflicted and moribund tribe of academics. Social media is hastening the arrival of that day.

The same click-swipe-and-rate economy has left everyone involved in cultural production dazed and stumbling. Journalism, art, literature, and entertainment have been engulfed by a tsunami of metrics. And dare we mention love, friendship, and political community? These, too, have been absorbed by the mania of metrics coupled with so-called gamification — a treacherous imitation of play. 

I have not yet heard of tenure committees taking into consideration information about a candidate’s followings on or the other sites, as they attempt to take the measure of his career success. But it will happen sooner or later. And sooner or later tenure candidates in Ohio will be PayPaling click factories in China to help them inflate their numbers artificially. And after that has gone on for some time, candidates will be required to submit, along with their dossiers, proof that the information has been run through some trusted anti-­click-factory certification software, and the metrics have been shown to be authentic. And eventually a way will be discovered to game the certification process, too, and so on, and at each stage academics will be drawn even further away from their ostensible object of study, Old Turkic inscriptions or Elizabethan verse, the thing they once imagined, in graduate school, was worthy of a lifetime of loving dedication.

The old world is crumbling. Pre-internet institutions are struggling to make their presence felt however they can. Even the pope has taken to tweeting, in what may be variously interpreted as a hip renovation of his dilapidated old temple, or as a desperate bid to stay relevant in a world that equates an absence of online metrics, of clicks and likes and follows, with nonexistence itself. It is no surprise that in this strange new world, academics are behaving no differently than the Pontifex, or exposure-craving politicians, or SoundCloud rappers, or aspiring team players projecting their can-do attitudes on LinkedIn.

The Academic is Dead. Long Live the Academic.

I didn’t go to university. I went to a community college. And I took 8 years to get a 2 year degree at that, so perhaps I’m the last person qualified to be commenting on academics and/or higher education. I do know that now, as a wizened middle-ager I wish I had gone to university and even entertain hopes of doing so at one point before I shuffle off this mortal coil.

Even back when I didn’t go to university, I still was still of the opinion – and so I think, were most of my peers – that one did so to become a better, more complete person. I don’t think people I knew went just to get a job. I didn’t go, and still managed to find several jobs – one even turned into a ‘career’. Perhaps not the career I wanted in retrospect, but that’s a different therapy session entirely – or perhaps, that’s the very symptom of my lack of exposure to inquiry and critical thought during my most formative years.

I’ve observed a shifting in attitudes about higher learning in North American society. My viewfinder is limited – mostly what I get is via news outlets, opinion pieces, podcasts and some limited first hand experience with my own kids or others I know.

I’m not sure where or how I came across the following article on Nathan Glazer, I’m reasonably sure I was attracted to the mention of ‘merit’ and hoped the discussion therein would surround that. It did to some extent. I had no idea who Nathan Glazer was – it turns out he was quite an interesting cat.

This excellent article/eulogy by Peter Skerry seems to champion him as an ‘unconventional academic’. His telling of Glazer’s life is a story of a man constantly driven by a desire to question and investigate, yet one who did so on the fringes of academia and wound up with a career in it almost as a side-effect of his considerable intellect.

“In that era, young people from such humble backgrounds, even those attending college, had modest or ill-defined ambitions. As Glazer emphasized, none of his peers at City College anticipated careers as professors or even as writers. After more than a decade of economic depression and hardship, as he once put it, “Who dreamed of any job except a government clerk?” Still, Glazer’s goals were apparently more ill-defined than most…. Thus, young Nat wandered from major to major—from history, to economics, to public administration—until he finally settled on sociology.”

Peter Skerry

I find this notion of a generation of youth discovering the world (figuratively and geographically), thinking, and engaging in all manner of discussion – without much specific (read: career-oriented) direction – exciting and just the sort of cauldron from which great ideas and great people are cast. Skerry goes on:

“Today’s university administrators understand that they are competing for good students, not just with academic offerings, but also with amenities such as high-speed internet connectivity, gourmet cafeteria food, apartments with kitchens, professional athletic facilities, and a full range of medical, counseling, and psychiatric services. Ironically, this leads to a milieu where undergraduates are encouraged to “think globally,” but have fewer and fewer reasons to leave campus. And when they are induced to leave, it is typically for a highly programmed but not very rigorous semester abroad, during which they spend most of their time socializing with other Americans and (if they are lucky) with foreign students who speak English.”

Douglas Rushkoff has been lamenting lately (mostly on podcasts – that I’m too lazy to go and re-listen to – or I would provide a quote here) that universities and higher education have become tools of the corporations that ostensibly fund them via grants, donations and the like. Students are more inclined to be concerned with marketable skills that will land them a job immediately out of school – no doubt a legitimate worry – as most of them are in debt to the gills. No one has the time, or motivation to sit around and ‘think deep thoughts’ anymore. Indeed, there’s no money in that.

In my humble – uneducated – opinion, this shift away from challenging students to become critical thinkers and engage in unconventional (or in this case more conventional?) intellectual pursuits is surely only to the detriment of the ‘greater intellect’ of society en masse.