torsdag 28 oktober 2010

Slow Scholarship - a different attitude to academia

“Academia seems more and more like Hollywood: too many channels and nothing on”.

The quote is from a 2008 entry in Anthropology blog Savage Minds and is part of a discussion on the value of slowing academic writing down. On Facebook there is a group called Slow Scholarship celebrating the process of scientific inquiry and writing rather than getting into the rat race of publication numbers.
The world of academia is today dominated by a turning away from some of the characteristics that have been significant for scholarly activity for centuries; reflection, deep reading, substantial writing and meaningful results. Instead it is dominated by a “publish or perish” ideal supporting researchers in publishing as much as possible – all the time. Out of this attitude towards research two things come - redundancy and mediocracy.
Systems of research funding all over the world are today formulating high demands on quantity of publications rather than quality of research. In Sweden this way of looking at research is relatively new, but it is now coming at us with full speed.
Talking from the point of view of a humanistic scholar, this development is very problematic. Social and human problems seldom benefit from high speed research. They do, however, benefit from deep, calm reflection, most beneficially published in the form of monographs (if one has to promote a certain form). Monographs take time to write.

I see my self as an intellectual. I see my colleagues as intellectuals. I do not see myself – or my colleagues - as part of a “knowledge industry”. As intellectuals we have a very distinct role in society. We are the ones to make the deep analyses, to summon knowledge, we shall be better read and, yes, we shall be erudite in relation to those outside our sphere. Our work require reflection and reading – lots and lots of reading, not just research writing, but all sorts of literature, because we need to make the kind of connections that no one else make when looking at society and human endeavours. Based on all this we also have the duty to take part in discussion and critique within the realms of society that lie within our field of expertise. That might sound pretentious to some, but then, one of the major problems with contemporary university life is just that - the lack of pretention.
The Slow Scholarship group on Facebook proclaims that it “places a high value on the process of scholarship, without the rush towards publication and without capital-intensive research. It savours in-depth thought and celebrates broad knowledge. It eschews competition and fosters enjoyment and cooperation in research.”
Is that pretentious? I don’t know, but there is probably no field in society where the oppositional relation between quality and quantity is more obvious than in that of academic writing.
The extreme over-production of “scholarly” journal articles and the redundancy that comes with it is a threat to the very core of academia – reflection and well grounded analysis.
If we as professionals engage and accept these current systems of funding and hyper activity, we also send the signal to our students that those are ok. The result is reluctance to read long texts (books), the constant search for quick fix answers, the lack of reflection and the ever occurring questions about “exactly what pages to read” in a book for the task at hand. If we want to foster our students in the spirit of good scholarship, we need to slow ourselves down. We need to focus on the process of research and the process of writing and let go of the politically and economically defined demands of quantitative productivity. We need to show our students that calm, extensive reading is valuable, that reflection is necessary and that, if they want to get the most out of what ever they are studying, they need to grasp the complexity of their topics, not just the “answers” to this week’s task.
So, what to do then - shall we stop writing articles? Of course not. Are ten thousand books necessarily better than ten thousand articles? No, not necessarily. Shall we not encourage our students to search for information sufficient enough to solve this week’s task? Yes we shall. Shall we submit to some kind of “recluse” ideal instead of engaging ourselves in society? No.

What is called for is a whole new attitude towards scholarly writing and academic life – and perhaps most importantly, knowledge itself. The idea of Slow Scholarship is growing (slowly…) and it is a movement which is clearly political and ideological. Ignoring quantitative demands and instead prioritise to work on the terms of research itself is a highly subversive thought for many, especially those benefitting from the present system. As academic scholars we are parts of an erudite profession with a long tradition. The political and economic forces of today – in many countries – try to deny us the right to work in that tradition. We do not need to let them succeed – we can just slow down.

An interesting LIS article related to the idea of Slow Scholarship is this one:

Cain, Amanda (2002) "Archimedes, Reading, and the Sustenance of Academic Research Culture in Library Instruction". Journal of Academic Librarianship, 28(3), 115-121.

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