Posts Tagged With: academia

What’s wrong with the ‘power of writing’? A reflection on language in academic research (September 2018)

http://allegralaboratory.net/whats-wrong-with-the-power-of-writing-a-reflection-on-language-in-academic-research/

I have recently shared my anger and my concerns on AllegraLaboratory.
In the following article I discuss how, on the one hand, academic jargon increasingly seems to conceal a daunting lack or weakness of fieldwork and of critical ideas. On the other, academic-NGO partnerships are not doing any better: while pretending to drag academia out of the ivory tower, they often deliver standardised contents and replace academicese with bureaucratese. Result? Progress remains a pipedream. Let’s start with a linguistic revolution. So, researchers of the world, unite and fight ‘grapho-kratia’!

The following anecdote is one of the many episodes which pushed me to understand what is meant by ‘neoliberal’ academia, and what strategies are used nowadays to compensate for the impossibility of conducting extensive field research in first person while working in academic institutions – even as a full-time researcher!

The anecdote exemplifies how today’s recipe for success seems to provide ample space for prioritising the literature, crafting papers nicely, using academic jargon, yet imagining the field. Some time ago, as a result of not myself having grown up in an environment using English academicese (academic jargon), I was unable to style my academic pieces in a manner that academicese-friendly research institutions generally require; however, I decided to explore the publications jungle dominated by the ‘power of writing’, and I submitted an article to an important academic journal. The latter rejected my piece, written after spending more than a year in northern Lebanon, arguing that it was ‘not nicely crafted, although it surely contains important fieldwork data’. What counted the most was that my account was not populated with Anglo-academic expressions, but rather with my own personal ways of voicing the forced Syrian migration towards Lebanon.

Instead, the review decided to publish a piece on the same Lebanese region written by a native English writer who, to my knowledge, could not speak any Arabic at all, and who had previously told me that he had conducted only a one-day trip to northern Lebanon. When I read the article, I personally found it misleading, not at all reflecting what was factually happening in the region, and providing incorrect information about local municipalities. The language and the tone, however, were strongly academic. At that point, a sense of frustration overwhelmed me. Even writing about this now makes me feel like I have not yet removed that painful old pebble from my shoe. It was not so much the frustration of not being published – an experience which is difficult for us academics to eschew when dealing with a sneer publication industry – but rather the frustration of seeing renowned journals welcoming ‘nicely crafted’ pieces written in academicese rather than demanding and ascertaining rigorous methods of data collection, or insisting on the verifiability of data. In other words, the journal was neither interested in the experience evidenced, nor in the way in which the setting narrated was approached and accessed, nor even in the duration of the researcher’s stay. Rather, what mattered most was that the piece was ‘nicely crafted’, ready to be delivered to a wide academic audience without much editing. Even though my positionality in this episode may be read as subjectively biased, my analytical Self still finds this anecdote relevant to raise the issue of how the power of English academicese can at times take priority over the importance of providing empirical evidence and historical awareness of the context in hand.

In hindsight, with a few more years of experience, I do not think this can be considered to be an isolated episode. Theoretical wrapping-up and a high command of English academicese problematically trump the importance of ensuring continuity of (both remote and in loco) forms of fieldwork. This article discusses how specialistic language is used and abused to cover up such contemporary weaknesses.

What’s wrong with the ‘power of writing’? A reflection on language in academic research

Numerous are by now the accounts that label international academia as ‘neoliberal’, that is, a system which, these days, almost functions like a firm aimed at increasing productivity and impact. However, hardly any attention has been paid to the language itself that we use to produce, disseminate, and, above all, fund academic research, especially that addressing development and humanitarianism. In this post I discuss how bureaucratic managerialism in academia is intertwined with the role of the ‘power of writing’ and the greedy hunt for funding, which, through partnerships with non-academic entities, counters academic complexity by imposing simplistic and standardised language.

I propose that these are some of the key issues that often underlie today’s discontent among academics, echoing the “bullshit job” syndrome, according to which we cease to believe in our own profession.

With this commentary, I aim to reflect on the peculiar dynamics that, to my mind, lead academic researchers to comply with the power of writing, and often lead research grant funders to prioritise quantity of outputs to the detriment of an in-depth understanding of the research context and its factual history. The so-called “Research Excellence Framework” (REF) in British academia, for instance, outlines the number, impact, quality, and type of outputs that a piece of research should have to be considered “world-leading”. Having policy relevance, showcasing a formal engagement with non-academic institutions, producing measurable impact, and homogenising cultural ways of writing are seemingly becoming far more important than verifying the data we collect in our areas of study, or feeling confident that our personal interpretations are based on a continual contact and empathic engagement with the field (even though there is nothing like rocket science, and objectivity is not even desirable).

Moreover, in the contemporary era, academic researchers working in institutions of the Global North often have to cope with a massive bureaucracy in order to obtain official ethical clearance to be able to travel to ‘the field’. Sociological and anthropological research, which are by definition primarily data-driven, have also been put under bureaucratic pressure by evaluation structures like the abovementioned REF. In the wake of these increasingly bureaucratic measures, if the country or subjects of study are not available to the researcher on a daily basis, international researchers (un)knowingly experience the phenomenon of professional ‘bunkerisation’. Implemented through a series of forms submitted to academic Ethics Committees, this ethics clearance is de facto aimed at protecting research institutions from reputation-related, financial, and physical risks by keeping fieldworkers distant from the countries they normally work on in times of instability. Against this backdrop, working on a country or a topic cannot be but correlated with the importance of working in that country, or working among the insights that the topic generates. I want to point out that this is not just a problem for academia: international non-governmental organisations similarly produce policy briefs and reports by paying only ad hoc, short-term visits to the field.

Against today’s difficulties surrounding academic jobs, I suggest that

academic managerialism increasingly relies on the ‘power of writing’, to the extent of making the latter a primary criterion for excellence.

Indeed, theoretical wrapping-up and a high command of English academicese problematically trump the importance of ensuring continuity of (both remote and in loco) forms of fieldwork and, therefore, the possibility to develop fine-grained knowledge of the places we study.

There is therefore a risk implied by the devaluation of extensive local knowledge: the major focus placed on language combined with the redundancy of new knowledge. This tendency is the reason why we witness such a massive proliferation of publications nowadays. In this regard, the abovementioned English academicese at times may ensure acceptance in the publication process by arbitrarily building intellectual authoritativeness, but it is not the language choice that can ensure the quality of field research behind outputs. Academicese, in fact, manages to exercise epistemic sovereignty over the researched ‘margins’ by claiming itself to be at the centre regardless of where it is produced, and therefore building a neo-colonial relationship within the realms of human thinking. To quote Mikhail Bakhtin in his Dialogic Imagination, “Language is not a neutral medium that passes freely and easily into the private property of the speaker’s intentions; it is populated – overpopulated – with the intentions of others”.  In this sense,

the intentional power underlining our linguistic structures should however not prevail over contents.

The ‘power of writing’ is surely not only about academicese. The increasing number of partnerships that academic institutions develop with non-governmental organisations and UN agencies is resulting in a push for academics to embrace plain language. The latter still entails structural power, as it simplifies language in order to simplify facts and, in turn, make management successful. On the one hand, NGOs request the use of lay-language in academic outputs. On the other, academic researchers themselves simplify their writing in a way that at times looks like a paternalistic process. In fact, the presumption that non-academics will not be able to grasp complex language – which should not be confused with academicese, by any means – is double-edged. I personally interpret it as the emergence of a common knowledge-production culture, according to which academics, people who have seldom been involved in policy-making and practice, are expected to advance concrete recommendations. In short, when I happened to work in the framework of these hybrid partnerships, I realised how NGOs and other non-academic institutions expect me, with little experience of their everyday job, to tell them what to actually do in order to sort out deadlocks and discontents. The evident result is a proliferation of off-the-cuff ‘research’ which would better be defined as desk-work, from both academic outputs and professional consultancies (a massive financial industry nowadays, despite its discontents). Paradoxically, most of the research rationales underpinning such research consultancies actually aim to explore field-related people, attitudes, political and economic processes, and expectations.

In a nutshell, what seems to be happening in this joint writing culture is the replacement of English academicese with English bureaucratese (bureaucratic language), where fixed idioms populate reports produced by short-term field research (idioms such as ‘assistance and protection’, ‘the rights and needs of the refugees’, ‘best practices’, and other set-piece utterances).

Some scholars have called this phenomenon “politics of language use”, which is clearly imbricated with the political rule and its predominant ideology. As such, the rejection of the complexity in writing for development does not encourage a challenge to the emptiness of academicese, which indeed fails to bring much-needed complexity into non-academic debates. Similarly, academicese does not help us fight the simplistic technocracy of some non-academic systems, as seen in the development and humanitarian sectors. Academicese, by definition, does not manage to deliver the important message that, if people are not willing to accept complexity of meanings, they will be unlikely to accept complexity in their everyday work.

If the ‘ego-politics’ of academia have long since been characterised by snooty ivory towerism, the latest trend of resorting to bureaucratic plain language in various research environments unravels a (similarly problematic) paternalistic sovereignty, which will not rescue us from the unbearable lightness of academicese. That is to say, this shared writing culture, which devalues fieldwork and makes knowledge redundant, is already gatekeeping non-academic as well as academic research rationales, funding sources, and publication acceptances and rejections.

Linguistic poiesis serves as a healthy reminder here. From the ancient Greek poiéo (meaning ‘to do, to make’), poiesis indicates that language can do, create, modify, and destroy. As I have said above, academic and non-academic writing cultures increasingly build on topoi, sophistic idioms, fixed structures, and patterns of expression which silently lead us all towards the homologation of mindsets, and to repetitive knowledge production.

In the light of this, liberating knowledge production from academicese as much as from bureaucratese needs to be one of our major endeavours, while fighting tooth and nail to defend the empirical inevitability of complexity.

Contemporary academic managerialism, which does not allow researchers – especially seniors – to develop extensive first-hand experience in the field, may seriously impinge on the possibility to collect strong empirical evidence and pose the most relevant research questions, which should, in turn, instruct global research funders. Presently, it is the funders themselves who dictate research rationales, and reward grapho-kratia, or ‘the power of writing’. In this framework, empirical reality risks becoming of secondary importance in today’s academic and non-academic production, since wrapping theories or policies around quick field visits at high speed has become key to winning the game of obtaining financial resources. In this scenario, in-depth fieldwork and multilingual skills may at times be valued, but will not make a big difference in attracting sustainable funding. We’ll probably be fine as long as our writing complies with the dominant politics of language use: cryptically academic to be able to publish journal articles like hot cakes; or bureaucratic language, bereft of empirical complexity, to boast public engagement and impact. The space for new knowledge dauntingly becomes narrower and narrower.

We therefore need to challenge the problematic sociology of ‘neoliberal’ academia by resuscitating the primary importance of empirical depth and relevance. It is thus time to drop academicese without giving up complexity, and to drop bureaucratese without forgetting the fundamental role of research in producing socio-political change.

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Petition for Maha Abderrahman (November, 2017)

Cambridge, 10th November 2017

We, the undersigned, categorically reject the malicious and totally unfounded allegations made against Dr Maha Abdelrahman in the Italian newspaper La Repubblica on 2 November 2017. Dr Abdelrahman, an internationally highly-regarded scholar at Cambridge University, was the supervisor of Giulio Regeni, an Italian PhD student, who was conducting research on Egyptian independent trade unions when he was abducted, tortured and murdered in early 2016. There is overwhelming evidence that strongly implicates the Egyptian security forces in Giulio’s murder. Indeed, Declan Walsh, the Cairo correspondent of the New York Times, wrote in August 2017 in a detailed account that the US had ‘incontrovertible evidence of official Egyptian responsibility’, but was unable to make the evidence public without compromising their source. Despite a cumulative body of facts pointing clearly to the Egyptian police, La Repubblica attempts to apportion some of the blame for Giulio’s murder to Dr Abdelrahman. The article lists the following questions that the Italian prosecutor wants to put to Dr Abdelrahman:

1. Who chose the specific theme of Giulio’s research? 2. Who chose the tutor to supervise Giulio’s fieldwork in Cairo? 3. Who chose the participatory research study method that Giulio pursued? 4. Who devised the research questions that were posed to the street vendors whom Giulio was interviewing? 5. Did Giulio submit the results of his research to Dr. Abdelrahman?

While we understand that some of these questions could be relevant to the Italian investigation, we find La Repubblica’s tendentious summary and analysis of them to be deliberately misleading. For example, La Repubblica alleges that Dr Abdelrahman ‘commissioned’ Giulio to work on a topic that she knew was dangerous and that he was reluctant to pursue. Furthermore, that she was the one who chose Giulio’s research topic, research methods, research subjects and research questions for him. We find these allegations absurd. They betray a fundamental ignorance of internationally-recognised procedures in applying for and undertaking a PhD. Academic supervisors do not choose their PhD students; rather, it is the students who choose them. PhD supervisors do not impose their research agendas on unsuspecting students; the students, usually, work on a particular research area for some time before undertaking a PhD and then look for a supervisor in that area. In Giulio’s case, he had been interested in independent trade unions for years and had already worked in Egypt before he even approached Dr Abdelrahman to be his supervisor. On the issue of the participatory research method employed by Giulio, any social scientist could tell you that it would be the method of choice in investigating contemporary issues. These and other allegations in the article are characterised by wilful ignorance, misrepresentation and distortion as well as pure invention and basic lies. Moreover, there is no way that Dr Abdelrahman, or anyone else, could have anticipated what happened to her student. The most egregious outcome that any foreign researchers in Egypt could have feared at the time of Giulio’s disappearance was the revoking of their research permit and deportation. Relying on hindsight, La Repubblica is insinuating that Giulio’s tragedy could have been foreseen. This is unequivocally not true. A final important point on which La Repubblica is incorrect. Dr Abdelrahman has NOT refused to talk to the Italian authorities. At Giulio’s funeral in February 2016, she was interviewed for one and a half hours by the Italian prosecutor. On 15 June 2016, she answered in writing many supplementary questions posed by the Italian prosecutor, and indicated that she was happy to answer any further questions. There was no further communication with the Italian authorities until recently when they put in the request referred to in La Repubblica’s article. In response, Dr Abdelrahman willingly agreed to be interviewed again. Giulio was not the author of his own tragedy. Nor was Dr Abelrahman responsible for his death in any way, shape or form. The responsibility for the abduction, torture and death of this bright Cambridge student falls squarely on the Egyptian regime. And it behoves serious investigative journalists to shine their light where the real darkness lies.

Cambridge signatories

Mahvish Ahmad, PhD student, University of Cambridge

Dr. Arthur Asseraf, Lecturer, History Faculty, University of Cambridge

Dr. Duncan Bell, Reader, Department of Politics and International Studies, (POLIS) University of Cambridge

Professor Bill Burgwinkle, Faculty of Modern & Medieval Languages, University of Cambridge

Dr. Adam Branch, Director, Centre of African Studies, University of Cambridge

Dr. Devon Curtis, Senior Lecturer, POLIS, University of Cambridge

Dr. Manali Desai, Lecturer, Sociology, University of Cambridge

Farida El Keiy, Language Teaching Officer, FAMES, University of Cambridge

Professor Khaled Fahmy, Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies (FAMES), University of Cambridge

Dr. Mónica Moreno Figueroa, Senior Lecturer in Sociology, University of Cambridge

Dr. Iza Hussin, Lecturer, POLIS, University of Cambridge

Dr. Solava Ibrahim, Affiliated Lecturer, Centre for Development Studies, University of Cambridge

Saussan Khalil, Lector in Arabic, FAMES, University of Cambridge

Professor Charles Melville, FAMES, University of Cambridge

Dr Perveez Mody, Lecturer, Department of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge

Professor Clément Mouhot, Department of Pure Mathematics and Mathematical Sciences, University of Cambridge

Dr. Basim Musallam, King’s College, University of Cambridge

Dr. Yael Navarro, Division of Anthropology, University of Cambridge

Dr. Rory O’Bryen, University Senior Lecturer in Latin American Literature and Culture, University of Cambridge

Dr. Yaron Peleg, Kennedy Leigh Reader in Modern Hebrew Studies, FAMES, University of Cambridge

Dr. Mezna Qato, Junior Research Fellow, King’s College, University of Cambridge

Dr. Helen Pfeifer, University Lecturer, Faculty of History, University of Cambridge

Dr. Glen Rangwala, Lecturer, POLIS, University of Cambridge

Dr. Sertaç Sehlikoglu, Abdullah Mubarak Al-Sabah Research Fellow, Pembroke College, University of Cambridge

Dr. Arathi Sriprakash, University Lecturer, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge

Dr. Pieter van Houten, Senior Lecturer, POLIS, University of Cambridge

Dr. Njoki Wamai, Post Doctoral Research Associate, POLIS, University of Cambridge

Dr. Graham Denyer Willis, University Lecturer in Development Studies, University of Cambridge

Dr. Waseem Yaqoob, Lecturer, Faculty of History, University of Cambridge

Dr. Ayşe Zarakol, Reader in International Relations, POLIS, University of Cambridge

Non-Cambridge signatories

Dr. Giuseppe Acconcia, University of Padua,

Professor Gilbert Achcar, Professor of Development Studies & International Relations, SOAS, University of London

Dr. Nadje Al-Ali, Professor of Gender Studies, SOAS University of London

Dr. Lori Allen, Senior Lecturer, Dept. of Anthropology, SOAS, University of London

Dr. Francesca Biancani, Adjunct Professor, Bologna University and Postdoctoral fellow CEDEJ-IFAO, Cairo, Egypt

Anna Bilous, teaching fellow, SOAS, University of London

Dr. Sara Borrillo, University L’Orientale in Naples

Dr. Estella Carpi, Department of Geography, University College London

Prof. Anna Maria Di Tolla, University of Naples, L’Orientale

Dr. M. Cristina Ercolessi, Associate professor of African Studies at the University of Naples “L’Orientale”

Sai Englert, GTA in Politics and Development Studies, SOAS, University of London

Prof. Ersilia Francesca, Università degli Studi di Napoli “L’Orientale”

Professor Richard Fardon, Founding Head of the SOAS Doctoral School, 2012-16

Dr. Anna Maria Gentili, emeritus African history and Politics, University of Bologna

Dr. Laura Hammond, Reader, Dept of Development Studies, SOAS University of London

Emeritus Professor Mark Hobart, Centre for Global Media and Communications, SOAS, University of London

Dr. Adam Hanieh, Reader in Development Studies, SOAS, University of London

Dr. Feyzi Ismail, Senior Teaching Fellow, SOAS, University of London

Safa Joudeh, PhD candidate, SOAS, University of London

Professor Deniz Kandiyouti, Professor of Development Studies, Department of Development Studies, SOAS, University of London

Professor Laleh Khalili, Professor of Middle East Politics, SOAS, University of London

Dr. Lars Peter Laamann, Senior Lecturer, History Department, SOAS, University of London

Dr. Bridget O’Laughlin , retired associate professor of Population and Development, International Institute of Social Studies, Erasmus University, The Hague, The Netherlands

Dr. Hettie Malcomson, Associate Professor of Ethnomusicology, University of Southampton

Dr. Sandro Mezzadra, Università di Bologna

Dr. Satoshi Miyamura, Senior Lecturer, Department of Economics, Faculty of Law and Social Sciences, SOAS, University of London

Thomas van der Molen, PhD Student, SOAS, University of London

Dr. Andrew Newsham, Lecturer in International Development, Department of Development Studies & Centre for Development, Environment & Policy, SOAS, University of London

Dr. Daniela Pioppi, Associate professor, Contemporary history of Arab Countries, University of Naples ‘L’Orientale’, Italy

Dr. Paola Rivetti, Dublin City University, Ireland

Dr. Ruba Salih, SOAS, University of London

Dr. Ashwani Saith , Emeritus Professor, International Institute of Social Studies, The Hague, The Netherlands

Dr. Lucia Sorbera, The University of Sydney, NSW, Australia

Dr. Barbara Sorgoni, University of Turin, Italy

Dr. Fabio Vicini, Assistant Professor of Sociology and Anthropology, Department of Political Science and International Relations, Istanbul 29 May University, Turkey

Professor Lynn Welchman, School of Law, SOAS, University of London

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