“Don't lose your grip on the dreams of the past”
Like many of my colleagues, I had a dream when I started teaching and researching at university. Devoting my life to education and knowledge was always supposed to leave the world a better place. Like most scholars I perceived the university as the place where teaching and research serves problem solving and truth revealing. As such it would contribute to social progress and a better understanding of our societies, our history and life-world. I don't want to let go of this dream.
We are all aware that academia is changing; and change is in general not a bad thing. Often it breaks open encrusted structures that fed inflexibility, non-transparency, and semi-feudal dependency. But there is a widening gap between university administrators and academic staff. With their habit to micromanage the university through top-down control, over-regulation, evaluation marathons, spreadsheet-excesses, hasty performance and target agreements and cohorts of obedient clerks who design a detailed planning of all aspects of campus life and research, the university managers create a virtual university for themselves, a sort Sim City academia. Let's call it Sim Sity as in SIMplified univerSITY.
But this Sim Sity is quite different from the real world academia. The campus has increasingly turned into a dynamic and hybrid environment, globally connected, interdisciplinary and internationally, with blurring borders between ivory tower, popular discourse and professional life. Meritocratic attitude, informal processes, flexibility and autonomy matter in the worldwide community of academics. But so do technology and media-savviness, the ability to develop research with peers around the globe and simultaneously educating students in applied problem- solving and dealing with applied research for the corporate sector. While doing all that, the good scholars guide their students to develop a critical, analytical and independent thinking.
Many processes university managers and administrators today try to implement explicitly into their Sim Sity are often already common practise in real life university. Often – unnoticed by management and administrators-- scholars have already developed a number of activities that would perfectly match the Zeitgeist-lingo of today's higher education: valorisation, internationalisation, popularizing research, mediating academic knowledge to broader audiences and expanding knowledge infrastructures are actually already common practise to us. We just do it; we don't have time to boast about it in glossy annual reports. Certainly, we would appreciate the managers efforts if their activities would actually make things easier for us. Unfortunately that is rarely the case.
Most scholars actually do not ask what their university management could do for them; most of them rather take initiative and ask what they could do themselves to improve the situation of conducting research and teaching. Often they come up with solutions for problems without bothering at all the encrusted superstructure of administrators. Scholars are used to informal work processes, they are used to problem solving, they often deal with ad-hoc formations, and certainly neglect 9 to 5 working schedules. Bureaucracy is limited to a minimum, because it usually stifles productivity. It is actually bypassed wherever possible, and so are any decreed rules that make sense only in Sim Sity, but not in real-life academia. Universities add expensive and often superfluous in-house services and facility management. But does it blend with the practice of the real life university?
Putting up a website for your research group? Providing excursions for students? Spontaneously inviting high profile scholars to give a lecture, because they happen to be in the country? Streaming a symposium to the web? Setting up a rather spontaneous conference that responds to urgent trends in your respective field of research? Every scholar noticed that all those things need time if played by the official infrastructure. And often they are expensive, too expensive (just think of that hefty fee the catering service charged for the lousy coffee they served at your last symposium).
That's why the rogue scholars don't bother, and fix the streaming service themselves with a free web service. They also prefer their own websites over the standardised and unfindable websites the in-house service has to offer. Realizing a conference? Well, the official way is time-consuming and requires countless meetings, letters, spreadsheets, budgets etc. The rogue scholars just look for financing partners outside the university, bypass the crippling and overly expensive in-house services and have things done their way. Students help out in producing flyers, posters and website and someone does the catering. And the international scholars show up at their own expenses because they are interested in debating current issues not dated ones.
That's why rogue scholars pool money they received for lectures, articles or contract research to be able to invite speakers, to organize workshops, to cover costs for an excursion or to pay travel expenses to conferences themselves. Students recognize those efforts and are happy to contribute. The students of the awesome MA program New Media & Digital Culture (yes, I am a bit biased) put up a website they thought “was not embarrassing for a new media program.” At the same department, the Underground University regularly organizes lectures, excursions, symposia, and workshops for PhD students to present their work. The costs? The organization? All done without a single time-wasting meeting, seizing the opportunity for inviting a speaker whenever there is one, occupying a lecture room when available, supported by loyal colleagues and enthusiastic students. The costs are covered by speaking fees the scholars earned outside the university. It's the rogue scholar's shared spirit and dedication to not pocket this money for yourself, but to invest it into your research and your MA program.
I am aware of similar initiatives at many other departments at our university as well as at others, and I am eager to learn about more examples. Often it is only at the initiative of rogue scholars, that new research topics are explored, new methods are developed, and new ways of working are explored. There is a scholar I admire a lot, who for more than ten years has run a full-fledged but unofficial media studies program in a university resistant to establishing a department for media studies. I'm aware of an Austrian department for communication studies that has successfully been neglecting the emergence of new media to this day. There, it is a group of students exploring how to analyse social media. They even establish international contacts with leading researchers to receive the necessary knowledge their own institute can not provide. At our department, students participated in a unique experiment of collaboration and contributed to a globally organized joint-effort to analyse millions of tweets during a weekend. They also found their own Twitter analytics research group. Members of this group will be present findings at the 2012 annual press meeting of the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research.
Academia is a highly complex ecosystem that does not easily fit into the technocrat's Sim Sity. And not all processes, activities, networks and flows of collaboration and communication can be mapped out, formalized and controlled. Innovation, dedication and enthusiasm thrive within the informal structures; they feed fruitfully back into the official infrastructures of the university. University managers are well advised not to micromanage all aspects of academic life, but to ensure first and foremost autonomy and academic freedom. If we can not become shareholders at our university, as I have suggested in my column The Crowdfunded University, we can at least be rogue scholars. Let's share tactics and let's participate in expanding those informal structures that might have become the last resort of academic freedom.
This column first appeared in DUB, Image credit: Sim City