Anger and Apathy in Academia

It’s been a busy week for me. Sure, the undergraduates have all headed home for the Easter holidays, but the PhD students are still around and kickin’. Over the past few days, I’ve been trying – and mostly failing – to write Chapter 2 of my thesis, have been working my finance job, and have had the glorious task of marking half of my students’ midterm reports. I’ll get back to the marking thing in a sec.

Given that I have not felt particularly motivated to do much this week (perhaps due to my recent coffee restrictions and the ridiculous number of chocolate eggs I’ve eaten), I have been frequently taking five-minute Facebook breaks. Along with thousands of other people working in academic roles, I am a member of an Academics’ Support Network (ASN) Facbeook group. Because there are always dozens of new posts in this group whenever I log in to Facebook, I often find myself scrolling through, seeing if there’s anything that of relevance to me. Most of the time, it’s a no. However, commenters in the group are generally good for signposting to services and resource, as well as validating posters’ feelings when they rant. They also helped me spread the word about my large-scale online reader response questionnaire, so it very much is a useful group.

Earlier this week, however, there was a post that I found particularly upsetting. It is against the rules of the ASN to bring posts outside of the Facebook group, and it is absolutely not my intention to point fingers at particular people who have posted or commented about this issue. Rather, I want to start a conversation about this, but I do not feel like my own thoughts about the issue under consideration will be accepted, or even just taken seriously, in the ASN group. So, here I am, folks.

The ASN post in question was a rant from a woman who had interacted with a number of people throughout her day who she felt were uninformed about some important, but controversial, social issues. She noted what these people had said to her, expressing frustrating because she did not agree with their opinions or actions. To be fair, the poster did seem justified in her frustration. What was going through these people’s minds? How could they have such uninformed opinions?

The commenters, as they do, flooded in to validate the poster’s feelings, expressing their own frustration that resulted from the poster’s story. One commenter, however, simply made remarked about her own experience wherein she expressed a hint of sympathy for one of the people the poster was complaining about. The person being complained about was an anti-vaccination (anti-vaxx) advocate, and the commenter indicated slight concern about vaccinations that may not have gone through extensive testing, instead being expedited into the market. This is the same concern that my own mother had when the Gardasil HPV vaccination was released when I was a ~tween~, which is why my mother was uncomfortable with me getting the vaccination until I was old enough to decide whether or not I wanted it for myself. I did end up getting that vaccination of my own accord, which is a pretty good way of revealing that I myself do not identify as an anti-vaxxer. However, I do wholeheartedly agree that we should always question those vaccinations that we are getting, and that we should always do research into why we need them and what their side effects may be. This is probably largely because I was raised in a North American context, where we were constantly told that we should be wary of prescriptions, as doctors may just be doling them out on commission. I’m not entirely sure if this is true, and I don’t know if this commenter was also approaching this issue from a different country’s perspective. Nevertheless, I thought the commenter had made a reasonable point that was worthy of exploration through further discussion.

Evidently, the rest of the group did not agree. The commenter was met with hostile comments labelling her as discriminatory against disabled people – a response to the commenter’s unfortunate recollection of one vaccination nearly rendering her disabled. There were other comments about how it was completely reasonable for the original poster to assume that everyone in the group would be pro-vaccination because ‘we base our opinions on truths and facts, and not emotion’ (not a verbatim quote). Working from this line of thought, further comments just included things along the lines of ‘how can people outside of academia be so stupid?’

I have never before witnessed professionals in academia demonstrating such explicit online behaviour that so strongly supports the idea of academics as entitled and oh-so-holier-than-thou. The us-versus-them dichotomy set out in this post’s comments could hardly be considered supportive. I have seen many questionably elitist and rude post/comments on the ASN group, but this particular comment stream actually left me with a fear of commenting on future ASN posts myself. The commenter I spoke of above didn’t say she was anti-vaxx; she only expressed a concern about new vaccinations’ testing methods. This is a concern I share. While it may indeed be reasonable for a poster to assume that everyone in an academic group would be pro-vaccination (although I myself do not necessarily think this assumption is reasonable), I would like to think that it is absolutely reasonable for someone to express a concern and for an academic group to meet this concern gracefully through discussion that welcomes disparate viewpoints so that all parties may learn something about the issue and each other.

To simply ask how people outside of academia can be so ignorant is to discredit those individuals’ opinions altogether rather than make any effort to understand where those opinions are coming from. It is the easy way out, because in simply discrediting these people we get to avoid having difficult cultural conversations that may present us with perspectives we’re uncomfortable with. Even if we have facts to back up our points, only in understanding where those who disagree with us are coming from can we begin to adjust our arguments so that they can be understandable to those with alternative views. We need to know where people are coming from so we can meet them where they are. And ultimately, if our research doesn’t reach the society that we are all trying so desperately to improve, it is meaningless. The us-versus-them dichotomy makes us forget what we as academics fundamentally are: public servants. Not in the government sense. In the ‘we’re here to do some damn good’ sense. The response to that commenter’s comment shouldn’t have been hostility. It should have been ‘Why?’

This takes me to that marking I was talking about at the beginning of this post. As I marked, I found myself getting a bit frustrated with some of the students’ work. The ideas were all there; the students demonstrated some astute attention to detail and made some interesting observations about the books they were tasked with analyzing. However, there were consistent spelling and grammars that eventually drove me to such a state of frustration that I burst into a colleague’s office and blurted out, ‘HAS NOBODY EVER HEARD OF A COMMA SPLICE BEFORE?!‘ I swore that I would do a brief comma-related exercise or two during my next lesson. My colleague just chuckled and told me, ‘There’s no point. They don’t care. They don’t want to learn that stuff.’

I am not jaded. Maybe there should be a ‘yet’ at the end of that sentence but, if so, I am consciously omitting it. That attitude adopted by some academics, that students do not care, is particularly unfortunate. This is because if everyone just shrugs their shoulders and goes, ‘eh, the students don’t care’, then the students aren’t even given the opportunity to care because no one assumes the responsibility of teaching them the grammar that are they just expected to learn through osmosis.

It should be clear to anyone who has made it this far in this post that my issue with my colleague’s comment is about more than just commas. After a week of considering the ASN ordeal, the us-versus-them problem was very much at the forefront of my mind when this comment was made. But that is very much what comments such as these represent: us-versus-them. We are serious academics. People just don’t understand us.

Maybe people don’t understand us because we are not making ourselves understandable to them.

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The Pitfalls of Interdisciplinarity

A few weeks ago I tweeted a friendly reminder about interdisciplinary research: that it can’t be done alone. ‘It takes a sustained network of people with varied perspectives and expertise to make that kind of magic happen.’

This tweet stemmed from a series of conversations I’ve been having recently about what it means to be an interdisciplinary researcher. It also came from the panel talks and seminar discussions at January’s Thinking Big conference in London. It allllllssssso came from my recently getting thrown into the deep end of the world of statistics. That’s right. My research had led me down some dark paths, y’all.

What even is interdisciplinary research, though? The word interdisciplinarity gets thrown around a lot these days, despite continuing to prompt those little red dotted underlines whenever you type it into Microsoft Word. Microsoft Word is confused. So are a lot of people. What are we talking about here? Everyone seems to be doing interdisciplinary work, and it seems that funding bodies are favouring projects that advertise themselves as interdisciplinary.

According to Wikipedia, ‘interdisciplinarity involves the combining of two or more academic disciplines into one activity (e.g., a research project)… It is about creating something new by thinking across boundaries.’ So, as per its name, interdisciplinary research involves working across disciplines, putting them into conversation with one another to achieve an academic goal. Easy enough, right?

Evidently not. At Thinking Big, Rick Rylance presented his ideas of ‘near neighbour’ and ‘distant cousin’ interdisciplinarities. The former refers to work crossing disciplines that are pretty similar in their approaches to problem solving and analysis. For example, English and history employ a lot of similar analytical frameworks that guide researchers through dank archival material and a plethora of theory-based and armchair-philosophical textual material. Arguably, this is where book history as a discipline tends to sit, pulling from literary studies and history to create its own little niche. The latter of Rylance’s ideas – distant cousin interdisciplinarity – refers to work crossing disciplines that use employ significantly different approaches to problem solving and analysis, and that have not usually come together without people consciously trying to connect them. My own doctoral research sits at an intersection of book history, social sciences, and computer science: three fields with (1) potentially very different problems to focus on and (2) very different approaches to solving problems if they ever find themselves facing the same ones. It’s distant cousin interdisciplinarity that causes problems.

For those of you unfamiliar with my research, you can read all about what I’m doing at this page here. I describe my research as ‘book history’ because I am, without a doubt, heavily rooted in my disciplinary upbringing. I have two degrees in book history that have engendered my particular approaches to problem solving and analysis, and I pride myself in aligning with this particular field as I strongly believe that my research will help perpetuate its lineage.

This said, I don’t just describe my research as being ‘book history’. Rather, it’s ‘book history with an adrenaline rush.’ This is 90% to make myself sound like a badass. However, 10% of why I distinguish my research this way is because of the adrenaline rush the discipline gets when I mention my collaborations with computer scientists in particular.  But we have nothing in common, book historians declare. What do they want from us? What do they have to give us?

More than 50 years ago, some old white guy called C. P. Snow (you know he’s serious because people refer to him using his initials instead of his real name) presented the notion of ‘two cultures‘: the sciences and the humanities. According to Snow, this dichotomy has hindered the generation and execution of productive solutions to the world’s problems and, on a more individualist level, has divided people into arbitrary categories defined by disciplinary identity markers. Sure, I self-identify as a book historian, but I’m a lot more than that. I enjoy when my friends tell me about their experiences in engineering, and teach me about Newtonian fluids. I get a real kick out of listening to my finance-themed podcasts. Yet I am a book historian. That is how I present myself because it is easier to just pick one thing. People remember that I am a book historian because it is easier for them to just remember one thing.

Now, I’m not saying that disciplines are bad. In a world of so many options and so much information, picking one discipline and its particular approaches to problem solving can help streamline thinking and help us get on with our lives. Aligning yourself with a particular discipline can help you find likeminded people who may be available for collaboration and can help you get the most out of your critical analysis. Disciplines aren’t the only way to put likeminded people in touch, but they’re very much part of our current academic (and general) circumstances, and it doesn’t do anyone any good to ignore them.

This said, the readiness of people to identify as purely ‘humanities’ or purely ‘sciences’ is dangerous. Interestingly, people don’t generally go around advertising: ‘Hi, I’m Leah. I’m in humanities.’ Rather, they present their ‘humanities’ or ‘sciences’ identity through negatives: ‘Oh, I’m not a science person’; ‘I’m just not into English or literary analyses’. The funny thing is that every single discipline draws from the same social contexts. To fully participate in our modern Western cultures, we all need to be able to read. We all need to understand basic arithmetic. We all need to draw upon history to figure out what has worked in the past and what hasn’t. At what point in our lives do our shared abilities to do these things split into dichotomizing – and alienating – specializations that result in different world views and ways of articulating those world views?

So disciplines can be helpful, but they can also be harmful. When one’s world view is so constrained by arbitrary disciplinary boundaries, old white man Snow’s words echo through time: the dichotomy between ‘humanities’ and ‘sciences’ continues to hinder the generation and execution of productive solutions to the world’s problems. What makes these solutions productive is that they are holistic. They are considered from various angles.

And you can’t do this kind of problem solving alone. Disciplines create experts, and you need to go interdisciplinary to draw upon those experts who may be able to offer you some fresh perspective. You need to bounce ideas off each other. No one is saying that the humanities and sciences can’t continue to exist. But humanities and sciences people need to start talking to each other regularly, finding common ground so they can eventually work towards holistic considerations of problems for productive solutions. We need to embrace our distant cousins.

Only then can we move onto the next problem:

How the heck do we disseminate this research?