What is expected of academics?

These are thoughts that have been fermenting for a very long time (around 2 years or so). They’ve been nagging me a lot, but it is only that I’ve finally managed to gather them in a relatively coherent manner. So far, these thoughts only existed on paper, in the private journal that I always carry around.

Earlier in 2019, I was working on an article on the role of community organizations in extremist deradicalization in Indonesia. The premise was simple: state-based deradicalization in Indonesia has not always lived up to expectations. Maybe community-based initiatives can pick up the slack. I was writing the article in tandem with two other senior academics. As the junior in the group, I did most of the work. Once the first draft was finished, we sent it in for review. Then came the naturally long silence that I expected in academia. I used the three-month silence to work on my first conference paper and other things I’ve either picked up willingly or been thrusted upon. (Update: that article is now published in Journal for Policing and Counterterrorism [paywall])

At the conference, I felt it was a holiday. I didn’t have any teaching obligations. I didn’t have to work on anything else. All I had to do was attend panels I liked and present my paper. Other than that, I could practically do anything else. It was there where I met my professor from my Master’s days and we did a bit of catching up. The following conversation happened. It happened a while ago, I may have mis-remembered some details.

He asked me what I was up to. I answered honestly, “Teaching up to 20 hours a week not counting preparation, managing a journal, writing some stuff, and an ongoing government-sponsored research project,”

He responded with a tinge of disbelief. “That’s… a lot. How do you manage?”

“Caffeine and vodka,” 

Some chuckles ensued. After regaining our composure, he reverted to teacher mode and gave me some advice, which sounded a bit like this: “I know you’re trying out many things in the beginning, and it’s okay to explore these things. But, if you continue to insist on doing this, you’ll burn out eventually,” 

(That conversation happened in 2019. It’s 2020 now, and now I might be feeling early symptoms of burnout. Turns out he was right.)

Again, I don’t actually remember the exact content of the conversation, but that was the gist of it. We then continued drinking wine and talking about other things. The exchange, however, remains a nagging memory, which basically made me ponder: what is actually expected of me as an academic?

Like perhaps many other beady-eyed young academics, I was attracted to academia because of the prospect of doing meaningful research, engaging with intellectuals in well-mannered discussions, and teaching and mentoring. Rose-tinted glasses, as it turns out, break on impact.

Indonesian academia is driven by a noble triple duty philosophy. Academics are expected to teach, conduct research, and do community service (ideally using the technologies they have developed). Academics enjoy a life of privilege often funded solely or partially by taxpayer money. As such, they should be expected to pay their dues to society and to not, to borrow a term from the Tao of Pooh, become a “dessicated scholar” who hoards knowledge. In terms of social justice, the primary duty of academics is not to chase “academic excellence” (something I’ll get to in a bit); rather, it is to advance society for the better.

It sounds all altruistic and noble, which is part of the appeal. I know this for a fact, since I was raised in a family of academics. 

However, here’s where the “academic excellence” (or whatever the Indonesian equivalent is) framework comes in. In an effort to rationalize the triple duty philosophy —to make it palatable for intellectual bureaucrats—a slew of metrics were designed to measure “excellence” or “output” or whatever the buzzword is these days.

These metrics have made their way into academia in devilish forms for each part of the triple duty philosophy.

In teaching, academics are increasingly being likened to assembly line supervisors. They have to write up course plans comprehensible to “intellectual managers”, rife with language and jargon borrowed straight out of the Industrial Revolution. Student quality is tied to whether they manage to fulfil “learning outcomes” and “basic competencies”, which are all affixed to an arbitrary “passing grade”. As such, a professor is considered “excellent” when they pass more students, a feat often achieved by lowering standards or grade inflation. Nowhere do we actually consider whether they learned anything of value throughout the process. 

Research and community service is where these metrics are at their evilest, which form a large part of my misery. I’ll be talking more about the research segment here, as I haven’t fully developed my thoughts on the community service aspect. Maybe more to come later.

As the Indonesia government increasingly bemoans the state of academia losing out to Singapore and Malaysia in terms of publications, they have made it their mission to find ways to increase research output. So far, they’ve tried to make publishing in journals a mandatory requisite for graduation. This was later revoked at the Bachelor’s level, but it still remains for those seeking Master’s and Doctorates. 

They’ve also tried to incentivise publications—publish more, get more money—and to tie publication with bonuses and perks. A full professor, for example, is expected to dish out at least 2 journal articles in a “reputable international journal” every year. Failure to do so leads to their professorial bonuses being revoked. 

The sad thing about this is that academics are urged to publish more in “reputable international journals” instead of local academic journals where many disciplines (particularly social science, humanities, and the arts) would feel much more at home. What the intellectual bureaucrats often miss is that these “international journals” are less international than they claim. For instance, it has been found that there’s a strong United States and Eurocentric bias in international relations publications [paywall], which leads to less comprehension of non-Western issues. Worse, this also leads to worse representation of what is supposedly a “global” field of study, a tune that Amitav Acharya loves to sing [book]. Urging academics to publish in “international” journals further advances the wrong stigma that local scholarship is less desirable.

Furthermore, urging publication in these outlets, which are often blocked by expensive paywalls, defeats the altruism of the triple philosophy: to give back to society. How does and how could the generally educated public benefit from a critical interpretation of Indonesian colonial history if it is locked behind a paywall that they may never be able to access? 

The condition is changing, though, as domestic academic journals are proliferating and getting more organized. The main cause, however, is not addressed. If more incentives are given to publish in “reputable international journals”, local journals will continue to be sidelined.

So, what are expected of academics? Are we expected to be able to solve all of the nation’s troubles and lead it into a glorious golden age? If so, then why can we only be “impactful” if we publish in obscure journals? Can we not be impactful when students are taught well? I have so many questions about my existence right now. Or could it be that I’m the one thinking too hard?

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