Monday, June 18, 2018

Breaking! The Acceleration of Knowledge Production in the Era of 24-Hour News

Last week, for no particular reason, I shared a few thoughts about the nature of knowledge production in academe via Twitter. By “knowledge production,” I’m referring to the process by which experts, such as professors, create new knowledge through research. I lamented how a preoccupation with new and cutting-edge research makes it easy to overlook excellent, still relevant research from two decades (or more) ago. Our gravitation towards the novel and shiny coincides with an acceleration of knowledge production--a perceptible increase the speed at which research is created and the frequency at which new knowledge products are released. This blog post explores some reasons for the acceleration of knowledge production in academe, including the influence of the media.

Acceleration of Knowledge Production

If you’re familiar with academic culture, you’ve likely heard the phrase “publish or perish,” which describes the pressures that professors experience to publish their research in order to be rewarded and recognized, namely being granted tenure. These days, many professors tell you they experience pressures not just to publish, but to publish regularly. Most of the professors I know are working on multiple research projects simultaneously, and they have several manuscripts under review and/or in press. The goal it seems is to have a steady stream of research being published, and more is always better for career advancement. This strategy has, not coincidentally, emerged in a highly competitive academic labor market, which leaves many people believing the only protection against precarity is producing in excess.

The result of this mad dash to publish regularly is that many professors feel they don’t have enough hours in the day to complete their work. They finish one writing project just to start another, meet a deadline just as the next approaches. This cycle of trying to publish more and more--with no finish line--has obvious consequences for mental health and has contributed to a “slow professor” movement. Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeger wrote a book on the subject, which seeks to help professors slow down and “act with purpose, taking the time for deliberation, reflection, and dialogue, cultivating emotional and intellectual resilience” (p. 11). Sociologist Jana Bacevic has an excellent blog post on this in which she questions whether professors can truly read all of the knowledge being produced and argues that one means to resist neoliberalism in higher education is to simply publish less. I encourage you to read her post.

Reasons for the Acceleration

There are multiple reasons for the acceleration of knowledge production, and I’ll only briefly mention some of the more obvious reasons before focusing on some that are less obvious. Some of the more obvious reasons include heightened competition for jobs, sponsored/grant money, and various recognitions coveted by professors (e.g., keynote speaker, editorial board member). Institutions have contributed to this competition by reducing tenure-track positions, emphasizing publication counts and other quantitative measures of research productivity, and elevating research in tenure evaluations as part of strategies to accrue resources and prestige. And, let’s be honest, professors do a fair amount of self-harm by pushing themselves to publish more and more, seeking to be “known” and avoid slipping into perceived irrelevance.

There are a few other reasons, some of which I haven’t seen discussed much, which may contribute to the acceleration of knowledge production in certain fields. I have written elsewhere about the increasing use of quantitative research methods in my field, and I have a sense that this might be true of other fields. This trend could contribute to the acceleration of knowledge production among those who are particularly adept at mining datasets with statistical analysis programs. I’m not suggesting that quantitative research is fast, easy, or sloppy. Nevertheless, I think it is possible to go from research questions to complete manuscript at a faster speed using quantitative research methods compared to qualitative research methods, which may entail interviewing/transcribing, field work, and/or archival research. As more people have started using quantitative research, it’s possible research is happening faster and being released more regularly. I'm curious to hear from others if they think this is true.

Higher education has been under assault in the last few decades, which has resulted in a de-legitimization of professors and their contributions to knowledge production. This has created space for other knowledge producers to emerge. I can’t help but notice that many media companies seem to now be in the business of data analytics, producing stories with sleek infographics.  Additionally, there is an abundance of non-profits, consultancies, and philanthropic organizations that produce their own analyses and reports. Professors are now attempting to disseminate their research in an extensive ecosystem of knowledge producers, and many of these non-academic producers have significantly more time and financial resources. Every time I log on to Twitter, I see a new report or story from a major newspaper, funder, or think-tank being announced. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing (though I’ll reiterate my point above about how feasible it is to consume all of this information). However, I again ask if the development of this ecosystem is accelerating knowledge production. In the era of the 24-hour news cycle, there’s a breaking story every 30 minutes. We may have a similar phenomenon happening as professors hustle to produce research and keep up with other knowledge producers.

Parting Thoughts

I’m troubled by the acceleration of knowledge production because I’m not yet convinced it is yielding enhanced outcomes. In fact, it is possible that there is significant wastage or inefficiency in how we’re pursuing publication right now. There may be redundancies of effort, inaccuracies in results, and hours of time spent reviewing work better spent reflecting on big questions. I’m also concerned that the normalization of the speed at which research is presently produced will make it increasingly difficult to undertake projects that require time. Does the nature of knowledge production today make it possible for someone to spend multiple years working on an important research question, even if the product is just one manuscript? Ultimately, I agree with Bacevic that we ought to step back and slow down. Give thought to the pressures pushing us to publish and deliberate on our own motivations. I’d like a little less culture of “breaking news” in research and a little more “taking a break.”

Monday, June 4, 2018

The Aspirational Class, Inconspicuous Consumption, and Higher Education

While running errands this weekend, I caught a segment of one of my favorite podcasts, Hidden Brain. The segment featured Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, the James Irvine Chair in Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Southern California. Currid-Halkett researches, among other things, American consumer culture. In the segment, she describes some key insights from her recent book, The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class. The podcast and book have multiple implications for higher education. After hearing the segment, my brain started firing about some of the less obvious ramifications for higher education of Currid-Halkett’s ideas.

As the title of her book suggests, Currid-Halkett argues that a dominant, cultural elite has emerged, which she terms the “aspirational class.” As something of an update to Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class, Currid-Halkett contends that this class is not defined primarily by income, but rather by “collective consciousness upheld by specific values and acquired knowledge and the rarefied social and cultural processes necessary to acquire them” (p. 18). The primary characteristic unifying this new elite is valuing and acquiring knowledge, and the process by which they obtain knowledge and form values is what reveals their social position. Basically, if we subscribe to the idea that we’re living in a global knowledge economy, knowledge and its acquisition through education and other activities becomes a type of currency to signal status both materially and symbolically.

Members of this class aspire to use cultural capital and knowledge to make better “decisions around what to eat, how to treat the environment, and how to be better parents, more productive workers, and more informed consumers” (p. 18). The ways in which people enter the aspirational class and signal social position influences consumption. Veblen’s “leisure class” engaged in “conspicuous consumption,” buying things and participating in activities that were utterly nonfunctional and wasteful to signal social position. By contrast, the aspirational class engages in “inconspicuous consumption,” spending heavily on education, organic food, nannies, yoga classes, retirement, and health care. Underlying this inconspicuous consumption is the belief among aspirational class members that their spending is for the good of society. However, as Currid-Halkett explains on Hidden Brain: “These behaviors and practices reinforce their privilege and reinforce the privilege of their children in a way that superficial material goods don't pass on from generation to generation.”

So, what does Currid-Halkett’s theory of the aspirational class and their inconspicuous consumption habits have to do with higher education? A number of things, some more obvious than others.

The most obvious, of course, is that graduating from college (what Veblen considered “conspicuous leisure” among the ultra wealthy) is now a prerequisite for membership in this dominant, cultural elite. In the words of Currid-Halkett: “Mobility into the top echelon of the new world order is reliant on acquisition of knowledge, not birthright, not property held for generations, and not, sadly for many, loyalty to one’s work institution” (p. 17). Extending Currid-Halkett’s ideas just a little further, we might say that within the aspirational class, more education signals greater acquisition of knowledge, which equates to greater social status. This sheds light on increasing numbers of people pursuing graduate education.

If one of the ways in which the aspirational class signals social position is spending on education, it is possible that spending hefty amounts on college tuition within this group is a status play. In other words, among a certain group of people, spending a fortune on a private institution is desirable because it establishes their social position. Members of the aspirational class don’t want a cheap public college. Sure, they may outwardly complain at dinner parties about what they are paying for their child’s tuition. But this complain-brag serves a signaling purpose. It is possible that some elite private schools, acknowledging this segment of society, have pursued high tuition prices precisely because they understand the symbolic value of paying such significant sums on education among the aspirational class. Certain public colleges, including some of the elite research universities, work hard to recruit talented, non-resident students. Rather than be associated with affordable public colleges, they may be pricing themselves ever closer to elite private schools to attract the aspirational class.

The aspirational class may also be shaping campuses and the curricular/co-curricular experiences offered to students. Given the aspirational class’s penchant for spending on wellness and sustainable agriculture, we might expect to see campuses investing heavily on recreational centers and wellness centers, offering a full range of pilates classes. Additionally, we might anticipate that campus dining options shift in the direction of locally-sourced, organic produce and products. As Currid-Halkett notes, it’s difficult to critique spending on these things. We might even say they contribute to the good of society. However, pilates classes and organic peaches aren’t cheap. It’s possible that the consumer preferences of the aspirational class are making many aspects of the college experience more expensive for all students, including low-income students more preoccupied with survival than yoga.

My guess is that the aspirational class is best positioned to take advantage of campus offerings like internships and study abroad, two activities that we perhaps might not readily associate with social status. Nevertheless, these two activities often require significant resources. Many summer internships are unpaid, requiring that college students have resources to pay living costs, often in expensive cities, to participate in them. Study abroad programs often entail program fees, flights, and other costs that make them prohibitively expensive for the majority of college students. In order to promote participation, colleges could be investing to subsidize and reduce the costs associated with these experiences. Instead, I see far more colleges and universities utilizing internships and study abroad as marketing tools, perhaps in a strategic move to speak the language of the aspirational class.

In short, I can foresee a number of ways in which certain colleges and universities have shifted to become hubs of the aspirational class, and this shift, in turn, has made them inaccessible to other groups lacking the resources required to enter this new elite. My colleague, Andy Ryder, and I have tackled similar issues in our work on students’ spending, sense of belonging, and campus climate for affordability (see here and here). But I think there is more work to be done at the intersection of higher education and the changing patterns of American consumer culture.