Saturday, June 11, 2016

Challenging the Ordering of Markets for Academic Prestige: On the Business of Academic Conferences, Status Hierarchies and the Markets for Knowledge Production and Dissemination

(Pix (c) Larry Catá Backer 2013)

I have written before on the ways in which markets for academic prestige, and for sorting academics within informal "ranks", have become routinized and institutionalized over the last 30 or so years in their current form. In Ordering Markets for Academic Knowledge Goes Global: Pablo Lerner on "Foreign Influences and 'Law Reviews Rankings' in Israeli Legal Scholarship "I suggested methodologies for knowledge production valuation within institutions that sought to capture some of the intrinsic value of the thing produced, even when measured extrinsically.  The problem, of course, is the nature of the market for knowledge.
The production of knowledge, especially among academics, is not simply offered for consumption.  Like all consumables, it is judged and valued in the market within which it is offered.  And again, like other consumables, the judging of academic knowledge products has become standardized, and its assessment routinized in ways that  both make it easier to understand what one is buying and also makes it more likely that all products will resemble each other. 
One of the principle external consequences of this market for academic production, is that much of what is produced is predictably the same--and the market likes it that way.  Another is that producers are judged  (tenure and promotion) by their fidelity to the packaging (law review articles and books) and content standardization (its fidelity to the generally shared normative presumptions of the leading practitioners in the field) features of  knowledge commodities.  To that end, assessment structures are required not merely for the academic, but also for the secondary structures within which her status is itself assessed. (Cf. Backer, Larry Catá, Global Panopticism: States, Corporations and the Governance Effects of Monitoring Regimes. Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies, Vol. 15, 2007).
Along with others, I have suggested the consequences of rmeasurement--and asessment--within systems  constructed specifically to permit a continuous and self reinforcing system of hierarchy and protecting the privileges of "leading" groups within disciplines ("Defining, Measuring and Judging Scholarly Productivity: Working Toward a Rigorous and Flexible Approach," 52(3) Journal of Legal Education 52(3):317-341 (2002) (examining, in part, the way that discussion od scholaraship and its produciton is skewed by other issues, principally the objectification of scholarship goals)).

Two items suggest that what appeared to be a stable environment for such markets may be coming to an end. One, in English from Duncan Green appearing on an LSE Blog,  Conference rage: How did something as truly awful as panel discussions become the default format? touches on the organization and hierarchies of the performances through which knowledge is disseminated to the academic community. . .and others. The second, in Spanish, an open letter from Roberto Breña, El Colegio de México, is in the form of an open letter to the leadership of the Latin American Studies Association on the deficiencies of the structures of contemporary conferences for academics in a recognized "field" of study. Part of both follow along with my brief comments.

Does a sound exist if there is no one there to hear it? Does someone speak if the only people within earshot do not understand the language of the speaker? Is knowledge lost if it is known only to its author?  The distinction between the production of knowledge and its dissemination are well known.  In theory.  (Considered in Backer, Larry Catá and Haddad, Nabih and Teraoka, Tomonori and Wang, Keren, Democratizing the Global Business and Human Rights Project by Catalyzing Strategic Litigation from the Bottom Up, in Human Rights and Business:  Moving Forward, Looking Back 254-287 (Jena Martin and Karen Erica Bravo, eds., Cambridge University Press, 2015).

The production of knowledge is, in its essence, a self referencing activity, in which the subject of knowledge creation, usually (but not always a human) produces an object form out of the relationships of ideas, relationships, inferences and observations that she has either observed or contrived. The knowledge produced does not affect directly those objects which were factors in its production (polar bears no not change their behavior for being observed to inhabit a particular climate zone even if they were made aware of this reality about themselves).  The inferences and consequences that are the object of knowledge, and its potential application, remain, for the most part passive and inactive.  The inferences etc. exist, but that existence does not imply anything more.   I can spend a lifetime producing knowledge that in personal to me--and to no one else.  It exists.  But only in relation to me. 

But knowledge thus produced is also, in its essence, a commodity.  It has value, initially, to its creator.  And that may be the extent of the reach of its value.  The production and value chain is quite short.  But people tend to be social creatures that inhabit societal space in which communities--economic, social, religious, and political--seek to monitor, extract, harvest, value and exploit this commodity.  It is when knowledge moves beyond its producer--when it enters societal space (within the context of the imperatives of the social web within which the knowledge producer operates), that knowledge assumes a distinct character, one related to but quite apart form itself. It in in this commercial, political, societal, religious, and economic space, that knowledge is consumed, and that the transaction by which knowledge producer is compensated for the delivery of knowledge into societal space can be used for institutional and disciplinary ends. This is best developed within the world of academic knowledge production.  Individuals are employed for the purpose of knowledge production.  But the production of knowledge--now understood as a societal commodity--must be managed to produce those objects of knowledge most valued by the managers of the societal spaces in which such knowledge is consumed.  In the case of academics that space includes the university itself and the community of scholars within the discipline into which knowledge production is slotted. Valuation is performed by others--journals and other publication venues, most importantly.

The value of knowledge thus commodified, is not inherently in its internal character, the insights and other components that give shape to this knowledge.  Rather, the value of knowledge is almost entirely external to the knowledge itself.  It's value is bound up in a host of proxy markers--the place of the authority on status hierarchies, the rank of her institution within institutional hierarchies, the rank of the publication venue, the placement within a particular issue.  Value in conformed as well almost entirely by outside markers. These markers have become conflated with labor discipline as well. Citation rates, the locus of citation (was it cited in a "quality" publication by a high status author? etc.) are used as valuation markers and as the signals that are meant to direct knowledge producers to the production of particular types of knowledge.  And that disciplinary aspect cannot be underestimated.  Within markets for knowledge, where knowledge is valued, and value is the currency of status and privilege within labor markets, the type of knowledge produced is more important than any inherent quality in its production.  One produces knowledge for the market--one might even produce the sort of knowledge the market wants to consume.  One creates knowledge that is of no interest to or that offends knowledge consumers at one's own risk--and the risk is to one's status within knowledge producer labor markets. 

Thus knowledge production resembles the production of any commodity for markets made up of consumers--some powerful--states, foundations, institutions--others legitimating, consumers with high status reputations. The value of knowledge is thus a key element in its production from the societal perspective. But knowledge producers can increase the value of their knowledge production within this field by projecting that knowledge instrumentally through networks of consumers.  To that end, venues for the interaction of producer/consumers becomes a critical point  at which knowledge producers can insert their commodities into the knowledge consumption market and seek to achieve its highest value (measure not by quantity but by placement in particular outlets, by rates at which it is referenced by other producer-consumers) and by the status of the venues in which such knowledge may be out on display.  Putting knowledge on display, then, is a key element in the negotiation of a value for knowledge that is essential for the maximization of the compensation received by its producer in the markets into which it is projected. Like markets for publication--arranged and ranked in order of status--the organization of markets for the display of knowledge product becomes a key element in its valuation--and in leveraging reputation for future /and sometimes) past commodities that may be resold.    

And thus the rise of the academic conference.  And thus the rise of a particular way of holding these conferences--the default method of conference presentation in which individuals are chosen (value added) to present their work to the market and thus increase its value and the status of the presenter both with respect to the knowledge commodity presented and generally for the "label" represented by work of that producer of knowledge. It is, in this sense, that the character of the market for knowledge inexorably produces its structures and forms.  The format for academic conferences are what they are because they tend to provide a space where knowledge producers may seek to maximize the value of their commodities--like markets in large towns provided the same opportunities for farmers several centuries ago.  Placement in the market (at the center near the square or off to the side where people rarely venture) has been converted into  the place and reputation of the conference to which one is invited to present.  And the timing of the presentation, as well as its character (keynote presentation, plenary panel, simultaneous panels) along with the time of presentation--early morning, mid day or evening of the last day of the event, all signal value.  

This also suggests the self referencing nature of the academic conference,  It is not a retail market for knowledge--at which the public is invited to sample the "goods" and seek to purchase.  Rather it is an internal to wholesale market, where producers meet with each other to realign their ranking, to showcase now product and to ensure coherence and discipline in the markets for knowledge commodities within sub',markets (academic fields).  None of this is of meant for the public.  All of this is meant for internal consumption--a societal ritual and disciplinary technique for the organization and functioning of a knowledge producing community founded on both the need for production and the imperative of valuation of the objects produced.  

But these markets for knowledge are inherently fragile.  They depend, in large part on the willingness of knowledge producers to invest in the institutions that provide both an opportunity to disseminate their production but which also serves to discipline and value that production in markets in which the societal value of the commodity may be distinct from the inherent value of the thing produced.  How many times have academics heard the following: "That was an excellent article, I do not understand why it was published in such a low ranked journal.  No doubt the ability to spread this knowledge will suffer and it did not do its author much good in terms of her status, and her evaluation at work, because it did little to further the reputation of the institution." 

It is with this in mind that one can consider the rising disaffection with the current structures of the market for knowledge production.  That disaffection is not technical--but in some respects represents the beginnings of a disaffection with the fundamental premises of the organization of markets for knowledge themselves.  On the one hand, that disaffection stems from the way that the current market structure inhibits transparency and the search for value in knowledge production (e.g. Duncan Green).  On the other it goes to the issue of the societal value of the knowledge produced, as well as the ways in which the current market creates barriers to dissemination (e.g. Roberto Breña).  Consider each below. That disaffection is important.  It suggests that the conventional structures of markets in academic knowledge are now more unstable than they have been in a while.  It opens the possibilities either of the fracture of those markets (sub markets for the production of knowledge with distinct characteristics) or of its transformation.  The latter is unlikely.  But the former--the fracture of markets for knowledge production may be much more plausible.  This plausibility will increase as knowledge producers discover other structures for the "sale" of knowledge to other communities, and as the university itself changes as the nexus point for the translation of the value of knowledge production into status rewards and other forms of compensation.


Conference rage: How did something as truly awful as panel discussions become the default format?

The relatively low impact of many academic conferences suggests it may be time for a rethink, argues Duncan Green. ‘Manels’ (male only panels) are an outrage, but why not go for complete abolition, rather than mere gender balance? With people reading out papers, terrible powerpoints crammed with too many words, or illegible graphics, it is time for innovation in format. We need to get better at shaping the format to fit the the precise purpose of the conference.

With the occasional exception (see previous post on Piketty), my mood in conferences usually swings between boredom, despair and rage. The turgid/self-aggrandizing keynotes and coma-inducing panels, followed by people (usually men) asking ‘questions’ that are really comments, usually not on topic.

. . . . I guess if it was easy to fix, people would have done so already, but the format is tired and unproductive – how can we shake it up?

* * *

Conferences frequently discuss evidence and results. So where are the evidence and results for the efficacy of conferences? Given the resources being ploughed into research on development (DFID alone spends about £350m a year), surely it would be a worthwhile investment (if it hasn’t already been done) to sponsor a research programme that runs multiple parallel experiments with different event formats, and compares the results in terms of participant feedback, how much people retain a month after the event etc? At the very least, can they find or commission a systematic review on what the existing evidence says?

Feedback systems could really help: A public eBay-type ratings system to rank speakers/conferences would provide nice examples of good practice for people to draw on (and bad practice to avoid). Or why not go realtime and encourage instant audience feedback? . . . .

How did something as truly awful as panel discussions become the default format? People reading out papers; terrible powerpoints crammed with too many words, or illegible graphics. Please, can we try other formats, like speed dating (eg 10 people pitch their work for 2 minutes each, then each goes to a table and the audience hooks up (intellectually, I mean) with the ones they were interested in); world cafes; simulation games; joint tasks (eg come up with an infographic that explains X). Anything, really. Yes ‘manels’ (male only panels – take the pledge here) are an outrage, but why not go for complete abolition, rather than mere gender balance?

We need to get better at shaping the format to fit the the precise purpose of the conference. If it’s building networks, making new links etc, then you need to maximise the interaction time . . .  If it’s to jointly progress thinking on a particular issue, then use a workshop methodology, . . .   If it’s to pick apart and improve methods and findings, then it has to be at first draft stage, and with the right combination of academics and practitioners in the room. But if the best you can manage is ‘disseminating new research’ of ‘information sharing’, alarm bells should probably ring.

Resource it: Organizing good conferences requires expertise and time. . . . So research funders should demand a sensible conference budget in any proposal, and outside particular research projects, academic institutions should fund conferences seriously as places where networking can incubate new ideas and refine old ones.

* * *

And why should academics be organizing them anyway? Isn’t there a case for outsourcing more of them to good good conference organizers who ‘get’ the special challenges of academic (rather than, say, corporate) events? With my How Change Happens hat on, the obvious question is, why haven’t things changed already? Using the handy 3i rule of thumb, is it ideas, institutions or interests that are keeping things this way?

Ideas: maybe people genuinely think this format is the best possible, or just lack imagination – how do we undermine that view and get recognition of alternatives?

Institutions: is part of the reason for the leaden, top-down formats that organizers want to control the agenda, pump out their own material etc? Does everyone need to be on a platform, with at least 20 minutes to talk about themselves or their interests? If so, very hard to get away from panelism.

Interests: Academics have to write papers for career advancement and to feed the REF beast. But does that really mean they have to present and discuss them in such a mind-numbing way?

* * *

About the Author

Duncan Green is Senior Strategic Adviser for Oxfam GB and Professor in Practice in the department for International Development at LSE. He runs the From Poverty to Power blog and is author of the book ‘How Change Happens (OUP, October 2016). He can be found on twitter @fp2p.


Carta Abierta

En su versión en inglés, esta carta abierta sobre los congresos de la Asociación de Estudios Latinoamericanos (LASA) fue enviada hace un par de días al actual presidente de la Asociación, Gilbert Joseph. El profesor Joseph respondió atentamente afirmando que LASA consideraría la carta con la seriedad que se merece y que en breve, una vez que hubiera hablado sobre la misma con los directivos de la Asociación, se comunicaría con su autor. La damos a conocer por el interés que puede tener para varios sectores de la comunidad académica de México y de toda América Latina.

Pasé tres días en el Congreso de LASA que acaba de tener lugar en Nueva York (del 27 al 30 de mayo). Hacía tiempo que no asistía a un congreso de LASA. En esta ocasión asistí como público (o eso pensaba) porque fue mi esposa quien participó como ponente en una de las más de 1,400 mesas que fueron parte del evento en esta ocasión. Debo empezar diciendo que participar como “público” en un congreso de LASA es una empresa realmente complicada. Cuando intenté asistir a la mesa de un amigo, un guardia de seguridad me dijo que no podía entrar si no tenía un gafete oficial. Le dije que yo era un académico asistiendo a un evento académico y su respuesta fue que tenía que hablar con los organizadores para obtener una autorización. La persona de LASA con la que hablé me dijo que o bien tenía que pagar 100 dólares para poder asistir a la mesa o ella me tenía que escoltar personalmente hasta el lugar donde tendría lugar. Opté por lo segundo y eso fue lo que hizo, no sin antes advertirme que debía abandonar el lugar una vez que la mesa terminara. Al día siguiente asistí a otra mesa con un permiso que me proporcionó otra representante de LASA, el cual me permitía asistir solamente a esa mesa. El último día del congreso fui a otra mesa. En esa ocasión no tuve necesidad de ningún permiso, pues ese día no había un guardia afuera del lugar donde tendría lugar la mesa que me interesaba.

El relato precedente puede sonar muy personal, pero tuve la oportunidad de hablar con varios colegas de diferentes países que también querían asistir a algunas mesas como público y tuvieron experiencias similares (algunos ni siquiera pudieron visitar la exposición de libros pues, por increíble que parezca, también está cerrada al público). Los motivos que me llevan a escribir estas líneas, sin embargo, no tienen nada de personales. En mi vida académica he asistido a congresos en varias partes del mundo y, exceptuando algunos congresos en los Estados Unidos, nunca he visto o escuchado que alguien sea impedido de asistir a una mesa académica… por razones puramente financieras: el principal motivo detrás de esta absurda situación es que si no habías pagado los 220 dólares requeridos por el Congreso LASA 2016, en términos prácticos no existías.

Varias cuestiones importantes se desprenden del relato “personal” que acabo de hacer. Empiezo por la que algunos considerarían la más lógica. ¿Qué fue lo que obtuvo cada participante por los 220 dólares que tuvo que pagar para participar en el congreso de LASA 2016? Nada en términos de “souvenirs”, con lo cual no tengo ningún problema. Lo que llamó mi atención es que por esos 220 dólares los participantes ni siquiera obtuvieron un programa impreso del congreso (para ello tenían que desembolsar otros 20 dólares). Lo que más me preocupa, sin embargo, es esta sensación, compartida por muchos de los colegas con quienes tuve oportunidad de hablar durante el congreso, de que los criterios y el rigor académicos no son primordiales en los congresos de LASA. Regresaré a este punto un poco más adelante. Ahora quiero explorar, en clave telegráfica e interrogativa, algunas de las razones que nos ayudan a explicar esta situación:

a) Por muchos años, LASA había sido un congreso gigantesco que solía tener lugar cada dos años; ahora, se realiza cada año. La pregunta que me viene a la cabeza es muy simple: ¿por qué? Dicho de otro modo, ¿qué es lo que justifica esta recurrencia anual en un mundo (el académico) en el que el desarrollo de nuevos proyectos y nuevas investigaciones requieren tiempo y reflexión?

b) A juzgar por el grosor del programa impreso del congreso LASA 2016 (un libro en sí mismo: 326 páginas), cada año los congresos de LASA son más grandes. Las preguntas aquí también resultan evidentes (al menos para mí): ¿continuará esta tendencia? ¿hasta alcanzar cuántos participantes? ¿qué justifica este aumento y qué revela esta atracción por un crecimiento puramente cuantitativo?

c) En cada congreso de LASA el número de personas inscritas que no hacen acto de presencia en su mesa es considerable. No sé cómo explicar esto y sé muy bien que esto pasa en otras reuniones académicas, pero tomando en cuenta que en este caso la inclusión en el programa implica haber pagado una cantidad no desdeñable, ¿no valdría la pena averiguar qué es lo que está detrás de estas ausencias?

d) El número de mesas en las que el “público” es menos numeroso que los ponentes es también considerable. No pocas mesas tienen poquísimo “público”, especialmente las que empiezan a las 8 a.m. A este respecto, cabe plantear una pregunta que adquirirá su sentido un poco más adelante: si los congresos de LASA no fueran masivos, ¿habría necesidad de empezar tan temprano?

e) Con mucha frecuencia el tiempo concedido al debate y a los intercambios entre los ponentes y con el público es mínimo (cuando no inexistente, pues nunca falta quien no respeta el tiempo que le corresponde). ¿Qué caso tiene reunir académicos de varios países para que no reciban ninguna retroalimentación? ¿La discusión y la retroalimentación no deberían tener mayor entidad y, por tanto, mayor espacio?

f) Enviar las ponencias con anticipación no es obligatorio. Esto fomenta, nolens volens, la improvisación. Como siempre, hay muchas excepciones; ¿necesito aclarar que esta carta abierta no está dirigida a todas estas excepciones? Buenas mesas y ponencias interesantes son parte integrante de todos los congresos de LASA.

Esta lista podría extenderse, pero no quiero convertir esta carta en un documento demasiado largo. Lo que me interesa es fomentar un debate sobre lo que es actualmente el congreso latinoamericano más grande de ciencias sociales y humanidades. Debo añadir antes de continuar que mi principal preocupación aquí son los participantes latinoamericanos, no los latinoamericanistas de los Estados Unidos. Dicho esto, algunos colegas con los que hablé sobre estos temas me dijeron que no debía perder de vista el aspecto de lo que en inglés se denomina networking. Seré el último en negar esta ventaja. Sin embargo, en primer lugar, esto no contradice lo que muchos consideran un rigor académico menguante en los congresos de LASA. En segundo lugar, esta ventaja disminuye significativamente para muchos participantes con el paso del tiempo. Me explico: a partir de cierto momento LASA es más una reunión de viejos amigos que quieren pasar un buen rato juntos que una reunión de académicos con proyectos académicos ambiciosos (una vez más, hay muchas excepciones; como no puede ser de otra manera en un congreso en el que participan más de 5,000 personas). ¿Es solamente esto a lo que la comunidad académica latinoamericana debe aspirar? ¿Debiera sentirse satisfecha con estas reuniones anuales de viejas amistades bajo un paraguas académico? Las universidades latinoamericanas (muchas de ellas con presupuestos precarios) gastan miles de dólares cada año para enviar a sus estudiantes, profesores e investigadores a los congresos de LASA. ¿No debiera revisarse esta práctica? Al respecto debo añadir un par de cuestiones. La primera es que, con suerte, en América Latina las universidades proporcionan apoyo económico para un solo congreso internacional al año. La segunda es que LASA no se desentiende de este punto: como se puede verificar en el Programa 2016 (pp. xv-xxix), para el congreso que acaba de tener lugar, LASA concedió cerca de 400 becas de viaje.

Además del debate que considero necesario respecto a varias de las cuestiones que he mencionado hasta aquí, esta carta también pretende promover una discusión sobre cómo la asistencia a los congresos de LASA puede resultar en algo más fructífero desde una perspectiva académica, así como proporcionar elementos para la reflexión a los organizadores de los congresos de LASA sobre la raison d’être de estos congresos. Esto puede sonar desproporcionado e incluso sin mucho sentido de mi parte, pero permítanme explicarme. Entiendo que, tal como escriben los co-organizadores del Programa 2016 al final de su mensaje (Programa, p. ix), el 50 aniversario de LASA debe ser visto como una oportunidad para crear “un futuro más participativo, diverso y justo para la región y sus pueblos”. Mi punto aquí es que esta perspectiva social no debe desplazar a la substancia académica de los congresos de LASA.

¿Seguirá LASA auspiciando una cuasi-identificación entre la academia y el activismo social o ya es tiempo, ahora que ha cumplido 50 años, de poner sobre la mesa diferentes perspectivas sobre dicha cuasi-identificación? ¿No es legítimo preguntar qué es lo que las universidades latinoamericanas obtienen en términos académicos de los congresos masivos que ahora LASA organiza todos los años? ¿No es tiempo de adoptar una postura más crítica respecto a este enfoque eminentemente activista y cuantitativo, así como sentarnos a discutir sus ventajas y desventajas? No porque los congresos de LASA deban ser puestos de cabeza o nada por el estilo, sino porque considero que los argumentos que surgirían en una discusión de esta naturaleza serían provechosos para todos los involucrados.

Por ejemplo, una de las conclusiones del debate propuesto podría ser la reducción del número de ponentes. Una medida como ésta, ¿no elevaría el nivel académico de los congresos de LASA y, por lo tanto, su reputación académica? Debo añadir que no estoy asumiendo aquí una lógica de suma-cero entre lo que podríamos llamar “vida académica” y lo que podríamos denominar “vida activista”. Lo que estoy diciendo es que los organizadores de los congresos de LASA parecen haber asumido una postura a-crítica a este respecto. Dicho en otras palabras: las actividades activistas no son consubstanciales a las actividades académicas y la distancia entre ambas no puede ser salvada o ignorada en nombre de ciertas metas sociales (por más encomiables y admirables que sean).

El cuantitativismo, el activismo, el networking y los beneficios económicos no pueden ser los parámetros de ningún congreso académico. Si esta carta abierta es tendenciosa o parcial en sus apreciaciones, esto saldrá a relucir en el debate que espero suscite. Sin embargo, si ese no es el caso, sería razonable esperar que la comunidad académica latinoamericana en las ciencias sociales y las humanidades proponga modificaciones a ciertos aspectos de los congresos de LASA tal como tienen lugar hoy en día. Asimismo, los organizadores de estos congresos podrían revisar y replantear algunos de los elementos comprendidos o sugeridos en los alegatos que he presentado en esta carta. Termino afirmando que, desde mi punto de vista, al final del día el debate que propongo aquí sería fructífero tanto para LASA como para la academia latinoamericana.

Roberto Breña, El Colegio de México

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