It’s not a coincidence that “meaningless” is synonymous with “academic”. Since the collapse of the academic job market in the 1970’s, universities have been cranking out doctoral students across a wide range of fields. And as the graduate student population sells, the relevancy of academic research shrinks. Smaller and smaller studies of narrower and narrower issues become the norm, all with the ultimate goal of publishing as much as possible in intense competition for the limited number of academic positions. As the academic job market continues to shrink, academic researchers are beginning to understand that the adoration of rarified groups that read their publication in esoteric journals, the feigned syncophany of their graduate students who understand how the game is played, and the shrinking research budgets of their universities, as well as a somewhat insidious (but not entirely undeserved) anti-intellectualism in public opinion, are making them an endangered species. They’ve begun looking around for ways to justify their existence, calling their “newly” discovered fields of inquiry by opaque names such as “collaborative”, “participatory”, or “community-based” research. This often amounts to no more than “I actually had to leave campus”.
I’m routinely amused at social-scientific professional conferences, when sessions and seminars focused on enhancing psychologists’ ability to “communicate their research much more broadly, and to make the most if it’s dramatic relevance to policymaking and our understanding of resistance to science and its applications”. Clearly academics have figured out the problem – the rest of the world simply doesn’t recognize their genius or importance. We mere mortals have simply not understood that their 3 year study of minutia conducted on freshman college students is incredibly important for the future of society. If only we would listen. Gold stars for those academics who realize that perhaps it’s not so much that the world is not listening as the irrelevancy and inapplicability of much of their research. If you meet one, give them a hug. Then punch them in the gut for being stupid. Even academic who recognize a need to get out into the real world, bring with them a great deal of academic baggage that often makes them ore obstructive then helpful, and their notion of “collaboration” is frequently that of “give me access to your people and I’ll tell you how to conduct real research”.
Those academics who are actually bold enough to descend from the ivory tower and emerge from the hallowed halls often applaud their own attempts to get out in the community. Those of us who work with the community day in and day out refer to them as “parachuters” who do “commando research”. They drop into a community from on high, conduct a rapid research operation and vanish into the night when they are done. Another alternative brand of more broadly distributing one’s academic research is to “go pop”, and get information out in common venues of popular culture like Psychology Today, People, or The View, or by publishing mass market books digestable by a wider audience. They are generally disparaged by their rock star academic colleague who sneeringly accuse them of wanting to be “journalists” (god forbid) rather than serious academics. Unfortunately, we cannot hold up these few examples of forays out of academia as a standard to be emulated. Those researchers who have more than a passing acquaintance with doing research in the community look at the sort of research that is published in the mainstream press, and say “no, duh. So what?”. The academic, of course swells with pride when an article is accepted into the Scientific Journal of Obscure Stuff That Nobody Else Cares About – they shout it, tweet it, facebook it, and distribute copies of their article to all their academic friends. I myself have felt the glow of being accepted by a journal read by no more than 1000 people in the entire country (still looks good on a CV, eh?), and very few of them actually interested in any of the subjects that don’t relate directly to their own research. I tweet my own publications, because, well when in Rome…someday I may need to hide in academia. You never know. Just in case, here’s a link to one of my articles: http://www.researchgate.net/publication/51439105_The_CHANGE_approach_to_capacity-building_assistance
There, I’ve communicated my research more broadly. I feel more participatory already, but I digress.
As I’m especially interested in the well-being of the community, let me save you time, effort and a conference registration fee. You want to understand resistance to science? Then actually go out into the field instead of listening to a lecture on it in a room filled with other ivory tower individuals who have never had to deal with research in an uncontrolled environment, where data is not neat and tidy, where it is often necessary to not only immediately apply results of research, but you must directly and clearly communicate those results to non-scientists. Don’t go to a community forum and spout your research in such terms that community members scratch their heads and yawn. But then again, when you do that and I am the next speaker I tend to rock–so I suppose a thank you is in order! Thank you for being so clueless that it makes me look even better.
The “community” is not for the faint of heart. As a new crop of scientists and academics begin to realize that the academy is an extremely small pond and look to “live among the natives” out in the field, be warned – the average day in a community-based organization, let alone trying to conduct research in such a venue would shock your system. I predict the development of ticks, stutters, and a strong desire to curl up the fetal position. Ultimately, many will actually throw themselves onto the floor in dramatic fashion. Why? Even when you can communicate the importance of protocols, you can’t get staff to follow them. Captive and willing subjects? Good luck with that. Clean data? Slightly rinsed data at best. Control group? I saw them play at CBGB’s. They rocked. Statistics? Everyone knows statistics lie, so what do they matter anyway, and besides data is the antithesis of community activism because it’s just abused by “the man”. Hey academics, that group of undergraduates that you can barely stand to lecture at twice a week – imagine a non-stop attempt to negotiate with people that are openly hostile to you, and will write to your funders if they don’t like your results and say you are not culturally competent to assess them. Do you get what I’m saying? Dropping in for a few day does not make you a researcher out in the community.
So, here I am caught in the middle, trying to simultaneously do research, run a community based organization, and bridge the gap between academia and the community. Maybe that is what drives me. I can try to understand both academic and community members. Can I have a foot in both worlds? Do I sound all doom and gloom? Is there a way of having it all–good data and a meaningful impact on the community? But by having a foot in both worlds, am I shortchanging myself? Am I developing a multiple personality disorder? At the end of the day, I appreciate the utility of protocols and order, but I enjoy mocking the academic rock stars in their small pond (see my previous blog post). Being a born curmudgeon seems to suit being caught in the middle, but the truth is that I want the best of both worlds, so I’ll end with a happy observation from Virginia Woolf, who said “I want the concentration and the romance, and the worlds all glued together, fused, glowing: have no time to waste any more on prose.”