21 Jun 2019

The Bullshit of Academia

Hello intrepid reader!

It has been a long while since I last published a post here on the Magical Realm, and this has been because of—wait for it!—my university. In its usual way, the university has left me stressed out, in doubt, and wondering what to do next. Partly, it’s avoidable mismanagement on the side of both the university and the housing association: I am meant to be moving out on the 15th of July, but I have no idea who the new tenant will be, and I have a lot of furniture I need to sell. Naturally, my room came completely unfurnished; were I to extend the luxury of furniture to the new tenant, both of us would benefit. Instead I must live with the uncertainty.

Then there’s the idiotic choice of dates: I will have my graduation ceremony on the 1st July, my final internship report the day before, and have only two weeks to move out. This is despite the fact that the first years start intro week at the end of August. The rationale? None. Or at least, none that a sane person could comprehend.

It gets worse: although I have to move out on the 15th of July, I don’t get my official diploma until August 30th. What the hell does my university think I’m going to do in the intervening six weeks? (Hint: it’s not holidays or travelling. A great deal of bureaucracy must be conquered in order to have the diploma delivered by post.)

Still, the title of this post does not single out my university in particular (although, buyer be warned). Rather, there is an underlying problem here, common to many universities across the globe: the bullshit of academia.

Teaching Useless Skills

I have spent a great deal of time and effort, during the past 3 years, in perfecting skills that will be useless later on in my career. I speak here of such things like citation styles (an archaic mess that belongs in the 7th circle of Hell); or the various muddled conventions of academic writing, like passive voice; or indeed the whole sorry mess of journals, impact ranking, H-index, et cetera ad nauseam.

All practical applications of writing—i.e writing that people want to read and which makes money—follow conventions that oppose the dictums of academic writing. I am not referring to such things alone as writing a novel, essays, or journalism pieces; indeed, business writing, too, shares more similarities with a journalism entry than your typical academic paper. Practical writing uses active voice; the intent is to sell something, be it a story, your CV, or a product. Good writing gets to the point. When presenting an argument, the reasoning must be comprehensible and the conclusions clear.

The weasel words of academia—“generally”, “this indicates that”, or, my favourite, “to what extent”—have no place in business writing. Superfluous jargon or verbiage, likewise, must face the guillotine. (I exclude technical terms here, which are necessary in order to be precise.)

Teaching Useless Courses

Another pet favourite of liberal arts courses is the teaching of superficial nonsense courses as general requirements. In my case, it was such wonderful things as: “the Global Identity Experience”; “Big Questions in Future Societies”; or Advanced Research Writing. (ibidem)

The problem, let me be clear, is not always the material itself. It is instead its superficiality. Philosophy of science, for example, is a huge discipline with a rich and wonderful history. (And plenty of real-world applications, for that matter.) Yet its treatment in Global Identity did not do it any justice. Qualitative methods, likewise, is a practical course, but covered insufficiently.

Creating Knowledge (not)

The crux of my criticism against academia, as taught in undergraduate courses, is that it inculcates bad habits in students in order to succeed in the academic game; that it teaches certain important topics too superficially, and places too much attention on unimportant things; but my argument also contains a distinctly scientific criticism.

Academics like to delude themselves into believing that they create knowledge. From the perspective of epistemology, it is obvious that the purlieu of academia only covers propositional knowledge, and not other forms of knowledge which are valuable in the pursuit of human flourishing (for example, practical knowledge, moral knowledge, or friendship). Economists like Hayek will tell you—correctly, in this case—that the private sector is also responsible for creating a great deal of knowledge.

But even with these caveats, there remain more problems for academia. The first is one of social conventions—I refer, once more, to the aforementioned passive voice, citation styles, and pretentious journals. These social conventions are dangerous enough on their own. In order:

  • Passive voice obscures the nature and strength of the claim being made. Exempli gratia, “Results indicate that the prevalence of rape culture on campus is proportional at 25% (95% confidence interval: 21–29%).” Active voice: “A small-sample size questionnaire with dubious methodology, carried out by feminists with an agenda, found that approximately one quarter of women on campus were raped.”
  • Rick & Morty (2000) found that stress made consumers less likely to judge information correctly... versus... A study, “The Effects of Stress on Consumer Behaviour” (1) found that stress made consumers less able to judge information correctly. (Guess what: author name and year tells me absolutely nothing about the the claim being made. Give me a useful description and number your reference list!)
  • Pretentious journals, or journals with no standards. One rejects potentially valuable research on technicalities. The other publishes crap. Naturally, everyone wants to get published in the pretentious journals, which, via supply and demand, are given even more power to enforce pointless requirements.

Another problem, well documented by this point, is the “neo-liberalisation” or industrialisation of research output. This is a topic all of its own, and one that I cannot cover in sufficient detail within this mere blog post. I only point to the effect: a huge amount of research is published, much of it unreadable by laymen or non-specialists, and whose scientific merit is difficult to evaluate.

So what to do?

I often see that academics are reluctant to suggest solutions to a problem, either relying on weasel words (“x and y claims are subject to further research...”) or leaving it to someone else (“policymakers”, whatever that means). I don’t have all the answers, but I can suggest some obvious first steps. To begin with: academia and academic teaching should collaborate much more closely with business, industry and successful professionals. Academia is not real life, but real life has a lot to teach academia.

Secondly, scrap the archaic citations, academic verbiage, and passive voice.

I promise you that not only will academia benefit, but students too.

Yours truly,
A frustrated student.

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