Thursday, August 12, 2004

Networking in academia

Yesterday’s Oz Higher Ed ran an article by legal academic (and ex-teacher of mine) John Gava. Unfortunately, it’s not online*. The gist of Gava’s case in that networking in academia is essential to success, especially in obtaining external research funding – but that such networking comes at a high price, including the necessary jettisoning, on the way, of the pursuit of truth.

This is an ambitious argument, and one which involves drawing some dubious distinctions – notably, that obtaining external research funding is vital to academic success in the sciences and some social sciences, but that humanities and legal academic research is “essentially solitary”, and so (presumably) less dependent on external funding.

Research funding-wise and otherwise, I think that is it quite clear that the post-Dawkins university system has placed a premium on networking, irrespective of the discipline. The enforced collapse of the (official) binary system has, however, particularly affected the research cultures of legal (and also, I’m guessing, humanities) academics at the “sandstone” universities. Not only were there suddenly many more players jostling for scarce external funds, the rules of the game were also being redefined, on the fly.

For newly-minted universities, many of whom soon after began offering new, low entry-score law degrees, access to external research funding had disproportionate value to the school/faculty. Like Western Sydney’s aspirationals with their triple-garaged McMansions, the new universities worked hard to build, buy and barter themselves facades (often called “Centres” of some-such).

The outcome, of course, has been all-round mediocrity; or as Gava puts it: “perhaps the most insidious aspect of networking is that it makes for boring academics”. For externally-funded researchers, acting as “breadwinners” for post-1988 universities, such sentiments are water off a duck’s back – never mind the quality, feel the width. Meanwhile, academics at the older universities are indeed in a quandary: how hungry do they have to get before their long-held competitive adavantage of quality teaching and disinterested/scholarly research erodes into nothing – as a sandstone facade eventually must?

Networking is undoubtedly intellectual cowardice – but for aspirational academics with big research grants that are the analogue of the 4WDs they probably drive to work, cowardice plus ostentation equals success.

* John Gava "Networks hinder the pursuit of truth" The Australian 11 August 2004

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