The academy and A word

In this post, I continue the foundation we have of the academy being a system of social reproduction and discuss the ways in which the academy is held and not held accountable. If Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel or Collapse concerned you, you’re about to have some flashbacks.

Accountability: the state of being accountable, liable, or answerable.

Sounds like such a common sense and straightforward idea: if you ask me or better yet pay me to do a certain job, I should be held to answer for that work. If I do it, I get rewarded, if not, no reward. Straightforward, right? However, like the promise of most simple equations to how society should function, the reality is far more complex and less satisfying in terms of fairness. Ideas of accountability can be the glue that holds together beliefs about why some people succeed in the world and others don’t, masking conditions and factors that are far beyond single individuals’ reach.

In her book, The Moral Underground, sociologist Lisa Dodson provides rich examples of how overly simplistic and conveniently applied measures of accountability help some Americans make peace with the low wages paid to millions of the nation’s working poor.  These low wages make it virtually impossible for parents, lots of working mothers included, to consistently provide shelter, food, and safety for their children. As opposed to working parents who make more substantial salaries and therefore have full-time daycare or nannies structured into the daily lives of the family, low-wage workers often have to piece together afterschool care for their children through relatives, neighbors  and friends, resulting in a kind of house of cards. These low wage jobs are also often those that are most intolerant of absences and tardiness. Hourly workers in restaurants, office cleaners, service personnel of all kinds are held strictly accountable to the work clock. In that system of accountability, Dodson explains through rich examples and interviews, a simple bump in the road like your child’s cold or flu can topple the whole thing. Through single interviews and focus group interviews with workers, employers, and social service employees, Dodson illuminates the ways in which overly simplistic accountability undermines and obscures social responsibility, or accountability to the societal system. In that sense, accountability and how it is applied can be a sharp lens to see the priorities and values of a social system.

In the academy, academics are answerable for certain activities and they are assessed, judged by certain people. First, what are they held accountable to in terms of activities and tasks? The yearly review process for academics consists of evaluating their workload and productivity in three areas: teaching, research, and service. Teaching is largely assessed through the student evaluations on courses taught within the academy. Research is assessed through the number of research articles published and the stature of the journals in which the articles appear (see Social Reproduction post), and service consists of being a member and sometimes leading a university committee on this or that or providing departmental leadership. These are the most traditional, most common, and most explicitly mentored ways that academics conduct their work, and they are the fields in which their performance is measured. Top research institutions will demand more productivity, publications in top research journals (the designation of ‘top’ hinged to rejection rates), while many liberal arts colleges expect strong teaching evaluations in addition to publishing.

Who holds whom accountable? Performance is measured largely by peers who have performed well in these areas. They, in turn, use the same measures to assess more junior colleagues, either promoting or filtering them out of the system. Second verse, same as the first.

As a whole then, we have, in essence, a kind of a monoculture, in which the activities are largely borne from and feed back into the institution of higher learning. In carrying through the ideas in the previous post, this leads, inevitably to a system in which those who have the most power in the system (tenured, full professors) usher in and escort out those with the least amount of power in the system. Because the levers of accountability, the annual peer reviews, are positioned relative to activity within the academy, academics are held accountable for their work, largely, in conversation with other academics. So not only is this a system of social reproduction, but it is one that is dangerously insulated from other fields of society. It is, in essence, a monoculture.

Ecologically speaking, a monoculture is the agricultural practice of producing or growing one single crop over a wide area. From a capitalist point of view, this is great. You make all the cogs and widgets that the machine needs to grow, harvest, and sell the single crop. Efficiency at its smoothest. However, from a more longitudinal and deeper view of biodiversity and sustainability, monocultures are not such great things. Overproducing a single crop undermines the ability for any ecosystem, necessarily made up of different parts, to survive. Create a monoculture and you may as well start making collectors’ editions of calendars, because for that ecosystem, time is limited. Jared Diamond named monocultures as one of the four fundamental threats to biodiversity. E.O. Wilson addressed overharvesting in his warnings against a system of five threats to biodiversity. And predating any European patterns of agriculture, indigenous communities in the Americas, the South Pacific, and Asia thrived on heterogeneous agricultural crops that fed back into the lands’ abilities to produce foods appropriate to those climates. Long before Whole Foods starting etching catchy explanations of locally grown, indigenous peoples promoted biodiversity. Not as a matter of bumper sticker slogan, but one of social responsibility. Accountability.

Monocultures are also dangerously successful hosts for colonizing practices. To colonize a people means to control their activities and thoughts in the best interests of the ruling, or colonizing power. In that sense, to truly be a successful colonizer, one must create a monoculture of thought and practice. Everyone reads the same material, cites it in their own writing, and produces the same genres of thought. When academics are held accountable, they are made to answer to only those internally assessed measures of productivity. These measures are hatched from and reflect the cultural practices, values, and worldviews of the people within the academy, a people largely composed of White European-descended males.  It has, in essence, acted as a petri dish for monocultures of practice and thought. When the academy has sought biodiversity, in terms of bringing in faculty members from ‘diverse’ backgrounds, the results have inadvertently shed light upon the cultural practices that have so well served the growth and reproduction of the established monoculture. The last few decades have seen increases in initial hires of female and minority junior faculty. And subsequently, these increases have been followed by an alarming trend of faculty of color and females being denied tenure. For a recent and more fully developed analysis of this trend in which discrimination is scripted into the promotion and tenure process, see the recent troubles that DePaul University has brought down on itself.

These events should draw our attention to the ways in which the monoculture of the academy is unsustainable as a host for diversity. Currently, the edges are fraying when diversity is ushered in through people from non-European masculinist cultures, but there are also warning signs ahead for the monocultures of thought in terms of what counts as research, what accountability is and should be, and who should hold academics accountable besides themselves.

In the next post, I’ll take up how this insular system of accountability is particularly problematic for educational research and social responsibility to schools, teachers, and students.

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