By Sacha Ghandeharian
Last year I was asked by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives to write a review of Alain Deneault’s latest book – Mediocracy: The Politics of the Extreme Centre (2018). In the book, Deneault offers a critique of contemporary academic research. His critique of the overall ‘professionalization’ of academia, as more and more guided by a principle of usefulness, got me thinking about how my own work, as well as the work of my colleagues, has been affected by these trends which disincentivize risk-taking and creativity in the study of political science. In drawing upon my own experience, as well as various conversations with colleagues, the following presents some personal reflections on possible structural barriers to risk-taking and creativity in the context of applying for grants, academic publishing, and the structure of PhD dissertations.
- Grant applications
It comes as no surprise that winning grants is a significant concern for graduate students. In addition to the practical necessity of securing funding in order to live and conduct research, demonstrating the ability to construct successful grant applications is an important part of becoming competitive in the academic job market upon completion of the PhD.
Applications for funding will normally revolve around one’s dissertation project – or planned dissertation project. If we take the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Doctoral Awards program as an example, I have observed that there is an assumption – especially among students who identify with the more ‘theoretical’ sub-disciplines – that those adjudicating the awards applications want to see the ‘social’ or ‘practical’ utility of any given project. Whether this assumption is based in fact or not, I suggest that it does influence the parameters of dissertation projects and presents a structural barrier to risk-taking that may ultimately hinder creativity. There are times when the pressure to shape one’s research question in line with the principle of social utility can water down, exclude, or disincentivize giving priority to certain topics and/or questions.
I am not arguing that it is unreasonable for all research in political science to be expected to have a social or political purpose, but rather that this purpose should not be narrowly conceived, and, that many times, truly original and creative work benefits from an environment of purposelessness – that is, an environment freed from overly technocratic and instrumental goals. Of course, the impact of this structural barrier will vary depending on sub-discipline. For example, my dissertation analyzes theories of subjectivity in contemporary political theory. The process of demonstrating the social utility of such a project, in clear and direct terminology, can often bring about a feeling of being disingenuous, since the practical implications of such an investigation are neither clear-cut nor the primary focus of the project.
- Journal publishing
Anyone who has published or attempted to publish in academic journals has dealt with trying to establish how any given article is situated within a (sub)discipline’s existing literature. Of course, it is only common sense that any article should establish how it fits within existing debates and explicate what is novel about its particular contribution. Having said that, the overemphasis on disciplinary boundaries can often overshadow original, albeit nuanced, arguments, and new connections.
The value of the particular arguments presented in a paper can sometimes become overshadowed by the process of going through the motions of recounting the existing literature related to the topic or argument. In this sense, ‘adding to the literature’ can bog down creative arguments and dilute the originality of one’s approach in feeling that everything must be related-to pre-existing work with a proliferation of citations.
All of this is not an argument for less academic rigor, but I believe that these practices can, at times, present a barrier to risk-taking and creativity in that academia puts a priority on academic publications, and the process of publishing requires a certain degree of conformism.
- Dissertation writing
There is so much to consider that the mind finds itself heavily burdened on the road that would lead it to produce anything (Deneault 2018, 15).
The above reflection is an identification of how the pressure to demonstrate ‘expertise’ and a ‘full knowledge’ of any given field in the development and researching of a dissertation project can, sometimes, take away from what should, ideally, be an original contribution. The pressure to read, and/or address, anything and everything related to one’s topic can, in my experience, become a daunting task and risks sapping creative energy.
Of course, this is not a fault of any individual person, department, or institution – it is a wider academic and social phenomenon. If a career in academia is the goal, dissertation committees are going to have in mind how any given dissertation will fare in the job market, and this means meeting certain guidelines and writing strategically to the market. This is, of course, ultimately a benefit to the candidate in terms of finding career-success.
Instead, the above reflections are merely to point to some of the ways that the form of writing and researching that is currently encouraged, either implicitly or explicitly, can impact the substance of academic work by disincentivizing and placing structural barriers to risk-taking and creativity.
Sacha Ghandeharian is a PhD candidate specializing in political theory and International Relations in the Department of Political Science at Carleton University.
Deneault, Alain. 2018. Mediocracy: The Politics of the Extreme Centre. Translated by Catherine Browne. Toronto: Between the Lines.