12 / 11 / 2012

Open Access and Para-Academic Practice


There is a great post about Open Access over at The Disorder of Things, outlining several arguments surrounding the necessity for Open Access journals. I’m really looking forward to the next several posts they will share this week. Our own publication is very proud to be an Open Access publisher with no cost to the author and no cost to the reader. We are also proud to publish under a Creative Commons license (you may have noticed that other online publications have syndicated what we’ve published).

We, the editors of continent., along with the editors of Speculations, convened a panel discussion that touched on Open Access at the recent “Aesthetics in the 21st Century” conference at the University of Basel (you can read our preliminary remarks here).

It seems to me that we are witnessing the changing nature of academic practice. This change in practice is being spurred-on by the dramatic shift in the technologies through which knowledge work is done. Open software initiatives like those being developed at the Public Knowledge Project (their OJS platform is the WordPress of academic publishing) will continue to be adopted and developed by younger academics as they go about their work, to the point of ubiquity.

At the level of individual academics, I anticipate that there will be a proliferation of interesting digital practices. This is well-overdue. Academia continues to rely, almost solely, on the Gutenberg-era technology called text in order to mediate their labor. We initiated continent. with aims that include developing the OJS platform to integrate the variety of media that are now available for the contemporary academic to mediate their labor (e.g. static and moving images, code-based practices, audio, etc.) We see ourselves as one more step in the media literacy movement that coincides with the new materialism conversations. We anticipate, and are beginning to see, a blossoming of novel techniques for communicating and thereby creating.

At the level of institutions, I expect a strong shift in the economics of working for institutions of higher learning. I think Michael Austin (in the Basel conversation) is right to distinguish between Academia and the University. Academia will be characterized as a set of practices based on the creation of novelty, whereas the University will be increasingly characterized by its ability to regulate information through the process of accreditation. When it is impossible for any one person to distinguish signal from noise, reliable signal markers are necessary. This is promise implicit in the vetting process that underwrites accreditation.

Today, the value of some of the most gifted lecturers has approached zero. Their talent at communicating their knowledge is given away freely through vehicles like MITx, coursera, the massively open online courses that Stanford gives away, etc. and the premium is instead placed on the bureaucracy necessary to achieve and maintain accreditation. Similar to the dynamic established by overseas campuses (such as Monash in Indonesia, or the National University of Singapore and Yale), what we are seeing is the triumph of University branding. Students around the world want to attend Ivy League schools because those schools have the veneer of excellence, not because the programs themselves are the best—these Ivy League schools are frequently outperformed by state schools in many areas. Yes, anyone will be able to take classes from Harvard, but that won’t matter unless they also purchase the accreditation.

Yes, there will be individual lecturers that gain international visibility and popularity, we already know them by their trail of speaking engagements on the speaker circuit. The continued proliferation of rockstar academics, similar to the blue chip status of contemporary artists like Damien Hirst, or the rockstar status of Slavoj Žižek and Judith Butler. The success of the Academic, then will be based on their ability to franchise their products.

But, just like the publishing industry and the music industry, these best-sellers will be the wild exceptions financing the odd one-off publication or album. Most of the University’s daily interactions with consumer-students will be in the form of precarious laborers like the ocean of adjuncts churning-out degree holders today.

The University will continue to become McDonaldized. Just like the chair on the airplane looks like the chair in the rental car looks like the chair in the faculty lounge, looks like the chair your department head holds, so will one’s education become a packaged “experience.” The student-consumer will expect certain events and interactions while away at their University. For those paying for accreditation, this education experience will be delivered on a spectrum: the flavor of timeshares for the poorer community college students, and more like Semester at Sea—or some other expensive study abroad program—for the affluent. Perhaps there will even develop a Hooters-style experience, student-consumers can enjoy their education as its delivered by Abercrombie & Fitch model-like adjuncts, the University finally capitalizing on the chilli-pepper grade system used by Rate My Professor. Regardless of their appearances, the academic workers at those Universities will be expected to deliver the education experience efficiently, reliably, and in the most uniform manner possible.

To distinguish between those that work in these “education experience” conditions at Universities, we are more frequently employing the term coined by Nicola Masciandaro, Para-Academic. The para-academic coexists with the University, at times the relationship might appear parasitic (perhaps both entities wondering who the host is), at other times their relationship will be characterized as complementary or supplementary, drawing on the other meaning of “para-” which suggests being alongside.

The para-academic, regardless of the relationship to the University at any particular point, will be characterized by their practices for novelty generation. In English we arrived at the term “education” by conflating two Latin words: educare and educere. The first suggests a rationalizable process of installing an incremental amount of knowledge into the student. Educere, on the other hand as Roger Ames and David Hall state, “suggests that one ‘extends’ one’s inner tendencies through a mode of self-cultivation that is, in fact, self-creation.” Unlike educare, which is the logical and rationally-ordered affair, educere is complicit with an aesthetic understanding.

5 Responses to Open Access and Para-Academic Practice

  1. Ali Tobia says:

    Re: “The success of the Academic [and actors, artists, lawyers, yogis...] then will be based on their ability to franchise their products”

    This aspect of a changing economy affects all chosen vocations from that of an actress to that of an eco-activist. One’s ability to practice one’s craft is based on one’s skill in tantalizing an audience through a brand. It is an impediment to those whose interest lies solely in investigation and creation and who a) lack marketing skill or b) are stubbornly against marketing. If one has enough “good sense” to pump their product, it is soon obvious that this sets up a situation in which one begins to spend more time in advertising themselves and their services than actually practicing skill one is offering.

    It seems to me that the notion of the para-academic, or the para-actress/therapist/clothier for that matter, is not really much to suggest as a way of existence because in the modern economy it is already the de-facto mode of operation. But perhaps this is not the product of a modern economy but of capitalist competition growing to a fevered pitch as the population, and hence the labor force, expands at an exponential rate.

    While I do admit my response does not address the role of the open-access model and the para-academic , I suppose I see open access as a source of labor saturation and the circumstances of a saturated labor pool as a market-wide condition and not as one that affects the academic world alone.

    1. Paul says:

      Thanks for commenting!
      You’re right, it’s not just the academic world that’s dealing with this. It’s that shift to the creative class thing. We’re all expected to be grateful that we’re not toiling, but instead honing our crafts.
      Don’t get me wrong: I see nothing wrong with hocking one’s wears. It would be silly to not capitalize on one’s advantages, especially if this enables one to further improve those around them.
      I’m not putting forward the para-academic as a lamentation over the loss of “real” educators. I’m just seeing which way the wind is blowing and saying what I think I see happening.
      Para-academic practice maybe isn’t really all that novel, but it’s got radical possibilities.

  2. [...] is necessary when the goal is to maximise the quality of production of new knowledge. Paul Boshears recently wrote that ‘when it is impossible for any one person to distinguish signal from noise, reliable signal [...]

  3. [...] of these alternative methods for producing scholarly work have adopted the term “para-academic” to distinguish their work as happening outside of the academic publishing system. For example, [...]

  4. [...] Mr. Eagan “these alternative methods for producing scholarly work have adopted the term “para-academic” to distinguish their work as happening outside of the academic publishing system.”  He [...]

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