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  • Roland Paris

The Engaged Academic: Why the Old Ivory Tower Won’t Stand

The latest issue of the journal Perspectives on Politics, published by Cambridge University Press, includes an important article by Lisa Anderson, an American political scientist who is currently president of the American University in Cairo. Anderson argues that new information technologies are transforming the relationship between universities and their surrounding societies. The “availability of information has eroded authority, undermined hierarchies, and upended the organizational mechanisms by which knowledge is developed, collected and disseminated around the world.” Yet, academics have been relatively slow to respond. The primary targets of Anderson’s criticism are political scientists, who should be better positioned than most to recognize and react to these changes. She does not pull her punches:

"As political scientists, we need to be far less attached to a view of ourselves as uniquely knowledgeable; we are no longer the repositories and carriers of rare and therefore valuable cultural and scientific information. We must be far more willing to see ourselves as guides, advocates and facilitators of learning—from our students who are struggling to understand proportional representation systems to our policymakers whose efforts to write new constitutions or fix budget deficits entail the life-long, on-the-job learning that will be the common experience of the twenty-first century. The era in which individuals finished their education with their terminal degree is over; today, around the world, the ambitious are all retooling, taking refresher courses, going back to school, fulfilling continuing education requirements for professional licenses throughout their professional lives. So too, as we know, the days when professors read their yellowing lecture notes year after year and sent hardbound books, the product of years of dedicated research, off to sit in the inboxes of legislators and cabinet ministers, are over. We need to acknowledge the implications of that, however, and think of ourselves as providing our skill, understanding, and wisdom to those everywhere who are what have come to be called “experiential learners,” both students and policy makers. And, of course, as life-long learners ourselves, we have to acknowledge the reciprocal value of the skill, understanding, and wisdom of those practitioners from whom we too are acquiring knowledge and insight."

I couldn’t have said it better myself. In fact, I still haven’t gotten over the shock of discovering in graduate school that political science had little interest in policy debates. Since those days, the boundary between the academic and policy worlds has been eroding—and we’re doing our bit here at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs—but Anderson’s arguments represent a manifesto for far-reaching change in the discipline.

So, what are the next steps? For starters, here are three possible avenues:

  1. Perhaps the greatest barrier to such change is the system for hiring, promoting and tenuring faculty. It would be foolish to abandon the core criterion of evaluation—publication of original research in peer-reviewed outlets—but how about devising performance assessment methods that also reward and encourage policy engagement?

  2. Part of this engagement should include translating our own research into readable language and formats for people outside the discipline. The professional training of political scientists typically offers no instruction in writing for different audiences—or in writing for any audience.* Translation of abstruse language into ordinary prose is also a helpful test: Good ideas and findings should be capable of standing on their own, stripped of jargon.

  3. Published research should be publicly available and free. If you click on the link to Anderson’s full article, you will see that it was published in a pay-subscription journal, which is true of most political science journals (and nearly all the best ones). We need to break our papers out of their paywalled prisons.

* Editing also matters: The big quote from Anderson, above, was actually one, gigantic, continuous paragraph in her article. I’ve taken the liberty of slicing it into three easier-to-digest pieces. A previous version of this article appeared on the Canadian International Council’s Roundtable blog.

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