Hence one rationale for this blog. The medium itself is one that conventional universities are really having to recognize, following the 2006 debacle at LSE where a blog attracted the annoyance of the School.
Welcome. Universities are changing. Many are short of cash. They compete with each other for students and, particularly, for prestige. They are often large, they are big employers, and public money is now scarce in many of them. While some argue the role of ‘academics’ (who are mostly people with PhDs who write stuff and teach in higher education) is to do ‘scholarly’ work and to transmit their wisdom to students in classrooms and tutorials, some don’t think this is enough. Many universities have a ‘public’ orientation, and are strongly locked into the needs of the social services, the health sector, local employers, and even NGOs and progressive organisations who need their research and employ their graduates. Academics end up advising governments and other organisations, for good or bad reasons. This work should be valued. By doing it, it does not mean academics are ‘selling out’ or being ‘non-objective’ (although this does happen sometimes). It does mean they behave like real people – juggling activities, talking to different people, expressing a view without just writing a paper with a barrage of footnotes or references to long-dead theorists and writers. Writing reports rather than papers. In sociology, this view of what academics are about is increasingly prevalent, although contested.I work at an established research university, one of the best in Australia, and I have relatively secure employment (although no academic job is really secure, outside a few of the top universities in the USA). The path to public work rather than scholarly recognition, is recognised, but perhaps not enough. It was once commonplace in such establishments, particularly in the radical 1960s years, and remains so in the health sciences and a few other fields.I think it is possible to transcend this issue. Teach. Publish great work in your specialist field. But, also, have a conscience, reach out, devote time to work that serves a difference audience, and which may possibly get you into trouble or will at least be listened to. This is a form of ‘engaged’ scholarship. That ‘engagement’ actually improves teaching and research, too. And it may, ultimately, save your discipline, or you and your colleagues, from redundancy and cutbacks. Because that is the way things are heading in many universities. Irrelevance is becoming a greater sin than relevance.Most of my work concerns access and use of natural resources in developing countries – “environment and development” issues. The issues are hardly neutral, politically. For example they involve much of the discussion at climate conferences, REDD+, and in the politics of land grabs in Africa. ‘Engagement’ – actively or through research and scholarship – seems particularly vital in these fields.