Understanding Academic Worlds – Getting Started

Sixian is a PhD student member and Ronny is project manager of the DISCONEX team. In this blog post, they discuss why the blog is titled ‘Academic Wor(l)ds’ and what they think the DISCONEX project tries to do. In subsequent blog posts, you would hear more voices from the team discussing other aspects of the project.

Sixian: Ronny, I know that ‘Academic Wor(l)ds’ is a carnet de recherche of the DISCONEX project. But what academic worlds are we referring to? And what are some of the things that we do in the project?

Ronny: Hmm… I would say ’Academic Wor(l)ds’ is a blog for DISCONEX team members to share their reflections that arise from their ongoing research. Moreover, the blog tries to engage the broader public into a discussion about the different aspects of academic life. On one hand, academic life is determined by the institution(s) with which an academic researcher is affiliated. On the other hand, there are all sorts of practices that researchers have to perform in order to position themselves in the academic field they are working in. And, then of course there are influences from the non-academic world such as accelerated global communication, new publication and education devices, the increasing pressure on researchers to prove the impact of their work in both academic and non-academic sense, commodification of education and many more. So this is what I would think academic world(s) is about. We mainly look at all sorts of social and discursive practices in academia. And, discursive practices, of course, refer to the construction of meaning as evident in words – hence the wordplay in the title.

So to start with, we would ask questions like: Why do you think certain research fields flourish while others fade away from the radar of researchers? And how come some researchers and their institutions are considered as experts and not others?

Sixian: Well, the academic world, like the rest of the world, is competitive. So some academic researchers will succeed while others will not.

Ronny: Yes but does this success have to do with how they have 10 papers in a journal with a very high impact factor or that their publications have been cited 1001 times, or because they have a PhD from Oxbridge? Aren’t these very arbitrary indicators? And, who decides on them?

Sixian: Ok so one of the things that the DISCONEX project tries to do is to understand the ‘Academic World’ such as the social and discursive practices that researchers engage in and how, over time, these same practices enable some researchers and institutions to be successful. By referring to social and discursive practices, I guess we would look at how researchers read and write publications, interact with one another in their many roles of supervising students, serving in committees, panels and boards, reviewing articles and proposals, applying for projects and more.

Ronny: Yah, in fact, we’re engaging in a social discursive practice by writing this blog post! If we look beyond the academic world, there’re many people who regard some institutions as prestigious, and some researchers as experts. What makes these institutions ‘prestigious’ or these researchers ‘experts’? Moreover, who is entitled to evaluate these individuals and institutions and to ascribe such labels on them?

Sixian: But is DISCONEX only preoccupied with how some institutions and researchers ‘seem’ more successful?

Ronny: Well, DISCONEX began as a qualitative project where it aimed to study how researchers ‘do’ research through the social and discursive practices they engage in. One possible way of understanding discursive practices is that they not only produce academic knowledge but also allow researchers to negotiate their social positions in scientific communities and academic institutions.

Sixian: But how does this happen?

Ronny: That’s what we’re trying to find out in the project. So for instance, by using qualitative methods (such as document analysis, discourse analyses of text and talk, ethnographic case studies…etc) to find out how a research field is perceived and enacted by its protagonists. And of course, by interviewing the researchers.

Sixian: Yup interviews — that’s what I’ve been preoccupied with, lately. But I remember I had to first struggle with locating a field of research and the people that identify themselves as researchers of this field?

Ronny: Yah that’s when DISCONEX grew a quantitative focus when we realized that there are a number of ‘hard facts’ that can help us make sense of the academic world. Just by browsing through the Internet and looking at various encyclopedia, databases, institutional and personal webpages of researchers and social media.

Sixian: Oooh that sounds like a comfortable ‘job’! Surfing the net from the comfort of your office chair!

Ronny: Yah but our brains were whirring very hard! We started reflecting on questions like: Which are the elements that establish a position of researchers in their institution and in their research field? And then, which were the trajectories that people took before they arrived at where they are today? How do academic careers across different countries and disciplines compare?

Sixian: Oh that could be interesting! It’s like studying career paths of researchers in particular fields. Would I be like them or would I forge my own path?

Ronny: Precisely. We started talking about the “mapping of a research field” which are based on questions such as: Which researcher has what kind of research interests? Which institution and where did the researcher come from? Who did he or she work with before? All this would help us to understand better what people would tell us in their interviews and of course, to ask the right questions in the first place. And this is something I’d tell you more in a subsequent blog entry.

Image: Universidadd de Navarra campus, Writer’s own

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