Reproducing mediocrity

”When do you go back to work?” asks an in-law, over a New Year’s Day braai, curious about the apparent peculiarities of academic life.

‘Well, there’s admin stuff to do starting next week, though teaching proper doesn’t begin till the end of February” I explain; ‘but at the moment I’m really trying to get to grips with my writing and research projects. What I’m working on right now —”

Eyes glaze over. The explanation has been too long, and anyway, it doesn’t make much sense given the assumption that the most peculiar aspect of university life is that since academics only teach for half the year, the other half must be holidays.

The assumption is hardly surprising when you consider the fact that the most arduous part of academic labour — writing and research — is also the most invisible. Or, at the very least, it is the most difficult to get into focus and actively picture.

Little wonder that a striking feature of the higher education landscape in South Africa is precisely the difficulty that research administrators appear to have in envisioning and understanding just what is involved in research, and therefore what supporting research excellence might mean in practice.

Despite the mission-statement mantras (repeated as if by rote by just about every university in the country) about ‘striving for research excellence” and the ‘dedication to building a vital research culture”, the surely unintended outcome of much current policy is the reproduction of mediocrity: an apparently systematic devotion to the pursuit — and even the enforcement — of the average. What, in the related terms of both conception and practice, are some of the necessary components of a truly vital research culture, and what obstacles stand in the way of achieving this?

As far as the humanities are concerned, the single greatest obstacle that confronts researchers is the contradictory messages they receive regarding the importance and standing of the scholarly monograph. The monograph — internationally a standard sine qua non for tenure or promotion — is generally a single-focus study of between 60 000 and 100 000 words.

According to the pragmatic rules of the subsidy game (in which institutions receive cash payments from the government in return for publications on a growing but still inadequate list of accredited journals), the unit of currency is the individual scholarly article, ranging in length from about 5 000 to 8 000 words. For this, universities receive about R85 000, with a portion of this sum going to the faculty concerned, and from there trickling down to the individual researcher in very different proportions (in one institution the author receives as much as R20 000; in another, as little as R1 000 an article).

According to the imperatives of this system, scholarly repute in the institution’s eyes (and a large measure of consequent self-regard on the part of the academic) is largely quantitative and is measured in terms of the number of journal articles published. The current subsidy system has no place for the monograph — it earns nothing in terms of subsidy, though years of protest have resulted in a bizarre system of accreditation for monographs. This means they may finally yield the same as a single book article, but only after an off-putting and extremely arduous administrative process.

But for the purposes of the National Research Foundation’s (NRF) ratings system (which grades academics like eggs according to the size of their national and international standing), scholarly reputation is qualitative rather than quantitative. In the humanities quality is most visible through the assessment of an individual academic’s national and international visibility, and the impact of their work on a global community of scholars. Top ratings therefore tend to rely on the publication and reception of scholarly monographs, as it is these — and not the individual research article — that stand as the currency of international recognition in the humanities.

There are good reasons for this recognition. It’s not simply that the average monograph is 10 times longer than the average journal article — it’s that word for word the monograph is richer in research and reflection. Good research takes time; better research takes more time. The deep research that goes into monograph writing comes out at about 70 hours per 1 000 words, while 40 hours per 1 000 is about right for a strong scholarly article. This estimate takes into account all the reading and rereading of primary, secondary and related (historical and theoretical) material involved. But also, and perhaps more importantly, it takes into account the differing time of composition as key sentences and paragraphs have to be rewritten dozens of times in a drafting process, which involves five or more basic drafts. The paradox here is that the aim of good writing — including good academic writing — is to make the labour that goes into it disappear so that accomplished prose looks as spontaneous and effortless as ordinary speech. The harder you work, the easier it looks.

Because of the far greater amount of research it embodies, and the greater pains-taking with its writing and composition, the monograph tends to have a much longer shelf-life than the article. A good monograph is likely to stand as a reference point for other scholars in the area for a decade or more. While a monograph tends to play an unavoidable role in the research of other scholars in the international field, attention to or awareness of the journal article tends towards the local, and along with that, the ephemeral and the happenstantial. Good monographs are rewarded in the NRF’s rating system by the high ratings reserved for international recognition as a leader in the field of study; but subsidy funds go to the canny article hack.

Since university research administrations follow the money and structure research support around journal publication rather than monograph preparation, it is not surprising that the monograph is on its way out as form of academic production in South Africa.

Because of this, South African humanist academics are largely condemned to a life of mediocrity in terms of rating and international visibility since the system, which is there to support and reward their research, does so in ways that undermine it.

It is hardly surprising that most local academics speak of the NRF rating system and their policies of research support (which emerge in practice as policies of research inhibition) with varying degrees of discomfort, frustration and even rage.

Meanwhile, research administrations around the country are adopting policies that will push up the quantity of research production without addressing the issues of labour time involved in quality production. Since monograph preparation would take a minimum of two full years devoted entirely to research and writing (that’s the reason beginning academics are supposed to be given three unencumbered years to write and research their doctorates), administrations press for the average production of one average article a year from each average academic.

While a certain division of labour exists at the university, which allows for individual academics to follow a differentiated career path in administration, fuelled or encouraged by lessened teaching loads and financial incentives, no such path is as yet broadly recognised in institutions for those who have proved themselves as outstanding researchers. There are no formal positions as research professor or senior researcher that match the administrative positions of deans, deputy deans and heads of departments.

One thing is for sure, though, and that is without the kind of differentiation and support hinted at above, promising South African academics will continue to be forced to play below their strengths, and our university system will continue in practice to be devoted to the reproduction of mediocrity rather than the encouragement of excellence claimed by so much of the rhetoric.

Perhaps in the end much of the reluctance to support research comes from the difficulties of picturing mental labour as labour, and consequently always has a slight resentment towards researchers. Although it is possible to see teaching and marking as work, can you really accept that sitting blankly in front of a blank computer monitor for half an hour and then going for a cup of coffee while the back part of the mind kicks into gear is hard labour? How about sitting and reading? It’s a luxury. When your work is play, do you ever go back to work?

John Higgins is professor of English at the University of Cape Town

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John Higgins
John Higgins works from San Francisco USA. Media Studies, U. of San Francisco, Fulbright Scholar, Cyprus, Storytelling, Street Puppeteer, Prez: AFT/CFT Local 6590 @usfptfa John Higgins has over 283 followers on Twitter.

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