Wednesday, August 20, 2014

What is the matter with academics?

Not all academics, of course, but a very large proportion of them. The problem I am going to write about seems to be prevalent in universities of long standing and high reputation as much as in those that are too new to have any reputation at all. And extraordinarily large number of academics with good positions and published works to their names seem unable to write books or articles that express their views and their opinions. All they can do is to quote various other academics and, occasionally, writers outside that world, thus ensuring that nobody but other academics will be interested in even the slightest degree in what they have to say. And why should anyone be interested in a book that is merely a compilation of previous pronouncements, in themselves, one suspects compilations of even older ones. Somewhere at some time there must have been an original thought, idea, thesis or book but it would take too long to find it.

As I said above, I do not consider all academics to be of such intellectually pusillanimous variety and can think of several historians who happily say what they think even if it brings down on them the wrath of their colleagues, of the glitterati, of the serious reviewers (though, one hopes, less so) and of the academic world in general. But these hardy souls are becoming few and far between and that is not a happy state of affairs.

Part of the problem must be the insistence on "peer review" in subjects when such a thing cannot really exist. Peer review in sciences can, as we know in such subjects as climate research, be used to silence current "heresies" but, on the whole, is necessary. Peer review in arts and social sciences is not - it is the reviewers and the reading public that will judge what is acceptable by way of theory and, after all, it is always possible and, indeed, necessary to publish arguments against a certain thesis and to have an academic dispute.

That, apparently, is no longer acceptable. Instead, publishers, as I know from my own and other people's experience, send manuscripts out for peer review, said process being little more than one of ensuring that the author does not step out of line or beyond the currently accepted boundaries.

Some years back I contributed an essay to a collection of counterfactuals in history and the editors insisted that every essay in it should be reviewed by other contributors. My own essay looked at 1938 and asked "what if Czechoslovakia had fought and defended the Sudetenland". I looked at what happened in that momentous year from the British, French, German, Soviet and, finally, Czechoslovak point of view, coming to some tentative conclusions as to what might have happened. The essay was sent off to a couple of my colleagues and came back with comments that dealt exclusively with the section on Britain and France, rehashing the old arguments about the Munich Agreement in which I did not chastise Chamberlain strongly enough. I accepted a couple of corrections, argued a couple of others and carried my point (to be fair) and tried to explain that the point of the essay was something quite different. It was published in full so I have nothing to complain about but the whole process did make me wonder about the exercise of peer review.

In a slightly more serious case, which also ended well, I am glad to say, a friend has recently published a well researched and well reviewed book about Islam in Britain, which had been held up, criticized and nearly destroyed by academics to whom it went for peer review as it had not fitted into the parameters that had been drawn up in academia and which were more important to these people that original research and conclusions drawn from it, with which they could have argued, had they wanted to after publication.

So what do we get when academics publish books? By and large, as I said at the beginning of this rant, a string of quotations that places the burden on those who said those things previously and who, if themselves present day academics, probably did the same.

For another blog I have been asked to review a book whose topic is of great interest. The title is A State of Play and the subtitle, British Politics on Screen, Stage and Page from Anthony Trollope to The Thick of It. The author is Steven Fielding, is Professor of Political History in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham and the Director of the Centre for British Politics as well as an author of several other volumes on subjects political and of a website. Not, you would think, a man who should be worried about expressing his opinion.

Mind you, I have my doubts about somebody who writes about British democracy and its development in the twentieth century without once mentioning membership of the European Union and its effect on legislation and the democratic process, but that is by the by. (I shall eventually do that review and link to it.)

In fact, I have done a certain amount of complaining about this book already.

Setting that aside, why cannot Professor Fielding just say what he thinks about writers and writing of novels and plays and their relationship with their audience or readership. Why does he have to quote on one page Anthony Trollope, T. S. Eliot, the historians Anthony Aldgate and Jeffrey Richards, the playwright David Edgar and the novelist Maurice Edelman not as people whose ideas need discussing but as the origins of those ideas that are part of Professor Fielding's argument.

Why is it that such an unexceptional and uncontroversial, even banal statement as "[a] work and its reception are entirely different things" can be inserted only as a quote from the playwright David Hare?

I could go on at length but it would only prove the same point, which is unnecessary. Many other academic publications suffer from the same problems. Who apart from other academics, many of whom will simply want to name-check themselves will want to read such books?


  1. Helen, would you please identify the book on Islam? I would like to buy it.


    Johnny Howson

    1. Innes Bowen: "Medina in Birmingham Najaf in Brent - Inside British Islam" published by Hurst & Co.

      Very interesting stuff based on interviews and visits to various groups and mosques.