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Response to Student Comments on My “Academic Technicians and Justice Warriors” Essay

This post is my response to student comments about a piece I wrote called “We’re Producing Academic Technicians and Justice Warriors: A Sermon on Educational Research, part 2.” Both were published in the Swiss journal Bildungsgeschichte: International Journal for the Historiography of Education. The “We’re Producing” paper was in turn a follow-up to another piece I published earlier in the same journal, “A Sermon on Educational Research.” (Another version of “We’re Producing” was published under the name “Doctoral Dysfunction” in Inside Higher Ed.)

The journal editor, Daniel Tröhler of the University of Vienna, solicited responses to my second “sermon” from a group of European PhD students.  Below you will find my comments on each of the six student responses.

Try Spreading Your Wings

David F. Labaree

I was pleased and flattered to find that a number of doctoral students in education were willing to comment on my second sermon on educational research. The six contributions raise a rich array of issues in response to my text, all from the perspective of the doctoral students toward whom the sermon was directed. So let me comment on each of these contributions in turn.

 From the purgatory of science

Jona Garz and Barbara Hof raise the highly salient issue of who is the “we” in the title of my sermon. Approaching the process of producing educational researchers as a structural rather than a personal issue, they examine the elements in that structure that foster the academic technicians and justice warriors that I’m complaining about. One element is that students often are not choosing their own topics and methods but forced to carry out the project whose funding is paying for the PhD work or that the advisor has chosen. Another element is the stylized empiricism that afflicts the academy these days. Students can’t just write a dissertation. They need to craft a study that is shored up by the most currently treasured forms of empirical methods, without which the dissertation would lack any credibility in academic culture. To do anything else would be unprofessional and would therefore bar you from getting the PhD you are seeking. So you seem to have little choice but to bend to the pressure and deliver your work in a technically acceptable form required by the genre. As a result, you get people compelled to do Foucaultian research using an arch-empiricist methodology such as discourse analysis that would have horrified Michel Foucault himself. You become an academic technician. At the same time, students are under pressure to link their work to larger issues in the field in order to display its significance. Although in general such pressure is healthy – it’s important to tell people what your study is a case of – in practice it turns into a compulsion to attach to your study one of the currently more trendy buzzwords. So a nuanced and rich study finds itself cloistered with the walls of one of the current high-profile nominalizations, such as globalization, digitization, colonialization, white privilege, or patriarchy. As the authors note, these pressures shaping student work in education are not necessarily coming from the interests of the students but from the imperatives built into the structure of the field. In order to get to PhD heaven, students need to do what the gods of education require.

The kids are alright – Let’s talk about our supervisors instead

In their contribution, Fanny Isensee and Daniel Töpper also pick up on the issue of who is the “we” in my paper, but they focus directly on the most salient source of pressure on students’ dissertations, their faculty advisor. Why pick on the students, they say, when the real problem is the faculty who are guiding their work. I agree. In writing the sermon I was pointing the finger at the faculty rather than the students. We’re doing it to them; we’re pushing them to become academic technicians and justice warriors. Students are in a structural position of subordination that leaves them little choice but to do what they’re told. That’s a sad fact of life that belies the whole promise of pursuing a terminal degree, where you’re supposed to be moving toward making independent contributions to the literature. Such independence is hard to get in many student-advisor pairings. Doctoral study still has a feudal quality to it, where the student is the serf plowing the land on the advisor’s domain. Not much room for choice there. The authors make some valuable suggestions about what the advisor-student relationship could be like, one that’s more collaborative than imperial. But the problem is that the faculty in this pairing are under their own structural pressures to get outside funding and mobilize students to carry out their funded studies, which may not be exactly what either faculty or student would prefer to be doing. Both are harnessed to whatever the funding agencies are looking for.

Student malpractice or structural malady?

Like Fanny Isensee and Daniel Töpper, Matilda Keynes also asks why I’m blaming doctoral students for the ills I describe. As she points out, the form and direction of student research is shaped by the structure of educational scholarship more than the willful choices of the students themselves. So true. I thoroughly agree, which is why I framed the argument as a complaint about what “we” faculty in the field are doing to create all these academic technicians and justice warriors when we could be fostering a much richer array of scholarly approaches. Keynes points to a number of the factors within this structure of constraints on student creativity: not just faculty advisors but journal editors, faculty reviewers, metric-driven incentive systems, and the like. As she notes, doctoral students need to jump through the hoops held out by dissertation committees and journals and funding agencies if they are going to have careers in educational scholarship. They have to play the game the way the rules determine. So doing humanistic research takes a back seat to forms of scholarship that are currently valued within the educational research universe. Again, I agree. I would suggest, however, that the system has more flexibility in it than many faculty or students recognize. As careers proceed, the constraints start receding bit by bit. Once your degree is in hand, you no longer have to answer to the tyrants on your committee. Once you get a faculty position, you can forge a line of work more in your own vein. And after tenure, you will be able to push the boundaries of what’s deemed acceptable by journal editors and reviewers, exploring the variety of publishing venues for locations that are more amenable to the work you want to do. You really can acknowledge your own limitations and play with ideas while still being a respectable academic. Too often, however, scholars get locked into a mode of doing research that is productive in career terms but increasingly alienated from the intellectual interests and personal commitments that motivated them to enter the academy in the first place. One last comment. Yes, I am a simplifier, as Matilda Keynes points out. I’m in love with dichotomies, which oversimplify the complexity of issues in an effort to clarify central tendencies that underlie social structures. Mea culpa.

Putting observations in perspective: A response to Labaree’s sermon from Norway

I’m thrilled to hear Maike Luimes say that academic technicians and justice warriors haven’t yet invaded the academy in Norway, which makes me jealous. Some people have all the luck. And from there it only gets better. She notes that Norwegian culture puts emphasis on holistic approaches to promoting equality rather than the U.S. focus on specific marginalized sub-groups, and she shows that this culture also fosters a form of consensus that reduces the heat in political debates. On top of that, the Norwegian tradition of qualitative practice-based research has kept the academy from veering too far in the direction of pure quantification. To that, all I can say is: wow. But she does point out one central constraint on PhD students in Norway. The good news is that they are treated as employees more than students, free from funding worries and from overly intrusive academic advisors. But the bad news is that this puts pressure on scholars to complete a dissertation in a short period of time, which puts an emphasis on finding a doable topic and carrying it out with considerable efficiency. This limits the freedom to explore and the ability to try something new; best stick with what tried and true. Another constraint is the strict hierarchy of journals, which puts a premium on producing the kind of work that the top journals require. This doesn’t leave much room for playing with ideas or taking academic risks.

The problem of educational research as “engineering improvement” is not solved by categorizing doctoral students’ “roles”

Camilla Safrankova points out a key element of the argument I was trying to make in my makeshift sermon, that “it is not the doctoral students per se that are the problem, but the research community that doctoral students enter, are educated in and a part of.” Right. It’s the structure within which doctoral students have to function that I’m faulting rather than the students themselves. By training and predisposition, I’m a sociologist, so I’m always looking for causes that derive from social relations more than personal traits. I focus more on the social roles that people are induced to play than on their independent choices and actions. This means I’m blaming the system not the students when I complain about the way we education professors make them into academic technicians and justice warriors. Camilla Safrankova explores the nature of roles, showing how patterns of behavior that emerge as people act within the constraints of social structure turn into apparently coherent social roles. She notes that by railing against the roles of technicians and warriors and proposing alternative approaches (humility and play), I am engaging in the kind of social engineering I am arguing against. My response is that I am trying to show the flexibility that exists within the students’ roles that exist within education PhD programs. All roles appear more solid and defined than they really are. This is in line with the nature of social structure, which is an architectural metaphor for a process of forming behavioral habits that emerge from organizational incentives. Structures appear concrete but are actually emergent patterns that depend on people to keep the pattern going. When people stop playing along with the role – think the Soviet Union in 1989 – the whole structure can collapse overnight. So my suggestion is for people to push against the limits of the social role of doctoral student. They may be surprised to see how many liberties they can take and still maintain their status in the program. Take risks, play with ideas, and see how much you can get away with. And if your advisor resists, find another one. Every department has a few oddball faculty who see a broader set of possibilities for the field they are in. Latch on to one and then go exploring.


With humility and courage: Educational scholarship as intellectual endeavor

Christine Salmen espouses a humanistic vision of education in general and of teaching in particular, which is very much in line with what I was advocating in my sermon. She draws effectively on her background in dance, showing the need for a class as a safe place to experiment, take risks, and find expression. The Mikhail Baryshnikov quote is one I’m going to treasure: technique is a means, expression is the end; don’t let the means become your focus, deflecting you from communicating and engaging with your audience.  She reminds us to reject the fetish of methods and encourage ourselves and our students to keep an open mind, try out new things, and continually connect the generalities of academic life to our own experience. This allows for a much more grounded approach to becoming a scholar in education, one that embraces the normative component that is so central to the education enterprise and that allows room for scholars to carve out distinctive roles for themselves while still maintaining professional credibility. She reminds us of John Dewey’s vision of “courageous imagination, a quality which is personal, human, moral, rather than scientific or technical.” Wouldn’t it be nice if this were the kind of quality that we were fostering in our doctoral programs in education?


After rereading all the student comments and my responses, I think we are left with a somewhat more optimistic vision of the situation in education doctoral programs than the one I spelled out in my sermon, part 2.  In these programs, we are trying to create academic technicians and justice warriors – and we may be all too successful in this effort – but there is still room for students to spread their wings and fly to the margins of the academic norm.  The system is less potent than it appears to be and more vulnerable to independent thought.  It’s ok to bend the norm, push the boundaries, and try to do something more personally satisfying.  Seek out faculty and colleagues who will support this effort.  And keep in mind an important fact of academic life.  By sticking close to the norms, junior scholars can graduate, get published, and find a job.  But they may find themselves stuck in place they don’t want to be, doing a line of work they don’t find stimulating.  They’re destined to become journeyman practitioners, writing stuff that looks like everyone else’s work.  It’s people who push the boundaries who get noticed, get an audience, and grab the brass ring.

Evolution of Academic Freedom

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