Wednesday, November 30, 2005


The Entrepreneurial Option

In many industries, people with skills and/or drive are able to venture out on their own. If a given employer doesn’t treat them right, they can hang out a shingle and start their own company. In rapidly-changing industries like high tech, even some monster companies (like Google) are younger than some still-in-process dissertations.

Academia isn’t really like that. If I can’t find the right college or university for me, it’s not like I can simply start my own. The barriers to entry are much higher than in many other industries, both for regulatory reasons and by virtue of simple curricular coverage. I suspect that this is one source of the malaise so common among academics – unlike so many others, we can’t really go into private practice without starving, and we can’t start our own enterprise. If an established shop doesn’t fancy our wares, we’re out of luck.

A few for-profit chains have sprung up, but they usually did so either with tremendous initial private backing (the U of Phoenix, with John Sperling) or by coming under the wing of a major corporation (DeVry, for many years under Bell and Howell). These weren’t the academic equivalent of a few kids in a garage hitting it big; they were more like Lucas and Spielberg financing their own movies ‘independently’ of the studios.

As my regular readers know, established shops have both limited funding and tremendous blind spots. That’s before we even get to the standard human frailties, the constraints of tenure, etc.

Writing doesn’t have quite the same barriers to entry, but academic publishers are relatively few and far between, strangely persnickety, increasingly fad-driven, and very lightly read.

I suspect that part of the chronic academic anxiety about blogging has to do with the unprecedented lack of barriers to entry. If knowledge isn’t certified, how will we know if it’s good? We’ll actually have to read it!

Well, yeah.

A blogger like Bitch, Ph.D. or Aunt B. (of tiny cat pants) attracts attention solely through her writing. Not through institutional prestige, personal fame, or the intimidation factor of being Important; just through writing well enough (and often enough) to be worth reading. That’s all. Just through sheer craft. (Danigirl, of Postcards from the Mothership, has just been nominated for a well-deserved writing award for her blog. You go, Danigirl!)

I started blogging out of frustration with the literature of managing higher ed, most of which is sheer drivel. I had no intention of dutifully footnoting all of the drivel to try to add another unread article to the pile; I actually wanted answers to the dilemmas I face every day on the job. I wanted to read something useful. Whether it brought a vita line or not wasn’t (and isn’t) the point. In order to get that conversation started, I hung out a virtual shingle and started posting. Now people actually send me ideas (at ccdean at myway dot com! Keep ‘em coming!) for posts, which is both useful and incredibly gratifying.

Note the irony: in order to pursue new knowledge, I had to do an end-run around academic publishing. This raises the question of the point of academic publishing.

The folks on the outside who constantly chide academia for not running like a business are welcome, at any point, to suggest ways to lower the barriers to entry enough to make real competition possible, to let the underemployed but highly talented youngsters compete on a level playing field with their tenured elders. Seriously. Send any ideas to ccdean at myway dot com. I’ll even post them, if you permit.

Google succeeds so brilliantly by capitalizing (pun intended) on the wisdom of crowds. The blogosphere applies the wisdom of crowds to ideas. It breaks the lone-genius-in-the-library model, and replaces it with something like conversation.

So I’m throwing down a challenge to the crowd. How do we take the next step: to apply the wisdom of academic crowds to actually teaching students, and getting paid to do it? Even idea mcnuggets are welcome, since one of the side benefits of the blog format is that people can synthesize other people’s contributions into something new. Anything useful is welcome!

Aw shucks - I'm honoured just to be mentioned by someone I admire as much as you, let alone in the same paragraph as such excellent bloggers. And it's not so much a writing award as a popularity contest - but my inner geek is still tickled to be in the running.

Regardless, thanks.

It's been a privilege to watch your blog evolve over the past year. I look forward to much more of the same...
Hey Dean Dad,

Another interesting and provocative post.

I agree that there are good reasons why academic institutions can't be managed as business institutions are. There are better reasons than you covered here, but yours here are part of the picture.

I respectfully disagree with you on the value of blogging in creating new knowledge. Yes, I enjoy reading blogs, I enjoy writing mine.

But let's take the recent discussion on advising. We had a number of posts, most of which suggested ideas, but none of which created new knowledge. Basically, we had a good, helpful brainstorming session. It was most interesting in enabling conversation among people in different types of institutions AND in different positions in those institutions. We seem to have a dean, tenured faculty, untenured TT faculty, adjunct faculty, and at least one grad student?

In fact, that's probably the most powerful aspect of discussions such as ours: the conversation is way more available to interested people at every level of the community.

That's very positive. But we didn't create new knowledge. From my point of view, I got to learn about some ideas I hadn't considered. So we disseminated some ideas. (I've learned more as I've talked to other people in various positions on my campus, which I'll be posting about in the next day or so, I hope.)

Group brainstorming IS useful. I think it's a great part of the internet.

But with the possible exception of some journalistic blogs (in which whistleblowers can disseminate information, or in which people who don't usually have access to media outlets get access, and so can alert others to issues), I don't see much new knowledge created on the internet. (No doubt I'm missing some important statistical area.)

In my specific field, the most important discussion group does a really good job sharing information and helping people learn about texts (new books, old books made more available, and such). But it doesn't create new knowledge.
This reminds me of recent posts by John Holbo, at the Valve....
Bardiac -- fair enough. The knowledge I'm looking for is the kind I can apply on the job. That kind of knowledge can be gained through the kinds of conversations blogging makes possible. (I've actually used some stuff I've learned here, esp. about Honors courses.) The literature to which I'm contrasting the blogosphere is the literature of academic management, which is uniquely dreadful. So I'll plead guilty to a bit of rhetorical overreach there.

Still, I can't help but wonder if we can't take some of the blogging model and apply it more broadly...
Dean Dad,

You always make me feel like a star (though seeing BitchPhD and I in the same sentence is disconcerting). And I love to ponder ways of making academic publishing more interesting, that's for sure. And so, though I don't have much to add, I just want to point out that I think you make in passing an important point that I just want to highlight: when writing, even academic writing, becomes about doing it "right" instead of doing it well, we do ourselves a great disservice.
your blog is SOOOO useful
A different way to look at this is whether you can find ways to be "entrepreneurial" within a structure like a university. Some places make this esier, others make it harder, and some places discourage it altogether.

Oddly--or berhaps not--research institutions tend to make a sort of entrepreneurial activity easier. If one can attract outside funding for a research project, one can then create an institution-within-an-institution within which one can focus more-or-less exclusively on the things that one values more highly. Thus the proliferation of centers and institutes at research institutions.

It's much harder at teaching institutions, in part because the availablity of outside funding is really quite restricted. Even FIPSE grants aren't sufficient to sustain a center or institute for all that long.

But the opportunities may e there is one looks carefully at what the institution values, and what it's willing to support. (The difficulty comes when the institution says it values A, but supports B.)
But is writing only to create new knowledge? What about great knowledge that hasn't been distilled widely? What about those that don't have time to read the great new tomes but have time to question or explore individual ideas.

I also think we're getting at the idea of static (books) vs. dynamic and communication in general is moving more toward the dynamic.

Also, blogging allows those of us without 3 colleagues in "related areas" to talk to others with like interests.

And, can you imagine "traditional faculty" talking with "traditional administrators" the way we're doing right now in this blog? I think not. So, isn't this blog in and of itself creating new knowledge - taking the mystery out of what goes on upstairs and promoting at least a bit more understanding between the "tiers" or at least helping some of us understand "the dark side" - at least from Dean Dad's point of view ;-)
So twenty years ago I am sitting at a conference with an old friend who has gone out and started a small contract research company. Over beers we are ribbing him about selling out and he innocently (the only innocent thing he ever did) asks us whether we are writing papers for the journal of choice. We proudly say to him, of course, to which he replies, why do you insist on publishing in the vanity press.

Not an answer to your question, but it says a lot about academic publishing
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