“Write fewer articles, take more risks”: researchers call for “rebellion”
The call is the starting point for a new book that challenges dominant orthodoxies in academia. Its editors, who are four academics based in Britain and Australia, urge academic staff to “rise up and rebel” against these conventions. They attack the assumption that the main output of research should be articles for scholarly journals, describing this as the “boring stuff” of their profession, which often undermines its quality and public value.
Instead, the book calls for more academic researchers to “radically deviate” from traditional modes of academic production and combine forces with organizations beyond “the academy,” “to do the kind of work radicalism that the world needs right now, in a time of climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic and the rise of nationalism and populism.”
It examines, in particular, how this could be achieved through the arts. In an extensive survey, various contributors cite examples of how scholars have used creative writing, poetry, podcasts, music – and less obvious media including circus arts and magic – both to communicate their work and as research tools.
The book, Do rebel research in and beyond the Academy, was co-authored by social scientists, critical theorists and performing artists. He argues that although universities often claim to be interdisciplinary, many academics still work in silos – rarely collaborating with colleagues, let alone beyond their institutions.
He adds that this is often a consequence of convention, not intent, and that instead of being inherently remote and “stuffy”, as the cliché might put it, many academics are under constant pressure to publish. in specialized journals. The volume itself is an anthology of “creative essays” illustrating alternative ways of presenting research: such as creative writing, poetry and art.
Pamela Burnard, one of the co-editors and Professor of Arts, Creativity and Education at Cambridge University’s Faculty of Education, said: “Universities are meant to exist for the benefit of all. It is bizarre that their main research result is complex, esoteric writing that only a few other scholars read or understand.
“No one is saying academic writing is useless, but why is it the norm? If we want research to address the greatest challenges facing society, we need scholars to have the confidence – in a sense the permission – to deviate radically from them. We need to be braver and take more risks with what we do.
In the book’s prologue, the editors cite a similar remark made by anthropologist Mary Pratt in 1988: “How could such interesting people, doing such interesting things, produce such boring books?”
They argue that the arts provide alternative modes of expression that provide better opportunities for non-academics to connect meaningfully with academic ideas. They also suggest that when used as part of the research process, the arts give scholars a way to “live” and “experience” their research as something creative and engaging. This often allows them to see work differently and innovate more. The book provides many examples of how this has been done by scholars around the world, using forms such as dance, visual arts, poetry, hip-hop and podcasting.
An example is the “A radical departure from academic writing” program in Australia, which trains postgraduate students not only to turn their research into creative writing, but to use it as a research method. His methods include “thesis drabbling”, in which students summarize their thesis in 100 words of stream-of-consciousness prose. Students say it helped them make their work “more human,” focus on its true purpose, and reconnect emotionally with why they wanted to do research in the first place.
Elsewhere, the book features the recent case of a Cambridge University student who used podcasting to collect data from students and staff for a study into how COVID-19 affected university life. He explains how the project was born in part from a dance workshop and ended with the release of a electronic and spoken word album featuring fragments of interviews on Spotify, to convey the fears and anxieties experienced on campus during confinement.
In a separate chapter, a psychologist explains how she used slam poetry and spoken word art to get marginalized young people to open up about their experiences of social injustice. She concludes that poetry can be used to challenge “established notions of what research and knowledge look like”.
This book also touches on even more offbeat art forms. One chapter, for example, reports on Stockholm University of the Arts ‘Circus Department’. This trains circus performers, but has also used the unexpected realm of circus arts, and their ability to test the extremes of human ability and self-control, to undertake studies on issues such as the work of team and collaboration in high risk environments.
Along the same lines, a chapter co-authored by a physician, an award-winning biomechanical researcher, and an illusionist and escapologist, writes about how the Academy of Magic and Science has created “magic shows” that introduce audiences to cross-disciplinary practices and ideas linking diverse fields such as engineering, chemistry, electronics, physiology, psychology and performance cultures. The co-authors argue that the careful structuring of magical acts, to provoke curiosity and surprise, could be applied more broadly in scientific writing. They suggest that presenting the research as an illusionist might engage a wider audience far more than the “cold lists of data and conclusions” in many scientific papers.
Burnard said she expected the book, which contains many other different examples of rebellious scholarly writing, to be “stricken” by some scholars. “Our ideas and intentions are challenging – but it’s something academics are meant to be,” she added. “The emergence of unimaginable possibilities should be celebrated.”
Do rebel research in and beyond the Academy is published by Brill-i-Sense. It will be widely available after a launch event in Cambridge on Monday, June 6.