OPINION: What are our roles as academics?
Books on the shelf at the UA Main Library on March 9.
The role of an academic in society has been a question constantly facing academics in their research, teaching positions and placement at universities. Often the university is seen as disconnected from the greater public; it’s a separate space distinct from its surrounding communities and society. While research is often pertinent to growing developments in technology and thought, there is still a prevailing notion that academics are distant from society in a large part of their work. From a student’s perspective, this holds different weight, especially in a society increasingly more insistent on the pressure placed on personal responsibility for all aspects of life, especially economic.
Increasingly, there are discrepancies between the academic fulfillment of a university and the growing emphasis on job-preparedness instead. To no academic or student’s fault, this development is part of a broader move toward the reliance on a degree to function in the economy and a reluctance of employers to hire those without already developed resumes. Academic institutions, as well as the departments and workers within, have to pivot themselves to be reflective of and fit into the economy so they are “productive” contributors to the labor force.
For academics, this leaves a somewhat-muddied role in society and students’ lives. As a student, an academic is not only a mentor but a guide through the various areas of our subjects of study, and this often means working with material typically seen as less pertinent to current society. Areas of academia that may seem redundant or excessive are fundamental to maintaining a non-business-focused sphere of academics. The perceived redundancy comes from an economic perspective, one focused on the applicability of academia in the economy as opposed to other realms of life.
Engagement outside the university isn’t strictly reserved for this relationship with the economy either. Academics can be seen as reserving a position outside the realities of life, with their work having little impact on the issues they discuss. Research papers are typically minimally cited and have a readership limited to those in the same discipline. This issue has increasingly taken focus with an emphasis on socially active academic work and further engagement with the community.
For academic professionals who face heavy burdens on their time and precarious positions in research and universities, this can be difficult to achieve for many who already face large burdens of stress. The coming wave of social media usage for burgeoning academics to display and discuss their research may resemble a shift in this realm as generations change, though.
Where does the role of the academic fall in this convoluted area of society then? Since students are increasingly faced with the pressure of an economic reality requiring some idea of job-preparedness, there is a role to play in preparing them for the reality we live in, even if it’s not the desirable one. Students have to engage in the world after their studies, leaving a realm of job-preparedness necessary, although not at the current levels we experience.
Lastly, engagement is still beneficial for academia. Through social activism and community engagement, academics can bridge the gap often found between university and community, further expanding their placement in national debates by working at a localized level. For students, this can allow for seeing their learning in action and how the academics they are participating in and learning from work outside the university and for their benefit. This further helps break down the disillusion often harbored by students as they toil through a degree they’ve been taught to believe is only for increasing their economic potential. Still, what’s most pressing is sustaining the resources so all of this is possible for academics and students alike.
Nathan Gosnell is a senior majoring in East Asian studies: Japanese language and minoring in political science