Leave a comment

Self-reflection and failure in academia

On Friday, Nicholas Kristof published a column titled “Professors, we need you!,” in which he argued for the need to make research more accessible and relevant to the general public.

While his point on relatable, open research is well-taken, Kristof drew heat from a rank of academics who have been attempting to make their fields more accessible than they have been for decades. One of the more salient critiques, titled “Dear Nicholas Kristof: We are right here!” is at the Washington Post, while others are available at Duck of Minerva and the incredibly titled Mischiefs of Faction. The response that most resonated with me is by Erica Chenoweth at Political Violence at a Glance.

I agree with the critics who have pointed out that Kristof has not acknowledged some of the steps social/political science have taken to relay their research and findings to the general public, but I still think there is room for self-reflection on academic conversations in slightly different terms than the ones in which Kristof casts the issue. On the same day as Kristof published his column, I attended Unlearning Violence, a World Peace Foundation conference on early childhood development, conflict, and peace, drawing together scholars and practitioners from the fields of social science, education, neuroscience, humanitarian policy and more. A Storified list of tweets is available here.

One of the narrative arcs underpinning Unlearning Violence was the acknowledgment that we need to scrutinize how we learn as scholars of violence. Being honest about our failures is a critical part of the collective process of learning. Failures abound: Failed hypotheses about how people survive armed conflict and its aftermath, failed assumptions about which interventions may work, failed interventions, practices that blur the boundaries of the “do no harm” approach that we seek to embrace. One of the panelists spurred some of the most stimulating debate of the whole conference by asking: Where do we read about those failures? Sure, there is Admitting Failure, a terrific website to “encourage new levels of transparency, collaboration and innovation across the for-purpose sector.” There are the conversations we have with fellow scholars and practitioners about what we thought may have worked, but didn’t. And there is the private sector, in which – as another panelist stipulated – there is some room to be honest about failure.

But our journals, our scholarly writing, are largely centered on successful findings. Telling the stories of what did work, preferably at a certain statistical significance level, often drowns out the narratives of our failure. Interestingly enough, as any humanitarian practitioner or researcher on Twitter can attest, there is no shortage of critique or scrutiny in our field. Yet, as a different panelist noted, there are deeply entrenched reasons for the frequent omission of narratives of failure in academic research. Quite often, continued donor funding depends on being able to show successes. Reputational issues in tenure processes and the publication race also influence the process.

All this to say: Even if we grant that Kristof is wrong in assuming the scholarly world is still opaque to those who do not identify as academics, there are still questions about what the conversations actually look like, whether they occur in the ‘Ivory Tower’ or in the public domain. To begin with, making our research relatable cannot stop with publishing a paper, as Theresa Betancourt noted at Unlearning Violence. Building the types of relationships that allow us to identify key stakeholders at our research sites is crucial for then relaying that research to them and thinking of ways to make the research useful to the people at the heart of it. Furthermore, being honest about our failures — both our failed assumptions and our failed approaches — is important, particularly if we can carve out some more space in which to openly and candidly discuss these failings. As panelist Michael Wessells asked, “do we build the skills of ethical reflection among humanitarian practitioners and researchers?”

And as audience members added, do we carve out the space for the discussions that may flow from this reflection? This may require setting aside our ‘expert’ identities, which are often out-of-step with the realities of researching violence. As Wessells asked: “Who can claim to be an expert in a war zone? We don’t live there [most of the time]. We are all students. That’s the attitude we need.”Kristof may have miscast the issue of the role of academics in policy, politics, and broader social conversations and, in doing so, ignored the many scholars who work hard to foster a public conversation and make their research relatable. That said, questions still remain about the nature and openness of that conversation and the institutional and professional prescriptions that limit what we do (not) discuss.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *