Academia is all about marking territory. Grab hold of a trending topic and make it yours. Invent a term, coin a concept and hope it sticks. Knowledge is propertied.
Sometimes the game gets vicious. Predatory. Perhaps a senior scholar in need of renewal may prey on the work of their doctoral student or younger colleagues. A ‘rock star’ academic can encroach on well established and poorly marketed scholarship and brand it around him or her. A major grant can buy an emerging scholar a ‘reputation’ overnight that others have spent years struggling to build through the long road of committed research.
This is no free market. Scholars from less wealthy institutions and countries struggle to be visible, to be heard and often to hold on to the ownership of their ideas. In desperation, they may put their work on ResearchGate or Academia.edu, hoping that this new digital frontier plays to a different set of rules. In reality, they may be read but not cited due to their relatively unknown status. Worse yet, their ideas may be appropriated by others and published with the right kind of dressing up.
Expertise – the identity of academics is under constant threat. To belong to your ‘field,’ you repeatedly need to prove your membership. Groundhog day for the typical academic. You need to keep up with the right language, the new in-jokes and the well placed indignation. Women resurfacing after maternity leave may find themselves out of their own game as the obsession with churning out articles increasingly becomes the proxy for being relevant. It legitimises a scholar’s existence, serving as a time stamp to signal that they are still around.
Scholarship is all about the sticky factor. You are as good as your last book, your highly cited article. Even a well earned legacy can turn against you because it may appear ‘old school.’ Novelty often triumphs over classic. There is no standing still.
The fact is that much like the utopic hype around the notion of the ‘frontier,’ which promised land for the grabbing by anyone and everyone, regardless of their standing, academia is not that different. It lures eager thinkers to an infinite exploration of knowledge on a supposed meritocratic ground. There are winners and losers…mostly losers.
By acknowledging that the academic frontier isn’t as fair as it would like to appear, maybe we will be kinder to one another as we plod ahead, holding onto our love for the idea.
Payal Arora is Associate Professor at Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication