The Real Alternative

1 Comment

Are outspoken critics of Wikipedia pompous windbags?

Let’s face it. Wikipedia is amazing. Not only in the humanities but in just about every discipline one can think of. I think it’s great that its founder is being recognized in his lifetime. All too often great figures go by unnoticed because those upholding old patterns just can’t see what’s right before their eyes.

So what about academia. Is it really that great?

Well, I had a good experience, especially in undergrad studies. But looking back, Wikipedia entries are probably more balanced and informative than most of what my undergrad professors put out. Don’t be fooled. Some profs just follow a textbook or two. They might have read a few more books in the area. But generally, the sheer amount of info one can get from Wikipedia is better than what you’d get in an undergraduate humanities course.

Image by Abhi Sharma via Flickr

And the fee?

University fees have been steadily rising. And not only that. It’s been harder and harder for less privileged youths to get funding. Let’s not beat around the bush. University is a type of finishing school for many kids who can afford it. For those who can’t, it has been a symbol of oppression.


Yes oppression.

Just go to a small university town and compare the university students to the “townies” as some used to call them. The gap is painfully obvious.

But here’s the biggest joke of all. Universities can be corrupt. Not too many people realize it but corruption isn’t just about the most visible stories that hit the news. We tend to turn a blind eye to those things that benefit us, while scapegoating those that do not.

So I ask: Are some outspoken academic critics of Wikipedia not only pompous but corrupt windbags?

Of course, not all academics are snobs or directly involved in corrupt activities. But quite possibly the snooty narrow-mindedness of some is at least partly or indirectly supported by some form of institutional corruption.

So my message to anyone who has not been to university: Don’t feel any less than someone who has. What matters is to be able to think freely. And Wikipedia can be a fantastic launch pad for critical thinking. Sure, it only gives outlines. But they are excellent, densely interlinked outlines. And if you want to go further in a particular topic, Wikipedia articles do have a bibliography and external links. So the next step would be the public library, bookstore or just more web surfing.

Forget the pompous windbags. They’re probably carping because they fear that their status – and associated perks – are threatened. Their days are numbered. Knowledge, like anything else, should be available to anyone who wants and needs it.

 One-third of Ph.D.s lose interest in academic careers, but not for lack of jobs (

 Iowa regents asking for $12 million solely for resident, undergrad aid (

 At Reed College, the left clashes with itself over free speech (

 Letter: Academic enrichment (

 Cambridge academic cleared of assault after saying ex-fiancee tried to ‘ruin’ his life for calling off wedding (

 See Western Michigan’s enrollment, demographics over decade (

 The 10 colleges where students get the best education for their money (


Leave a comment

Philosophy is useless, theology is worse?

Some older readers might recognize the title/lyric from a 1980s Dire Straits tune, “Industrial Disease.”

That sentiment might seem somewhat cynical but, in a way, I can see where Dire Straits was coming from. When I wrote about the social thinker Michel Foucault in my PhD program, I could sense that some of the most powerful players in my life at the time either didn’t give a damn or just didn’t understand.

One professor, so I heard through the grapevine, apparently said that “a university is a place where a professor gets a paycheck.” Well yes, but that’s pretty cynical. This guy ended up shafting me at the last minute, effectively trashing my chances at getting postdoc funding.

Pearls Before Swine – Pieter Brueghel via Wikipedia

Another professor was so incompetent that he got visibly upset at the very idea of my studying Michel Foucault. He thought Foucault’s work abrogated morality. I had to explain to this guy that Foucault was interested in how some moralities are highlighted while others are ignored at a given moment in history. Foucault wasn’t advocating the abandonment of morality.

The bottom line?

Even academics can be incredibly callous, uncaring or just uninformed. However, that doesn’t mean we should give up and stop looking at society in intelligent ways. But be beware. A lot of people won’t get what you’re saying. And some might even try to turn your wisdom against you.

Didn’t someone else say this a long time ago?

Do not cast your pearls before swine…”

Jesus, of course, was talking more about holiness and spirituality. But I think his teaching applies to many fields, and sadly, to more than a few people today.

Leave a comment

Today’s Top Tweet X2 – Do we need a new game for a new era?

The Human Use of Human Beings

The Human Use of Human Beings (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I first discovered The Conversation I was excited. I’m always looking for fresh material at, and The Conversation seemed to be a cornucopia of Creative Commons material.

However, only researchers actively employed or funded are allowed to contribute. So that means any second- or third-rate thinker who gets their job or funding through a potentially corrupt system of patronage can write there. But smart people who don’t get academic jobs or funding – because they’re too clean or different – can’t write there.

This shortcoming is pretty evident in these two tweeted articles. Sure, the articles contain a reasonable amount of fairly well written material. Academics, be they cronies, stooges or not, need to perform to some degree. But also present is the usual constriction of thought that most academic game players must adhere to or simply exhibit. And it’s that very constriction of thought that and intends to surpass.

Comment – I don’t believe we’ve ever had nonpartisan news. Different papers have always appealed to different markets.

Comment – Gosh. Back in high school we learned about checking sources and evaluating arguments. Just because someone uses the magical word “algorithm” doesn’t mean that it points to truth. This word is so common today. But it seems to mystify more than explain. Another case of human beings being duped by scientism?

Leave a comment

Is university still a place to question and explore?

As far back as 1992 in a graduate studies methodology course I questioned the psychiatric model – not dismissing it, mind you, but questioning it. After all, that’s what we’re supposed to do in academia, right? University is not a church or a political party. It’s a place where the mind can explore new possibilities and critique existing conditions.

Sadly, the professor who hosted the course was a capricious, cynical stooge. He is alleged to have said that “a university is a place where a professor can get a paycheck.” And after initially agreeing to write letters of recommendation for post-doc scholarships, at the last minute, just before application deadlines, he changed his mind and literally shafted me.

“Shafted” might sound like a harsh word but it’s the very word the Department Head at the time used to describe what happened, later on, when I was also not given the chance to teach a course, which is important to your CV.

Sensing that my academic future was on the line, I went through every legitimate government agency, asking for help. Everybody just passed the buck and I didn’t get a fair chance to compete for a post-doc scholarship. (I had a fantastic track record for getting funding before running into this professor).

I suppose there is some value in seeing the dark side of life along with the sunny side. Until meeting this professor, I was the apple of just about every professor’s eye. I’d hear comments like “It’s Michael Clark and all the other students.” Or “She is not as good as you.” (“she” being a leading student). “What would we do without you, Mike!” Michael Clark is “stellar,” “outstanding,” and I could go on. But when I encountered this dishonorable professor, the dynamic changed.

Let’s not fool ourselves. University is as politically charged and potentially corrupt as any other social institution. The higher you go, the more you see it. I was naïve at the time and could not understand why one crummy professor’s actions could seemingly influence so many others. But that’s what apparently happened. Many professors who once glowingly supported me suddenly did not return my emails. Some had integrity and hung in there, and for that I am truly appreciative. However, the ones who did try to help were mostly undergraduate professors. And that just doesn’t cut it when you need several letters of recommendation for post-doc funding (My Masters professors were all in India, which in the 1990s was still a difficult place to communicate with, and I was not given adequate time for snail mail).

The professor who shafted me would have known all this. In his jaded, cynical way, he was clever. He tried to slough me off by suggesting I go see my “Peterborough people” after changing his mind about supporting me. (Peterborough, Ontario is where I did my undergraduate studies).

Weird? Not really. I see it more clearly now. But I don’t like to use overly nasty words at this blog. It would alienate readers and get the site designated as mature, which would only hinder any chance of getting a more positive message out there.

Anyhow, today’s tweet brought back a lot of memories. I wrote about the DSM-III-R from a cross-cultural perspective back in 1992-93. I was moderate and didn’t romanticize things. I recognized that people with mental injury or differences often do suffer.

But it only took one creepy professor with a bit of imo questionable power to put me in the academic trash can. He was the kind of professor who was often seen volunteering in the department mail room when the mail room secretary wasn’t around. But he would rarely, if ever, show up at colloquia and graduate presentations. It seems he liked to sift through the mail more than talk about intellectual issues, which in retrospect seems pretty strange to me. No time for academic debate? Lots of time to play mail boy?

Little did this enigmatic professor know, however, that out of the ashes, | would arise. So even though I’m not getting paid for doing this blog, at least the internet has provided a forum that one lousy, authoritarian professor tried to shut down.

I mean, this guy may have had power in Religious Studies within the Canadian system. But he couldn’t shut down Google. And Google US recognized the value of Earthpages well before any search engines north of the border did. A little nod to my American friends. 🙂

Leave a comment

Using the word “scholars” to legitimize views about Jesus

Leave a comment

Academic print books are dying. What’s the future?

Donald Barclay, University of California, Merced

The print-format scholarly book, a bulwark of academia’s publish-or-perish culture, is an endangered species. The market that has sustained it over the years is collapsing.

Sales of scholarly books in print format have hit record lows. Per-copy prices are at record highs. In purely economic terms, the current situation is unsustainable.

So, what does the future look like? Will academia’s traditional devotion to print and legendary resistance to change kill off long-form scholarship? Or will academia allow itself to move from print-format scholarly books to an open-access digital model that could save, and very likely rejuvenate, long-form scholarship?

Sales down. Prices up

First, let’s look at some of the sales trends. Take the book-centric academic field of history as an example.

In 1980, a scholarly publisher could expect to sell 2,000 copies of any given history book. By 1990, that number had plummeted to 500 copies. And by 2005, sales of a little over 200 copies worldwide had become the norm.

From my own field – library and information studies – the numbers are no less bleak. The editor of a major academic publishing house confided to me this summer that, circa 1995, he could expect to sell 1,000 copies of even a ho-hum library studies book during its first year of publication. In 2015, an outstanding book in the field is considered doing well if it manages to sell 200 copies in its first year.

In a classic response to a downward spiral, publishers ended up raising prices of scholarly books. In 1980, in the field of history,the average price for a hard cover history book was US$22.78; by 2010, that price had almost quadrupled to $82.65.

Similar increases were seen in every other academic field. The average price of a hardcover book on the subject of religion went from $17.61 in 1980 to $80.88 in 2010. For education, the price climbed from $17.01 in 1980 to $177.59 in 2010.

Libraries losing buying power

Neither an anomaly or a bump in the road, this total market collapse is the result of a long-term trend from which the print-format scholarly book cannot recover.

A root cause for this market collapse is the loss of buying power among academic libraries, traditionally the biggest customer for printed scholarly books.

Libraries have been hit by a double economic whammy of beyond-inflationary increases in the cost of journal subscriptions and an ongoing drop in governmental support for higher education in the past few decades.

As a result, academic libraries have been forced to choose between maintaining their paid subscriptions to journals, the favored information resource of the STEM fields, and scholarly books, the workhorse of the humanities and interpretive social sciences.

Here are some numbers that tell the story of where academic libraries have chosen to put their money:

In the mid-1980s, the ratio of spending on journal subscriptions compared to scholarly books was roughly 50-50. By 2011, that ratio had shifted to 75-25 in favor of subscriptions to academic journals.

The fact that only about half of the scholarly books in academic libraries are ever borrowed has further discouraged librarian investment in the scholarly book.

Changing nature of market

In any case, in a perfect ivory tower world, the economics of the print-format scholarly book would not be a consideration. After all, university presses were created for the specific purpose of publishing scholarship that, while rich in intellectual value, has little or no economic value.

However, in a higher-education environment in which the subsidies once enjoyed by university presses have shrunk or entirely vanished, editors are left with little choice but to consider sales potential before accepting a manuscript for publication.

Consequently, academic rigor aside, the market value of a scholarly book on a perennially popular historical figure like, say, Theodore Roosevelt or a current hot-button social issue such as racism is simply going to be more attractive to a scholarly publisher than a book on Spain’s Golden Age (Siglo de Oro) or land-ownership patterns in Hungary’s 12th-century Árpád Dynasty, whose sales prospects might be dismal.

Even so, in many academic fields the publication of scholarly books still remains the standard by which emerging scholars are credentialed. Is it acceptable that a PhD student in one of those fields might feel forced to choose a dissertation topic based on how a publisher views its sales potential as a book rather than on its contribution to the field?

Why not consider open access?

Bleak as it may seem, the good news is that this need not mean the end of long-form scholarship.

Facing a dismal market, a number of leading scholarly publishers are taking steps to change the economic model of the scholarly book. This change involves moving from a foundation in print to a foundation in digital, and from a focus on sales to libraries to a focus on open access.

What about going digital?
PRORob DiCaterino, CC BY

In a notable example, the University of California Press announced the publication this October of the first five titles as part of its Luminos initiative. <a href=”http://www.luminosoa.orgLuminos titles are fully peer-reviewed, professionally edited scholarly books initially published as open-access e-books with a print-on-demand option for those who prefer physical books.

Hardly a one-off venture, similar open-access models for publishing scholarly books are being implemented by such presses as The Ohio State University Press, Penn State Romance Studies, Amherst College Press, ANU (Australian National University) Press, De Gruyter Open, and others.

Open-access initiatives such as these are positioning themselves to disrupt the scholarly book market by shifting to a model in which the cost of publication is recouped by upfront underwriting rather than via sales of copies.

Besides rescuing the scholarly book from oblivion, open-access digital books offer many advantages over their print forebearers: The number of potential readers dwarfs what is possible for a run of a few hundred printed copies. Open-access scholarly books can be used, wholly or in part, as course texts at no costs to students.

Additionally, digital formatting loosens constraints on the number of pages and illustrations. Scholars are free to employ tools of digital-age scholarship ranging from timeline-enhanced maps to data visualizations to embedded video. Open-access books can be read in regions of the world where few people can afford First World price tags.

Academic distrust

However, open-access scholarly books can still fail if those senior faculty who make decisions about hiring, promotion, and tenure refuse to embrace it.

In my experience, many among the senior faculty harbor a lingering distrust of digital publication. Some faculty consider any underwriting of publication costs by the author and/or the author’s institution as nothing more than vanity press publication, where authors have to pay to get published.

For faculty who take this view, such new models of open-access publication are considered to be academic sins in the rank of plagiarism and “diploma mill” degrees.

In my view, there is no reason why scholarly books published under legitimate open-access models cannot undergo rigorous peer-review and editing processes. Quality peer review and editing are not, after all, functions of paper and ink.

Additionally, with very few exceptions, the cost of publishing a scholarly book has always been subsidized to one extent or another. Circa 1980, publication costs for a printed scholarly book were very likely underwritten by a university press’s campus subsidy.

Arguing that publishing a book under the auspices of a subsidized scholarly press occupies some higher moral ground than publishing under one of the emerging models of subsidized open-access publishing is entirely specious.

If, in the end, the forces of academic conservatism kill the open-access scholarly book by refusing to hire or reward emerging scholars who publish in this way, an unintended consequence will be the death of the scholarly book.

Will the academy stand by and allow the market to determine who succeeds and who fails as an academic? Or, will it move toward open-access publication that offers a viable alternative to a market in collapse?

The Conversation

Donald Barclay, Deputy University Librarian, University of California, Merced

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.