Academic discourse must have practical community impact

A key feature of the academe is the sophistication of its discourse. It is often marked by the use of coded language, pompous jargon and the use of rituals to maintain exclusivity and, I believe, shut out the other.

In academic platforms such as university higher degrees proposal presentations and journal article reviews, it is common for students’ proposals and authors’ papers to be mutilated by professors and reviewers in academic standoffs and show-offs, all in an attempt to coerce researchers to submit to entrenched dogmatic prescripts.

This is intertwined with a desperate attempt to ‘publish or perish’ and to comply with sustaining and augmenting personal indexes and citations academic enterprises increasingly demand.

As academics become reduced to matrices, the result is an academe that is detached from the community, and a community that becomes an object to further the academic standings of researchers.

This has even been ritualised in ethical considerations which, in part, ensure that a researcher becomes detached from the targeted community to ensure an elusive quest for objectivity. This takes away the humanities from the entire research process. Moreover, it results in reclusive academics who become obsessed with their ratings, at times driving them to recycle existing literature and cite themselves.

Real knowledge lies in communities

The essence of all research should be, at the very least, the betterment of a researcher’s immediate community. Researchers should not be akin to some mining companies whose focus is the extraction of mineral resources without any tangible and visible benefits to the local communities which are often left destitute and underdeveloped, while mineral resources flow out of their communities.

It would be disingenuous not to recognise the outstanding contribution of research from some universities in addressing humanity’s immediate problems.

However, as Julian Kirchherr in his 2022 article, ‘Bullshit in the Sustainability and Transitions Literature: A Provocation’ observes, “up to 50% of the articles that are now being published in many interdisciplinary sustainability and transitions journals may be categorised as ‘scholarly bullshit’.”

Often, the outburst of articles whisked out of institutions of higher learning has not spilled over to transform the material conditions of people in the immediate university communities. Often, a smile, change of heart, and bread on the table that can emanate from community engagement, cannot be meaningfully captured and measured through citations and high-impact factor journals that lie way beyond the purview of ordinary community members.

Real knowledge resides within local communities that have been in existence long before the advent of modern Western education. These local communities often reside outside the scope of formal academic structures and are habitually used simply as objects to further entrench the hegemony of the academic enterprise.

A key question that remains is, how can this neo-liberal fixative obsession with the metric system be deconstructed and transformed into a more humanity-centred pedagogy? How can the sophistication of academic discourse ameliorate the material conditions of local communities? Being key in knowledge production, local communities should form part and parcel of knowledge generation, from conceptualisation to implementation.

Researchers can be directly involved

Even though policy implementation lies outside the scope of the academe, certain practical recommendations that emanate from research can directly benefit local communities in the following ways: social work, psychology and criminology researchers should be directly involved in addressing social problems such as juvenile delinquency, drugs, homelessness and mental health; researchers in microbiology can address community problems related to water contamination; business management scholars may focus on small-scale business development; and scholars on agriculture should be involved in food production and security. Even though disciplines such as philosophy can make inputs on debates with regard to governance, ethics, and morality.

Even though some research offices usually drive community engagement at an institutional level, they, at times, fall short of meaningful change because these are done merely as rudimentary projects aimed at signing off on checklists and complying with performance management requirements. It is, thus, imperative for such community-centred engagements to constitute the quotidian of every researcher or course with funding from the institutional office. It is the researchers’ responsibility to ensure that there is a nexus between their research activities and the common man, both in the neighbouring communities and beyond, to ensure sustainability and impact.

Of course, given the rationality of researchers, the success of this will depend on the recognition of community engagement as an important variable in both the academic promotions and the peer recognition matrices. If this is done in a humanistic manner, the lines between the university, the immediate surrounding local communities, and beyond, will be blurred. This will truly put academics forward as drivers of knowledge production and societal change.

Dr Valery B Ferim is a senior lecturer in the department of political science and international relations at the University of Fort Hare in South Africa.