Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Challenges for the African Academy I: Quality African scholarship

One of the most rhetorically important notions in South African academia is that of `African scholarship’. The University of Cape Town (UCT) has as its explicit objective to `be a world class African university’ and, more recently, to be an `Afropolitan’ university. It is not immediately clear what any of this means. For myself, I have always taken it as obvious that intellectual work in African universities, by African scholars, should be grounded in the history, social context and trajectories of our respective countries and, to an extent, the continent as a whole. Not all work need reflect this grounding, but if only a small proportion does then something is seriously amiss.

Arguments of this sort have, in the last decade, been dramatically extended to suggest that modern `knowledge production’ in our universities should be based on `traditional African’ approaches. One well-known example is in traditional herbal medicine, but the assertion has been extended in a very vague way to the social sciences and even areas like mathematics.

I realised the danger, and absurdity, of some of this rhetoric when attending an Africa-themed research conference a few years ago. More than one speaker, including a senior member of the quasi-governmental Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), simply dismissed intellectual contributions as irrelevant because they were not by Africans. From articles by Xolela Mangcu in Business Day, to the inaugural Thabo Mbeki Leadership conference last year, there has been a recurring desire for a revisionist account of intellectual history; where Plato was schooled by African philosophers, and where there is a distinct African approach to subjects like mathematics. The achievements of various African civilisations have been ignored or dismissed in past historical accounts, and we should of course rectify this. That does not, however, justify excessive romanticisation of the past, or the creation of discernibly false accounts of history. Nor does it justify a parochial account that deprives us of claiming all knowledge as our own – the product of fellow human beings.

A well-known example of romanticisation is the rhetoric around the notion of `ubuntu’ and the claim that prior to colonialists arriving in Africa, African societies were early democracies, where decision-making was egalitarian, wealth was equally distributed and people were at peace with each other and nature. Advocates of this sort of account would do well to read the book by the accomplished, radical Pan Africanist scholar Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, where he states, matter-of-factly, that many African societies were essentially semi-feudalist when the Europeans arrived. (Recall that an aristocratic, feudal society is what was overthrown by the Russian Revolution). This is not to underestimate the damage done by colonialism or the slave trade, but rather, again, to argue against misleading statements about history. There is not much evidence that societies in Africa were on a faster or more pure track to egalitarianism, wealth and further advancement of civilization than other parts of the world.       

A number of very tangible problems arise from the sort of rhetoric described. First, it is very easily used to dismiss inconvenient ideas or colleagues by suggesting that a piece of work is `unAfrican’ or `Western’, and equivalently that the researcher has a `European mindset’. Even if there is some sort of substance behind such statements, they are intellectually sloppy and appear parochial. A second problem is that mediocre academics hide behind the shield of African scholarship. A particular paper is rejected from journals not because it is academically weak but supposedly because ‘African’ ideas are shunned. If the author is criticised by local colleagues these individuals may be labeled ‘un-African’. Again, there are times when ideas are genuinely rejected because they are grounded in an African context unfamiliar, or unwelcome, to foreign journal editors and referees. Too often, however, this is also used to cloak incompetence (and thereby undermine genuine claims of such bias). This in turn can be used to discredit well-founded demands for more substantively African curricula. The notion of substantively African study is arguably what is at stake in the small whirlpool of a debate concerning the Centre for African Studies at UCT; a subject I may discuss at a later stage.  

Advancing quality scholarship

A second problem, directly related to the above, is how to ensure the quality of output by South African researchers. One obvious way is to assess output by the standards of leading international institutions. Another, complementary, approach is to rely on forms of peer review. To put the problem plainly: how would one go about developing an African academy from scratch? Who trains the future academics? By what standards do we judge them to be good at what they do? To make the issues more tangible I will refer to a specific discipline – economics - although it is important to emphasise that there is significant variation across disciplines when it comes to forms of output and peer review.

Internationally, in economics, journal articles are considered of paramount importance as a measure of an individual researcher’s quality. Furthermore, a relatively large weight is placed on journal rankings such as those provided by the ISI. There is an unwritten rule that to get tenure at a top American economics department one must have at least five articles in top-20 journals. To some extent this depends on a researcher’s area of specialization, but it is a useful indicator of the nature of the discipline. By this standard, very few South African economists are of top quality. As Luiz (2010) noted in a survey of the discipline in the South African Journal of Economics, only one South African economist in the preceding five years had published in what are known as the ‘blue ribbon’ journals; distinguished journals, some of which are over a century old, that even now remain in the top 10 or top 15.       

One problem with this approach – leaving aside the extremely contentious issue of journal ranking and its merits - is that it assumes-away the question of what basis we should use to assess researchers’ output. Perhaps in the United States it makes sense to emphasise abstract, theoretical research, while in South Africa we may be more concerned with policy-related work which may be significantly less publishable. Many academics bridle at the idea of attempting to make any comparisons of the usefulness, relevance or importance of different kinds of academic work. There is good reason to be suspicious of such efforts, since academia rarely lends itself to this sort of measurement. However, when one finds academic departments staffed primarily by foreign migrants who are doing identical research to what they would be conducting overseas, and receiving generous subsidies from government for every paper published, the issues cannot be avoided. I am not suggesting such examples are widespread in South Africa, but they do exist and are a direct function of the existing higher education ranking and funding systems. What social benefit is accruing from such a state of affairs?

The challenge of addressing these two sets of issues – encouraging substantively African scholarship that is socially justifiable, while also setting clear quality standards - is one that is not unique to economics, it applies to all academic disciplines in South Africa. In mathematics we may wonder about the appropriate weighting of theoretical versus applied research, while in anthropology it may seem appropriate to place additional weight on research that focuses on important South African issues rather than ones in other societies. In doing this, however, we run into the problem raised previously; mediocre scholars may shelter behind country-specific, or policy-specific, research. In this way, we find ourselves in a bind.

The present state of affairs

What is the current solution to this problem? At the moment it varies significantly across South African universities. Some have professors who have not published in any journals in the top 100 of the economics rankings. Others have people at senior lecturer position who have. In many ways, however, it is the Department of Higher Education and the National Research Foundation (NRF) that direct faculties’ priorities through the way that they allocate funds and thereby indirectly influence promotion criteria. The DHE gives money to departments based on publications in certain ranked journals (including all ISI-ranked journals). The amount given does not, however, vary by the rank of the journal. In other words, you get as much money for publishing in the Quarterly Journal of Economics (often ranked #1) as the South African Journal of Economic and Management Sciences (ranked #202 in 2008). Within some of the top universities, a similar incentive system plays out: promotion and research funding is based primarily on the number of publications rather than the quality of the journals they are in. At other universities publication capacity is so low that even a quantity focus does not suffice to conveniently circumvent the problem, so publication simply gets neglected. This may not be a bad thing, for some of the reasons already mentioned, but let’s continue for the moment to assume that publishing is the most important thing for academics..

The one thing we can say about the international standard is that it is demanding, and a publication in a top international journal is usually enough to know that an individual has a good grasp of a particular area of the discipline. Nevertheless, returning to the specific example, it is unclear how relevant most modern economic research is to South Africa’s economic problems. Our unemployment rates are simply unparalleled in the developed world. Abstract economic theories have shown little, if any, success in addressing substantive and large-scale problems like economic development, sustained growth and poverty-reduction or massive increases in employment. There is not a single country in the world for which work by an economist has been pivotal in informing policies that create economic growth or employment (except perhaps the United States which may have benefited from encouraging other countries to adopt free market policies). Why, then, should we be channeling large sums of money to academics who engage in this kind of research?

The current approach is damaging in this respect and many others. It allows mediocre researchers to produce (possibly ideological) work that is largely irrelevant to South Africa, publish it in low-ranked (often local) journals and yet advance professionally while being unremarkable teachers and receiving significant public funds. Indeed, such individuals may advance significantly more rapidly than counterparts who invest time and resources in their teaching and seek to publish in top international journals – the latter a process which can take up to five years from submission, as compared to less than a year for weak local journals.

The ideal solution may be to require for promotion that academics show they are capable of engaging at the level of the international standard – through some publications in top journals – but remain attuned to the specific nature of South African, and African, problems. Unfortunately, there is little reward (and some risk) to speaking out against the existing system, and most of those with power currently in the system have no incentive to change it – something economists understand all too well.

[Note: Mahmood Mamdani has recently posted an interesting critique of the current state of affairs in scholarship on the continent:
I will comment on this when I look at the recent controversy around UCT's Centre for African Studies]

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