The Ethics of Academic Practice: Combatting Exploitation and Working for Social Justice

Is modern academia an economy of theft?

I am continuing with my contemplations on the 5 Mindfulness Trainings and how they can inform an ethics of academic practice.

In this second post I take the training on ‘True Happiness’:

True Happiness

Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression, I am committed to practicing generosity in my thinking, speaking, and acting. I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others; and I will share my time, energy, and material resources with those who are in need. I will practice looking deeply to see that the happiness and suffering of others are not separate from my own happiness and suffering; that true happiness is not possible without understanding and compassion; and that running after wealth, fame, power and sensual pleasures can bring much suffering and despair. I am aware that happiness depends on my mental attitude and not on external conditions, and that I can live happily in the present moment simply by remembering that I already have more than enough conditions to be happy. I am committed to practicing Right Livelihood so that I can help reduce the suffering of living beings on Earth and reverse the process of global warming.

 

What is meant by this ambitious declaration and how might it be imprinted on my academic practice?

I want to begin at the end, as it were, and the direct referencing of a commitment to reversing global warming.  This is a kind of aside but bear with me.

In referencing global warming specifically I feel that Thay is indicating that while the ‘trainings’ are universal, in the sense that their core orientations can be applied in any context, they should be adapted to the specific contexts within which we live.  This understanding of the universal yet contextual nature of the ‘trainings’ is important.  The ‘trainings’ are to be worked with rather than simply applied.  They are designed to sensitise us to certain ways of being rather than rules to be imposed.

The only authority behind the ‘trainings’ is our own commitment to ethical practice.

…and now down to business.

There are a number of topics that arise during discussion with colleagues on the academic development programmes I run that deal with issues of integrity and honesty.  They can arise in two specific contexts, those of academic integrity/plagiarism, and the ethics of authorship.  But I want to add another, that of the increasingly institutionally ‘managed’ nature of our academic CVs.

Plagiarism, authorship, and integrity

I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others

When writing, as academics or students, we are entering into discussion with communities of thinkers and writers – past, present and future.  Central to the idea of scholarly activity is the dispassionate exchange of ideas in the common pursuit of knowledge – that is, the ideal of the Republic of Letters (see the Networking the Republic of Letters, 1550-1750 project for an interesting piece of research on this).  I know this is an idealised notion of academic and scholarly activity.  I also know that it can hide the imperial and gendered natured of the enterprise.  But there is something in the idea that offers different ways of being an academic in the contemporary moment.

What I take from the idea is the notion that we are never the ‘owners’ of knowledge, of ideas, of text, but only ever the custodians.

Viewing knowledge-work in this way places a slightly different emphasis on issues of academic honesty and integrity.  Often, we come to these issues in relation to students who ‘cheat’.  Actual scholarly work on this demonstrates that it is seldom as easy or straightforward as our anecdotes would suggest.  This is usually how it is initially surfaced in discussions with colleagues in academic development programmes.  Then the discussion shifts towards considering the issue in terms of enculturation of students into the disciplinary forms of academic writing and of how we, as academics, deal with referencing.

But I think there is some value in also contemplating how we are custodians rather than owners of knowledge.  The idea of the custodian of knowledge can encourage practices of care and consideration which are, in my view, healthier and more productive kinds of sensibility than mere attention to the rules of referencing, or how to punish students who cheat.  The attention to proper referencing should not be an issue of rules but rather of the ‘public’ nature of our knowledge-work.  We not only share our knowledge-work, but make ourselves accountable through such mechanisms as referencing.  In modern parlance there is an ‘open source’ element to academic practice – we are revealing the code.

A possible negative side to the custodian metaphor is that we can become reverential towards knowledge, of attending to the gatekeeping function of protecting cannons of knowledge.  Such approaches are inevitably conservative and restrictive.  But if we think of the custodian role as one of care, and respect, this still leaves knowledge-work as open and as something we then leave to others to continue working with.

I feel that there is some mileage in this metaphor, but I need to explore it further.

…and institutional ‘management’ of academic CVs

But, perhaps the issue most pertinent to this ‘training’ is the increase in the way the institutions we work for seek to manage our scholarly activity in the pursuit of market advantage.

What do I mean by this?

The emergence of the what scholars such as Simon Marginson call the ‘global university’ and heightened global competition in higher education has brought in forms of management that views our individual scholarly ambitions as little more than institutional assets.  What I mean by this is the idea that my scholarly research and writing are viewed as contributing to or undermining my employing organisation’s stock of status capital.  The ethical, social, or cultural content of my scholastic activity is therefore of no real importance other than in its capacity to contribute to the university’s competitive ambitions as measured by various ranking systems.

This fundamentally undermines the idea of the Republic of Letters and of the scholar as a custodian.

It introduces a subtle, I think, change in the nature of social relations in academic practice.  This change is in the direction of making academic practice one of ‘value relations’ in the classic Marxist sense.  For more on this perspective I think it is worth looking at the work of Joss Winn.  In this change of relations the university acts much more like the traditional capitalist enterprise directly and indirectly appropriating my academic labour.  The drive is not to have control over my labour (and here I am referring specifically to academic writing and the direction of academic research) in order to produce better or ‘higher quality’ research, but as a private good (private for the university) in its efforts to improve its market position.

As well as leading to a ‘carelessness’ in the way academics and students are treated in universities, it changes the social relationship to knowledge.  Rather than being custodians of knowledge, as individual academics, we are increasingly encouraged to view writing and research and teaching as private property that can improve our individual status within academic markets.  It also means that our employers, universities, seek to appropriate (steal) the fruits of our labour.  Knowledge is there to be plundered.

Stealing from the poor….

It is one thing for employing organisations to be seen in the role of capitalist ‘robber barons’ of academic labour.  But when we see our role as custodians of knowledge then this also implies a certain social relationship to those who participate in our research and so form the basis for our writing.  Surely we have a duty of responsibility here as well?

Much of my research has been concerned with the impact of policy on different groups, often with an explicit social justice dimension.  When this work involves interviews I am inviting folks to talk with me about their experiences, concerns, interpretations, etc.  Some of these people will be those in positions of power, others not.  I believe that there is a duty placed upon me then to treat their participation with care, responsibly.  We are used to the various ethical protocols we are asked to sign up to.  But there is something that is not mentioned in these protocols – the duty of not appropriating their generosity and commitment of time, or their openness, simply to build a career.

Indeed there can be two levels of appropriation going on simultaneously.  As the academic I may appropriate their involvement in my research as part of a strategic manoeuvre designed to improve my career prospects.  And, my employing organisation may appropriate this as part of its strategy to improve its advantage in relation to other institutions.

Both are forms of theft.

The ethical cost of eroding the custodian role

What can we do in such circumstances?

It seems to me that we (academics), collectively, are allowing and enabling  this theft to continue.  Apart from complaining privately we seldom refuse, let alone resist this economy of theft.

The question remains, then, what can we do?

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The Ethics of Academic Practice- 1: Reverence For Life

Watching the unfolding horror in Gaza I am reminded of my commitment to a form of academic practice that places ethics at its core.  But, apart from rhetorical claims to the moral high ground how might such an ethics inform academic practice; how might it guide a thoughtful and honest response to events such as those in Gaza as well as the ‘everydayness’ of teaching, research, and administration?

To explore this I want to look at the 5 MINDFULNESS TRAININGS  offered by the venerable Thich Nhat Hanh. Thich Nhat Hanh and the trainings are a good place to start for a number of reasons.  Thich Nhat Hanh is one of the key instigators of what has become known as Engaged Buddhism, that orientation within reformed Buddhism that seeks to engage directly with issues of poverty, equality, and justice as a means of practicing the teachings of the Buddha.  This orientation grew out of his immediate experience of war in Vietnam.  His efforts to engage in ethical practices applying Buddhist teachings led him and many other Vietnamese Buddhists to support villagers to rebuild their homes, to provide health and education in the midst of suffering, and to campaign for peace.  It was on the basis of this that Martin Luther King Jr nominated Thich Nhat Hahn for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Thich Nhat Hanh has gone on to become one of the most influential Buddhist leaders in the world.  As part of his ethic of engaged Buddhism he has sought to establish sets of principles that can guide people in their everyday lives – the 5 MINDFULNESS TRAININGS.  These are based on the original 5 Precepts established in Buddhist tradition:

  1. Not killing
  2. Not stealing
  3. Not misusing sex
  4. Not lying
  5. Not abusing intoxicants

 

While similar to the rules and commandments found in other religions, in Buddhism there is no ‘god’ to provide authority for such rules.  Instead they are seen as rational guides for improving the human condition.  These precepts have been reformulated as:

Reverence For Life

True Happiness

True Love

Loving Speech and Deep Listening

Nourishment and Healing

Over the following weeks I will focus on each of these ‘trainings’ in order to elaborate an ethic of academic practice.

 

Reverence For Life

Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I am committed to cultivating the insight of interbeing and compassion and learning ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals. I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to support any act of killing in the world, in my thinking, or in my way of life. Seeing that harmful actions arise from anger, fear, greed, and intolerance, which in turn come from dualistic and discriminative thinking, I will cultivate openness, non-discrimination, and non-attachment to views in order to transform violence, fanaticism, and dogmatism in myself and in the world.

 

As I write Israel is unleashing its amazing arsenal of death upon one of the poorest people in the world.  This is not a war between competing combatant states.  This is an asymmetrical war of destruction.  Borrowing from the Old Testament, a text that the Jews, Muslims, and Christians of the region regard as sacred, Israel is Goliath and Gaza is David.  In this story David is unlikely to win.

The other night I was talking with an Italian Jewish friend about this horror.  While unambiguously seeing himself on the side of peace and against this current onslaught, he remarked that he had come to the opinion that Israel’s heightened ‘security’ measures over the years that had effectively made Gaza an open air prison, had created necessary calm in Israel.  I could have asked him what he thought this meant for the population of Gaza.  Instead, I asked him what this was doing to young Israelis, particularly Jewish Israelis.  I asked him what this creation of Israel as a security state was doing to those young people who had to serve in the military.  We explored the psychological and moral impact of serving in the Israel Defence Force (IDF), of what this did to young minds and souls as they had to search old women at check points, go through children’s clothes, break down doors on frightened families, shoot young boys throwing stones.  We explored how fear could so easily be transformed into hate, into constructing the people of Gaza into non-humans.  We explored how Israel, and Jewish Israelis, seemed blind to how they, like the Christians before them, were creating new GHETTOS.

The constant heightening of security measures creates prisons for both Palestinian and Israeli.  But this prison, whose walls are constructed by high calibre weapons as much as they are by concrete and wire, is aided by scientists of many kinds.  There are those involved in the development of spy technology that enable the IDF to use pinpoint accuracy (so it is said) to target particular individuals and buildings.  There are scientists who are involved in the development of weapons as well as those involved in the psychological training of soldiers, and torturers; as well as those who advise on the use of psychological warfare against the civilian population of Gaza, or ‘persuading’ the Israeli population of the correctness of these actions through the controlled use of the media.

All of these ‘scientists’ were educated in universities.  What was the moral content of their university education?  How is it that universities can produce individuals who are apparently so lost to basic human empathy and compassion?  What is it about the pursuit of knowledge that splits a person from their heart such that they see only the spirit of the technology and the beauty of the algorithm?

And how is it that universities accept funding from arms manufacturers fully aware of the human and ecological destruction they unleash on the world?  Is this why there is almost universal silence from universities despite the death toll of Gaza’s civilian population?  Have they, that is the leading academics and administrators, literally sold their souls to the devil?

Israel’s IRON DOME defence system, heavily subsidised by the USA, is only possible by the complicity of universities and their scientists.

What ethical choices are these academics making?

 

But we face other ethical choices in these times.  It is all too easy to CHOOSE one side against the other.  But the challenge posed by the commitment to COMPASSION is that seeing one side as lesser than the other simply perpetuates this process of dualism, of distinction.  This is not to promote some kind of dispassionate approach.  But we must always seek the path of peace whilst also speaking out against injustice where we see it, regardless of personal security.

I am appalled by what Israel is doing to the Palestinian’s.  But I also feel such pain at what is happening to those young Israelis in the IDF, to the loss of humanity they suffer each time they construe another human not as a human like them, but as ‘enemy’, as being less than human.  Each act like this dehumanises them, alters their psychology and moral framework.  I hear the pain of Palestinians as they confront the loss of loved ones, wishing harm upon all Israelis or Jews.  But the death of any Israeli will never heal the wound of losing a child in such circumstances.

As academics we need to be attentive to the moral content of our teaching, and we should be mindful of the ethical modelling that accompanies our practice.

 

My friend and I finished the evening not in total agreement, but in renewing a commitment to ethical practice and the search for peace.