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higher ed - between a rock and a hard place

After my last post on why OA is doomed, I started having a lot of thoughts about elitism in academia and the OA notion of making research available to the ‘public’. Part of the reason I think OA will fail (or fail to make a significant impact) is the general requirement that academia be elitist. The academy has always been about elitism. Whatever its publicly stated values are, its existence depends on elitism (and authority).

The notion of the ‘university’, in the European tradition, started way back when education was only for the most privileged of society, the ruling class. They were literally the only ones with the time and money to do this kind of learning. This is something that has largely remained true up until the modern era and the rise of the middle class. But all this means (the inclusion of a middle class) is that the ‘elite’ of higher ed simply expanded somewhat to include more people.

As has been noted, education (in Canada and the US at least) is priced as a luxury good. And even when it isn’t (many European countries offer very low or no tuition) educational products are still priced as luxury goods. As librarians we are keenly aware of this. Indeed, the fact that educational products are luxury goods is exactly what motivates the OA movement.

One of the most interesting elements of OA rhetoric, to me, is the notion of publicly funded research should be available to the public. In a lot of ways, this feels deeply paternalistic to me, since who is considered ‘public’ is rarely ever explored. Nor does it ever seem that the ~public~ has a voice in this discussion. Did the ~public~ ever actually say it wanted access to niche monographs of esoteric subjects? Or did it ever actually claim to want to read high level physics articles?

Another key element to OA is that it relies on the internet. While I could speak to the strangeness of claiming something freely available on the web counts as ‘open access’ when digital divides exist, I’m more concerned about how existing in a networked environment significantly challenges the construction of a ‘public’. Looking at a social network like Twitter, where people are not always using their ~real~ names, how do we coherently say “these are academics” and “this is the public”. When you look at the hashtag #canihazpdf (or #canhazpdf) a lot of the people needing access to research are… academics. Or professional researchers of some kind. Is this the public that OA is hoping to reach?

Part of what I’m getting at here is that the OA focus on making stuff available to the ~public~ appears to be… simple rhetoric for the real problem, which is that libraries can’t actually afford to buy stuff for their research communities any more. This is where my comments about libraries seizing the means of academic production come into play. The real problem is that academic research is a luxury good. Why is it a luxury good? Because the academy is all about elitism. Literally almost everything about how it functions is about supporting this elitism.

This is the rock.

Now for the hard place, the rise of neoliberalism in higher ed. Many have noted how this is a serious and sincere problem for the academy. Unfortunately, as I heard during my brief listen of the opening DLF keynote today, many point to a fictitious ‘golden’ age of higher ed. The speaker, Bethany Nowviskie, pointed out things like the New Deal or the Veterans Act (can’t remember real name), which helped break down some of the class barriers to higher ed in the US.

In looking backwards like this with nostalgia glasses on (and I see this all the time, especially amongst people decrying the apparent dying of the humanities) certain historical realities are erased in an effort to make this significantly more elitist academy appear a better option than the new, neoliberal one of today.

My first thought (which is a frequent thought for me these days) is “a plague on both your houses!”.

The period of time she glowingly mentions was a period in which my parents marriage would have been illegal. I wouldn’t have been allowed to go to school with white people (or, because I’m light skinned, I might have been able to pass as white so long as I was willing to entirely walk away from my pilipin@ heritage and family – providing they’d have even been able to get into America at the time, despite being a colony). Passing would have been my best bet for getting access to higher ed. But then there is the whole trans thing… and, yeah, it gets complicated really fast.

Is looking to past elitism the answer to the neoliberalization of the academy? No.

The academy wasn’t better before neoliberalism. It was just oppressive in a different way. At no point in history has higher ed ever not been oppressive and a site for entrenching social disparity. This is literally one of its main functions.

The commitment to elitism in higher ed is often disguised as ‘rigour’. I have in mind my recent article where I took an ethical stance against citing non-OA resources. I’ve also been recently thinking about maybe trying to do a PhD again, since this whole librarian thing seems to not be working out all that well for me. But when I think about trying to do academics again, I realize that there isn’t any room for someone like me. Not with my current beliefs and ethical feels. Would I be allowed to do a dissertation on research ethics that refused to use non-OA resources? No. Because of ‘rigour’. Could I write a dissertation using mainly blog posts and such as my sources?1 No.

I actually don’t think that the elitism of the past has been subsumed by neoliberalism. Rather, the two fit rather snugly together since part of the function of neoliberalism is to entrench and widen disparities. Which brings us to an academy that prices itself as a luxury, but is marketed as being ‘for everyone’, while creating an entire generation of students with the most education and the most debt.