Commodification of scholarship

A tendency to attach identity to symbolism manifests throughout the fields of social life. In science education an unfortunate consequence is the commodification of myriad aspects of conduct.

When I made the transition from high school science teacher/curriculum developer to college level science education in 1974 I had encountered research in science education in my role as a curriculum developer in the previous two years. I had accessed this literature because of a felt need to better understand the psychological underpinnings of science curriculum and to identify what scholars had done in a context of an international explosion in the post-Sputnik era of curriculum development and reform. Soon after becoming a lecturer in science and mathematics education I felt a responsibility to expand my scholarly activities through research and dissemination through publication in journals. At this time there was little pressure to publish in journals, and there were few books in science education. This was to change in the next few years, but the change was barely discernible and an increasing volume of publications in science education was a mere trickle compared to the present day torrent.

My personal beginning as far as publication is concerned began in the Curriculum Branch of the Education Department in Western Australia where, for a little over a year my job was to write curriculum guides to assist high school science teachers to enact an inquiry oriented science curriculum. During my time in the Curriculum Branch one of my colleagues suggested that we apply what we had learned from some graduate-level coursework we were doing to write a paper for science teachers concerning "the law and the science teacher." Although this publication was scholarly, it was clearly an extension of the kind of curriculum work we were doing in providing suggestions for teachers to improve the quality of their teaching.

When I became a science and mathematics educator at Graylands Teachers College I was a strong consumer of journal articles and one or two books that were available in science education. I familiarized my students with the literature and I endeavored to communicate to them a sense of responsibility to be aware of what was out there, learn from it, and in considered ways to adapt their professional practices as science teachers. A part of my ongoing role as a college science educator was using the literature in my classes, expanding it to connect with local situations and priorities, and preparing elaborated ideas that incorporated what was in the literature. It was just a natural extension to connect such practices to professional development activities for teachers and search for ways to disseminate beyond those who turned up for seminars and workshops. Accordingly, I utilized journals and newsletters prepared by professional organizations at the state and national levels in Australia before I left to undertake doctoral studies in the United States in 1978.

When I arrived in the United States I was encouraged to publish my best work in three types of journals for: researchers, teacher educators, and teachers. This was presented to me as a professional responsibility and I regarded it as such. Furthermore, I was also taught that it was necessary/highly desirable to review intensively the research in a particular area, synthesizing it for the benefit of others. Back in the late 1970s/early 1980s I learned that publication was an important responsibility for scholars. However, at an informal level there was evidence of competition – especially between institutions in the United States who were seemingly competing in regard to the number of papers being presented at particular national/international conferences. In fact, in 1979 I was acutely aware of this competition when papers I presented at the National Association for Research in Science Teaching conference were required to have a soft cardboard, bright red cover showing my affiliation with the University of Georgia, Science Education Department. It seemed natural and even exciting to join in this competition and to transfer the idea back to Australia when I returned in 1981.

Soon after I took a job at the Science and Mathematics Education Center of the West Australian Institute of Technology, I vividly remember a day when Barry Fraser, our director, requested that we submit a report of our scholarly activity. Since it was the first productivity report most of us had ever submitted is not surprising that many of the listed items would not rank highly. Barry returned "marked up" copies of our reports and we revised accordingly. It was impossible not to compare our relative productivities in terms of these reports and it is probably inevitable that I began to compete. I was determined each time I submitted a productivity report it would have more items on it than the last time. My recollection is that initially the competition reflected personal striving to improve productivity but I am sure there must've been some glancing over my shoulder to make sure that I was at least as productive as everyone else. For me the commodification of productivity was entrenched by 1984.

In those days very few people were aware of the citation index. It was available in various print forms in our library and as a matter of routine I would work my way through it to check to see who was citing my work and whose Key Works were being cited. My primary use of the citation index was to keep in touch with an expanding network of people who found my work useful and engaged in similar research. This was a basis for planning visits to other institutions, communicating via mail, and requesting reprints. However, it was not long before a visiting scholar to my institution remarked that he had reviewed the citations and that my ranking in science education was (as I recall it) in the top five. Perhaps not surprisingly the person reporting to me was at the time ranked at the top in science education and Barry was right just above me. At that point onwards, for me citations were commodified indicators of accomplishment in science education.

A trickle of commodification of indicators of accomplishment in science education signified individual accomplishment, expanded to become benchmarks for comparison among colleagues, and then became criteria for ranking institutions and individuals. The trickle became a steady flow and then a torrent as the number of indicators increased -- annoying bragging about performance became necessary components of productivity reports and requirements for applications for promotion, tenure, new jobs, awards, and documentation of standing within a field. Nowadays symbolic indicators of scholarly accomplishment are ubiquitous. Academic websites routinely report h-index, total citations, citations of the most significant publications, published journal articles, published books, academic awards, total amount of external funding, Fellowships in prestigious organizations, etc. There is no doubt that symbolic indicators, commodifiers of scholarly accomplishment, have become part of a "new normal" in the Academy. Not only are such commodifiers expected when looking at an academic vita or professional website, if they are not there, absence may be construed as a sign of weakness – that the person has something to hide. Commodifiers have become metonymies for scholarly accomplishment and there is a discernible trend for a shift in focus from professional practice for the benefit of science education to professional practice as self-attainment.

An important part of the journal Cultural Studies of Science Education, for which I am co-founding Editor-in-Chief, is a genre of publication that represents the history of science education as lived experience. Consistent with the trend toward commodification has been a tendency to represent academic careers in terms of numbers – indicators that a person has accomplished a great deal without specifying with thick description the nature of those accomplishments. This is a regressive move that in my view is consistent with a problem that relates to identity. It is unfortunate that scholars increasingly identify in terms of commodifiers rather than their contributions that improve the quality of science education in ways that make a difference to the universe, Earth and its inhabitants. Commodification is consistent with self-focus, self-interest, and an inward spiral of representation that is reductive and overly quantitative. In contrast, it seems important to emphasize non-self and constructions/construals of identity. Is it possible that too great a focus on the individual is deleterious to science education?

I was surprised when once or twice I experienced colleagues who refused to be nominated for academic awards. Declination can be seen as an example of not wanting to be attached to signifiers of accomplishment that do not benefit others. In contrast, declination may be construed as elevating oneself "above" those who seek and accept award nominations. Why judge? If somebody makes an offer to nominate somebody else for what they consider to be a well-earned reward, it seems generous to accept nomination in the moment, without attaching to the desire to accumulate such awards. The social violence experienced by the person offering to make the nomination may be greater than that experienced by the person who accepts nomination even though commodification of achievement through awards is not valued highly by that person. Compassion for in the moment may do more good than harm. It seems appropriate to give further thought to ways in which commodification has permeated normality in science education and query whether there is an appropriate balance in the benefits and harms of such commodification.

Kenneth Tobin 2015