Recently, I attended a PhD defence at Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR).
Generally, from the little I grasped, it was an interesting and meticulously executed study. By way of rigorous historicisation, it not only explains the intricate political mess behind the manifestations of ethnicity (and mass violence) in the Rwenzori sub-region, but also many other aspects of Uganda’s politics of tribe.
Of course, I was rather uncomfortable with the candidate’s attribution of much of the post-colonial tribal politics to the colonialism that initiated it, somehow vindicating post-colonial ‘leaders’ as only deterministically carrying forth an inherited dirty game that they are not responsible for. It is rather like arguing that we should not put responsibility on people who use guns to cause atrocities, but those that invented the guns.
That said, my key interest here relates to the commonly asked questions regarding research conducted by university students and, sometimes, African academics in general: where do all these studies go?’ Do they ever inform policy in addressing some of the problems that they study?
This question came to mind in view of my general appreciation of the importance of this candidate’s widely researched work and my misgivings about research and publication as performed in African academia.
The candidate’s proposition had been that the Ugandan state should be restructured in such a way that rights are pegged on residence, not tribal belonging. Someone later asked a question with regard to the feasibility of some of the suggestions given by the student to address problems of ‘tribe’ in Uganda.
In response, the candidate stressed that his study should not be viewed as a manual with clearly defined recommendations for practical action. Rather, it should be appreciated as a contribution to understanding the studied problem. Indeed, scholarly work ought not to always be prescriptive. Academics can as well pursue some knowledge for its own sake.
Nevertheless, I still find it rather opportunistic and unjust of the academia to spend a lot of people’s time in interviews, discussions, and workshops, especially in contexts of wide suffering, without seeking to deliberately be part of the solution. From an ethical angle, a person studying phenomena like conflict, hunger, corruption, crime, should be at less liberty to focus on generating knowledge for its own beauty.
A friend of mine in the academia argues that collecting knowledge for its own sake is always a noble thing for academics because we never know when it will become practically useful.
Knowledge in some fields takes a rather long gestation period from publication to utilisation. He points to a number of scholarly works that served no practical purpose in the lifetime of its authors, only to gain prominence much later. More particularly, he mentions Karl Marx’s writings.
That is a plausible argument. But the danger is in many of us in the academia hiding behind such excuses to justify our detachment from the societies we often use as mere means to our ends. It is true that a number of academic studies in Uganda have indeed informed policy and other life-changing interventions.
But, the proportion of useful studies to the bulk of studies conducted in Uganda (however few) strikes as an abnormal one.
It has also been argued that many academics would wish that the knowledge they generate contributes to governance generally and to solving societal problems but that our policymakers are not interested in working with them; that policymakers prefer quick and often populist routes to problem-solving.
Again, this is also half of the truth. It is true that, mostly due to our training, reading is not so much our thing. No wonder that our legislators pass bills that they have hardly understood, ministers sign the same without reading, up to the president. Then they express shock after learning of the content from other sources!
That unfortunate inclination notwithstanding, how much do we try as academics to transitionally tailor our modes of dissemination of knowledge to our circumstances? We still largely privilege scholarly books, book chapters, and journal articles.
Rather absurdly, being scholarly seems to be taken to mean being complicated – difficult to access. We often deploy unnecessary jargon and superfluous vocabulary (what Nigerians call ‘big grammar’).
In effect, sometimes even our peers struggle to understand what we seek to communicate, if any. What about the ‘ordinary person’? Do we, at least, care to use other dissemination modes that include them?
The bigger question in this ‘publish or perish’ drama that we unreflectively mimic from Western academia is: who do we really write for? Consider also that we mostly privilege publishing with ‘high-impact’ journals, most of which are based in Europe and America.
Yet, ironically, apart from a few open-access ones, most of our people cannot access these journals’ subscription fees. But it matters less, if at all, in our promotion processes if our immediate communities can access our work. What matters is how much we are producing, and the ‘international’ prestige of the outlets.
It is close to madness that it does not really bother us when a Ugandan full professor can have up to 30 journal articles to his name, of which less than three per cent are locally accessible and read.
We operate within an international knowledge production system where, if we are to uncritically play by all ‘international’ rules of the game and our locally self-alienating publication ranking politics, we shall continue publishing for the dump and to be irrelevant to our communities.
Not until there are deliberate institutionally-driven changes against this violence, those that try to practically defy this madness will either be beaten back to the sheep flock or defined out of academic existence. And many African academics will continue to appear like huge street light poles holding torches facing the sky.
The author works with the Center for African Studies at Uganda Martyrs University, Nkozi.