We know the key roles of a university professor as teaching, research, and community engagement.
The research role involves advancement of knowledge, which is then passed on either for practical usage or simply in adding to our understanding of things – even though there may neither be practical nor immediate use with the generated ideas. Ideas of some only get to use way after their death.
Up until the 1990s, when you mentioned a professor, one of the things that would come to the mind of people would be an image of someone who has researched and produced some considerable body of knowledge/ innovation. At the minimum, one at least expected a comprehensive book with the thoughts of the professor.
Such a text, especially in the humanities and social sciences, would be of some volume stretching up to above 200 pages. This would allow a detailed take/analysis on an issue. Of the old Ugandan professors like Ali Mazrui, Ssemakula Kiwanuka, Mahmood Mamdani, Dani Nabudere, Tarsis Kabwegyere, A. B. K. Kasozi, Phares Mutiibwa, Gingyera-Pinchwa, Lwanga Lunyiigo, Livingstone Walusimbi, and many others, their names mainly live on through the books they wrote. If one asked in academic circles; do you know Prof Kabwegyere?
The response could have been: ‘you mean the one who wrote a book about state formation in Uganda?’ A number of people who are not familiar with the dynamics within our universities have often asked: What changed? If you throw a stone into a group of Ugandan professors, you will most likely hit one without a single serious book in their names.
In my view, it has been a number of reasons, but I will mainly focus on the structure of incentives in the neoliberal university promotion system. My argument is that, except if one chose not to focus on quick promotion through academic ranks, promotion systems in many of our universities practically discourage writing books.
Most academics have accordingly concentrated on writing journal articles and book chapters as the quickest route to promotion. You will, therefore, easily find a professor with up to 20 journal articles scattered here and there, but no book.
In the promotion scales of many universities in Uganda (and other African countries), a scholarly book, regardless of its depth and volume, is equivalent to three journal articles. Note that it might take a minimum of about three years to accomplish a well-researched book and take it through the necessary editorial rigour.
On the other hand, if one sets their targets and priorities well, they can publish up to two or three journal articles in a year. It becomes even easier where academics co-author papers, sometimes in mischievous syndicates where they agree for each to singly write a paper but indicate names of others on them.
This is especially common in the natural sciences. If we are three in a syndicate, and each writes a paper on which all our names are included as co-authors, we each have three papers at ago (including those we haven’t contributed to). If I am able to author two others on my own, then I will be having five in one year – way ahead of the colleague writing a book in four years.
Journal articles have the advantage of coming out relatively faster and, therefore, ideal for disseminating knowledge about quickly changing realities, and sometimes as test grounds for ideas to be later expanded into books. They are also a good outlet for ideas that may not be wide enough to constitute a book.
Articles are as well cheaper in terms of publication charges, since many authentic journals actually publish for free. My aim is, therefore, not to discredit journal papers per se. We have to note, though, that many of the journals that are ranked highly require subscription fees or may charge readers per paper.
Behind all guises, they are capitalistically run as businesses. While our universities may subscribe to some journals, many are left out because of cost. More so, some of our universities that pay subscription fees do not allow the wider public to access their journal databases.
Because most journals today are only available online (not to be found in print in bookstores and libraries), the knowledge our professors produce gets locked away from local publics. Many who would still be willing and able to read their work cannot access most of it. At least the book could be found in some of our university libraries (we strangled the public ones) or bought by those who can afford.
Ironically, the online articles are sometimes more expensive than books in print. The other question then would be, beyond teaching, of what local meaning is our professorship? This question becomes even more critical in light of the trend of many of our professors being withdrawn from public engagement where their knowledge is much needed in solving some of our challenges.
Why would we continue privileging the production of knowledge through outlets that exclude our people and at the same time tolerate the local silence of our academics in popular media? Most of our university promotion criteria are in imitation of Western ‘universals’, often rendering academics locally irrelevant.
Forms of knowledge dissemination that favour our publics are practically despised and relegated to the periphery of promotion requirements. The absurd aping of the West that we see in other areas of our lives as well shapes our university traditions with the result of self-alienation. It is currently a journal article publication race.
All that the promoting authorities do with regard to publication is to count articles and check their ‘authenticity’. The idiom still remains ‘publish or perish’, but the flourishing is mostly in titles and earning – hardly with relevance. One can only think about relevance and writing a book after getting to the top of the academic ladder, often when exhausted.
The author is a teacher of philosophy.