Some academics are seen as more proper than others

How should we discuss the role and significance of academics with practical experience? Jill Dickinson, Teri-lisa Griffiths, Monika Foster and Steve Johnson take the debate on “pracademics” further

Jill Dickinson is Reader in Law at Leeds Beckett University

Teri-lisa Griffiths is Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Sheffield Hallam University.

Monika Foster is Professor of Business Education at Northumbria University

Steve Johnson is Professor of Business and Innovation at Leeds Trinity University

The phenomenon of the “pracademic” – academics with professional practice experience – has received considerable attention in recent months.

A Washington Post article, with the aim of introducing the term to a wider audience, praised the contribution of academics with experience of practice.

And the article stimulated a Wonkhe article that questioned the value of labelling colleagues in this way:

The label itself could potentially lead to – or indeed add to – divisiveness and hierarchy in the academy… This separation implies an oversimplified dichotomy that could undermine the legitimacy of “traditional academics” and contribute to an unhealthy competition, rather than fostering collaboration and mutual respect.

The argument was that labels such as “pracademic” can be divisive and unhelpful. Yet similar arguments are rarely made about categories that refer to colleagues’ gender, ethnicity, sexuality, career stage, (dis)ability or many other characteristics that make up the incredibly diverse world of academia – like “early career researchers”, “black professors”, or “disabled academics”.)

Just like other labels, the term “pracademic” is not universally recognised as being helpful – some of the critiques levelled against the term include that it is “elitist” and “highbrow”.

But there is no doubt that it is a clear way of describing a distinct group of academics, who share similar experiences related to their transition and acculturation into academia.

It is commonplace and perfectly legitimate, in our view, to celebrate the diverse contributions made by our community – while acknowledging the barriers faced by many of our colleagues – and this is precisely our argument in relation to pracademia.

A useful categorisation

In a volume edited by two of the current authors, 29 contributors – many of whom identify personally with the term “pracademic” – recount a wide range of experiences and put forward many helpful proposals to address issues faced by colleagues whose career trajectories are not “traditional” or linear.

Some examples from the volume include the following:

  • Mark Ellis shares that after an initial period of being anxious to convey theory to his students in line with his “established scholarly colleagues […] what soon became apparent within my teaching was the value of analogies built from my experiences”.
  • Helen Taylor advocates for pracademics to engage with professional networks beyond the academy to “enable them to recognise the multiple elements of their identity as positive”.
  • In her chapter, which reports on research with pracademics, Funmi Obembe notes how many universities do not acknowledge previous professional experience during academic recruitment or through progression pathways. She calls for universities to expand the diversity of their career progression pathways.

The overwhelming message is that “pracademic” is a useful category to describe a variety of experiences, with the common feature being the challenges faced by those who do not possess the qualifications, or have not begun to develop a profile, expected of the “proper” academic – doctoral qualifications, publications, research grants, PhD supervision experience, teaching qualifications and so on.

This can lead to disillusionment, limited career progression and – most significantly – systematic undervaluing of the contribution to research, teaching and engagement of this key group of colleagues.

At the same time, universities wish to demonstrate their societal impact, and collaboration with, and contribution to, industry is one of the ways they can achieve this. The high-quality research and inquiry which inform programmes of study, and the impact of this research, are celebrated in the literature and national awards.

Rather than shutting the door or self-limiting their academic progression, pracademics are advocating for universities to make room for diverse expertise.

It can of course be unhelpful to assign an umbrella label to a diverse group of colleagues, and we certainly do not set out to make value judgements about the positives and negatives of “pracademia”, and we should welcome the amazing diversity of our colleagues.

But we should question the idea that discussing the role and significance of pracademics is somehow divisive in a way that might downplay the role of “proper” academics.

Developing a truly “porous” academy – and reaping, re-appraising, and re-applying its benefits for research and teaching – requires that current barriers to making “room for everyone’s talents” be addressed as a matter of urgency.

8 responses to “Some academics are seen as more proper than others

  1. We academics can spend a lot of time discussing words. The focus on whether we use “pracademics” takes focus away from the actions needed to support and reward academics with practice experience and a practice focus: career pathways and routes to promotion, evaluation frameworks that are set out and used in a similar way to teaching or research focused academics, amongst others. In my experience once you’ve promoted a significant number of practice-focused academics to professorial level, things start to look a lot different.

  2. Spare us experienced academics, like myself with vast experience of practice from ‘othering’ terms like ‘pracademic’. Such labels speak to the inherent snobbery in the sector. I say it loud, I’m out and I’m proud! (to be a ‘pracademic’).

  3. There is an underlying and unacknowledged issue in higher education- the failure to conceptualise practice knowledge. Within academia there is a casual assumption that formal, disciplinary knowledge is superior to all other forms of knowledge so anything else is simply non formal. Which is ironic given the amount of practice knowledge we have which enables us to run universities. Practitioners who come to the academy to teach and research are acutely aware of the difference but we lack the means to express it except by reference to personal experience

  4. Having come to academia from industry and government, I ordinarily approach research and teaching asking myself, ‘how does this work make a practical difference’. In the meantime, the tendency for career academics to privilege theory development and pedagogical discourses without considering the pragmatic difference this makes is concerning, especially when it come to understanding the deliverables to students, which often means employment outcomes.

    Don’t get me wrong, I think theorising and pedagogical integrity are important. But when academics see this as the be all and end all, it speaks to the urgency for them to get out of the ivory tower.

  5. Frankly however good the academic if they are teaching on a vocatonal course it is an affront to students who signed-up on a course which promises high employability rates if that lecturer does not have deep academic experience. Increasibngtlyn in my profession that of public relations (PR) there are academics who have never worked as a PR practitioner, or if they have it was in a junior position. I ask you would you be happy to fly on a plane with a pilot who had a first class honours degree pr masters in avionics, but who had never taken the controls of an aircraft? No, of course not. Then why is it acceptable for academics with no practical exprience of the subject they are teaching? For example, I have read books written n crisis communications I have read several textbooks on issues and crisis communications by worthy academics who have never been involved at the sharp end of a crisis.

    1. This is a flawed and frankly dated belief about the convergence of scholarship and practice in the field of risk, issues, and crisis communication. Unfortunately, I have seen it articulated too often in the US & UK where it does a disservice to the increasingly recognized need for building bridges between scholarship and practice to improve evidence-based decision making. The stakes are simply too high in the risk and crisis context to ‘wing it’. This is reflected in several ways… This is why the global download figures for field’s ONLY dedicated journal – the Journal of International Crisis & Risk Comm Research – tell us that our primary audience are practitioners, not academics. This is why, as early as 2016, I have seen practitioners rightly critique theory development in the field as too descriptive & not predictive enough (& why modern theory buildin in the field is very much about prediction). This is why there are more & more events designed to build bridges between the communities. This is why some great research is being produced by the proper BIG firms (& why they come to conferences for knowledge sharing). And this is why many organizations seek to improve practitioner/academic collaboration. There are always challenges with this because of the realities of both practice and academic, but when the WHO – Europe created the technical advisory group on risk communication, community engagement, and infodemic management they wanted academics side-by-side with practitioners because this collaboration drives evidence-led response. So, the distinction that you’re drawing between research & practice is simply dated.

      But let’s also address the assertion you make that you’ve read too many textbooks by ‘worthy academics’ who’ve never been involved at the sharp end of a crisis? Whose books? Any of we academics who have written textbooks in risk/issues & crisis communication have experience and the sharp end and for the most part always have. For example, Robert Heath who’s a foundational scholar in risk & issues management consulted within the oil & gas industry (among others) for years. Matthew Seeger has a great deal of experience in applied crisis response across contexts and industries. Tim Coombs has consulted and has a lot of applied work. Tim and Deanna Sellnow have a myriad of experience in practice. Finn Frandsen & Winni Johansen have been working in/with practice for years. Andreas Schwarz works in collaboration with industry. The list goes on — Glenn Cameron, Bryan Reber Brooke Fisher Liu, Yan Jin, Lucinda Austin, Amisha Mehta, me… we all have significant applied experience and are all researchers. For some the pathway into practice was being that junior academic whose research was strong enough to begin collaborating in practice. For some it was work in industry that brought us to academia. And for some it was a simultaneous combination of both sets of expereinces that informed our choices. Why? Because risk & crisis communication is and has always been an applied field. Frankly Robert, your belief is fundamentally flawed and you should know better because in your recent experience at LBU most of us who taught the class had significant experience in the field — whether you knew it or not. And saying that junior staff who have limited experience in practice shouldn’t be teaching applied classes makes as much sense as saying people with only practical experience and limited formal education shouldn’t be teaching it because each only has half of the requisite knowledge or skills. Those junior academics & ‘pracademics’ bring value to the classroom in different ways and by doing their job, so shame on you for trying to publically shame academics of any kind.

  6. It is an affront to students who signed-up on a vocational course, which promises high employability, if at least a few of the lecturers teaching on those courses do not have deep practical experience of the subject they are teaching.

    Increasingly in my profession, that of public relations (PR), there are academics who have never worked as PR practitioners, or if they have it was in junior positions or many years ago. There are students returning from a yeatr-out in industry between their second and final years whgo realise once they get back into the classroom that the lecturer they had in front of them say teaching issues abnd crisis managemnent is out of touch and out of date. That’s frankly unacceptable given the fees that students pay on a typical three/four year degree course fopr their tuition and housing – enough to buy a house in Yorkshire or a Ferrari Portofino M.

    I ask you would you be happy to fly on a plane with a pilot who had a first class honours degree in avionics, but who had never taken the controls of an aircraft? No, of course not. Then why is it acceptable for academics with no practical exprience of the subject they are teaching to lecture students on that subject for a career in that profession?

    1. Public Relations is not a purely ‘vocational course’ at a BA or MA level — by design. Courses in strategic communication, PR, and all things related have three components — knowledge (theory) development, applied skill development, and experiential development. People properly trained in course development (single class or overall course of study) will understand that the self and response efficacy required to be ’employable’ and to be a great practitioner requires developing the knowledge and skills in a variety of ways. There’s a whole science of learning thing behind it (I’d suggest seeing Albert Bandura’s work as a starting point). Does that mean in a single class you have to cover all bases? Of course not. But across a course in pretty much any of the applied social science and business fields, all three types of knowledge are needed. When courses fail to deliver one of those three components, that’s the point at which they’re in trouble. So, that pilot that you were talking about — do they log a lot of hours in the cockpit to get pilot qualified? Yep. But they have to develop the underlying knowledge to fly and a lot of that knowledge comes from research and researchers in avionics — you know… nerds in lab coats who have never been in a cockpit.

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