From the Editors’ Desk: Is it that our sex lives are too good?!

 We’d intended this post to go up before the response from Davydd Greenwood.  Here’s the From the Editor’s Desk related to AR and Higher Education from Hilary:

“I have been pondering the apparent lack of engagement of action researchers in creating space inside academia for action research. It seems we do action research in spite of academic culture and don’t much question this. Is this resignation or an intelligent re-focus of energies? The question is on my mind because in my own field of organization behavior, the academy of management gives an annual award around this time of year to the best action research paper. The award is given through the Organization Development and Change division. Being in a position to help decide who receives the award, it is noticeable how little competition there is. That is not to say that the quality is low, but that it is safe to suspect that action researchers in management don’t send their papers to the Academy of Management! At least not any more. In fact I don’t! My own most recent publication is in Leadership Quarterly, hardly a bastion of action research – though all my work informs and is informed by an action research experience (I promise!). If I look at my own motivations I see that I bifurcate my attention – academic publication is a way to “get stuff out there.” I have been socialized (programmed) to think that’s important. Maybe it is. My more energy-focused action research endeavors (keynotes, presentations, graduate education, writing for specials issues etc) is a way to be in conversation with my real colleagues, those actually working with practitioners in ways that make change. Nothing is more lovely than hearing from someone in a far flung part of the universe that ideas developed by me and colleagues have been picked up because they are useful. To make a difference is a longing of the human heart. Is getting published a longing of the human ego? I don’t know. To tell the truth, I no longer believe that academic publications are useful to anyone except the ones publishing them. So do I not also play my part in this quiet resignation that has settled over academics in the face of efficiency maximizing universities and ranking chasing pressure in the mainstream? Action research is misunderstood and ignored, except by those for whom it matters. And it matters to me that it matters to them. As I have written about in my essay “What is good action research,” action research attracts relatively more ‘multidimensional’ people who seem less driven to perform to external measures. (My real theory is that action researchers have more interesting lives than their quietist colleagues and find their approbation away from traditional accountings — better sex lives keep us busy too no doubt ;). But doesn’t our widespread resignation also reflect the distance between the significant role that universities could play (they are still respected, despite the price gouging) and the self interestedly low horizons they have come to serve.

As editor I notice how many fewer responses to a call for papers on ‘developing contribution through action research dissertations’ there were when compared with those that came in to a call for healthcare related papers or the use of arts or theory building. The latter topic – theory building, suggests that it’s not that AR’ers aren’t interested in scholarship per se (not that I ever doubted it myself!). When discussing this observation with a colleague he responded, based on many years of experience, that too many action researchers are happier taking potshots at higher education than in doing any serious analysis. Many practitioners self-define as marginal to higher education or opponents of the “patriarchal”, “exploitative” institutional systems. We agreed that this may sound good – academia is a bit of a money making hussle (!), but simply stating so doesn’t change anything for the better. We are, after all, action researchers, isn’t more is expected of us? And is there really a point in claiming superiority over academic colleagues while leaving the academy untouched. The result is self-perpetuated marginality combined with a self-satisfied attitude.
So how to respond to this dilemma? Who is the community for even thinking about this with? Perhaps I am posing an unresolvable question, one unresolved in my heart. I see my CBPR colleagues at medical school perfectly happy to do their important work, ditto so many colleagues in education where AR is the norm, and ditto the sprawling NGO world where AR is alive and brilliant. If our readership of ARJ show so interest in “AR in higher education,” per se, then is publishing on the subject in our journal tantamount to burying the work? Given the reality of moribund social sciences (compared with the excitement and resources that flow to the harder sciences) should we just give up even imagining higher education as potentially emancipatory? This allows us save our energy to do what we can, using it simply as a conduit to where “real life” is lived, mainly outside academia. Rilke says to hold the unresolved questions in our hearts. But I invite your comments.