The usual line of praise offered for crowdfunding is that it allows for those whose interests aren’t catered to by the culture industries to see their desired products come to market, and this seems to me, indeed, to be praiseworthy. That praise is, however, mitigated by the way in which all this takes place within the realm of consumption—while it may add diversity to the offerings of the culture industries, it does not add diversity to the modes of engagement available to the fan; as a funder, she still has no voice in production or content. Worse yet, she stands to reap no return on her investment; she is treated as a consumer rather than an investor, although she is called a funder. This allows the culture industries to treat crowdfunding as no-risk speculative market valorization of the long tail of niche consumptive interests.
Funding of scholarly work—in the humanities at least, and most of the social sciences—is not subject to these criticisms based on economic justice. The products of crowdfunding research are not profit-oriented or integrated into profit-oriented enterprises. But who are the fans? What scholarly work do they silently call out for, waiting for an academic to reach proper funding in order to give their academic interests voice?
For the most part, academics struggle more to interest publics in work already being conducted and made available, when academics attempt to interest the public at all. There are exceptions, such as Open Court’s Popular Culture and Philosophy series, which books are sold in regular bookstores nationwide, but for the most part academic research is not a product that finds waiting demand in the marketplace. Even students must often be blackmailed through quizzes and exams in order to force them to read the materials they (or their parents) have paid to learn.
I’m not convinced, however, that this is due to a lack of interest—perhaps we could say, adapting Kierkegaard’s comments in The Sickness Unto Death on despair which does not know it is despair, that the public has a form of interest that it does not know is an interest. Do we not—again, in the humanities at least, and most of the social sciences—make studies of just those sorts of things which the public finds compelling in films and novels; op-eds and magazine articles; online forums and blogs? The mode of engagement and presentation is different, to be sure, but we mustn’t make the mistake of thinking that the problem is public disinterest in our work.
The problem can be addressed from one end by improving access and visibility of academic work to the public. We too often publish our work with large academic publishers who require exorbitant access fees which effectively require university affiliation to provide access. We may be surprised to find how much of the public will choose to come in, if we only open the door. This may be a small minority, but crowdfunding works on the long tail, so this should be no barrier.
On the other end there are actions which may be taken as well, not by opening the door to the public, but by entering the agora ourselves. The barrier here is in academic incentive structures: tenure and promotion processes do not usually highly value public engagement, and publications for a general audience are usually tossed out of the research into the service category, clearly the least valued column in faculty portfolios. The way we have defined scholarly excellence as virtually entailing disconnection from public discourse is surely a part both of the public’s misperception of disinterest in our work, as well as the increasing funding cuts which follow from not-baseless perceptions of our work’s irrelevance.
The very reasons why crowdfunding scholarly work seems doomed are the same for the sake of which it should be pursued. We should reform our professional expectations in order to valorize public engagement; we should reform our publication choices in order to increase access and impact; we should facilitate the public’s realization that they do care about the work we are doing, and that it does have value for life and not just for research. In my own field, it may be some time off that crowdfunding would be able to support progressive research in political philosophy in the same sort of way that conservative and religious foundations support philosophers who work on moral character and family values, but this seems to be something we should strive for, both in the name of academic freedom and diversity, and in the service of the good of society. In other areas, we can see opportunities already, and opportunities missed: Anita Sarkeesian found crowdsourced funding for her Tropes vs. Women in Video Games video series; could not the same have been done by academic game studies scholars?
For the silent masses to find voice in scholarship, philosophers must become public, or the public must adequately philosophize.
Facilitating Public Interest in Academic Research
Thank you for a thoughtful post, one that offers perspective from a humanities-oriented position. I appreciate your point about research in the humanities and much of the social sciences not being profit driven; further, such research doesn't typically have a monetary impact on the public. The disconnection between academic scholarship and public engagement to which you refer is so engrained in the culture of the academy and tenure, etc., that it feels nearly an insurmountable effort to shift the tide. But, rather than bemoan the situation further (no need to rehash a "what counts" conversation), I want to focus more on your call-to-action to "facilitate the public’s realization that they do care about the work we are doing, and that it does have value for life and not just for research."
I want to think about this idea more concretely in terms of how crowdfunding can be leveraged to persuade the public that academic scholarship has "value for life and not just for research." In her contribution to this Field Guide survey, Deb Verhoeven mentions just briefly the "attribution of agency to the public" and "community relevance" as relates to crowdfunding academic research. Not that anyone is arguing this, but I don't think that by virtue of positioning the public to play a role in deciding what humanities-based project is relevant and of interest will automatically equate to increased public interest. Though, researchers may, indeed, "be surprised to find how much of the public will choose to come in" if given the opportunity to participate. I guess I'm still hung up on how we make this persuasive case and how crowdfunding factors in beyond giving the public a role in the research process.
I find myself coming back to this question of which "public" are we talking about? It's such a large, all encompassing word word. Does it not bring us back to the question of "who are the fans?" There are obviously contexts and audiences to be considered. If an artist wants to produce a new album, she'll probably have a pretty good idea of her target audience and what they care about and what she needs to do/say to generate interest, value, buzz, and, ultimately, funding. Humanities-based research might not be profit-driven (in the most literal sense of what we mean by profit), but it certainly produces a product. When we say public, do we simply refer to non-academics who might be the same people who'd, say, pick up a copy of Open Court’s Popular Culture and Philosophy series? I wonder if that public, that audience, isn't already persuaded of the value of the philosopher's work.
I'm also wondering how we prevent a consumptive model where the funder "stands to reap no return on her investment." Clearly this returns us to the assertion that humanities research isn't profit-driven; in other words, the researcher(s) doesn't crowdsource funding for a project with the end goal of profiting off it. However, I wonder if there are different ways of defining profit that should be acknowledged, and how can we ensure that what is produced and contingent upon crowdsourced funds does, actually, provide value? How is that measured?
Dr. Wittkower, thanks for the
Dr. Wittkower, thanks for the post. I'd like to briefly address crowdfunding's potentially transformative role in the more broad academic culture.
Your thoughts, along with Robin Wharton's, emphasize the problematic role/obstacles presented by the institutional side of this dynamic. That is, while crowdfunding..in the ideal sense, can be thought to provide a new opportunity for researches to gain more access to funds, and through this opportunity, perhaps motivate academics to "reform professional expectations in order to valorize public engagement," there is still the need to locate the crowdfunding model in relation to the institutional/administrative millieu which I would suggest plays a large part in the need for large scale reform in the first place. There seems to be a recognition amongst my peers and colleagues of an obstinate, slow to adjust, bureaucracy, which you address in your entry: "The barrier here is in academic incentive structures: tenure and promotion processes do not usually highly value public engagement, and publications for a general audience are usually tossed out of the research into the service category, clearly the least valued column in faculty portfolios." Further, and no less important, the culture alluded to in the above statement also has a hold on academics themselves which works against an ideal institutional environment of which crowdfunding could be a productive part.
Thus, there seems to be a multi-layered dimension which potentially serves to work against an institutional/cultural reform which seems necessary if crowdfunding is to become a viable, and more importantly, recognizable form of academic production which can be added to a student's C/V or professor's tenure file. I'm afraid this response might come off a bit too pessimistic, and to be sure, the fact that are having this discussion is perhaps a initial step in the right direction. As Deb Verhoeven's post points out, there can be success via crowdfunding academic projects.
Although, perhaps academics need to recognize a common goal in moving forward, whether it be one that seeks to utilize crowdfunding model within the institutional framework and adjust that model to meet the demands of universities, or, a perhaps a more radical goal...to use crowdfunding as a tool to bring a disruption to the culture which you and Robin Wharton recognize, that is, to use crowdfunding as a step in substantially altering the landscape in hopes of, as you put it, "support(ing) progressive research in political philosophy in the same sort of way that conservative and religious foundations support philosophers who work on moral character and family values, but this seems to be something we should strive for, both in the name of academic freedom and diversity, and in the service of the good of society."
You do bring up a very
You do bring up a very interesting point with your statement that "...students must often be blackmailed through quizzes and exams in order to force them to read the materials they (or their parents) have paid to learn". As it it something that I have witnessed in my classes throughout my education that there are those that can't be bothered to read the material unless they are being quizzed on it. As such it makes the rest of the class difficult and awkwardly silent when questions pertaining to that reading are asked. It showcases the possible missing link that is letting students connect to the reading or the subject the class is pertaining to; an item of supply and demand if you will.
Adding in your question "What scholarly work do they silently call out for, waiting for an academic to reach proper funding in order to give their academic interests voice?" along with the obvious struggle of the interest it shows that Crowdfunding can be helpful or hurtful in the academic world. Similarly, the same can be said for those that are creating their own albums or inventions with crowdfunding sources but then shows that you didn't know you wanted said product until it can potentially be supplied to you.
The addition of crowdfunding to academics can increase the visibility of the studies that are being conducted, increase interest in those subjects, and continue to reap the benefits from those practices.
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