Reviewing the political terrain


A comment about ‘underhand’ tactics for getting a journal article published made by Blake Ashforth in a recent Art of Writing Theory workshop left me wondering about ‘what constitutes under-handness? And when is under-handness seen as political savvy?

Ashforth told an anecdote about another academic who had submitted a journal article to several A level journals only to have it summarily rejected. Later, as the editor of a special edition of the journal, the academic was able to include his own previously rejected article in the mix of papers. This series of actions was labelled by Ashforth as ‘underhand’ and as I listened to the anecdote I thought it represented a good example of ‘political savvy’. The anecdote suggested to me that the article author had assessed the political terrain regarding his article and his ideas, moved to a position of power and then used that power position to get his article published.

Whether we are aware of it or not, or like it or not, academics operate in a strongly political terrain. Despite rhetoric of openness and nourishment of new ideas, my observations of academic practice over thirty years of working in universities, give me an impression of gatekeeping. The journal publication process is a good example. So many journals require conformity to the style of their journal, which reinforces the traditions. I still remember the freshness I experienced as a would be publisher in the Qualitative Journal, when they not only welcomed the work, they worked with the authors to facilitate publication of the ideas and at the same time not compromise their quality criteria. I now realise that that journal’s approach is not the norm. It becomes difficult for someone with a new idea or a different way of communicating their research to break into the market. What may be commonplace in one discipline may be described as not even research in another. I found this out first hand when a journal article I had written based on a single case study, quite common in writing about research supervision, was rejected as not even research by a journal devoted to research on academic writing.

When I was first exposed to research practice through the culture of action inquiry, I realised very quickly that while there were pockets of active action inquiry in many universities around the world, these were often marginalised. Over time, this changed and now action inquiry has its own journals that are considered A level journals. As I developed as a researcher I learnt to share my work in selected sites, and with my experiential learning work even developed a hierarchy of conference venues at which to share differently developed experiential learning. This knowledge comes with longevity in the culture.

It begs the question as to how a new research student can begin to consider the implications of the political terrain within their discipline when they are still trying to come to terms with the variety of tribes within a discipline. This sort of question and knowledge becomes important when, in inviting the research student to comment on the choice of potential readers or examiners for their work, either at research proposal level or at dissertation level, they may still be quite novice in terms of political awareness. While it is a good idea to include them in the decision making, their knowledge of the potential of each of the readers may be limited or politically naïve.

The role of the academic advisor/supervisor can be quite significant at this point in a research student’s candidature, as the student is reliant on the advisor/supervisor’s knowledge of the political terrain for advice on from whom to seek assistance. Which professors will try to cobble your ideas into something that seems to fit into their own? Which professors have a track record of providing pertinent feedback? Which professors are attempting to champion their own causes, sometimes at the expense of disempowered research students?

The academic advisor/supervisor may also know who in the organisation will champion the work. Who has political clout to help a research student discern their way through the epistemological minefield? Who is a worthwhile member of a panel who can stave off paradigmatically inappropriate questioning?

All of these options fill out the role of the research advisor/supervisor as advocate!


About the (research) supervisor's friend

I work at a university helping university academics who are supervising research students. I am a research supervisor myself and also work as a research coach for people undertaking their research I was originally in a Management Faculty and when I completed my doctoral studies on 'doing a doctorate' I started working with research supervisors to help them improve their practice.
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