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PENNING: Being an academic means keeping it real

• Jan 10, 2019 at 3:00 PM

What is an “academic”? I ask the question because I’ve heard several people use the term recently in ways not entirely flattering. I ask the question because I am an academic.

Several times in the past six months, I’ve heard adjunct or part-time professors describe themselves by saying “I’m not an academic.” I thought maybe they were humbly making a distinction between themselves and full-time faculty, or that they teach but do not do any research that is typical of a full-time, tenure-track professor.

I remember wondering why they would say they are not an academic. After all, they were speaking in the context of teaching in a college setting. One definition of “academic” as a noun is a “teacher or scholar in a college or institute of higher education.”

But as these people kept talking, I sensed that they had a negative view of academics. Even though the definition said teacher or scholar, they considered themselves to be teaching, not scholars. They also considered the way they taught, or their pedagogy, to be better than the way they assumed an “academic” would teach.

So, I realized that what we have here is an extension of the stereotype of academics that goes along with elbow patches, tweed jackets and a pipe to smoke. (I have none of those, by the way.) They see “academics” as being lost in thought, dealing in abstraction, far removed from reality.

In the same way, we have a popular expression that refers to something being an “academic exercise.” This means something akin to stroking one’s chin and talking about how things might be versus discussing actual experience.

That’s what these self-professed “non-academics” were referring to. When they teach, they stressed, they made students apply it to the “real world.” And for some reason, they assumed scholars don’t have students apply what they learn. But, I and nearly every professor I know in my field, across the country, does this. In my program, we have numerous projects students do with client organizations across the region. They are absolutely applying what they learn. It’s called “experiential learning.” In my program, we help about 70 community organizations per year. It’s real.

But the key to applied learning is — what are students applying? There is a notion of learning by doing, or learning on the go. But, in that model, they only know what they know and they don’t know what they don’t know. Another term for learning by doing is training. Education goes beyond practicing skill and involves understanding concepts, not just what or how to do something but why, and what will result.

There are different ways of knowing and learning. One, and only one, is personal experience. But significant learning happens with the combined experiences of others, many others, over long periods of time.

I like to say that personal experience — by the student or shared by a professor — provides what scholars call “validity.” It actually is this way.

But, how can we know that one experience is the same experience as everyone else, or would be the same if the same person went to another context? We can only know that from observation of others, through research. That provides what is called “generalizability.”

Another way of thinking of this is theory and practice. Non-academics also speak disdainfully about theory, again perceiving it to be abstract and not real. Well, there are good and bad theories. There is also good and bad practice. And there are different kinds of theories. Normative theory stresses how things should be and what we should aspire to. Critical theory is based on reason. Empirical theory is based on observations. Good theory can come from any method, and is characterized by following rigorous methods. Empirical theory in particular has the value of enabling us to explain and predict with confidence natural phenomenon and human behavior.

In that sense, theory is more real than real-world situations, more practical than one person’s experience. And, if one applies theory to practice, the chances of success are much greater. In my program, our motto is the integration of theory and practice. Theory informs practice, and our teaching. And practice informs theory, and our teaching. It reminds me of a story my father-in-law tells of an old friend who commented on suspenders and a belt — you need them both for things to hold up.

So, academics live and work in reality. When I study donor reactions to nonprofit communication, it is based on large samples of actual donors. When I study factors that lead to high-performing corporate communications teams, it is based on real CCOs (corporate communications officers) at top companies. When I study the public relations of American presidents, it is based on biographies and primary sources like diaries and public communications. It’s all real. If I made anything up, I wouldn’t get published and I would likely lose my job.

So, as a new semester began this week, I’m thinking about the question of what is an academic. I don’t see this as an academic question in the pejorative sense. Rather, it is an academic question the way I see it — a good and interesting question with significant educational value, a way to explain reality.

A collection of columns by Tim Penning, Ph.D., is in the book “Thoughts on Thursdays,” available at The Bookman.

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