Thursday, April 20, 2017

On Shadow Academia

I've been kicking around this notion of "shadow academia" for a couple of years, inspired by the definition of Shadow Cabinet from the British parliament system:

The Shadow Cabinet is a feature of the Westminster system of government. It consists of a senior group of opposition spokespeople who, under the leadership of the Leader of the Opposition, form an alternative cabinet to that of the government, and whose members shadow or mark each individual member of the Cabinet.[Wikipedia]

Shadow Academia as I am coming to conceptualize it describes the activities of a group of academics usually (but not always) outside of the Anglophone Centre (US, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand) whose activities and scholarly output resemble those of the Anglophone centre at a surface level and are done in ways that somehow mimic "traditional" Anglophone-centre academia, but are not recognized by and/or are clearly and deeply sub-par when compared to "traditional" academia. I have to be careful here, because good work can be and is done in shadow academia, but its key feature is mimicry or aspiration to appear to be Anglophone-centre without being so. This is a loose definition that I'm just trying to develop, so bear with me, but I think Shadow Academia includes, on both the student side and the scholar side, what I'd call "para-academic" institutions and practices.

These include, on the scholarly side:

(Potentially) predatory journals and publishers: Much has been written about this, and a colleague and I have a book chapter on the subject out soon, but essentially these are publishers that charge a premium for a rubber-stamped "peer-reviewed" publication. Crucially, these journals/publishers are frequently branded as "international" and are published in English, and the majority of the scholars who publish in them are from the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and Eastern Europe -- places where the requirements for promotion are strict and involve publishing in English-language international journals. Not all these publishers are strictly "predatory" -- many exist in a copacetic and symbiotic relationship with academics in non-Anglophone-centre contexts who need the publication venues and are unable to get published in more "mainstream" journals. Graduate students in the Anglophone centre are often taken in by these publishers, publishing articles in journals that only sound legitimate or publishing dissertations with vanity presses. While these things can help scholars in other contexts, they can damage the careers of people aspiring to work in the Anglophone centre.

Spamferences - Similar to predatory publishers, these are conferences that exist pretty much solely to pad CVs, make money for organizers, and, occasionally, give academics excuses to travel to tourist destinations.

The next two on my list are more student-facing, and rather than mimicking Anglophone-centre practices, they exist in tandem with or in a sort of meta-relationship to Anglophone-centre academic institutions and practices:

Ghostwriting/contract cheating services: These exist in an interesting grey area between legitimate and necessary services like editing and tutoring. Often targeted at international students via flyers on university campuses or social media platforms, these are basically paper-writing services staffed by grad students or out-of-work PhDs who will write pretty much any academic paper, from a short essay to a thesis or dissertation, for a chunk of cash. I can say anecdotally that there's a perception among academic staff that this type of cheating is rampant among international students -- particularly those from China -- in the Anglophone centre. I personally don't believe this, but I've been surprised in the past and hope to do more research on it.

Test prep, study abroad prep, and study abroad agencies -- I mostly know these in a context that involves the Chinese international student diaspora, if you will, though they all exist across the globe. This is basically a para-academic industry focused on prepping students to go abroad. New Oriental is the prime example, but there are myriad businesses with varying degrees of legitimacy and/or shadiness. Some are clearly unethical/illegal -- stories of faking credentials abound -- but others are more ambiguous, like the tutoring/exam prep services advertised at my institution, taught by recent graduates who can provide current students with notes, copies of old exams, etc.

There are probably more businesses that would fit into the rubric of Shadow Academia (holler at me with suggestions), and I'm not sure that all four things listed above all belong in the same general category. But the fact is, these mini-industries would not exist if there were not a huge demand for education and/or scholarly activity that is perceived to have at least the four following allegedly positive qualities:

  • English-medium
  • International
  • "Western"
  • Association with "Highly ranked" universities 
This is what I'm thinking so far. This is more complex than I've had time to get into here, but this is developing. Let me know what you think.