Pracademics. Horrible word, interesting concept: people who straddle, however uncomfortably, the worlds of practice and academia. This week, I spent an hour talking through pracademia with fellow pracs Tom Kirk (LSE) and Willem Elbers (Radboud University), who’s editing a Development in Practice double issue on the topic as part of a new initiative to promote pracademia (they were inundated with article proposals – turns out people love talking about themselves. Who knew?)
Some of the stuff we covered:
Personal journey: I’ve moved from activism on Latin America to research and writing on the region, then to the NGOs, working on trade and globalization at CAFOD, DFID and Oxfam, then into academia with my partial shift to LSE 8 years ago. Put another way, a transition from doing stuff, to thinking and writing about it, to teaching. Tom’s moved in the other direction, from a PhD to consultancy for a bunch of aid donors. That highlights the need to unpack the term – there should really be at least 3 blobs: academic, consultant and activist. It also highlights that, at least in our cases, this was never planned, but emerged as our careers developed (see personality flaws, below). It only looks like a deliberate strategy in the rear view mirror.
Theory of Change: Basically repetition + stamina. If you land a similar idea over and over and over again on social media, in talks etc, then it starts to drip feed in. Academics skim it; low level government officials and aid donors skim it. And it starts to be part of that conversation. And yes, it’s very hard to prove attribution. But over the years, I’ve had enough feedback to think that it can work as long as you’re consistent with the messages you’re dropping in.
Late vs early career pracademics: I’ve noticed with the REF impact case studies that a lot of academics become influencers in late career, simply by virtue of becoming better known, getting invited into various conversations etc. Networks take time to build. This seems to happen organically, although I guess you can always refuse to leave the ivory tower. What’s more interesting is early career pracademics, like Willem and Tom, who deliberately set out to live and work between the two worlds. There I would say the key is publishing in multiple different ways is key to gaining recognition and access. I still think books have a cachet other forms lack, but blogs and (increasingly) podcasts can be a short cut. I’ve personally never experienced any benefit from writing/co-authoring an academic paper, although Willem, as a proper academic, says different.
Platform: LSE credentials have opened doors for Tom and I (however unwarranted its reputation), and Oxfam too gets a lot of respect around the world (no, really). Working for both organizations can be exhausting, but there are definite benefits for pracademics in locating themselves somewhere prestigious.
Discomfort: activists are often sceptical of beard-stroking academics, and the feeling is often fully reciprocated. Academics who become ‘media dons’ definitely risk taking a career hit, especially if their discipline prizes research and peer-to-peer conversations over communicating with the great unwashed. It can be quite lonely, which is probably why Tom and I have teamed up and enjoy working together so much (as well as us having very complementary career paths and skill sets – he designs great seminars and can even do budgets 😉). It can also be disorienting, as you have to perform some kind of internal acrobatics as you move between the language and thinking of academia and practitioner
Necessity v Choice: Tom is regularly approached by young academics asking how to get onto the consultancy path, not because they feel a vocation to do so, but to pay the rent. Wages are low and insecure in academia for years after you have done your PhD and start clawing your way up the greasy pole – you need another source of income, especially to live somewhere like London.
Do we need a pracademic career path? Would the system benefit from greater recognition of what pracademics bring to the table? After all, research funders keep asking for proof of impact, which often means ‘send for the pracademics’. But I am sceptical about professionalization, if it means it becomes a less creative, more box-ticking approach (‘damn, got to get involved in another campaign if I want promotion at the end of the year’). I believe pracademia needs discomfort and ambiguity, which is seldom compatible with checklists. How to keep the magic, while supporting the mavericks?
Personality (flaws): Not sure about Tom, but I definitely suffer from some form of Groucho Marx syndrome – wouldn’t want to join any club that would have me as a member. If I get stuck in a conversation where everyone is agreeing with each other, I either switch off or, moth to a flame, feel driven to disagree. To be a pracademic is never to quite belong anywhere – it helps if you find that sort of discomfort stimulating, rather than draining.
And the stuff we should have covered, but didn’t? Is there a special responsibility of pracademics to promote decolonization both within academia and the aid system?
Over to you