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From thesis to ‘short form’ book

The University and its Boundaries: Thriving or Surviving in the 21st Century

By Eliel Cohen

I am very pleased to contribute a post to Education Matters. Rather than just summarise the book, as I have done briefly on my Twitter page and in a lengthier forthcoming blog post via the Philosophy and Theory of Higher Education Society, I want to briefly reflect on my decision to develop my thesis into a ‘short form’ book (~40,000 words).

The idea for a ‘short form’ book came from my external examiner at the end of my viva. I was intrigued, but unconvinced. Short form books aim to be generally readable and often less dense and detailed than a larger monograph. The idea reminded me of my one attempt at a conference poster. I focused on a specific aspect of my research that lent itself to visual representation and therefore, I thought, to the poster format. But this narrowness prevented me from engaging the audience and communicating the significance of the research. An academic article, although shorter and in some ways more restrictive than a book, seemed a safer publication option, offering clearer expectations. The short form book seemed more akin to the poster format, demanding stronger communication of the broad significance and relevance of the research.

The context of my research was the ‘impact agenda’ — a set of policies and discourses around the idea that all academic research should have demonstrable and measurable ‘impacts’ beyond academia. Drawing on Basil Bernstein, I understood the university as a ‘bounded’ institution which enjoys relative autonomy and a distinctive identity based on its special relation to knowledge. I conducted in-depth analyses of instances of ‘boundary-crossing’ interactions between academic and non-academic actors in the generation of ‘impact’. I wanted to understand these interactions and what they meant for academic boundaries. While my analysis led to a defensible thesis, I didn’t at first see how I would overcome the ‘poster’ problem.

After a few weeks away from the thesis, I was able to adopt a fresh perspective. I realised that my research had meaningful relevance to contemporary normative debates taking place about the university. On one side of these debates, policy developments such as the ‘impact agenda’ represent universities’ thriving — the realisation of their potential and their integration into the knowledge economy. For others, they threaten universities’ survival as autonomous institutions, making them subservient to industry and politics. Writing well before the ‘impact agenda’ proper, Sheffield’s own Jon Nixon and Pat Sikes touched on this debate with their distinction between research with narrow ‘impact’ or ‘influence’, and research with genuine relevance to human activities (in their case, teaching and learning).

In light of such debates, the book became no longer just about details of boundary crossing or academic ‘impact’. Instead, it became about posing the question of whether the university is an institution that is thriving or one that is just, and only just, surviving. The significance of the book lay not just in its findings, but in its approach to bringing empirical evidence to bear on normative questions about the university and its future, and its definition of the ‘thriving’ of universities in terms of striking a balance between crossing boundaries in order to interact with society, whilst also maintaining academic boundaries and autonomy. None of this improved the quality of my research. But it did provide me with a focal point to communicate the significance of my research, and that to me was key to believing I could overcome the ‘poster problem’.

@ElielCohen1

Eliel was awarded his PhD from the School of Education, The University of Sheffield in January 2020.

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Education Matters

Education Matters

Research at the School of Education, University of Sheffield. For more information about us, visit www.sheffield.ac.uk/education.