Digital professors as critical thought leaders

Professors should embrace the digital transformation of higher education but eschew the commercial interests that will inevitably come with it, argues Markus Giesler 

July 8, 2018
students use laptops
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Most discussions about the digital transformation in higher education take a decidedly pro-market view. As the old models of intellectual contribution are being disrupted, their authors argue, professors must proactively use social media technology to become powerful thought leaders.

It is easy to see how this makes perfect sense. Digital professors can do much more for their universities because they manage bigger platforms and can attract more students, practitioners, donors and journalists to their institutions.

Fully fledged digital professors are not only good researchers and teachers. They are also fundraisers, student recruiters, career consultants and social media influencers – all in one body.

My own experience over the years, however, leads me to make the opposite case: digital transformation understood in this manner is symptomatic of a problematic neoliberal push in our universities – to use research ideas to uncritically legitimise and extend moneyed interests.

I strongly encourage young professors to do whatever they can to avoid precisely that.

A good starting point for understanding my perspective is historian David Sessions’ recent New Republic article on the rise of the thought leader. Sessions builds on political scientist Daniel W. Drezner’s much-lauded critique of the so-called ideas industry, a marketplace of ideas in which the traditional public intellectual has been supplanted by a new model: the thought leader.

Public intellectuals, Sessions writes, traffic in complexity and criticism. Thought leaders burst with the evangelist’s desire to “change the world”. Yet whereas in Drezner’s view these two types of thinker balance each other out, Sessions argues, and I agree, that our current university landscape largely privileges the latter.

Every day, business school professors like myself are urged to promote elite narratives such as corporate social responsibility, nudging, mindfulness or resilience. Those narratives, according to a study that I co-authored with my Schulich colleague assistant professor of marketing Ela Veresiu, redefine systemic problems as individual mindset issues.

By shifting responsibilities for social and economic problems away from corporations and government institutions and towards individual consumers, these and other narratives reinforce the social and economic status quo.

Unsurprisingly, there is a huge marketplace of ideas, conferences and thinktanks for status-quo reinforcing research – whether it concerns chronic illness, poverty, global warming or financial well-being.

Critical sociologists such as David Harvey have long demonstrated that, once neoliberal knowledge and goals become embedded in everyday culture, even institutions that wouldn’t identify as neoliberal will invariably perpetuate neoliberal principles: entrepreneurship, privatisation, financialisation, individualisation of risks.

These principles are today so commonplace that the university, as the cultural critic Henry Giroux argues, “now narrates itself in terms that are more instrumental, commercial and practical”.

For this reason, the challenge in becoming a digital professor is not finding an audience of interested readers. The real challenge is withstanding the temptation of letting neoliberal agendas compromise your scholarship’s rigour, complexity and criticism. The real challenge, in other words, is not becoming a thought leader.

However, Sessions also takes his valuable critique too far. It is easy to see how the thought leader model is flawed, especially in business schools. But when all thought leader techniques – such as doing a research talk in a TED format, creating a blog that speaks to business practitioners or adopting a thinktank structure for a research lab – are automatically framed as surrenders to corporate influence, we also give young professors a false choice between being critical and being digital.

One of the most unexpected things that I have learned by doing many of these things – often under the critical gaze of my outreach-sceptical baby-boomer colleagues – is how much digitally enhanced critical research can influence the corporate agenda, and how much these digitally enhanced dialogues can, in turn, inform the production of critical research.

Surveying the digital landscape, it is clear that the corporate elites are themselves not a monolithic bloc any more. Many executives, policymakers and entrepreneurs are increasingly tired of cheerleaders for the next big idea who simply echo what elites already believe in.

In today’s world, buzzwords such as “digital transformation” can become anchors for exposing audiences to critical thought.

Many practitioners I work with are open to these research findings – findings that are often critical of their activities. Those who are not are not my audience. Because my job as a professor, digital or not, is never to merely perpetuate the status quo but to give voice to less articulated alternatives.

Mainstream discussions of digital transformation fail to address how technology reshapes (and also constrains) the political economy of ideas. Critical treatments of thought leadership, on the other hand, reinforce Luddite tendencies.

I encourage young professors to meet the digital transformation with both scepticism and curiosity. The definition of the digital professor that I propose is neither the thought leader who serves only the 1 per cent. Nor is it the public intellectual who smells hegemonic betrayal behind every TED talk or thinktank initiative.

The real value of digital technologies in higher education is that they give us new avenues for producing and promoting scholarship that is critical of the status quo.

Markus Giesler is associate professor of marketing at Schulich School of Business, York University in Canada.

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