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  • Simon Stevenson

Academia as a Creative Industry: A Musical Analogy

Updated: Nov 28, 2019


We don’t often think of academia as a creative industry, yet it is just that. Research is where the most obvious parallel exists, where the creative spark that ignites new ideas is just as important and present as it is with writing, composing, painting, film making, sculpture or any other creative endeavour. However, the parallel also extends into the other roles and functions that academics and university staff perform. Research may be the creative aspect that leads to the establishment of new knowledge, but it still needs to be disseminated to both students via teaching and to the outside world through the effective transfer of knowledge. Furthermore, the entire process needs to be successfully managed.


I have often used a musical analogy about academia and in particular the research process. The use of music is at least in part due to my inner frustrated musician; when I play the guitar I will always be, at least in my imagination, John Lee Hooker. The analogy is especially useful in describing the research process and in particular empirical work. Theoretical research is different in its process but parallels still exist. The analogy also has the advantage that it not only captures research but the other major functions that academics perform; teaching and administration. Research’s parallel is with the creative process, writing the songs/music and the recording process. This component can help PhD students and junior faculty appreciate more fully their own strengths and weaknesses and the different roles that collaborators can play in a project. Teaching, and other forms of dissemination such as conferences, are the equivalent of live performing. Finally, academic administration, especially the roles taken by Deans, Department Heads and Programme Directors, should help to ensure that the entire process is managed effectively.


My premise is that you can break researchers into three broad types; songwriters, musicians and producers. They all perform vital functions in the research process, just as they do in a recording studio. Each provides expertise and undertakes a role that ensures that the end-product is as good as possible and hopefully greater than the sum of the individual parts. While some lucky individuals may be equally gifted across all three areas, most researchers will display greater aptitude and skill in one or two aspects. Being able to clearly identify strengths, and especially weaknesses, can allow academics to consider, among other things, who may be suitable and appropriate co-authors. I’ve worked on projects with some great people, in some cases good friends, but we’ve found that we’re too similar in our viewpoint and skillsets and could have just undertaken the project on our own. Whether it be in music or in research, great collaborations often work best when the individuals involved complement, rather than duplicate, each other. Working with someone with a slightly different perspective may allow you as a team to take a project somewhere unexpected, somewhere you may not have reached by yourself. That spark is an essential component of effective collaboration. It should be far more than just sharing the workload.


So…let’s start with songwriters. These are the ideas people, those who gets that initial spark of creativity about what would make an interesting research question. The creative X factor can come in many forms, just as with a song where it may start with a line of a lyric or a fleeting melody or riff. It is a rough idea that needs to be worked on and developed until you have a more fully fleshed out concept. Everyone works differently, and situations will be different. Some ideas will come to you in a relatively fully formed manner. Some can take time. I can often spend months, years even, in this phase. The idea will be at the back of my head, going go around and around, until it is more fully formed and ready for me to take to the next stage. That is partly due to the type of research I do and partly because of who I am as a researcher. I personally like to work quickly on a project when I’ve got to that the stage where I can really get moving. Effectively, I like to spend as little time as possible in the studio. I prefer to work out as much as I can beforehand. Whether you are working alone or with a co-author at this stage also alters the nature of the relationship and how the research idea is developed and fleshed out.


Now, once the song is written we need to go into the studio. Musician researchers are those who are technically proficient in research methods. They may also be good at obtaining the resources necessary to take a project and fully develop it, whether that be through funding or by obtaining robust and good quality data. Quantitative disciplines, especially empirical ones, are full of musicians, my own field of finance is a great example here, and there can be pitfalls to that.


Producers are often undervalued, certainly in my field. They are the ones who get an idea, and a good execution and have the talent to take it to a different level. They aren’t just fantastic writers or editors, that is often where they are underappreciated. Their talents go far beyond that to be able to tell a story and frame a paper appropriately for the journal it is being submitted to. Producers take the raw product then shape it, bringing a different perspective and their own expertise to the final paper. They are every bit as valuable as the songwriters or the musicians, think George Martin, Phil Spector, Quincy Jones, Brian Eno, Rick Rubin, Daniel Lanois, Dr. Dre, or Timbaland.


By working alone academic researchers may fail to fully realise the potential of a piece of work. Songwriters may have a great idea, but they can be flighty things, dashing off to the next big idea, leaving behind in their wake a pile of unfinished ideas and projects. Great ideas may never go anywhere, or not reach their full potential without the help of solid musicians and producers. Musicians though can run the risk of relying too much on technical proficiency. Unless there is a strong underlying idea (song) and unless a good story is told, thanks to a great producer, a musician may just end up delivering dry technical pieces. Their research can often end up focusing too much on method rather than its broader contribution. While methodological issues can be the story, the story and the relevance of the research still needs to be told. They risk being the equivalent of guitarists from rock bands of the seventies and eighties; technically proficient but at times a little soulless. Give me John Lee Hooker, Peter Green or Jimi Hendrix any day. Producers may be great finishers, but they need that initial spark, the research problem that sets the whole thing in motion. As with great music, it is only when all three components are successfully combined that the magic happens. The other great advantage of bringing all of the components together is that it can help push people out of their comfort zones, helping to bring original ideas to a problem.


Researchers can also be broken down across a spectrum depending on the type of work they do. They can vary from those good at 3-minute pop songs right through to album artists. This is somewhat similar to the sprinter/long-distance runner analogy that is often used in academia. That analogy goes along the lines that some academics are sprinters, good at looking at shorter project’s, going in and make very valuable contributions very quickly. They tend to produce a large volume of output. There are however also medium and long-distance runners. These researchers tend to work on projects with a longer time-frame, that are looking at different kinds of issues, perhaps more theoretical and conceptual in nature, perhaps just game changing in their assertions. It can also just be due to the nature of the specific field they are working in. Whatever the reason, these academics are never going to deliver half a dozen papers a year, it may be a couple of years between each piece of work. However, if they come off, they could transform a discipline. All good academics realize and appreciate that both types of research is not only desirable but necessary for any field to advance. The album artists can change the direction a field is going in by highlighting a new concept, coming up with a new theory or by advancing the methodological approaches used to examine issues. Empirical researchers then fine tune the theory via whatever form of empirical work is appropriate in that field. You can view it that they represent the different points of Kolb’s Experimental Learning Cycle.


You may ask where I fit into all of this? Well, my strengths have generally been idea generation, effectively I’m a songwriter. I’m also primarily an empirical researcher and this has tended to mean that I’m on the singles chart side of the spectrum rather than an albums artist. I’m less Pink Floyd or Radiohead; more Paul McCartney or Blur. This explains in part the volume of work I’ve produced. Aside from the song writing, I’m a decent enough musician and while I can write and structure a paper it is the writing that I find most time consuming. I am, as I am reminded once more while penning this, at times too much of a perfectionist when it comes to writing. I can go through a paper over and over again before I’m happy with it. On occasion, I need a producer to step in and tell me to just stop and walk away.


What I’ve found interesting in looking back at this from my own perspective is how my role in projects has altered over the years. The majority of my early research was sole-authored. This was primarily because in my first faculty position there wasn’t anybody else working in real estate finance at my institution. Undertaking research on your own can be highly beneficial as it forces you to learn new skills and go outside of your comfort zone and while in retrospect it was highly valuable it was a hard introduction. My strength in song writing, and being a decent musician, at times masked my frequent and extended procrastination when it came to writing. Retrospectively, it probably did mean that some early papers could have ended up in better journals than they did. I too often succumbed to one of the common traps that empirical researchers can fall into. The volume of work produced can at times result in us being fickle things, jumping to the latest project that has grabbed our attention, like small children attracted to shiny things. For myself that was made worse by my procrastination when it came to writing. I’ve always been happiest in front of a computer with a pile of data and that in turn added to the challenge. Once I’d completed the empirical analysis and obtained the results, satisfying my own personal intellectual curiosity, the motivation to go through and complete the painful, for me, write up was reduced. It was at times too easy to avoid spending weeks fine tuning a piece to get a better publication and instead just move on to a new project. I have become more patient, and a better producer, over the years. Becoming a journal editor and supervising PhD students helped in that regard as that is effectively the role you are assigned here, acting as a guide during the song writing process and then supervising the recording process.


I’ve also noticed that my role often varies depending on who I’ve been working with. I personally find that working with diverse researchers helps keep me motivated and avoids the process becoming ‘samey’. We’ll see now if people can spot themselves. One of my most successful research collaborations over the years has been with a co-author who was a fabulous producer. Indeed, I use to affectionately describe her as my Brian Eno. She sadly, for myself, has decided to retire. A beautiful writer, she had the ability to grab an idea and just take it someone else. She was also, as all good producers need to be, quite brutal in terms of what worked in a paper, and yes at times that meant that things were cut despite my objections about how long it had taken to do the empirical work. Unapologetically I will mix my metaphors here, those scenes left on the cutting room floor simply, in her view, didn’t help the narrative of the paper. With another regular co-author we have quite a different relationship, which is possibly a result of him being an ex-PhD student of mine. Here I tend to take on a lot more of the producer role. We tend to jointly write the song but he will often take the lead on the recording and then I’ll come back later on in the process. With a third regular co-author we have a totally different approach to research, more of a free form jazz approach. We effectively jam in the studio. He contributes by bringing an often crazy idea or some fantastic data. We then bounce ideas off each other to work out how to operationalise that into something more structured. That is where I come in, very much acting as producer in this case, but more Fatboy Slim than Phil Spector, taking fragments of ideas and pulling it together. He then comes back at the end of the process to work on the final mix.


Aside from the fact that I came up with it, the reason I like this analogy is that it can also incorporate the non-research part of university life. Universities are first and foremost educational institutions, yet one of the inherent conflicts that many academics face is that research is often the reason they got into the profession in the first place, why they went through the trials and tribulations of a PhD. While many academics would love to spend all of their time on research, that isn’t the reality for most of us. A large proportion of our time is taken up with teaching and administration. Academics rarely have the luxury of a musician who can sell enough records so as not to tour if they don’t wish to.


All of this can create a number of conflicts. Often front and centre for academics is that while a minority of time is spent on research it is still the primary means of assessing academics when deciding on tenure and promotion. As I discussed in my first blog, this can lead to considerable strains with respect to work-life balance, effectively encouraging unhealthy behaviour especially in junior faculty. The other major conflict is that the skill sets most suited to delivering quality research and quality teaching don’t necessarily go hand in hand. Bluntly, we all know of fantastic researchers who don’t deliver in a classroom setting. They are the equivalent of brilliant artists who either don’t tour at all, or alternatively aren’t exactly renowned for their live performances. In contrast, there will be those who are the total reverse, teaching focused faculty whose motivation is the knowledge transfer part of the equation. They simply love being in front of that live audience in a classroom. That is what they deliver and contribute to their institution. Some of them may have produced fantastic research in the past. Everybody in academia knows of people who are great live performers but haven’t delivered a decent new record in years. They are effectively living off their past glories on a never-ending greatest hits tour. One common fallacy is that faculty who aren’t particularly research active are less robust. Some of the most academically robust instructors I’ve come across have been less than stellar researchers, even research inactive. However, being non-research active yourself doesn’t necessarily mean that you don’t appreciate it or that you don’t incorporate the latest thinking into your classes. Conversely, I’ve seen brilliant researchers deliver classes that are the equivalent of painting by numbers.


The final element in all of this is the management of academia, again something I’m going to return to in the future. If academics are the equivalent of musicians, then being a Dean or Head of Department is the equivalent of running a record label. You are effectively managing a group of ‘temperamental creative types’, independent contractors who don’t like being told what to do and will fight for the sake of their art. We also have the advantage that we are backed up by the much-flaunted principle of academic freedom and if you’re lucky; tenure. These allow academics to be far more independent than virtually any other profession. We’re even luckier than artists here as we also have the advantage of a regular salary to go along with all of that freedom. This is a challenging environment for anyone to try and manage, for example, heaven help the academic administrator who tries too blatantly to prioritize areas of research. I’ve had good and bad experiences on both sides of this, as both the ‘artist’ and the ‘label boss’. There are numerous factors to balance, which make this an incredibly challenging environment. Great academic bosses need to support and nurture talent but also have the hard business reality to deal with. They need to both encourage the individual and support them in the development of their career, while at the same time ensure that courses and programmes are being delivered, students are being recruited and obtaining good positions post-graduation. They also need to ensure that researchers are delivering, enhancing both their own individual reputations and the profile of the department/school/college/university as a whole. One of the inherent conflicts in any academic institution is that those individuals who do successfully deliver are enhancing their own market value as they do so. This makes them potentially more valuable to other institutions, thereby creating flight risk.


These types of challenges are often seen in the creative industries, there are many examples with record labels and movie studios. Artist sympathetic bosses, who may be great researchers themselves, may be great at supporting the talent but still need to deliver on the day to day management and administration. Vice-versa, some good administrators may not fully appreciate the importance of research or the processes involved. On the one hand they may fail to grasp its importance and not recognize or acknowledge it. On the other hand, they may not appreciate that research can’t just be delivered out of nowhere on demand, the result being unrealistic expectations. Faculty need to be supported, given the time and space to perform to their potential. The best academic managers also appreciate that faculty differ. The differences mentioned above with respect to the type of research that people do also need to come into play with respect to managing them.


I say this as someone who very much belongs in the deductive/empirical camp of research. I’m lucky because of the type of researcher I am and the type of work I do. Many of the restrictions and constrains imposed on academics today have worked in my favour and that has in turn helped my career along the way. Current trends are very much biased towards the writers of top ten hits; the sprinters rather than the long-distance runners. I’m going to return to the quantification of research and the increased use of metrics in a later blog, but they have biased the field against left-field thinkers. The US tenure and promotion system implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, discourages young academics from being adventurous. Instead, it maneuverers them towards playing it safe and focusing on publishing an acceptable number of papers in satisfactory journals, often based on some arbitrary ranking. The risk though is that this can result in counter-productive outcomes. I would argue that often it is young researchers and junior faculty who are more willing to explore new avenues and break new ground. Academics can often become inhibited as they become more seasoned and established, they can get more set in their ways of thinking.


In countries such as Australia and the UK, government assessments of research output can similarly discourage researchers from devoting time on more adventurous and riskier projects. All of this can work against the album artists and can force them to provide a volume of work that may not suit their research interests or their style. Just as not every musician is cut out for producing top ten hits, many researchers are not suited to volume focused research that targets conventional outputs such as academic journals. One-dimensional benchmarks can be highly counter-productive. The need to satisfy a quantifiable benchmark can end up being the driving force rather the importance of the topic at hand or a researcher’s individual interests. This does raise the question of whether we are potentially foregoing game-changing breakthrough research in favour of volume? While these trends have been to my benefit at times, like all empirical researchers I need the big picture thinkers. Sadly, the system is biased against them at present. Too frequently universities and governments view and manage academics as though they were a homogenous mass, identical in their needs and their nature. But we are not. We need to consider and think of the academy as a creative industry, and while with all such industries there are commercial realities that need to be taken into account, so does the creative process. It is the responsibility of management, both individual administrators and universities institutionally, to treat academia as any creative industry and a key part of that is to acknowledge that we are all different.

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