Transcending Monolingual Worldviews: Magnifying the Impact of Knowledge in Academe and Society

This is a post to simply share a public talk I gave at Cornell University in March 2022, titled “Transcending Monolingual Worldviews: Magnifying the Impact of Knowledge in Academe and Society.”

BLURB: All societies, and especially diverse ones like the US, are multilingual; translingual
communication mediates life and professions and makes knowledge grow and work. Yet, myths
about language set up barriers, inhibiting free exchange and application of knowledge. These
myths include the ideas that knowledge must only be produced, can only be exchanged, and is
applied best through dominant languages—damaging assumptions that adversely affect many
domains, but particularly knowledge work by academics across the disciplines. Harm caused by
this suppression of languages has been long documented in the literature in language, writing,
and communication studies. Drawing on the research and his own efforts to counter language
ideologies, Dr. Shyam Sharma will present a framework and share practical strategies, showing
how transcending monolingual worldviews (and mobilizing all languages) helps academe and its
scholars to magnify the impact of the knowledge they produce, both transnationally and within
US academe and society.

Incidentally, I also facilitated a workshop for graduate students at Cornell, titled “Working Across Languages and Genres: Strategies for Magnifying the Impact of
BLURB: Even in culturally and linguistically diverse societies, myths and ideologies narrow down the
number of languages and genres of knowledge sharing often to just one. But, as society and
technology both advance, beyond the journal article, and beyond English-only venues lie a vast
world of knowledge that circulates in many languages and many genres. Graduate students,
whatever number of languages they speak, have access to that vast network, which needs and
rewards their knowledge, offering them the opportunity to grow while giving back to
society/world. How can you harness the power of all your languages? How can you overcome
the barriers of perceptions and policies? A scholar who researches and teaches research and
writing across disciplines and countries, Dr. Shyam Sharma will engage graduate students in
hands-on activities and share practical strategies, helping graduate students explore how they
can harness the full power of different languages, genres, and mediums of communication. This
workshop will help them develop diverse ways to multiply the impact of the scholarship they

TU is Well [Republica Repost]

Published in Republica on February 11, 2022.

Nepalese academia, including Tribhuvan University, has challenges, but we must tell the full story, including what it is doing well.  

I paused, somewhat sad, while skimming through responses submitted to the weekly reading assignment in a professional development workshop series last December. I was supporting the organizers, an informal network of Tribhuvan University scholars from across the country, as a resource person. One participant, who indicated was a senior scholar, had written that they “of course” didn’t need to “read about this issue … any more.” For the final workshop on “new opportunities for scholars’ professional development,” the task was to read some material provided and do some further research on how to prepare effective applications for scholarship/funding. The prompt said that everyone should share what they learned “whether it is for yourself or for supporting your students.…” This senior scholar’s refusal to read, it seemed, was due to “status issue.”

“Our son has finished reading” (padhisakyo), say our proud parents, meaning that he has completed a degree. “Reading” does refer to “studying” and “finishing” terminal degrees. But the reality that many scholars “stop reading” much once they enter academic careers makes the semi-metaphorical expression look very ugly. Discontinuing to read in a profession defined by lifelong learning is a real shame. Sounding like last year is not what a real scholar should do. This unfortunate condition is partly due to a misguided notion of status but it is also caused by current policy: while scholarship is required for promotion, serious study and production can be bypassed by using various shenanigans. The situation is improving but publication quality can still be skipped, especially by those who are politically active.

However, the reason I write this piece is to show that the above is only one part of the story about Nepal’s academe, including about Tribhuvan University. The rest of the narrative must also be advanced. Let us do that.

Flipping negative narratives Continue reading

Unteaching Tyranny [Republica Repost]

It is possible and necessary to use technology to empower and inspire, not be tyrannical. If nothing else, the harrowing global pandemic must help educators come to our senses about the overuse and misuse of authority.

When a fellow professor in a teacher training program said last month that he takes attendance twice during class since going online, I was surprised by the tyrannical idea. What if a student lost internet connection or electricity, ran out of data or was sharing a device, had family obligations or a health problem? We’re not just “going online,” we’re also going through a horrifying global pandemic!

At a workshop on “humanizing pedagogy” for a Bangladeshi university more recently, when asked to list teaching/learning difficulties now, many participants listed challenges due to student absence, disengagement, dishonesty, and expectation of easy grades. When asked to list instructional solutions, many proposed technocratic and rather authoritarian methods. The very system of our education, I realized, is tyrannical and most of us usually try to make it work as it is.

Tyranny, now aided by technology, goes beyond formal education. “You can only fill your bucket if you’ve brought it empty,” said a young yoga instructor in Kathmandu, on Zoom last week. She kept demanding, by name, that participants turned on their video feed. We kept turning it off as needed. Someone kept individually “spotlighting” us on screen. But we were always muted, even as we were constantly asked to respond to instructor questions by chat, thumbs up, hand wave, and smile. Technology magnified autocratic tendencies, undermining the solemnity of yoga.

The quality of yoga lectures and instruction didn’t match the technologically enforced discipline. “Our lungs remove ninety percent of toxins from our body,” said an instructor. Surya namaskar fixes both overweight and underweight, said another, as well as cancer and diabetes. Googling these claims led to junk websites. I quickly became an unengaged learner, waiting for lectures to be over. I read a book on yoga during lectures, or took notes on how technology can magnify tyrannical elements of instruction and academe. I reflected on how to make my own teaching more humane.

This essay is a broader commentary on the element of tyranny in education. But to show that the idea of making teaching more humane is not just a romantic ideal, I share how we can operationalize the concept, including and especially during this disrupted time.

Operationalizing humanity

Continue reading

Magic Tools and Research Integrity [Republica Repost]

Published in the Republica on March 23, 2021.
Plagiarism is a manifestation of a deeper problem in academia: Of publishing for the sake of publishing, and of rewarding it regardless. 

“Do I need to cite a source if a plagiarism detection tool doesn’t show that I’ve borrowed an author’s words?” asked a participant at a research workshop recently. “I will have to rewrite much of my article if that’s the case.”

I was not surprised. Instead, I started wondering where the question was coming from. In op-eds and other discussions, I’ve seen plagiarism treated as a problem of stealing words (rather than ideas). For instance, in a recent, highly nuanced, proposal for apology as a mode of redemption for those who have plagiarized in the past, the author casually claimed that there are now technological tools for “easily” identifying and preventing cases. Academic leaders and institutional policies alike, I remembered, exude the same incredible hope.

What’s even worse, issues about quality and integrity of research, not to mention its social value and responsibility, are overlooked in discussions of its originality. Across South Asia and the rest of the global south, there is an increasingly misguided focus on the product of publication—rather than on the ends to which it is a means—reflecting what current policies demand and reward. Even when “impact” is talked about, it simply refers to proxy measures of quality of the product, such as the number of citations (which may be mere name-dropping, including one’s own). Indeed, that is what “journal impact factor” means. When “quality” is used explicitly, that too simply means that the venue is “international” (or not locally located) or that the product is in English (instead of a local) language. If these critiques sound radical, it’s because the status quo is absurd. It is because it rewards publications that may have no significant value.

It is not just that someone can reap rewards by simply paraphrasing or summarizing others’ ideas. They can also make progress by fabricating or manipulating data. Either way, the magic of technology fails whenever scholars fail to ask what specific tasks specific technologies can do and how, where they can be bypassed, what to learn from using them.

Continue reading

Advancing research for social impact [Republica Repost]

The best frameworks for advancing socially impactful research can be created at the intersection of the grassroots efforts and institutional programs.

At the end of an intensive two-day training on semester-based teaching organized by Tribhuvan University in Nagarkot last May, we asked the seventy or so university faculty members from around the country to pick between two groups. One group was asked to  strategize how to institutionalize the teaching excellence training, building on a few years of work done mainly online by a grassroots initiative. The other group would discuss a new topic: how to pursue and promote research and publication in the university. To our pleasant surprise, over two-thirds of the participants went to the research group. We had to come up with a quick way to better regroup the scholars.

We have observed increasing numbers of training and discussions that focus on research, writing, and publication in and beyond our universities in recent years. It is not just that the current lockdown has afforded more time to university professionals. The current trend builds on a strong momentum that we have seen in the last few years, in both the public and private institutions, in the capital and across the country. The incident above was a manifestation of a broader momentum.

Even better, we have observed an increased interest in making research and publication more socially impactful, especially among younger scholars. A recent article about UGC-supported grants showed that while the quality of our research and publications remain concerning, younger researchers are publishing stronger scholarship.

In this essay, we highlight two complementary dimensions for advancing research and publication for greater social impact: a community and culture of research and a policy framework that can foster the culture. The proposed framework would provide incentives to scholars, as well as realigning institutional priorities and accountability mechanisms, for making academic research more driven by social needs.

Continue reading

Languaging Research [Republica Repost]

Published March 15, 2020

We must develop new indexes that can measure social impact of scholarship, inspire more scholars to publish, increase public access to knowledge, prompt action and community research, and promote translational research in science and medicine

“English is . . . the language of higher education, mass media, information and communication technology, business, tourism, science and medicine,” says the introduction to the recently published English language curriculum for 11th and 12th grades. Built upon this combination of half truths, ignorance, and ideologies, there is another pervasive belief that English is also the language of scientific publication, if not all significant knowledge production in the world. This essay seeks to debunk the latter assumption, going on to discuss the social costs of passively accepting while actively contributing to the conditions behind the assumption, as scholars in developing countries like Nepal are doing increasingly.

As Theresa Lillis and Mary Jane Curry, experts on the issue, point out, the claim that English is the “global” language of scientific and scholarly publication is actually based on English-language databases that include roughly 27,000 journals, leaving out similar databases containing 9,000 journals published in other languages—not to mention thousands of other local venues that are advancing knowledge with even more local value around the world. China, Korea, and Russia are now developing their own citation databases to address the problem, realizing that current understanding is analogous to going into an apple farm to find oranges. In fact, even within the patently English-dominated Scopus list of science-leaning publications, for instance, 12 percent of journal articles overall and 23 percent of those in the Arts and Humanities have non-English abstracts. Continue reading

How do we Measure Knowledge? [Republica Repost]

Published Dec. 5, 2019

To foster a meaningful culture of research and scholarship, we must reject crude measurements of scholarly production which are based mainly on the number of citations and are already questioned or discarded elsewhere

“If you only need good grades and not the learning,” I tell my students, joking, “don’t bother using the library, learning how to use academic databases, finding and reading complex scholarly articles, and representing others’ ideas substantively and carefully in your writing.” “Just hire a good ghost writer or find another effective way to cheat me.” Students get the point quickly, and they start doing serious research and writing.

To my dismay, the above joke essentially comes into being, more frequently these days, in articles published by academic journals from South Asia. Recently, I assigned one such atrocious article, for analysis and discussion, to a Writing Support Group of Nepali scholars. Colleagues in that online workshop series quickly pointed out bizarre levels of misunderstanding and abuse of academic standards in the article: Vague generalities instead of specific issue or objective, pages filled with irrelevant summaries of scholarship, evidently fabricated research findings, and contribution of no new or significant knowledge to the profession or society. The article, on academic technologies, highlighted at the top, a journal “impact factor” of above 5.0—an impossibility for a venue that would publish such work. Continue reading

Rethinking Research [Republica Repost]

Published Sept. 22. 2019

We must make research a number-one social mission of higher education, make funding for public universities contingent on research productivity and revamp faculty evaluation and promotion to advance research 

Saila Dai is a thirty-something man in Gairigaun, Gulmi. He is passionate about developing and promoting plant-based pest control and fertilization methods for small-scale cultivation of vegetables and fruits in Nepal. His social mission is to not only prevent toxic runoffs into the Kali Gandaki River but also to inspire new generations to eat healthy and to grow organic food as a viable economic opportunity.

Saila Dai is currently compiling notes about how to minimize the area of garden space for marigold plant, which, he’s found, keeps bugs away from many of his crops. For the rest, he has finished listing pests and microbes under six categories, corresponding to different combinations of herbal materials that have worked well, such as tobacco, neem, chili, and turmeric powder; salt; onion, garlic; and mugwort leaves and flowers. His findings from last year show that he spent 10 percent more in organic pesticides compared to market-based chemical pesticides, a loss he wants to overcome if possible. He has figured out ways to make organic fertilizers less expensive than chemical alternatives, and he’s now focused on maximizing its quantity, as more villagers from across the district come to learn from him. Continue reading

Localizing Knowledge Production [Republica Repost]

Published July 25, 2019

Universities in developing countries must create new knowledge as their primary mission, especially for social progress and in the national interest

Exploring the Business Brain Model after I installed solar panels on our house a few years ago, I was fascinated to find out that even in the dead of winter, the system produces nearly as much electricity per hour of sunlight as it does in summer. Upon doing some research, I learned that this is because solar energy was developed by scientists in the colder global north. Mainstream technology taps into the amount and angle of light and heat have a negative role. Its focus has been on harnessing light energy, and while new methods are emerging to exploit heat as well, the market is yet to create similar demands for heat-based or heat-included solar panels.

Such cases illustrate that while scientific knowledge may be universal, its development (and not just application) is driven by socioeconomic forces and often cultural contexts. Not only do scientists’ social backgrounds and value systems influence what research they are likely to pursue (such as in the case of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Polish Physicist Joseph Rotblat, who resigned from the Manhattan Project when it sought to develop atomic weapons). Local conditions also influence, often beyond conscious choice, what scientists do.

The above reality is even more pronounced in social sciences, law, medicine, and engineering than it is in basic research or even applied research in natural sciences. Continue reading