Are We All Indolent Academics in Need of a Good Kick Up the Arse?

It is clear the conversation’s at an end.  He is maddened by our way of life.  He is exacerbated by the disarray he has discovered in our village.  He sighs dramatically, to leave us in no doubt.  

Harvest by Jim Crace (2013), p. 122

It has become familiar to feel that the conversation on the purpose of higher education is now closed, that politicians and university managers are exacerbated by what they see as our disarray.  We are, in their eyes, indolent, unproductive, and in need of husbandry.

However, Jim Crace’s story refers to the dispossession of common land from England’s peasantry and the conglomeration of those once shared lands into larger, private estates.  Yet, academics face the same kind of misappropriation (of academic labour) and privatisation (of knowledge).  

As with the enclosure acts of the 16th century the change in entitlement serves to increase the standing of an elite.

And it is this process of aggrandisement that forms the focus of Mats Alvesson’s book “The Triumph of Emptiness: Consumption, Higher Education, and Work Organization“.  In the preface to the book Alvesson notes:

In today’s society, a strong emphasis on ‘it must look good’, and preferably even shine, is vital for the success of individuals, occupational groups, and organizations. (p. ix)

So, in the modern university we all have to shine?  Seems like it.

Alvesson argues that the modern university is characterised by three elements:

  • zero-sum game
  • grandiosity
  • illusion tricks.

Zero-sum game

In a time of mass higher education the ‘positional value’ of higher education institutions becomes even more important.  At an institutional level this can mean the close management of personal academic careers/performance.  Contributions to the field or to knowledge or to learning are increasingly occupied and appropriated in the service of institutional ambition.  Academic freedom as the desire to follow the line of an idea or inquiry is not enough; and can be seen as detrimental to both the institution and personal career prospects.

As individuals we are caught up in the zero-sum game where our ‘choices’ (types of knowledge, types of research, our values) are seen to be potentially damaging to institutional ambition.  The accomplishment of higher rankings (accruing of positional value) is at the expense of the lower ranking institutions, so increasing the risks involved in the zero-sum game.  Internally, institutions are resorting to different forms of ‘internal selectivity’ – distinguishing between those deemed research excellent from those who ‘only teach’.

At the personal level we can feel a fundamental disconnect between the institutionally defined identity and those values and ideas that animate us as educators and researchers.

Grandiosity

In the modern university we are all expected to be ambitious.

But this is not the ambition to incrementally improve our teaching, to enhance our understanding of learning, to deepen our grounding in an area of knowledge, to explore new intellectual vistas.  Ambition is caught up in the spectacle of producing so many academic articles for high ranking journals (but be less concerned with the public articulation of research); and to do this regardless of the kinds of scholarly conversations we want to conduct or who we want to have those conversations with (or rather to disregard those who do not feed the zero-sum game and grandiose desire).  Academic communities of practice can be re-engineered to fit the grandiose institutional ambitions to gain greater and greater positional value.

This is a world where substance does not appear to matter.  It is a world where parochial networks proclaim themselves to be ‘national centres’, where ‘excellence’, ‘world leading’ adorn the titles of organisational units.

Illusion Tricks

In part this reflects a shift not just from ‘being’ to ‘having’ (Fromm) but from ‘having’ to ‘appearing‘ (Debord). 

This refers to various equality or quality assurance policies that remain illusory, having little purchase on the reality of student or academic daily life.  It also manifests in the plethora of what Alvesson calls ‘pseudo-events’.  The periodic development of university strategic plans are good examples, as are the quality assurance processes such as research assessment exercises.  The ‘consultation’ with stakeholders that can accompany such ‘events’ are often clear examples of empty containers.

Is it any wonder then that we become sick, that ill-health and mental distress are on the increase.  


These are notes towards an autoethnographic study of academic wellbeing in the neoliberal university.

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