“Potential, Possible or Probable” Predatory Publishers List Pushed to the Archives

As a postgraduate researcher, you are often warned, repeatedly, to watch out from predatory journal publishers, offering to review and publish your labour of love (perhaps at a fee), and more often than not addressing you as “Dr.”, “Professor” or “Chairman” (yes, it happens). If you had then gone on to ask how to identify predatory publishers, a thoughtful colleague might have sent you to a source such as Jeffrey Beall’s List of (what he describes as) “potential, possible, or probable predatory scholarly open-access publishers” and journals (You’ll note that all of Beall’s pages are currently archived on web.archive.org). If you have never heard of Beall’s List or Jeffrey’s work, check out this short segment from a CBC clip on “Cleaning up bad science“.

Beall’s List – De-commissioned

The frequent qualifications that attend comments on Beall’s List (i.e. “potentially” or “allegedly” predatory publishers) should remind users of the list that Beall’s work does not sanitise scholars of the need to use their own judgement and do their research. For any journal or publisher included on the list, Beall has maintained an Appeals page where he and his advisory team have sought to address scholar’s concerns and review inclusions on their list. While attempting to assist scholars in guarding their own reputations, Beall’s List has attempted to improve academia’s meta-cognisance, making itself aware of the need to question the institutions on which its practitioners depend.

Unfortunately for these ideals, Beall’s List was discovered to have been taken down in mid-January, with most being left to speculate as to why. Both Beall’s Facebook and staff page at Auraria Library have also been deactivated/dismantled.

Retraction Watch (a rather self-explanatory name really) claims: “The decision to take down the site — and Beall’s faculty page at the Auraria Library, where he remains a tenured associate professor — was his own, the University of Colorado Denver tells [us].” Beall appears to have remained silent over why he has pursued this decision, although Retraction Watch notes that Beall has been threatened with lawsuits before, from a publisher on his list. If indeed some form of litigation has compelled Beall to act, then the scholarly enterprise may be all the worse for it. As Ivan Oransky and Adam Marcus have noted, Beall’s List wasn’t just a blacklist, but a “a catalog of remarkably bad behavior” – a glimpse between the value-spheres of academia and business and a reminder of where organised scholarship is far from perfect.

For many, this bad behaviour is not limited to publishers. On the blog Derivance, Luděk Brož, Tereza Stöckelová and Filip Vostal lament the loss of Beall’s List and recall its utility in raising the publishing history of Dr Wadim Strielkowski to controversial status. The trio comments that

Strielkowski, then a junior lecturer at the Faculty of Social Sciences, Charles University in Prague, first attracted the attention of colleagues in early 2015, when it was discovered that he had published 17 monographs and more than 60 journal articles in just three years. It is probably not surprising that a number of these texts were published in a rather unconventional way: Strielkowski’s monographs, with one exception, were in fact self-published and self-illustrated, even though each appeared to have been published by the Faculty of Social Sciences. A substantial amount of his articles were published in journals that could be described, following Beall’s terminology, as “potentially, possibly or probably predatory”.

Mark Carrigan notes that the case of Dr Strielkowski emphasises the agency of scholars in the transformation of scholarly norms:

The case is a fascinating one because it illustrates how metricised evaluation and predatory publishing cannot simply be regarded as imposed from outside, leaving academic victims with no choice but to adapt or be left behind. Strielkowski is an extreme example but his case illustrates how the opportunities these systems create for advancement are drawn upon and engaged with knowingly by scholars, in a way that is always implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) orientated to the others embedded within them.

The rise of predatory publishing is perhaps something of a misnomer because it implies a unilateral process of domination by publishers and journals. Certainly for more naive scholars seeking to find some source of security in our academic pursuits, journals engaging in (ostensible) flattery and promises of publication are predators. However, taking a more ecological (and systemic) view, both academics and publishing companies may indulge new sets of norms, centred around metric rankings and outputs rather than scholarly merit. A culture of publishing, focused on the value added via publication metrics is not predatory or “bloodsucking”, but rather parasitic: the host is the ideal of intellectual development and the parasite is the technocratic norm that reconstitutes the world in an abstract game. Both publishers and academics alike must choose to play at the expense of self-scrutiny.

 

Dignity in a Consumer Society: Thinking with Bauman and Hochschild

Advanced democratic societies are in need of new models to understand the politics emerging under the labels of neo-conservatism, ethno-nationalism, the alt-right, and, occasionally, anti-politics. The ostensive failure of polls to predict Trump’s presidency, alongside the re-emergence of Pauline Hanson and her One Nation politics in Australia (among countless other examples in Europe and Britain) has not deterred political commentators from drawing on the logic of party politics – that is, that individuals and communities are seeking representatives to support their ideologies or interests through positions of power.

For example, an article published by Rationalist Society member Hugh Harris earlier today probed the One Nation Party’s ideological support base through the keyhole issue of terrorism:

Growing levels of support for One Nation and other parties of its ilk are amplified by the infuriating determination of major party leaders to deny the link between religious belief and Islamism… Refusing to acknowledge what is so obvious and in plain view fuels an ardent desire to hear someone talk honestly about it.

Surely, we can acknowledge the influence of the Islamic fundamentalism in groups such as ISIS and Boko Haram, while calmly recognising that these extreme views are held by only a minority of Muslims. Concepts such as jihadism, martyrdom, hard-line sharia law and Dar al-Harb (House of War) are central to Salafi jihadism, and inseparable from Islamic terrorism.

The assumption that the One Nation Party continues to gather support because its leaders promise to address this issue by abolishing those “who bear a culture and ideology that is incompatible with our own” implies knowledge about her voting base. However, a short trip down the page, to the nefarious comments section of Harris’ article reveals a petri dish of discontent and admiration.

Besides the derision of the “PCs”, the “Lefties”, “Greenies”, and “babbling” Liberal and Labour leaders who attack society’s most vulnerable are qualifications about support for Pauline Hanson. The most common qualification is: “I don’t agree with all her views… she fills a gap in the political market”. The characteristics of hers often admired are her “pragmatism”, fearlessness, patriotism and resolve – claims that mirror the praise of neo-conservative supporters for their leaders abroad.

(via Greg Wood/AFP/Getty)

The continuing growth of political analysis demonstrated here needs sociological context. Continuing on my reflections of Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land (in my previous post), in this blog post I seek to extend Hochschild’s toolbox for analysing political divisions through Bauman’s Work, Consumerism and the New Poor.

Firstly, to recap from last post: Hochschild asks political analysts to look beyond the often repeated clichés about Tea Party advocates and Trump supporters, to understand their “deep story” and scale the empathy wall built of our own prejudices and unconscious biases. Her narrative is one of seeking understanding before explanation, a quest in the practice of interpretive sociology.

Despite my new found appreciation for the complexity of emotions and narratives beneath the Tea Party label, I am still troubled by the diversity of political opinions that become, often begrudgingly, huddled under the Party Politics of groups such as the Tea Party, Trump’s Republican Party and One Nation. And although these groups are popular signifiers for the socio-political phenomenon that I wish to understand, I suspect that these opinions aren’t limited by how individuals act at the voting booth. As Yanis Varoufakis noted in The Guardian, in the USA post-2008 “the establishment habitually blamed the victims of predatory lending and the failed health system”. The legitimacy of the state has long been contentious.

In 2005, the late Zigmunt Bauman published a refined commentary of contemporary “developed” societies’ treatment of the poor, at home and abroad. In Work, Consumerism and the New Poor, Bauman develops a model for understanding the social exclusion of the poor. In his introduction, he claims,

It is one thing to be poor in a society of producers and universal employment; it is quite a different thing to be poor in a society of consumers, in which life-projects are built around consumer choice rather than work, professional skills or jobs. If ‘being poor’ once derived its meaning from the condition of being unemployed, today it draws its meaning primarily from the plight of a flawed consumer.

There’s a lot to unpack here, but two claims warrant close attention: (1) Our society primarily values human agency where it resembles the action of the consumer, invoking the image of a broad societal pattern in which individuals often evaluate their own behaviours in terms of better or worse “choices”; and (2) The poor individual is one who has made, and could be suspected to continue to make, poor choices. As you may guess, Bauman takes issue with a monolithic reading of “the poor” or “the underclass” as a unified category, opting to interpret its existence as the result of an act of social classification, rather than reference to an actually existing (coherent) collection of persons.

However, the non-existence of “the poor” does not dismantle the ideological power of this category. In a phase of capitalism where desire is driven by the struggle to find “the good life” (be that the American Dream or some other vision of pleasure, security, or happiness), choice has become a variable in the calculus of justice: poor choices should beget poor people. Post-welfare democracies are riddled with such rhetoric.

Recalling how states and politicians cope with the existence of the poor is invaluable to understanding neo-conservative politics honestly. The recession of the welfare state took with it the political hope that governments could ensure “something more than sheer survival: survival with dignity”, as Bauman claims. No longer needed to fulfil the role of a reserve army of labour, the poor have become increasingly viewed as a cost rather than an asset to the industrial-state complex.

Banksy brilliance, ongoing stigmatism

Means testing for government intervention into the survival of the poor has become a tool to both distinguish the deserving from the undeserving poor, as well as confer the status of the failed consumer on those who succeed in passing the means test. In Bauman’s description of consumer society, both the middle class and the poor have reason to feel cheated by their state and politicians: the government supports the livelihood of bad “choosers” and confers shame on those individuals seeking to make it despite their bad luck.

In the midst of describing the perpetual decay of the welfare state and societal social support programs, Bauman questions: “How can it be… that the majority of voters in a democratic polity give freely their support to the increase of social inequality?” For the middle class, the provision of welfare programs, through means testing, become associated with those least able to politically defend their needs, making them easy prey for news stories extolling “fraud, deception and abuse” of those programs. For those accessing welfare programs, any admission of their “special status” is also an admission of defeat – a loss of dignity.

The moral semiotics surrounding poverty have the potential to contribute to our understanding of contemporary populist politics, and the great distrust that neoconservative voters and politicians share concerning conventional party politics. Hochschild has already provided some analysis of the love of the “free market” and distrust of government regulation discussed by many of her Tea Party friends. But what her story lacks is a grounding in a political historical context, such as that which Bauman brings forth in his work. Such reflection allows us to connect a moral semiotics, which Hochschild describes at length, with the transformation of societal attitudes towards those most politically vulnerable. The Tea Party phenomenon is emblematic of segments of a global population who feel both the loss of dignity and the sense of being cheated out of the good life.

Bauman’s analysis of the ethics of a consumer society may also lend some explanatory power to why political discourse has taken a “post-factual” turn. In considering the impact of trumps politics on the future of higher education in the USA, John Morgan argued that

This [post-factual] attitude to facts may perhaps be linked to an indifference to, or resentment of, education. [George Washington University President, Steven] Knapp says that the presidential campaign evidenced “to some extent, I think it’s fair to say, a bit of an anti-intellectual tone; a kind of rebellion against expertise; a sense that… people who were left out of universities were being left disadvantaged by the elitism of the educated classes”.

This populist resentment of education may be, in part, an attempt to re-write the rules of “successful” and “failed” choices; the educated are wrong and therefore their families’ choices to indoctrinate them in the education system are wrong. Kellyanne Conway’s coining of the term “alternative facts” and William Davies’ excellent analysis of how statistics lost their power both demonstrate that knowledge is always discursive and political. Being right, being seen as making good choices, is not a matter of truth – it’s a matter of honour and dignity.

I hope, in future research and activism, that intellectuals and other members of political communities will find the time to investigate the transformation of ground-level politics further. This analysis cannot simply be transferred onto other democratic societies (as I would like to accomplish in the Australian setting) because of the differences in the stories that nations and communities tell one another about the good life, justice, truth, and self. I don’t believe such a feat may be achieved through scanning the comments section of political journalism alone!

mulder

The Deep Story: A Reflection on Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land

The eruption of contemporary populist politics across states and within the global news media has elicited a whirlwind of reactions from the interwebs and braniacs alike. For many, the message seems simple, perhaps reminiscent of Winston Churchill’s infamous quip about the best argument against democracy. The success of president-elect Donald Trump, the United Kingdom’s European Union membership referendum (Brexit), and – perhaps smaller but not less worthy of comment – the One Nation party’s senate success in Australia have turned the attention of many political commentators to the media of communication. As Mark Chou and Michael Ondaatje have argued in relation to the Trump campaign,

Citizens who depend on the media for reliable campaign coverage and substantive analyses of candidates’ policies will be left either unsatisfied or none the wiser. In the worst case scenario, the public will begin to believe that style, performance and drama are what ultimately matter when it comes to understanding electoral politics. That is bad both for individual citizens and for democracy as a whole.

Employing a dramaturgical analysis, they question the authenticity of Trump’s presidential persona (as, no doubt, many of us have) by describing the affectations of his melodrama: ‘Building the wall, keeping Muslims out, demonizing China, provoking Islamic State, championing the rights of “everyday” Americans – all these are “policies” which would fit perfectly within a melodramatic paradigm’. While there is little doubt that the Trump phenomenon is a socially engineered one, reminiscent of Trump’s persona on The Apprentice, it is not so clear whether the revelation of this engineering is a threat to his public image. To understand the meaning of the theatricality of populist politicians, attention must be focused on the context of reception – on how audiences use popular imagery, language and politics in their own lives.

Perhaps one of the most direct (and certainly most readable) commentaries on the emergence of populist sentiment in the United States to date has been Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land. Hochschild’s book is an exercise in overcoming the emotional and cultural barriers that divides the politics of the ‘North’ and ‘South’ of the USA. Although the geographical imagery is a loose guide to the divide that she is attempting to bridge across, Hochschild argues that it is vital for understanding the cultural semiotics that individuals use to frame their political kinship and adversaries. Hochschild’s interview participants (snowball sampled from the southern state of Louisiana) are all white Tea Party supporters from the middle, lower-middle and working classes who share a ‘deep story’ about the progress of American society and their place in it. This deep story is not a factual account of history, but rather ‘a narrative as felt’ (p. ix). Hochschild describes this feeling-narrative thusly:

A deep story is a feels-as-if story—it’s the story feelings tell, in the language of symbols. It removes judgment. It removes fact. It tells us how things feel. Such a story permits those on both sides of the political spectrum to stand back and explore the subjective prism through which the party on the other side sees the world. And I don’t believe we understand anyone’s politics, right or left, without it. For we all have a deep story. (p. 135)

The analysis of ‘deep stories’ require putting aside the moral and emotional objections that one has to a claim in order to reproduce the logic of feeling associated with the claim. For Hochschild, this requires scaling ‘empathy walls’ – in other words, overcoming the knee-jerk reactions that feel when in the presence of the politically contentious or outright abominable. These walls are ‘obstacle[s] to deep understanding of another person, one that can make us feel indifferent or even hostile to those who hold different beliefs or whose childhood is rooted in different circumstances’ (p. 5). This is not a call to embrace racist, sexist or otherwise prejudiced politics, but rather an invocation to seek out the interpersonal logics that influence how others engage with politics in the first place. The medium of communication says nothing about the message without the context of reception.

Generalising from Hochschild’s methods, what her book offers is not only an analysis of the undercurrent of Tea Party politics in the USA, but also a tool kit for the exploration of the politics of ‘Others’ in politically bifurcating societies. For Hochschild in the United States, the empathy walls that she faced as a Berkley-educated-and-professor-emerita sociologist were those generally between the Democrat and the Republican, or more accurately between the progressive and the conservative in that nation. However, the interaction rituals, communication formats and structures of feeling that allow such chasms to emerge are not specific to the United States.

The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has already surveyed the sites of disintegration of moral debate in his book, After Virtue. At the heart of modern politics is a distrust of political speech that takes the form of moral claims. Moral claims are popularly attributed the status of opinions, attitudes, feelings or preferences (a theory that MacIntyre terms ‘emotivism’) and are unlike factual judgements, which are either true or false. As MacIntyre notes, within this emotivist mindset,

moral judgments, being expressions of attitude or feeling, are neither true nor false; and agreement in moral judgment is not to be secured by any rational method, for there are none. It is to be secured, if at all, by producing certain non-rational effects on the emotions or attitudes of those who disagree with one. We use moral judgments not only to express our own feelings and attitudes, but also precisely to produce such effects in others. (p. 12)

Emotivism is not an ideal for MacIntyre, but rather a response to a specific historical malaise – a theory about the use of moral expressions. Emotivism has historically emerged when individuals ‘use moral and other evaluative expressions, as if they were governed by objective and impersonal criteria, when all grasp of any such criterion has been lost’ (p. 18). In other words, emotivism rests on the premise that we cannot provide satisfying objective (or agreeable) justifications for moral claims. If the failure of the radically ‘left’ and ‘right’ of politics to communicate with one another reflects an historical political trend, it may rest within the disintegration of the Enlightenment ideal of rationally justifying moral claims. The task facing those who seek to repair public and political arenas, as sites of agonism or authentic communicative action, is to bring divergent political identities into a common sphere of conversation where moral claims are not brushed aside as sacred expressions of incommensurable attitudes or treated as the basis of stereotyping persons.

Hochschild’s work is valuable here because she has partially succeeded in overcoming the folk theory of emotivism that breeds suspicion between the wings of politics. Although I’m unsure how successful such a text will prove in inspiring a new agora in American society, Hochschild has certainly provided some interesting tools to think and write with beyond the United States context. In Australia, for example, where the resurgence of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party has sent a shiver through the progressive and left-leaning, a cultural semiotics of the party’s voting base would perhaps bring progressives and regressives closer to communication.

 

Please feel free to comment/criticise on these remarks. I’d love to discuss your take on this.

 

References

Hochschild, Arlie R. 2016. Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, New York and London: The New Press.

MacIntyre, Alasdair. 2007. After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, third edition, Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.

Towards Effective Resistance: Governmental vs. Deliberative Ethics

Resistance and Power

Perhaps the most prominent question surrounding accounts of changes to universities in “neoliberal times” has been an ethical one: whence resistance? In her study of “younger” UK academic staff (under age 35), Louise Archer (2008) describes a range of common strategies through which academic staff attempt to cope with what is often described as neoliberal or managerial modes of governance. Gaming research agendas, speaking out against unfair practices, creating professional support networks, and emotional and spatial self-management were all strategies engaged by younger academics to cope with the perceived increasing work hours and decreasing time for meaningful academic work. Against such a greedy institution, resistance seems to be a fitting description of academics’ desired relation to the university. However, as Archer (p. 280) warns,

[the participants’ resistance also opened them up to other pressures, as resisting subjects can only remain intelligible within the neoliberal context to the extent that they manage to continue to produce the (‘right’) products within the precarious contemporary context.

Consequently, it is those who are likely to be highly motivated to succeed in academia who are attracted to the competitive environment against which they have been forewarned. The desire to “survive” in academia (in a professional sense) complicates the narrative of resistance. There are no clear friends and foes, no villains to smite nor heroes to champion. By contributing, we are conspiring. Perhaps this goes some way to explaining why strategies of resistance are often localised, individualistic and moralistic in character.

To assume that universities are holding all the cards, so to speak, is a fallacious attribution of power. Indeed, to conceive of resistance as kind of act which shifts power concpetualises power as a reified substance – a kind of capital held by some and restricted from the grasp of others. Power, as Foucault commented, is a means for describing a quality of relations between individuals whereby some actions are made easier or more difficult by virtue of the actions of others. Understood as a relational property, power implies that individuals are imminently entangled in generating power relations, which are experienced as subjectivity. Or, as Dan Butin (2003: 168) claims:

such a process of subjectification is not simply inscribed upon the individual. The individual does this to herself, one might say under duress, one might argue unwittingly, one might confess with scant choice, but it is not something done to her; it is something done with her.

Once we come to understand how we are subjected within power relations, we may choose to accept or attempt to resist. Either way, these power relations require our cooperation to operate whatsoever. Rather than decry the perverse influence of some (reified) form of power upon a “pure” domain (i.e. Mode 1 knowledge), it is more productive to identify what actions are made easier or harder within power relations, and how this easiness or hardness is able to be reproduced in relations between actors.

Governmental Ethics

A key conceptual tool for understanding widespread patterns of power relations has been as interesting to ancient philosophers as it has to modern sociologists: rationality. In their most “real” form, rationalities are conventions of thought – agreed upon means for transforming ideas or framing reality. When applied to academic governance several, important political rationalities become apparent, the most well-vocalised of which is appropriately termed a neoliberal rationality. When confronted with processes that demand our cooperation, we may develop a number of imaginings about our relationship with those processes. For example, when confronted with the metrics culture of modern academe, we may feel obliged to become stoic system gamers, bounded to our duty to both academe and intellectual cultures; or alternatively we may become protective leaders, assisting others to carve out space for intellectually-demanding work; or we may feel that competition is the necessary reality which we must face as individuals and develop an individualised mode of self-government.

In other words, although neoliberalism (as a political rationality) may seem to prescribe a rational entrepreneur of the self, multiple governmental ethics become possible when filtered through the complexity of human relations and values. Neoliberalism becomes a pervasive political rationality precisely because it can accommodate a nebula of ethical subjectivities while maintaining the integrity of its governmental assemblage. Rather than criticising “who” is able to exist within neoliberal frameworks, or “what” power exists there, the vital question for arriving at an effective mode of resistance is “how” the government of academics proceeds, and “how” we might imagine it otherwise.

For example, one systemic criticism which has developed along these lines is Stephen Ball’s (2003: 216) notion of “performativity” in higher education governance:

What do I mean by performativity? Performativity is a technology, a culture and a mode of regulation that employs judgements, comparisons and displays as means of incentive, control, attrition and change – based on rewards and sanctions (both material and symbolic). The performances (of individual subjects or organizations) serve as measures of productivity or output, or displays of ‘quality’, or ‘moments’ of promotion or inspection. As such they stand for, encapsulate or represent the worth, quality or value of an individual or organization within a field of judgement.

Utilising the technology of performativity, academics and teachers find, Ball claims, their values challenged or displaced by “the terrors of performativity” (p. 216), which are passed down from above. Its efficacy as a technology of government is derived from its hyper-rational and objective appearance, which are sustained so long as the means by which real events become “performances” remain black-boxed.

The risk inherent in performative technologies is that they will become self-referential and self-affirming, or value what Ball (p. 224) describes as “fabrications” of reality over attempts to ensure that truthfulness is maintained.

Truthfulness is not the point – the point is their effectiveness, both in the market or for Inspection or appraisal, and in the ‘work’ they do ‘on’ and ‘in’ the organization – their transformational and disciplinary impact.

If the goals of a university are explicitly to satiate the demands generated through mission compacts with the federal government, evidenced through accountability reporting procedures (as occurs in Australian universities), then these “fabrications” risk further closing the informational feedback loops between society and university management. To attempt to assist universities in remaining open to changing social demands and debates, a discourse of “resistance” is clearly not sufficient. A more systemically-oriented critique is required to address issues surrounding self-referential communication systems.

The paradigm of resistance is insufficient for addressing systemic issues because, when enacted, resistance tends to emerge in a highly individualised form. When early career researchers (or even PhD candidates) say “no” to opportunities, address research topics they see value in (but are perhaps not “sexy”) or aim to reduce work involvement (possibly for health reasons), a common discourse of “risk” is likely to follow. The figure of the self-responsible entrepreneur is invoked by well-meaning colleagues and advisors, for your own sake! The change in perspective required here is the need to see how “resistance” is interpreted within a governmental assemblage.

Though many of us may dream of critical theory sheep, it’s important to recognise that in an era normalised around governmental institutions, government is not only accustomed to failure, it is a “congenitally failing operation” (Miller and Rose, 2008: 190). But this trait is perhaps only a birth defect from one perspective. Governors may be so used to their plans facing insurmountable complexity that failure is both expected and considered business-as-usual. Consider these two examples:

  1. Resistance to metrification. A good portion of university rankings and performance metrics are derived from commercial databases and media corporations, such as Time Higher Education and the publishing house Elsevier. Although there are often public and academic critiques of the methods used to score and rank universities, the outcome of critique is seldom the cessation of measurement. Indeed, the failure to satisfy the critics provides a basis for an “improved” or at least “updated” methodology and renewed performances. These new rankings are then able to be marketed and sold, provided they maintain enough credibility. The overall logic of demonstrating competitive advantage is not overcome by problematising the methodology of rankings.
  2. Resistance to systematisation of research. When academics attempt to carve out space for “basic” research or normatively-driven research programs, these initiatives do not overturn the drive towards commercialisation and accountability embedded in the systemic logic of academic capitalism (Slaughter and Rhoades, 2004). Basic or normative research that relies on the claim that it’s societal impacts may be unexpected comes up against a hard sell: “funding basic research is a calculated investment in serendipity“. In an era of increased focus on accountability for taxpayer funding, impact is required to be not only “intended”, but also perhaps more predictable. The economic argument for funding basic research (that of “the importance of ‘basic research’ to provide the capital on which the next generation of innovations will be based“) is more readily drawn upon than the argument from serendipity. The new problematic for government becomes – how can research be conducted with greater certainty or security? Disinvestment is an obvious risk-management strategy where this question cannot be adequately answered.

Rather than resistance, the paradigm for thinking about how to organise academic labour needs to be framed in terms of a better means to govern. If the problem with our current corporate-style academic practices are that they are becoming performatively self-referential, or serve the interests of the economic over social, environmental and cultural betterment, then what is needed is a form of doing academic work that is more open to the changing demands that emerge from beyond that closing informational loop. This entails active participation in broadening the kinds of normative discussions which enter into university life – a revised mode for governing academic work.

Deliberative Ethics

So, given that, as academics, we are bound to accountability norms and our own desire to “survive” in academia, we – not personally, but systemically – contribute to the production of a governmental ethics. A form of self-government which begins from the desire “to further secure my position as an academic” will only become a negotiation over how we are subjectified as enterprising academic labourers and hence fail as a paradigm of resistance to current modes of government. It seems that one means through which we may fruitfully attempt to disrupt the current governmental assemblage is to influence how it reasons, which requires systemic thinking.

To influence the trajectory of academic labour, it is perhaps important to reflect on our own function as interpreters and scientists, knowledge producers and disciplined analysts. As intellectuals, we are able to contribute to the formation of values that enter into consideration of why academic labour is governed at all. As opposed to academic labour, which is increasingly instrumental to pre-defined governmental strategies, intellectual labour (the passionate labour grounded in cultural and personal senses of morality, rather than rationality) is normatively driven and not easily reconciled with competing ethics, such as that prescribed by an ethic of entrepreneurship. Because intellectual labour is not dominated by an economic rationality, it may form the basis of deliberation; of opening up governmental practices in academe to a deliberative ethics. Deliberation is not serendipitous – it can occur within time-restricted frames that can be evaluated for effectiveness – but it does allow for a wider range of voices from the intellectual groups to contribute to deliberations. To assist in enacting more deliberative modes of ethics in academia, it is necessary to imagine what we are attempting to accomplish through academe, rather than within it. To this effect, there are perhaps a few useful qualities which we might hope to better cultivate:

  1. More open public communication, not merely in disseminating results, but in formulating research programs. A more deliberative ethics will require academics to communicate normative positions to non-specialists and interpret the values and norms of non-specialists.
  2. A substituting of the status of “academic” for something more like “intellectual” – your value as a thinker derives not from your ability to say more than another person, but to bring them into a process of communicative deliberation with you: to enlighten, not to merely be enlightened.
  3. Acceptance that the modern university is part of a capitalist framework – material capitals, cultural capitals, symbolic capitals, embodied capitals – and that present forms of government (i.e. neoliberal political rationality) will not be reasoned with at a symbolic level. They will, however, respond to changes in how they are able to function on a technological level. Informational networks (in and around which academics frequent) are vital to how government interprets and influences reality. It is worth exploring our authoritative role in the organisation of these media by which governors know the objects/subjects of government.

In summary, to influence the government of academic labour, we need to act on a systemic level, aiming to shift the norms through which knowledge labour is enacted. This will not occur through “resisting”, as resistance under governmentality also presents the current governmental assemblages with new problems to propose solutions towards. Rather, we must be active in generating solutions in a publicly deliberative manner, engaging in a form of ethics which connects our behaviour with the knowledge that we, as intellectuals, develop and embody about the needs of our ecologies to sustain a peaceful and prosperous human existence.

And with only a few hours to spare, Buon anno!

The Value of Academic Freedom

A little while ago, a paper emerged from the interwebs titled, “Overflow in science and its implications for trust“. As its parsimonious title suggests, the paper concerns itself with the over-production of scientific research publications (“overflow”) and the implications of this speed of productivity for trust between scientists. The ever growing demand for academic productivity has produced new challenges for scholarly research, as information becomes more readily accessible, voluminous and specialized. The high speed of production of scientific publications (and also academic publications more generally) produces a Matthew Effect within the academic attention economy, whereby well-known scholars become valuable anchors for guiding the broader field and thereby increase in value and esteem. Meanwhile, lesser-known scholars find it increasingly difficult to accrue similar degrees of peer esteem. Essentially – the academically rich get richer and the poor get “I regret to inform you…” Overall, the fields affected by overflow may be experiencing a growing lack of trust, as the push to be ‘visible’ (and hence valuable) provides incentive for researchers to make bolder claims about their findings, to stand out, while journals find it harder to secure reviewers competent in the assessment of the volumes of articles being submitted to them (see Seibert et al.’s paper for an account from USA’s medical sciences).

The pressure to be popular produces distortions in a range of domains associated with academic and scientific work. Alongside the growing important of gaining fame in the scholarly attention economy, managerial pressure to produce ever more research publications also has the potential to transform values fundamental to both academic and scientific enterprises. The illustrative example that I will focus on in the remainder of this post is the valued idea of “academic freedom”.

Academic freedom is a value that has attained a high degree of normative integrity across the academic profession. Even in a post-modern era where the values of ‘truth’, ‘beauty’ and the ‘good’ face not only epistemic but ontological fracturing, academic freedom is still held a primary norm through which these values are explored and contested. The absence of this freedom is also the condition under which truth, beauty and goodness are warped by ‘external’ interests. The academic pursuit entails a kind of free speech, which Foucault may have perhaps described as necessarily “fearless” (the first lecture here is pretty neat). But free speech itself is not enough to fire the engines of an academic freedom. Free speech must be paired with free inquiry – the ability to pursue truth, beauty or the good. Robert Merton perhaps most clearly outlined the values and norms required to pursue truth in modern science. Merton’s values/norms of Communism, Universalism, Disinterestedness, and Organized Scepticism (CUDOS) highlight the necessarily social and organizational nature of modern science. For science, as for the academic profession more generally, the freedoms of the individual cannot be ensured apart from institutions. The university has a vital role to play here.

In an era in which universities are facing large organizational restructuring, the power relations that had once encouraged the maintenance of (an admittedly masculine, European and restrictive) vision of academic freedom have mutated and no longer aspire to the separation of the academic, and the profane world of everyday life and economy. The “impure” world of economics and the broader social are now regularly invoked to argue that academics should be more open and responsive to “the rapidly changing world in which we live“. The challenge is to remain open to social needs whilst avoiding outsourcing ethics to poorly suited proxies such as economic gains or governmental policy agendas. It is within these milieu – the ‘disorganized’, the ‘runaway’, the ‘postmodern’ – that academic professional norms and universities have mutually-constitutive responsibilities towards their enterprise.

Academic freedom is insufficient when conceptualised as negative freedoms (i.e. the freedom from interference, censorship, etc.) because this view presupposes that academics have access to the means to conduct their pursuits. In a corporatising university, subjected to every more restrictions on the resources available to research and teaching staff, access to the means to conduct academic duties are not ensured. The “ivory tower” vision of academic freedom as a negative freedom is also a privileged view of academia – of a wealthy and self-sustaining endeavour. In a scenario of resource abundance, negative freedoms may be enough to ensure that worthy research projects commence and that valuable lessons are conducted. It is not commodificaiton per se that threatens academic freedom, but rather the failure to recognise that in an era of resource scarcity, academic freedom must be conceptualised as a positive freedom. This would entail, among other things, the freedom to conduct worthy research, the freedom to disseminate research, the freedom to have that research acknowledged by the broader academic community – for what value is a message sent that is never received?

Academic freedom is not the freedom of any individual, but the freedom of truth, beauty and the good to exist with some degree of consistency among human beings. Merton’s norms and values of modern science are concerned with the enactment of the scientific enterprise, not the benefice of any individuals. Merton’s CUDOS are the norms through which the pursuit of truth is to be realised in a modern society. They are the integrity of science in human minds. Both academics (as the actuators of these values) and universities (as institutions with any sense of self-integrity) have an inherent interest in sustaining academic (alongside scientific) norms and values. Academic freedom, as the broadest of these values, is hence paramount to distinguishing the academic from other (non-professional) modes of communication and action. Conceived in the negative mode, academic freedom is divisive, as academics may compete against one another for (for example) less interference or less censorship through economic means. The tenured professor wealthy in both grant funding and prestige can purchase the time and attention of lesser academic commodities, more easily dictate the terms of research, to a degree. Conceived in the positive mode, academic freedom must be pursued in cooperation. Competition over scarce resources produces appeals to the private interests of funding bodies, incentive for academics to engage in “boasting” research findings and generally self-interested conduct. (Mark Carrigan aptly describes the competitive self-interest produced by the recent digital metrification of academic work, claiming that “The depressing thought is that I struggle to imagine not being interested in them [publication and citation metrics]“.)

Although academic freedom is not a freedom for the benefit of individuals, it does entail an ethics of the individual – a mode of relating to oneself as an academic. That is, academic freedom is normative. When taken for a negative freedom, the maximisation of academic freedom might entail the maximisation of discretionary effort – that is, the effort one expends above the threshold required to avoid “getting in trouble”. Maximising academic freedom in this manner is fraught with deleterious consequences for both academic work cultures and perhaps even the academic profession in general. Individuals encourage each other to overwork via positively reinforcing workaholism and the broader academic profession becomes obsessed with proxies of academic value, such as publication formulae, citation counts and grant dollars.

A positive conception of academic freedom – as a freedom of the academic profession, not the individual – is a useful conceptual tool to re-frame what is at stake in the corporatised/managerial university. Individual academics are encouraged within metric assemblages to become self-interested actors, seeking to maximise their personal freedoms often in competition with other academic actors. While this survival-of-the-fittest model of academe may indeed assist universities in adapting to changing funding environments, producing leaner and meaner bureaucracies, it does not ensure that academe will remain a distinct realm in which truth, beauty and the good are openly sought, spoken and heard. This would require a bureaucracy that recognises that academic freedom and integrity are systemic. The danger is not individual dishonesty (which is rare and readily sanctioned), but the systemic normalization of self-interest over scientific interest.

Does Career Building Produce Neoliberal Subjects in Academe?

Career building is a fundamentally imaginative activity. In envisioning how our lives and working circumstances might be projected into the future, career-seeking individuals engage in conceptual mapping. Our career imaginations are influenced by personal values, perceptions of ourselves and environments, our relationships both in the workplace and beyond, and any number of discourses and practices of institutionalized career development.

Career building activities in academia have been critically discussed in relation to the instrumental place of universities within our global knowledge economies. Simon Marginson, among others, have been prolific in describing the impact which globalization is having on universities around the world. Universities are broadly described as being corporatized, privatized, metricized, managerialized, economized, audited – amidst any other number of verbs implying the disempowerment of collegiate governance. Far less attention has been paid to the impact which these broad processes are having on the cultural imagination of academic career planning itself. In an industry characterized by precarious labour arrangements, tribe-like professional groups, status games and portfolio development, career planning becomes weaponized in the struggle for professional survival.

Firstly, a brief overview of the battlefield: Academic careers are often both protean (Hall) and boundaryless (Arthur and Rousseau) endeavours. Although university human resource departments go to lengths to formally distinguish each level of the formal academic hierarchy apart from one another, practicing staff are under no illusion that each step of this career ladder is gated and monitored by financial management as much as peer assessors. Unable to rely upon their seniority to assure promotion, academics are charged with the duty of creating their own case for formal advancement, through building portfolios, self-marketing to future employers and roles, and gathering allies (“networking”) to boost the presentation of one’s peer-esteem. Career progression is in a sense self-created or protean. As D.T. Hall has described, the successful protean career is determined by “internal” (i.e. psychological) criteria, rather than one’s place on a formal career ladder.

It is not uncommon for academic staff to trade off opportunities for formal ladder climbing for the opportunity to engage in work which is perceived to be fulfilling and worthwhile. Consequently, there may be, theoretically, a high degree of inter-organizational mobility  which contributes positively to an academic’s sense of career advancement (sometimes described as a “boundaryless” career orientation). The commonality of protean and boundaryless characteristics within academic employment implies a high degree of flexibility in how academic might imagine their ideal careers. The “tenure track” towards professorship might be a hegemonic ideal, but it is by no means a totalizing ideal.

Academic Careers in Knowledge Economies

Although scholars may strive to fulfill personal aspirations, the economic and political reality of managerialism in universities, neoliberal education policy reforms and increasingly legitimacy of student choice, qua education consumer, shape the possible roads ahead. Departmental amalgamations and closures seldom occur on grounds of scholarly merit. For the neoliberalising university, some career aspirations are more ‘efficient’ than others; some achievements are more ‘effective’.

pinched from httpmeme.wikia.com/

Alongside the metricization of academic value, so too have the conditions of professional ‘survival’ become enmeshed in short-hand indicators of teaching and research excellence. Publication counts, journal rankings, h-indicies, Altmetrics and numerous other metrics which signify academic value allow for potential academic employees to be sorted, graded and compared against one another – a short-hand useful to academic management in an age of trans-national knowledge labour. Staff are not blind to the competitive advantage offered by demonstrating an ability to score highly on these measures. Although successful academic careers might be built around achieving personally meaningful outcomes, the need to survive professionally within universities creates additional career demands. Not only must academics construct viable career narratives around their duties, but this narrative must form a recognizably valuable commodity. To imagine a ‘career’ in academe is to aspire to professional survival through the commoditization of one’s self as a ready-made product for input into the university’s production processes.

The eerie image of an academic career described on this battlefield is (evidently, I hope) a characterization – or perhaps an ‘ideal type’ – intended to sensitize us to the negotiations facing academics in corporatizing universities. Of course, real academics may engage in other modes of career building and planning – i.e. career building as skills development, as networking, as quest for social justice – and a real academic may use any number of these schemata in practice. Although I have not yet found an empirical study addressing the issue, I suspect that early career academics and others in precarious employment conditions may be more inclined to adopt a model of career-building-as-self-commoditization to the degree that self-commoditization promises greater employment security. The isolation of individuals in precarious employment conditions are a primary driver towards a the neoliberal subjectivity of the self-responsible labourer.

Career-building in a precarious environment becomes a mechanism of control, encouraging academics to engage in self-surveillance and evaluate their conduct against the criteria signaled by performance metrics. Professional ‘survival’ is a practice which encourages academics to approximate the self-responsible, rational self-producer – a kind of labourer central to advanced liberal modes of governance. More than just subject of capitalism (i.e. academic-as-commodity), career ‘survival’ introduces academics to a field of competition where their energies are not simply exchanged for goods in an academic capitalist marketplace, but they must also compete to have the value of their labour recognized alongside other – perhaps equally qualified – academics. Neoliberal modes of governance do not only encourage competition, they increasingly define the criteria by which value is judged.

Although academics may travel between universities and over continents, the metricization of ‘value’ in universities creates new boundaries for career development. I describe the importation of managerial accounting tools (i.e. the audit culture) and digital techniques for approximating ‘esteem’, ‘reach’ and ‘impact’ of academic activities (i.e. citation counting, ranking) as neoliberal in that the function they perform is to marketize academic labour and also act as a “site of veridiction” (Foucault 2008, p. 32). Though procedures and tools of metricization are contested and often critiqued in academic discourse communities, their outputs are often taken up as evidence of academic merit and achievements, thereby – to a large degree – legitimating managerial and scholarly decisions alike.

Do we have to Measure Up?

There are perhaps good reasons for suspecting that career building encourages the neoliberalization of universities in our present culture of audit and managerialism. Management is as political as it is technological. An anonymous professor (and former associate dean) recently wrote to The Guardian that academics not only “need to be managed”, but must also themselves become involved in their institutional management through taking up managerial roles.

Resources are stretched. Students, funders and the government all make demands, and the university must weigh these up against other interests and requirements. I’ve often found myself conflicted: on one hand I see the need to manage and on the other I also see the value of academic autonomy. The trick universities have to pull off is balancing these different forces.

The concern which this professor expresses for “the need to manage” is symptomatic of a political subjectivity predisposed to an allegiance with capital through academe. Although few academic staff would contest the claim that academic autonomy is valuable, the values of university management are often, as above, seen to be legitimate in and of themselves – as needed to be “balanced” against scholarly needs, rather than reconfigured or protested.

In a highly individualized work culture, academics often find themselves negotiating their ‘survival’ through competition, under threat, precariously and by reaching out for signifiers of legitimacy – metrics, peer esteem and tokens of validation. To engage in career building individually through appealing to these metrics, or to collectively contest which numbers best reflect our intentions is to fail to address the fundamental question of government: Why measure at all? Measurement fulfills several layers of truth-making (or “veridiction”, for academics, universities, governments, etc.), but what sort of truth are we constructing? For academics to be intellectual leaders who are more than highly paid public servants, these basic questions must be objects of discussion, demolition and – vitally – delegitimization. Metricization eases the squeaky wheels and tightens the assembly line belts. It is our duty to see the factory for the cogs and rearrange the mechanisms to produce not only good ‘outputs’, but also good reasons.

On the ‘Personal Experience’ of Science, et al.

It has been over a year now since I had the opportunity to travel the bush lands and cityscapes of South-Eastern Australia’s universities. Half a dozen flights and twenty-nine odd interviews with academic staff later, I decided it was time to get down to the fun stuff.

I was immediately struck by the voracity with which many academic staff proclaimed an undeniable, boundless love for their academic practice. Academics from across ages and career-stages reverberated a ‘passionate’ devotion to their specialisation (whether that be an area of research, a mode of critical inquiry, or a pedagogy). Such sentiments are not uncommon throughout universities. It was precisely the normative acceptance of these discourses of ‘passion’ that drew my Foucaldian-disciplined gaze.

The ease with which many academics draw upon narratives of destiny, journeying and achieving fulfilment was complicated by attempts to explain their passion against past experiences. Some had suffered dearly for their passions. Others had wandered lost in the maze of the careers rat-race years before “discovering” their true calling. These stories of emergence from the seemingly unfulfilling world outside the university resonates with Max Weber’s (1958, p. 112) classic lecture, ‘Science as a Vocation’, from which this blog post draws its title:

[W]hoever lacks the capacity to put on the blinders, so to speak, and come up to the idea that the fate of his soul depends upon whether or not he makes the correct conjecture at this passage of this manuscript may as well stay away from science. He will never have what one might call the ‘personal experience’ of science. Without this strange intoxication, ridiculed by every outsider; without this passion […] you have no calling for science and you should do something else.

There is a degree of familiarity here with the descriptions which many of my participants provided of their own relationships with their scholarly work. One participant claimed that being employed in a university without a research program is akin to “alienation”, while another claimed described his teaching duties as vital to academic practice and “lifestyle”.

But before heralding our present academic environment as the last bastion of passionate science, it is worth recalling the purpose of Weber’s lecture: to warn science lecturers against allowing their personal values to slip into the delivery of scientific methods and teachings to their pupils. Science, Weber argued, could not give an answer to the question: “What shall we do and how shall we live?” Rather, science can help us develop technologies for controlling life, produce methods for training the mind, and offer a means of clarifying our thinking around the values we already hold (p. 129).

Rather than seeking to understand academic labour through the language of ‘passion’, it is useful to disaggregate discourse from practice. The discourse of ‘passion’ has reverberated and changed tone over the years, taking its present form within academic communities. The functions of the discourse of ‘passion’ (among which seem to be a legitimizing role – i.e. I belong because I am passionate) should be analytically separated from the practices by which academics reflect on their behaviour, evaluate their conduct and act upon themselves as academics.

Because the range of possible values individuals may bring into academia, we should be wary of what is understood by ‘passionate’ attachment to scholarly work. Is this a passion for discovery, a passion for human development, a passion for performing, etcetera? And what about labour that lacks praise, such as the institutional life-blood of seat-filling teaching, administration and un(der)credited labwork? It is to this domain that I propose to bring a cultural critique of academe.

Of what significance is ‘passionate’ labour to the current structure of academe? What impact do discourses of ‘passion’ have upon casual and over-worked academic staff, who find it difficult to experience the “ah-ha!” moments within their own work? What role does ‘passion’ play in legitimising neoliberal subjects within modern universities? Is there an economy for ‘passionate’ scholars?

With any luck (and a positive peer review) I’ll be discussing these issues and ‘Academia’s Love Affair with Neoliberalism’ at The Australian Sociological Association’s 2015 conference in Cairns at the end of November.

I think I’ll leave you here with the antics of David Mitchell.