Global Academia: A Late Modern Neurosis?

Modern academia is characterised by an identity crises. Defined by both the idealism of scholars pursuing what Hannah Arendt called the “life of the mind” and materialistic concerns over careers and infrastructure, academia is a tortured beast. In a fascinating recent paper in the Journal of Classic Sociology, Stephen Turner identifies the disheartened idealism of classic sociologists Max Weber and Thorstein Veblen (writing in the early 20th century) as enduring into our late modern era. In Turner’s account, the post-War era brought with it the dominance of the university in how individuals imagined seeking the life of the mind, displacing earlier amateurist ideals that great science would occur beyond the confines of the conservative cloisters of the academy. Now more commonly than not, intellectual merit is evidenced through the uptake of ideas through citation and reference, if not through holding esteemed academic offices and leadership titles.

In The Social Structures of Global Academia, Nick Osbaldiston and I offer an overview of how sociologists have explained the culture and governance of academia as a trans-national ideal. In that book, we argue that “the university is vitalised by the idea that the rationalisation of knowledge is a public good, which also requires an appropriate form of social organisation” (p. 1). In other words, academia is a form of social organisation in which questions about how the “life of the mind” should be lived are central to justifying the distribution of power in that institution to its members. This might partially explain the suspicion held against rock-star professors and patent-holding innovators whose esteem and academic capital may help to materially sustain their research groups and departments. But besides these exceptional figures, academic staff at all levels reproduce discussions and myths about academia as a kind of broken bastion in need of repair and perhaps re-sanctification.

In this post, I explore the social context that this mythology and discussion have emerged within: A late modern era in which aspiring professionals are implored not only to seek meaningful work, but who are encouraged to reflect on that work through its organisation as academic work. I will do so through exploring three tropes that have emerged in recent times, which ostensibly offer descriptive diagnoses, but which each may support strong values about what role academia should play in social and professional life. I have described these below as the acceleration diagnosis, the precarity diagnosis, and the corrupt culture diagnosis.

The Acceleration Diagnosis

A number of popular and critical works have emerged identifying the rhythms of scholarship as either the unfortunate victims or aggrieved targets of efforts to transform academic life. Berg and Seeber’s The Slow Professor is among these works, as is Slow Science Manifesto project, and Filip Vostal’s work within and surrounding his book, Accelerating Academia. These works identify mismatches between the pace, rhythm, and frequency of different scholarly activities and their surrounding (capitalist) environments as a source of allegations of dysfunction in academia. The acceleration diagnosis does not point towards a solitary pathogen, but identifies a cacophony of disturbing and counter-productive trends, such as the pressure to publish large volumes of scholarship, to conform to governmental norms such as “excellence” and “impact”, and to plan scientific findings and work to corporate timelines.

The consequences of asynchronicity have been documented for some years now by the Accelerated Academy project, whose discussions appear on the LSE’s Impact Blog and at their conferences. Reflecting on the Accelerated Academy project, Mark Carrigan and Filip Vostal caution that although their project has become something of an academic earworm, analysts should resist quick prognosis such as “it should all slow down”. Some other, more reasonable, ideal should be driving claims about the appropriate pace and course of action for transforming scholarly life.

For many, this value is professional autonomy, which in temporal terms becomes what Vostal calls “temporal autonomy”. However, it is not always clear that autonomy is directed towards the transformation of scientific practice, as much issues of control over personal lifestyle and work satisfaction (as Vostal has also noted in the chapter above). Alison Edwards articulates the desire for autonomy over lifestyle clearly in her account of taking back autonomy through becoming an independent (and self-funded) scholar. While the acceleration diagnosis is a valuable description of the interruption of scholarly work, it is also mired in the desire of scholars to seek a meaningful existence on their own terms.

The Precarity Diagnosis

Other scholars have focused on the transformation of work contracts between academics and universities as a source of malaise within academia. Specifically, the growth of contingent work contracts, which characterises sectors beyond higher education, has been identified by labour scholars as detrimental to the functioning of academic life. Christian Mauri, for example, claims in his chapter, ‘Formulating the Academic Precariat’, that the growth of these contracts produces a rift with the academic profession:

Along with securely employed professional and administrative staff, the core is made up by the real faculty who are in or on a clear track towards ongoing positions. While the redundancy rounds that many universities go through, ostensibly to cut down on unnecessary expenditure, means that positions that were previously counted as secure are always subject to the threat of dissolution, the core is nonetheless, comparatively speaking, the domain of the secure salariat. The periphery is inhabited by sessional academics, who are casualised in so far that they are employed as part of a “reserve army” of labour on casual or limited-term contracts for years at a time, and proletarianised in so far that their experience and expertise can be rendered irrelevant by the administrators and the proxy-employers of the core that they depend on for employment. (p. 188)

This inequality in authority, recognition of the value of work, and difference in contract and rewards for similar work produces an identity schisms, rendering some academics “bosses” or benefactors, and others as employees and “assistants”. The insecurities of the latter group are (troublingly) not an existential threat to the functioning of universities themselves. Universities in Victoria, Australia, for example, have recently released headcount figures that show that on average, they operate with around 63% and up to 73% of staff employed on contingent contracts, as reported by Madeleine Heffernan. The precarity critique is not, however, confined to a criticism of the functioning of highly precarious workplaces.

Precarity is measured in social science research as both a property of political-economic systems (i.e. in terms of work contracts, justification for pay and benefits) and also as a property of workers’ psychology and decision-making (i.e. feelings of insecurity and unease around future planning). It is within the latter group of studies that the precarity diagnosis develops stronger value claims. In David Knight and Caroline Clarke’s study of academic identity formation under insecure working conditions, the authors claim that although academics seek out secure identities through structurally insecure conditions, “we believe it is important to challenge some of the premises on which [identity formation] is founded”. Diagnosing precarity is not a goal in itself, but a pathway towards a better form of self-knowing and self-action here.

The Corrupted Culture Diagnosis

A final genre of diagnosis emerges from studies and commentary that more directly engages with questions of purpose and value in academia. Robert Merton’s account of ‘The Normative Structure of Science’ crystallises values and assumptions that have long since remained in the forefront of debates about ideal academic cultures. The values of communism, universalism, disinterestedness and organised scepticism largely capture the ideals that scholars associate with academic and scientific pursuits in their everyday speech (see ‘You’ve got to love what you do’ for a deeper account of how these ideals play out in a contemporary context). Richard Winter has most clearly outlined the argument that these ideals have become corrupted by the transformation of higher education institutions. He claims that attempts to align academic work with corporate values have produced identity schisms in the higher education sector.

At face value, Winter’s argument is that a mismatch between corporate and academic values has resulted in attempts to adopt incongruent values – leaving some to feel like they are “managed academics” within the corporatising sector. Collegiality is lost to line management as much as honest inquiry is lost to key performance indicators that encourage scholars to seek out the approval of peer-reviewers and managers in their approaches to research and teaching design. But beneath this critique of values incongruence rests a more structural and moral problematic: Is the attraction of an academic role more heavily embedded in the enactment of scholarly values, or the experience of autonomy? This is an important issue because, if new paths to autonomy are learned or created within the corporate system – and if this produces values congruence for academics – then the struggle to maintain scholarly values in the university will lose a powerful ally. The corrupt culture diagnosis may gain its political salience from the desirability of scholarly work and if this is the case, the relevance of Merton’s scientific ethos may be at risk within a more pleasant (or otherwise distracting) corporate setting.

Academia as a Late Modern Neurosis

The three diagnoses that I have explored above are subject to subjective values because they are entwined in every scholars’ personal concern: What is the purpose of scholarship? Why observe? Why record? Why toil experience into language, reflection and argumentation? Why communicate it? Why promote it?

The acceleration, precaritisation, and corruption of academic practice is at the same time the disturbance of a culture of scholarship and the disturbance of an ideal that scholars hold about their futures and life trajectories. Like many other professions, academia carries with it the expectation that its practitioners will aspire to and achieve an integrity of personal character that implies the pursuit of a lifestyle suited to cultivating those character traits. To the extent that this character is seen as desirable as an end in itself, rather than for the sake of professional goods, academic life may become something of a ritualistic obsession. That is, academia may lose value as a public good in favour of its value to individual academics, to bolster their own desires for control over work routines (against accelerationism), security in their professional roles (against precaritisation), and integrity in their sense of self (against the corruption of academic culture). It is this focus on the individual value of academic work and life that academia may appear as a late modern neurosis – a substitute for a quest for control, security and integrity. Any diagnosis of academia must begin with an honest account of what role this institution should play in social life, lest an unnamed desire steers the course of its treatment.


The Consequences of Being a ‘Good’ Early-Career Academic

Career planning in academia is a component of a broader suite of cultural norms and material practices that reproduce the contemporary status quo. Career planning assumes the existence of a means of creating some predictability and contingency planning – an anchor on which to weigh your ship in the ocean of possible futures. Career planning means taking the advice of the good seafarers who came before your; to trust that their vectors are well-plotted and that their compasses point true. The oceans of academia are economic, cultural, and social, so that to take the advice of seafarers on where to anchor your vessel is to aspire to a way of life. In this post, I reflect on how this way of life is experienced by early-career academics who keep the maps of their forebears sacred, despite many lingering feelings that their anchors never truly caught on the seafloor.

In Australia, as elsewhere, the academic ocean is characterised by the growth of contingent working contracts and conditional state support for the regular operations of the industry. The Australian Commonwealth government has shared experiments and strategies with the United Kingdom, in producing periodic competitive exercises to determine and justify the distribution of pools of resources, as well as block-funding based on student enrolments and completions. The model of state-supported, public-mission-bearing universities has produced many of the same contradictions that higher education around the globe faces: the co-existence of collegiality and command structures; public missions and private capital; student citizenship and a customer ethic; not to mention ideals of equality and systemic inequalities.

But there is an additional contradiction that drives at the heart of academic knowledge production, which might be described as opportunity hoarding in the name of the public interest. Jana Bacevic and Chris Muellereile capture this contradiction in their discussion of the ‘goods’ of open access publishing. Many open access advocates favour post-publication review, as opposed to pre-publication review, which ‘is framed as enclosure not by virtue of preventing access to the finished product, but by keeping the process of production behind “closed doors”’ (p. 9). As both Michelle Lamont and Steve Fuller have noted, these closed doors allow for the production of consensus among established academic hierarchies, by reviewers, editors and leaders who consequently may use their consensus for ‘rent-seeking’ from less established peers. This tension between the ideal of open and the reality of closed knowledge production often manifests in the conflicting interests of senior, established academics and the contingently employed scholars. Pre-publication review in a sense reflects a transformation of the meaning of collegiality – as a pact among scholarly landlords.

Whatever the structural reasons for these ongoing contradictions within contemporary academia, they serve both latent and manifest functions in the reproduction of academic life. Vik Loveday has already captured this idea in her claim that in UK higher education, anxiety is both a consequence and tactic of governance. Loveday finds that anxiety is channelled into a control tactic through invoking a ‘neurotic academic’:

an entrepreneurial self who is governed through responses to the anxiety precipitated by uncertainty in the neoliberalising HE sector, whilst being simultaneously incited to take responsibility for the management of those anxieties; those unable to ‘cope’ with such demands may be compelled to ‘exit’ the sector. (Loveday, p. 163)

The governance of aspiring academic careerists through anxiety is not merely a symptom of precarity. It becomes a tactic where contingently employed academics are paralysed by their inability to plan long-term, both at work and beyond it. This condition has also manifested in Christian Mauri’s work, where he has come to identify (somewhat jokingly) an academic ‘precognitariat’: ‘those clever people who foresee a precarious future and pursue it nonetheless’ (p. 5). The valorisation of secure academic work and the reality of growing contingency produces a structural contradiction: Precarity is a selection mechanism in the reproduction of a contingent labour force, but it is also a form of deprivation of which contingent academics are cognisant.

The governance of academic work through neuroticism has impacts on not only work-life, but also other areas of social existence. In a recent paper, Christian Mauri, Nick Osbaldiston and I explore the ‘Moral Barriers between Work/Life Balance Policy and Practice in Academia’ as an extension of neuro-liberal governance into the realm of non-work life (Get one of 50 free eprints here, courtesy of Taylor & Francis, or email me). We found that Australian early-career academics were largely hesitant to take advantage of explicit work/life balance policies (including parental leave) and were largely sceptical of work/life balance seminars and workplace training. It was common to hear early-career academics claim that taking up such policies would harm their careers through limiting their ability to express their good ‘character’ to peers and managers (see Sennett’s work on character). Through our analysis, we discerned that early-career academics are guided by at least three interpretations of what good character means: (1) being a discerning self-manager who can take personal responsibility for their own work/life balance; (2) being a grateful team-player who sacrifices their personal life for the benefit of their fellow faculty; and (3) being a determined realist who accepts that universities do not offer work/life balance. Each of these expressions of ‘good character’ naturalises and rationalises precarity in early-career academic life.

The culture of ‘good character’ that we found among early-career academics not only facilitates the dismissal of considering work/life balance policy options, but also does so through invoking a quasi-moral discourse. I write ‘quasi-moral’ because these discourses may serve as rationalisations of conduct, rather than purely motivations in their own right. When creating a narrative of being a ‘good’ academic is a method to further work security or the possibility of a future career, character becomes instrumentalised. Drawing on the work of Zigmunt Bauman, Matt Dawson draws a helpful distinction between ‘social’ and ‘societal’ morality. While human morality is in some sense social – shaped through the socialisation of children and moral education – morality can be manipulated by social institutions as well. Dawson claims that this latter, societal manipulation of morality ‘is achieved through two mechanisms: adiaphorization and the structuring of choice’ (p. 258). Adiaphorization means to remove some forms of action from the realm of moral choice – to make some decisions seem ‘technical’ issues, rather than moral ones. For early-career academics, the decision of what projects to work on or how to organise time may be reduced to questions about doing so efficiently, rather than questioning the purpose and social value of academic pursuits. However, for Bauman, few moral choices are unambiguous; what matters is how some choices are made more likely than other – or, the structure of choice (in Dawson, p. 259).

In early-career academics’ decision-making, the rent-seeking practices of established academics help to structure what decisions may be seen as more morally desirable or actionable. In the case of work/life balance policy decisions, the individualisation of work/life balance decision-making implies that collective or organisational action is less actionable and hence less likely to occur. To the extent that perceptions of ‘good character’ individualise or diminish moral decision-making, these perceptions pacify social morality and enable a more systemic and abstract societal morality. If a function of higher education is to seek out not only good means, but also good ends (or at least better ends), then reforming early-career academic work/life expectations has become a field of contest over the goods of academic life. At the very least, ritualistic compliance with pathological forms of ‘good character’ needs to be dis-incentivised at the managerial level. If being a ‘discerning self-manager’ or ‘grateful team player’ means abandoning moral judgement for the sake of maximising one’s career chances, incentives should be arranged so that academic managers have no interest in rewarding the abandonment of moral judgement. What such a dis-incentive might look like is a matter for another post, but internalising the cost of social reproduction into the university may go some way toward this goal.

The Implicit Data Pedagogy of Platform Academia

Universities are have become dependent on digital information infrastructures, bringing them into the domain of what Nick Srnicek describes as platform capitalism. Learning Management Systems, MOOCs, teleconferencing facilities, database management systems, and a host of other networks are constructed and often contracted from private companies, such as Google and Microsoft. When academics at Monash University and a number of other Australian universities committed to industrial action over the past few months, it occurred to me: striking academics might bring management to the bargaining table, but a striking IT department would bring them to their knees. (Fortunately for senior managers, IT services can be sub-contracted from other firms, so that any “strike” action would be a mere failure to deliver services with no benefit for the “strikers”.)

What I will explore in this post is not the impact of formally contracted ICT infrastructure and services, but rather those forms of data collection and management that seem to have a life of their own. You might think here of the proliferation of GoogleScholar as a search engine for scholarly work, or Academia.Edu/ResearchGate as public profiling platforms, or the even more bizarre Publons platform that seeks to capitalise on peer-reviewers’ desires for recognition for their work. Where no edict exists to command or encourage scholars to share their personal and professional data, such platforms have thrived.

What I want to suggest is that these practices of searching, uploading and self-archiving are part of a broader pedagogic practice that may be shaping how many early-career academics think about and enact scholarly work. But to do so, some framework is needed to account for the relationship between transforming information systems and user engagement with those systems. I believe that framework may be usefully developed from the concept of ‘data doubles’.

What are Data Doubles?

Before the turn of the 21st century, Kevin Haggerty and Richard Ericson were searching for a means to describe the transformation of surveillance. Whereas the metaphor of “big brother” and Jeremy Bentham’s “panopticon” did a good job of describing the techno-psychology of surveillance in discrete systems (where those being watched are aware of how they are being watched), few attempted to describe how the convergence of several surveillance systems might transform surveillance itself. They argue that surveillance technologies were converging

to the point that we can now speak of an emerging ‘surveillant assemblage’. This assemblage operates by abstracting human bodies from their territorial settings and separating them into a series of discrete flows. These flows are then reassembled into distinct ‘data doubles’ which can be scrutinized and targeted for intervention. (p. 606)

The flows of data that they describe might, in our contemporary context, include not only explicit data that users have offered systems (i.e. personal data, Google searches or publication information) but also meta-data concerning the timing, volume and frequency of data entry. As new modes of data collection join the existing assemblage, the possibilities for the aggregation, combination, filtering and inferences made from data multiply.

In short, data doubles are the ways that data connected to a specific signifier (i.e. your name) are re-assembled to form a meaningful whole. Some data doubles you are likely familiar with already include resumes, GoogleScholar profiles, web search results for persons’ names, performance evaluations. All these data doubles rely on a broad network of data collection points, networks, nodes, infrastructure, and decision-makers (whether human or algorithmic). And because the meaning of such data doubles depends on the data doubles related to other signifiers (i.e. other resumes, other GoogleScholar profiles, other search results and performance evaluations), the final meaning of any data double is always contextual.

The intentional manipulation of data doubles may be described as a ‘speculative’ practice, as the meaning produced through any data double cannot be known until the point of its realisation. Will publishing more peer-reviewed papers increase the perceived value of your ResearchGate profile? It might depend on whether your profile is compared to: scholars at your career stage; of your nationality; of your current era; of your strata of university; etc… As Lisa Adkins has recently described in a different context, speculative practices have the potential to change our relationship to both time and sociality. The value of data doubles and not set in stone, but rather produced through what they might ‘put in motion’ (to use Adkins’ phrase). The double’s value is the promise of some form of input into the conditions of a wager between the academic and an uncertain future.

Managing Data Doubles: Speculatory Prosumption

While some data doubles are clearly in the control of the persons they are seen to represent (you most likely compile your own resume), most seem to approach us, in some form or another. Profiling sites such as ResearchGate and GoogleScholar do not wait for academics to log-on and produce their own input, but generate profiles for them. If you’re depending on your scholarly reputation to sustain your work and career, the onus is then on you to mange the impression that the data double presents to onlookers. George Ritzer and Nathan Jurgenson claim that the work that individuals do on profile-based platforms (and other social media) is both an act of consumption and production. Online impression management produces value for the tech companies that manage these sites – value freely given by users.

What is interesting here is that it is this voluntary labour is enabled by the positioning of the data double within a speculative environment. In other cyber spaces, prosumption may be encouraged by the immediate benefits of productive consumerism: such as Facebook’s social networking and communication functionality or Instagram’s capacity to host large archives of visual data. As Ashlin Lee found in his study of surveillance on Facebook, the perceived benefits of immediate access often outweigh concerns over the potential costs. But the benefits of digital academic profiles are far less certain that the benefits of social media platforms. Data doubles contain a double speculation: that one’s performance through the double is ‘successful’ (i.e. compares well against other people’s doubles) and also that the very existence of that data double means something beyond the platform. In other words: What is a killer Academia.Edu profile actually worth?

The management of data doubles is hence speculatory prosumption. The value that one hopes to add through the labour of profile management is not immediately realised, but rather might be realised at some point in the future. In this sense, it is a kind of hope labour. While there is no obligation to perform speculatory prosumption, the possibility that you are being reckless by not putting your best self forward though these platforms is enough to motivate many to engage beyond any apparent immediate benefit. Labour is effectively extracted from academics and aspiring candidates because “you just never know…”

Early Career Doubling: A Pedagogy?

In labour markets where individualised competition is the norm (i.e. an era of low unionism), digital profile platforms may be seen as one of a range of “coaches” in the arts of competitive self presentation. While William Davies notes that such coaches may include “business gurus, life coaches, ‘leaders’, business lobbyists, motivational speakers and national business representatives”, non-human entities such as digital media platforms may perform similarly disciplinary functions under the right circumstances. Melissa Gregg has already gone some way to describe this disciplinary function as the “athleticism of accomplishment“: self-tracking technologies may be treated as evidence of achievement, to be improved upon and presented as markers of esteem.

This possibly disciplinary function presents some interesting questions for the field of higher education governance research. A vast array of data collection and presentation platforms emphasise the comparability of profiles (chiefly through metricising existing inputs, such as publication counts, or through producing more idiosyncratic metrics, such as ResearchGate’s RG Score). They hence imply an analytic for interpreting the conduct of academics: in this case of GoogleScholar or ResearchGate, as a rivalry between scholars who are ordinarily ranked by the comparison of metrics.

My questions are thus: Might the management of data doubles perform an implicit pedagogical role in the lives of early-career scholars, who are seeking work in saturated job markets? How vital is the input of scholars across different cohorts to the performance of prosumption for digital profiling platforms? And perhaps most pressingly: Has the uptake of data double management influenced the performance of scholarly work? Luka Carfagna’s research suggests that prosumption is not always experienced as labouring for another, but may be felt to be an exchange between persons within a system rather than a quality of the system itself. A deeper ethnography is warranted here.

The Cultural Economy of Creative Work

In an information-rich society, work produces not only the fruits of focused, intentional action – products and services – but also traces and recognition of the worker herself. When the outcomes of work are measured, recorded, and the actions of workers are compared, a field of vision is brought into existence in which work is selectively recognised through a system of value. Work is seen primarily for its use to others – as labour. And there are many ‘uses’. A commodity, as Marx famously claimed, is not only of use to the consumer/client, but of value as an object of market exchange to those who seek to profit from production itself. The time and energy that workers sell to others inevitably bears the trace of information about the producer: a poor silhouette of one’s self, reflected in the gaze of interested others. In order to instrumentalise our labour, we must subjugate ourselves to an order of value and in a capitalist society: this is the order of exchange value.

And yet, not everyone is subjugated in the same way. Workers in different professions and enterprises leave different imprints of their work behind. For example, a chef might leave traces of productivity such as the number and type of meals prepared, ingredients used, profit accrued, time worked, equipment costs, customer feedback… just as a university teacher may be associated with a number of students taught, hours worked/paid, hours logged on online learning-management systems, student evaluations, pages of material printed… The list of aspects of our working lives that leave informational traces is considerable and only increases in size once managers attempt to infer information from these traces. Again, customer feedback at a restaurant may be seen as evidence of a chef’s talents, just as student evaluations of a course of study may be seen as evidence of a teacher’s value.

The difference between the chef and the teacher is in how these traces of information intend to be used by groups seeking to evaluate these different forms of work. While a restaurant manager may be concerned with minimising costs in the production of happy patrons and healthy profits, university managers regularly mobilise student feedback in national performance evaluations and reputational boasting. Additionally, while a chef is likely to be reprimanded for unusual negative customer feedback, for the teaching scholar (most of whom are employed on “sessional” contracts, approximately 12 weeks at a time) student evaluation scores are read as a kind of capital to be mobilised in competition with their peers to secure work from semester to semester. The differential uses of these traces change what a “good” worker looks like in each scenario.

In this blog post, I want to focus in on a kind of work that is conducted across multiple industries, and yet seems to show some similarities in how workers are recognised on an informational and cultural level. I call these workers “creative” because they resemble what is commonly understood as creative arts workers (visual artists, musicians, performers, etc.), but use the term “creative workers” rather than “creative artists” because I also include professions and roles that are not usually thought of as artistic, such as scientists/academic, educators, social media influencers, motivational speakers, tech “gurus” such as Steve Jobs or Elon Musk, and political leaders. Okay, so: What is creative work and how does it relate to the informational traces it produces?

A Definition of Creative Work

In short, creative work is any activity in which the worker herself is recognised in her work. That is, the work is recognised as her work. I do not mean that the worker may automatically claim ownership of the product of her labour (as labour in a market society may be rented and its fruits claimed by those who pay for it), but rather that this work is believed to be the outcome of the activity of a specific person. While creative work may be what Hannah Arendt describes as “labor” (activity that merely sustains life), it is also “work” (activity though which we produce a collective sense of living in a distinctly human world) (see p. 7).

This definition may come across as very PoMo – defining a concrete thing by how humans perceive it. But it is not the work itself which is subjectively defined, but rather “creativity” that is in the eyes of the beholder. While work itself is objectively definable, measurable and ostensibly defined, creativity is a quality of the human imagination. It describes an expectation that we may hold for the outcome of an act – that it produces something “new” that was not destined for this world but rather has been accomplished by the actions of specific persons. In some sense, creativity is the act of masking the source of creativity, as to claim that something “new” has been produced may be to mask any “influences” that may be described as the true source of creativity. While a great artist may be influenced by surrealists, to be seen to merely reproduce the style of surrealists is to be a great copier, rather than a creative. Something of one’s self must be added to the mix. The creativity of bricolage is within the exegesis as much as collision of forms and signs.

The importance of specific individuals to creative work drives the production of very specific kinds of informational traces. In all work, some information about the worker is retained – primarily information relevant to their productivity, profitability, and sustainability. But by virtue of being seen to solely produce the work that is her work, the creative worker generates an additional kind of trace: reputation. Creative artists are famed for their oeuvre and politicians are praised or denounced for the situations that are claimed to have emerged from their own invention and discretion. These reputational traces are not only of the creative work performed, but are often claimed to be evidence of the existence of a certain kind of person: a “creative” or “maverick”, a source of original design. Although creative work is seen to be the outcome of disciplined skill (or fortuitous talent), the idea of a restrained creative is something of a contradiction in terms: there must be a hidden mania seeking expression; a desire to engage with the uncertain experiment that is human flourishing. This image of a creative worker I’m describing is a cultural artefact as opposed to an explanation of creativity as a phenomenon.

Creative Work and Speculation

The cultural icon of the creative worker occupies a significant place in a mode of capitalism characterised by fast-moving finance and speculative investments, such as our own. Drawing on Feher’s work, Martijn Konings has argued in Capital and Time that the notion of a worker as “human capital” is not just valuable for pointing out that neoliberal subjects seek to make a “return-on-investment” on their own time use, but also “the possibility of capital gains, the appreciation of the investment”. That is, in an economy where finance is more freely flowing and social security is minimised in favour of individualist self-reliance, “Above all, the neoliberal subject must ensure that its assets are speculated upon; its objective is ‘self-appreciation’.” It is not enough to be seen as a useful cog, as each cog is as interchangeable as others and all are destined for replacement. Rather, a more secure investment rests in encouraging others to speculate on your future value; to create the perception that your value as human capital may increase, to encourage a prospector’s mindset in others, to place yourself at the centre of attention and on the horizon of possibility. “The neoliberal subject’s aim is to make investments that induce investments”, becoming a passage point towards value generation.

The cultural artefact of the creative is, in this environment, a valuable symbolic resource for the neoliberal subject and for actual human beings seeking to grasp the attention of speculative finance. The creative worker produces one-of-a-kind outputs due to the identification of creative work with the trace of the worker. Productivity literature (which has been well narrated by Melissa Gregg in Counterproductive) tends to promote rituals directed towards what Peter Sloterdijk (in Gregg’s book) describes as a kind of “athleticism” (p. 54). Productivity advice manuals, motivational speakers and now computer apps encourage office workers towards behaviours that prioritise individual performance at the expense of concern for others – that is, productivity training is often training the worker to delegate, prioritise and minimise interruptions to work. “Interruptions” here is codified language for both one’s own desires that do not promote productivity as much as the desires and needs of others that are equally as distracting.

While the notion of creative work may seem at odds with the concept of productivity (which is not a commonsensical artistic value, but in fact its opposite), the creative worker is of the highest point of speculation when they embody an creative athleticism: that is, when the possibility of producing unique outcomes occur ritualistically. We can think here of highly productive scholars, musicians, technology developers who seem to command the attention of entire industries, eagerly awaiting their next great work. For the creative athlete, increasing the productivity of creative works increases the likelihood of being noticed and enacting a self-fulfilling prophecy of speculative valuation.

However, the image of the artistic athlete that I have outlined thus far emphasises the rational, cohesive planning that might be associated with the icon of the creative. Creative athleticism is not the only way to imagine striving for a creative life. This athleticism is a preserve of the privileged: those without caring responsibilities, without prejudices held against them, without neuro-atypicalities or physiological challenges that may impact on the conduct and promotion of creative work. Because creative work implies a unique artist/auteur/craftsperson/director/leader/philosopher, cultural norms factor into who is recognised as a ‘real’ creative and who is able to be passed off as a clever imitator or an accidental vessel. Cultural norms and shared values about creative work hence play a central role in who is likely to be recognised for and profit from a virtuous cycle of recognition for creative works.

The Mystique of the Creative Worker

The icon of the creative worker is not identical with the reality of workers seeking to produce creative works, of course. Just as the image of the entrepreneur – a self-sufficient daredevil of fate – is not identical with the experiences of wanna-be tech start-up founders and online-store cottage-workers seeking to establish their reputations. Stephanie Taylor has gone as far as to describe the ideal of working-for-yourself in a neoliberal economy as a “new mystique”; for a number of men and women, switching to working from home has reduced them to “an almost subsistence level of economic activity” (p. 174). The bleed between work and non-work life in such working-for-yourself scenarios may lead to the consumption of all life by a near ascetic dedication to seeking self-value though work.

This new mystique takes on a particular form when applied to creative work. Steven Threadgold has noted that creative artists in underground music scenes in Australia are “choosing poverty” – that is, keeping overheads low – in order to free up time for creative pursuits (or maximise their chances of creative productivity). In a creative environment such as Australia, where geographic distances between creative cities (Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, and others) and between Australia and other countries are vast, opportunities to engage in sustained, remunerated artistic work are more sparse than is possible in creative centres in nations like the USA. Threadgold’s poverty-choosing artists internalise the “illusio” of the artistic practices they are engaged in. Illusio is Pierre Bourdieu’s term, meaning a shared sense of purpose within a social group; for artists, the realisation of expression and creativity is highly valued within the artistic field. The combination of the internalisation of valuing impoverishing creative time-investments over remunerated but non-creative work may become the basis of a creative mystique, drawing artists in to the promise of a meaningful life that renders them ultimately vulnerable to those around them who control access to material resources.

Whatever the future holds for creative workers, the persisting image of the creative as the source of unique production outcomes, and the place of originality in contemporary copyright and patent laws, makes the cultural economy of creative workers an ongoing area of interest. Through a cultural economic analysis of this category of work, both the motivations of workers and the planning and managers and policy-makers can perhaps be better understood as embedded within cultural norms, values and other non-economic-rational means of valuing and conducting work. Perhaps then can the connections between the very close world of daily work-life and the very distance world of global capital be visible.

The Social Structures of Global Academia – New Book, Coming Soon!

Since the broadly neoliberal reforms of the 1980s, debates about the future of higher education have been a contest over the rightful mission of universities. From the corporatisation of public research in the USA’s Bayh-Dole Act (1980), to the reputation markets produced through the UK’s RAE/REF, and the quasi-markets produced through Australia’s demand-driven Unified National System of higher education, economistic language has been central to the pronouncements of both advocates and critics of these reforms. Formalised economics has long been recognised as the unifying language of politics, with behavioural economists checking the grammar of Homo economicus.

By contrast, the study of institutional culture in higher education has been much slower to develop as a unified or even comparative practice. The sociology of academia has long been associated with the names of Max Weber, Robert Merton, Edward Shils, then Pierre Bourdieu, Mary Henkel, Tony Becher and Paul Trowler. However, these dominant approaches are in need of revisions to account for the resurgence of what some are calling the ‘culture wars’ in late modern societies.

In Australia, the proposed Ramsay Centre of Western Civilisation course at the University of Sydney (which failed to gain traction at ANU), the revelation of former Education Minister Simon Birmingham’s decision to veto 11 ARC grant applications, and ongoing outcries over ‘freedom of speech’ on campuses have resonated with events in the USA, UK and Europe. The resurgence of public interest in the cultural effects of higher education highlights the need to understand the cultures of higher education – that is, a sociology of academia.

Toward this end, cultural sociologist Dr Nick Osbaldiston and I have edited a collection of essays, entitled The Social Structures of Global Academia (Routledge, 2019). This volume presents studies from social scientists and academia scholars from across the Pacific and Atlantic (see the end of this post for a contents list). The chief aim of this volume is to encourage scholars from both early- and later-career positions and from across the globe to account for commonalities and splinters in intellectual cultures. This book outlines the intellectual history of academia studies, while also introducing contemporary research on the themes of academic ethics, the affective cultures of scholarship, the ongoing transformation of culture by funding and metrics, and how we might theorise agency and control through this lens.

This volume will be of interest to scholars who are curious as how to approach the study of the cultures of intellectuals in academia and how these cultures are related to organisational structures and broader social life. Please feel free to contact Fabian Cannizzo for more information ( or @fabiancann).


Dr Fabian Cannizzo
Melbourne, 31/10/2018

The Social Structures of Global Academia – Table of Contents

  1. An Introduction to the Social Structures of Global Academia
    Fabian Cannizzo and Nick Osbaldiston

Part I: Academic Ethics

  1. The Public Good of Higher Education
    John Holmwood
  2. Beyond the Academic Ethic
    Stephen Turner
  3. Academic Service: Attachment, Belief and Hope
    Nick Osbaldiston, Fabian Cannizzo and Christian Mauri

Part II: Affective Cultures

  1. Affective Infrastructures of Global Academia
    Mona Mannevuo and Elina Valovirta
  2. Academic Craftwork: On Authenticity and Value in Academia
    Fabian Cannizzo
  3. Happy in Academia: The Perspective of the Academic Elite
    Oili-Helena Ylijoki

Part III: Funding and Metrics

  1. Early Career Academic and Evaluative Metrics: Ambivalence, Resistance and Strategies
    Gaby Haddow and Björn Hammarfelt
  2. The Rise of Project Funding and its Effects on the Social Structure of Academia
    Thomas Franssen and Sarah de Rijcke
  3. Racing for What? Anticipation and Acceleration in the Work and Career Practices of Academic Life Science Postdocs
    Ruth Müller

Part IV: Agency and Control

  1. Formulating the Academic Precariat
    Christian Mauri
  2. Living and Working in the Contemporary University
    Sarah Rachael Davies
  3. Fields of Struggle: University Work and Global Change
    Raewyn Connell

Am I a (Good) Neoliberal?

In a recently published paper in the Journal of Sociology (2018a), I sought to describe how something as abstract as a political rationality is experienced in the everyday lives of scholars. The growth of audit cultures, managerial power and new languages for describing academic work are each a focal point of a broader arena of political changes to higher education and academic research. In another recent paper (2018b), I have also argued that we currently practice scholarship in a culture of authenticity, in which our personal values and identities are often inseparable from how we evaluate our work and careers. I find the intersection of these papers – of political economy and self-identity – an unavoidable part of everyday early-career academic life. After a good half-hour of catching up with friends and describing our small victories, stressful setbacks and unexpected re-routings, an apologetic tone may find its way into our conversation. Like a proper middle-class apology for excessive behaviour, one of us will acknowledge, “aren’t we good neoliberal subjects?”

This trope, of confessing how embedded we are in an individualist, boastful ritual, is representative of an identity tension at the heart of early-career academic life. Peter Bansel and Bronwyn Davies (2010) described the longer, later-career version of this conversational trope in a book chapter, where they interview a highly successful professor who works to make ‘neoliberal’ (managerial) forms of government work because of ‘a love of what neoliberalism puts at risk’. The professor is resigned to working within the system to achieve ends that he claims are beyond them and informed by Christian values and a sense of duty towards his colleagues and students. But the apology trope comes in the form of an admission that there is no freedom from working with management. Freeing oneself from neoliberalism is akin in futility to trying to buying your way out of capitalism: the means are as important as the ends.

It’s very easy to feel very small in comparison to a school, an organisation, a nation-state, and especially a political rationality. Like capitalism, the concept of neoliberalism seems to pursue scholars in moments of vulnerability: in speculating about the future, in career planning, and in justifying self-serving behaviours. But what I want to clarify here is that this political rationality, though wide-spread and deeply embedded in parts of everyday life, is not mysterious nor all-pervasive. Rather, what Philip Mirowski (2013) describes as ‘everyday neoliberalism’ is experienced through specific spaces, technologies and habituated moments in everyday life. Neoliberalism is felt to be so pervasive because of its successful normalisation into the cultural repertoires through which we make sense of, organise and act upon ourselves and others. That is, the methods for thinking about the world encouraged by neoliberalism seem pervasive because they colonise not only our present, but also speculation about myriad future possibilities.

Let’s use the example of academic career planning. In my doctoral study of 29 Australian academics, career planning emerged in conversations as a key practice through which academics felt that they negotiated their values and put strategies into practice. Academic career planning in an exercise premised on uncertainty. Participants often described the ‘luck’ of securing full-time work, ‘resilience’ to downturns in career prospects, and having to cultivate a ‘go-getting’ attitude. Individualised strategies and explanations were the standard for accounting for career planning in the presence of systemic risks, such as limited job opportunities or time-constraints placed on activities by departmental management. To cope with the cognitive dissonance of thinking of the career as both a personal responsibility and a ‘lucky’ (impersonal) process, academics may engage in what Caroline Clarke and David Knight (2015) call ‘careering’ or what Ruth Müller (2014) identifies as the ‘anticipatory acceleration’ of work. However, these strategies are not conceived of and executed in isolation: schemas must be learned through socialisation. Neoliberalism is apparent in both policy frameworks that incentivise competitive behaviours, but also in institutions that socialise strategies for coping with competition. Career planning is a key site for encouraging this socialisation.

If we take the idea that career planning is a site of governmental socialisation seriously, then cultural norms that prescribe career trajectories are themselves part of a governmental apparatus. Career planning connects the conduct of academics with the idea of ‘risk’ as a narrative tool, shaping how academics confront uncertainty in their careers. As Mirowski claims, for the neoliberal subject, risk is a test of virtue: ‘The modern denizen of neoliberal society has not demonstrated real flexibility of personal identity until they have prostrated themselves before the capricious god of risk’ (2013, p. 120). In early-career planning, risk can be experienced as performance of ‘hope labour’ (Kuehn and Corrigan 2013) – that is, labour performed (usually gratis) with the intention of gaining experience or professional kudos. Careering, anticipatory acceleration and hope labour are not only career-management practices, but also entwined with the socialisation of academics into neoliberal policy frameworks.

So, coming back to the conversation at the beginning of this post: Aren’t we good neoliberal subjects? Perhaps. It would be difficult to build a case for employment or promotion without paying attention to how you measure up. But the question of identity does not fit well with a theory of political reason such as neoliberalism: our identities are only frozen moments with processes of socialisation and self-formation. Perhaps the more valuable question to ask here is: how have we come to learn and accept these practices for self-management? Only once this empirical work has been done can we trace these modes of self-formation back to the rationalities, discourses and technologies of power that enable their operation. So, in place of the question about our subjecthood, I instead ask: How do we make good neoliberal subjects?


Works cited:

Bansel, P. and B. Davies (2010) Through a love of what neoliberalism puts at risk, in J. Blackmore, M. Brennan and L. Zipin (eds.) Re-positioning University Governance and Academic Work, pp. 166-146, Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Cannizzo, F. (2018a) Tactical evaluations: Everyday neoliberalism in academia, Journal of Sociology 54(1): 77-91.

Cannizzo, F. (2018b) ‘You’ve got to love what you do’: Academic labour in a culture of authenticity, The Sociological Review 66(1): 91-106.

Clarke, C.A. and D. Knight (2015) Careering through academia: Securing identities or engaging ethical subjectivities? Human Relations 68(12): 1865-1888.

Kuehn, K. and T.F. Corrigan (2013) Hope labor: The role of employment prospects in online social production, The Political Economy of Communication 1(1): 9-25. Available at

Mirowski, P. (2013) Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown, London: Verso.

Müller, R. (2014) Racing for what? Anticipation and acceleration in the practices of academic life science postdocs, Forum: Qualitative Social Research / Sozialforschung 15(3): Art. 15. Available at

Time Management in Academia – A Road Map for Research

How do academics organise their time? What experiments and techniques of time management are practiced in higher education? How are early-career academics socialised into time management routines? In this post, I outline an upcoming project to trace the personal and communal practices that academics use to organise their work. If you have any advice or opinions, please share them in the comments below.

The pace of life in academia has become a central concern of professionals in the sector. I have written and published a bit on work/life balance, managerialism, identity, values, and range of topics that are pervaded by discourses of accelerationism and the loss of autonomy over working conditions. Heather Menzies and Janice Newson’s paper ‘No Time to Think’ is typical of the sentiment. Intensifying and mobile work routines have been enabled by digital technologies and brought into demand through competitive pressures in the university bureaucracy and academic status hierarchies. For early-career researchers to mid-career course managers and lab coordinators, time pressure is the key phrase. Changing organisational structures are discussed in terms of conflicting temporalities.

Individualised, self-centred responses to time pressure is normatively assumed in much of the literature. This is not a surprising assumption, given that the very idea of ‘career-building’ in academia is now strongly associated with individual performance appraisals and growing rhizomes of data collection and fabrication software. The metric regimes that have come to regularly interface with academics though profile-based social media (Twitter,, ResearchGate) and identity-tracking platforms (ORCiD, ResearcherID, GoogleScholar) seem to eerily mimic institutional performance appraisals (tracking publications, grant money, teaching experience, role titles) and morph them into further figures (such as ResearchGate’s bizarre RG Score).

While the identity-focus of the audit culture in higher education seems to incentivise individualistic approaches to dealing with time-pressure, some very interesting practices have become socialised. Perhaps one of the most well-known recent developments has been the Shut up and Write (SUAW) communities that have emerged (see in particular The Thesis Whisperer’s post on this for a clear explanation). Groups all over the world are using social media and location-tracking software to schedule regular meetings for both academics and other creative and professional writers. SUAW, using the Pomodoro technique (in short, 25 mins of intensive writing, 5 min break, repeat), offers to assist with time management through time-compression; what might be written in a meandering, email-distracted way over a few hours might be punched out in a matter of minutes. SUAW is hence a technique for self-regulation through community.

Members of SUAW communities express appreciation not only for the technique and regulating presence of other writers, but also the sense of belonging that is created. SUAW groups can be spaces to have one’s efforts recognised and celebrated, as well as assist with the task of writing. It is interesting that this writing practice is possible in isolation (all you need is a timer and writing space) and yet groups gather in both physical and online spaces, routinely, to perform solitary acts together.

I aim over this year to explore what other methods and practices have been established to manage time in academia and in particular what techniques exist for socialising academics into time management practices. These could occur in the classroom (at undergraduate levels), in the office (for graduate students), in seminars, in online spaces cafes (as per the SUAW collectives), in tearooms or read from classic texts (such as the appendix to C. Wright Mill’s The Sociological Imagination, ‘On Intellectual Craftsmanship’).

If you have an interest in these practices, ideas or just want to chat about your methods, comment below, follow me on Twitter (@fabiancann) or email me at