What possessed you to become an academic?!

As an undergraduate I must have lost a few marbles. I’m now almost certain that I left them somewhere between my Qualitative Research Methods and Buddhist and Hindu Philosophy classes during my second year. But that seems like lifetimes ago and in all likelihood they’re gone for good. Now, when I manage to get back into the real world, and an unprepared bystander inquires, “What do you do?” I reply, after a few moments of habitual thought: “Well, I’m an academic. Don’t ask me why.”

It’s not that I’m a cynic, or that I don’t enjoy myself. I love my research. I have become quite fond of teaching (after spending nearly a year conquering a rather paralyzing case of what some friends have described as ‘social phobia’). I should probably mention that I’m only in the second year of my PhD degree, and a few milestones away from laying even a bare claim to any sort of authority. I spend most of my day pawing through fascinating ideas or attempting to establish contact with those that I admire. It’s the subject-matter of my study that I fret to divulge to those bystanders I mentioned earlier. What do I do? I study academics. Their joys and perils. Their fears and hopes. But mostly, I spend a large quantity of time deciphering sophisticated complaints and critiques of universities: how academics are overworked; overburdened by administration; disadvantaged by career expectations; uncertain about their futures; upset by the ‘state’ of higher education. So why would I be attracted to a career in academia? Well, I’m an academic. It’s a difficult complex to diagnose upon request. I told you not to ask me why.

Whenever I ask a practicing academic why they hold to their posts, their replies resonate in my mind like the distinguished soloist of a larger choir: for the love of their work. They are good at what they do. They love knowledge. They are all Philo-sophers, lovers of knowing. Most of them have a strong degree of institutional and emotional support from colleagues or mentors. But I’m painting a rather too romantic picture here. There are inter-office feuds, tribes and counter-offensives. A garden of desires and fears that is latticed through human habitats. It’s part of our cultural architecture and for the most part it’s business-as-usual. What strikes many as quite unusual is the nature of institutional demands upon academics, especially (in the Australian context) since the institution of a series of higher education reforms proposed by John Dawkins during the mid-1980’s. These “Dawkins Reforms” were to transform the landscape of higher education and how academics go about loving their knowledge.

The Dawkins reforms are infamous within higher education scholarship for encouraging universities to become increasingly more like corporations, who have to pay even closer attention to their balance books. However, another important change that has occurred has been the flow-on effect that this has had on what it means to be an academic. Within this new policy arena, universities encourage academics to think of themselves as economic units. Academics are expected to cultivate their skills and connections within academia and with outside stakeholders – including other academics, students and potential investors – to increase their marketable value. The academic is primarily a producer of value within the university, but may also enact their value as a consumable object for the university to purchase. As an academic accrues more ‘academic capital’ (any qualities which the university can then use to ensure profit) they attain a higher level of value to universities and are more able to ‘sell their selves’ to institutions or bargain for more favourable employment contracts.

However, academic capital is a contentious topic amongst academics, because it is not just an institutional expression of traditional academic values (such as quality scholarship, teaching and research), but also market-based, non-academic qualities which may allow universities to accumulate capital, such as fame, industry experience (but not necessarily theoretical training), and connections with investment groups and institutions. Although possessing these qualities may seem quite rational and desirable from the standpoint of universities, they do not ensure the integrity or quality of academic disciplines which require training in their histories, methods and disciplinary discussions. These forms of academic capital are – admittedly – still attractive to many academics. However, forms of value which depend on the universities’ monetary objectives may perhaps be misplaced.

Building academic capital may appear to offer academics more job security, bargaining power and stability to counterbalance institutions’ power over the academic labour market, but this market advantage is potentially unstable. Firstly, market advantage is a relative quality, which may afford its subject security within a relatively closed marketplace, but offer near no security at all in a larger, more internationalised and open system. Unless you are an international superstar, fame is always relative to where you are. Secondly, this market advantage is dependent upon current institutional arrangements, including the policies of funding bodies, national government priorities and the missions and objectives of universities. As a form of institutional capital, academic capital enables academics to engage the market logic of a post-Dawkins era, while offering temporary forms of work stability which are open to adjustment where institutions require it. If I wanted to be famous, I would have practiced playing guitar more diligently.

For now, it is necessary to market ourselves: institutionalised by the desire for an academic life.

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4 thoughts on “What possessed you to become an academic?!

  1. Ashlin says:

    Diagnosis – Stockholm syndrome with idealistic ideation and unreasonable hope.

    Good first post. Found the analysis insightful too. It’s certainly something I’ve reflected on (daily) as I work on my PhD and associated academic tasks. But I think you do have to be pragmatic about this. The association and idealisation of being ‘an academic’ in many cases maybe from the comfort of familiarity. The tenuous position of knowledge production that we have in a neo-liberal economy means we shouldn’t get too attached to the ‘academic’ label, and should in many cases strive to be more than that (if only for academic capital!).

    In my view, doing a PhD reflects a love not of academia, but of engagement and learning. Of getting to the heart of the issue. Saying a PhD is just for academia is limiting in my opinion. Yes, I too wish to be in the academy, but I wouldn’t shy away from the private sector either – part from the about of political and mental angst the academy breeds. For me, a PhD is a declaration of your analytical and critical writing and thinking abilities, As you’ve demonstrated things in academia are not the intellectual paradise, just another neo-liberal battleground.

    • Stockholm syndrome sounds about right! It’s been a slow process for me of coming to grips with my idealisation of academia as a broken haven for the love of learning and thinking. Our precarious position as creative ‘entrepreneurs’ certainly place us in a strange relationship with our institutions.

      Perhaps the misplaced ‘love’ of my past idealisation is a consequence of the familiarity of academic life, but perhaps it is equally a fear of the added tension that comes with “translating” our research and teaching skills into a language which non-academics will recognise. I think, as sociologists, we should remember to think broadly about social relationships, and not over-specialise our knowledge and limit our critical thinking skills to just one area of interest (as the dissertation process might imply). For the most part, I suspect that what I am coming to learn is to be confident in my own skill set and recognise the opportunities that those skills enable. Certainly, if I knew more about my own applicability to potential employers in the private sector, I wouldn’t shy away either. Perhaps this is an issue of an uncertainty about my own cultural capital, in terms of expectations within the private sector. I think it’s time for me to do some research. :)

      Thanks for your comments.

  2. G S says:

    I do it because I get paid to learn, paid to investigate, paid to do what I love best. There are many things I dislike, most of these are cultural or administrative. But what a privilege it is to teach people to think, not what to think but how. Not bothered about creating people in my own image, but teaching people to develop their knowledge, interests, and arguments. How lucky I am. That is why I do this, and what possessed me was a wonderful academic who made me think this was a possible career. He said there are worse careers, for me he was right.

    • I also find it difficult to envision myself enjoying some other careers as much as this one. It is quite a wonderful thing to see a student become engaged in discussions and develop a passion for research and learning. In both my classmates from my own undergrad and my students now, I become invigorated by their curiosity.

      Thanks for your comment.

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