Can we afford to be cynical about academic life?

When I began my investigations into what drives academics, I armed myself with the most powerful critical arsenal I knew: ideology critique. Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man was a particularly sharp-looking cutlass which I was sure would puncture the heart of the expropriation, exploitation, and general unfairness that many claimed characterised academic labour relations. The growth of casual and short-term contract labour, the use of PhD students to turn the cogs of teaching and assessment, the growth of ‘voluntary’ redundancies within the sector: stones to sharpen a Marxist blade.

Thankfully, the naivety wore off: I questioned my epistemology, read more broadly, and generally stopped dressing like a war veteran or prophet of the apocalypse. I don’t mean to imply that all cultural critique is a fashion, but when it is, oh, do we look back cringing… With my method challenged and my coat a less depressing shade, I began to ask more interesting and concerning questions: Not ‘why?’, but ‘how?’ Not ‘who?’, but ‘when?’ How do universities seek to regulate the activities of academics? When do academics comply? When do they resist? Michel Foucault and Bruno Latour had been particularly useful in assisting my thinking here. However, despite the near wholesale abandonment of my Marxesque aims, a certain degree of cynicism remained. It emanated from zombie issues of casualisation, labour market issues and the persistent complaints and critiques of colleagues. These zombies are not problematic in themselves, but when the cynical attitudes which surround them become contagious, the infestation is no longer containable. It becomes a template for approaching other academic-university relations. Let’s take the example of Performance Development.

Performance Development is generally a program of audit: a recording device for measuring and storing information about the research, teaching and service outputs produced by academics. These recordings are then able to be used by academics to demonstrate their cases for promotion or pay increases, for applications towards new jobs, or to defend their work contracts if placed under threat of redundancy. Many scholars have complained (perhaps rightly so) that Performance Development is little more than an auditing device for the bureaucracy – a tool which universities use to keep a track of their academics and a source of data which can be used to back up decisions about who to hire, fire or promote. What counts as ‘performance’ is defined by the university, within the Performance Development program. This makes it difficult for unorthodox research to be recognised by universities (especially those that do not consider publishing scholarly journals as a key good of the research process, such as research which aims to engage communities outside of academia). Teaching is often narrowly evaluated in terms of student numbers, student feedback assessments and post-education employability rates. The cynicism that this process generates is not without a few endogenous origins. However, to reduce Performance Development to a bureaucratic device risks overlooking the inventiveness and ingenuity of the individuals and systems that engage it. If overindulged, cynicism can become a straight-jacket for the mind.

Consider a letter I received from a journal editor. This editor was excited to read that I had been considering the role that Performance Development plays in guiding academics in their work. However, they were not impressed with the direction that my argument had taken. They would review a revised version of my article that “more forcefully, directly, and specifically criticized the performance development process” and gave some suggestions about how the system could be configured to allow staff more freedom to define their own terms of ‘success’. My initial reaction was modest embarrassment: How could I have missed this criticism?! Of course this process was a pernicious nuisance! Thankfully, I was prevented from redrafting and submitting a revised article in a timely manner, as my thinking on Performance Development changed radically.

Given some distance from the article I drafted, some reflection on the direction of my project and on the ambitions and goals of academics working in their disciplines (thanks to some PhD field research), I had another idea. Why were academics engaging in these practices (of self-reporting, evaluation and judgement), if it was detrimental to achieving their goals? Ideology could not be the answer: everyone seems well aware of the ‘problems’ associated with Performance Development as a management tool. My focus shifted: Not ‘why do academics engage in Performance Development?’ but ‘how are academics encouraged to engage?’ Some of my answers surprised me. Performance Development is required by many universities as evidence for demonstrating competence for promotion, salary progression or employment, but also perhaps for career planning. Depending on how the Performance Development process is managed, self-accounting and planning can be a useful tool for younger academics to orient their actions and have frank and honest discussions with senior staff about their career planning. More than just a bureaucratic auditing device, a conversation (which extends beyond yearly reviews) is invaluable for the mentorship of younger academic staff, who may often rely on imitating their supervisors and mentors to learn the academic game.

In order to better our present systems of academic governance, imagination is wanting where cynicism blooms. In order to imagine how our present arrangements (such as Performance Development) might be enhanced or modified to produce benefits for both academics and institutions, we must allow space for creative explorations. For speculation. For comparison and conjecture. And also for feedback. We can begin by imagining apparatuses such as Performance Development as conduits through which individuals, data, intentions and action are configured and flow: as points of definition and negotiation (or, to use the STS jargon, as assemblages). The strength of this perspective is in being able to see beyond a binary of agent-object (i.e. management-worker), and towards a more flexible platform where interests are understood as functions of the system in which they operate. Academics engage in Performance Development because that engagement is beneficial in some way; they complain because it can also be a burden. The point is not to advocate the demolition of the whole conduit, but to redirect the flow in a more useful direction. And if the stream cannot be cleaned of the aforementioned cynical contagion, then perhaps regular treatments of imagination will make the water worth swallowing.


(On a side note, I am genuinely curious how early-career academics get a feel for the academic game. Do you seek out advice from colleagues? Do you test out strategies used by your supervisor? Are you panicking that you might be forgetting something? Feel free to comment.)