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.