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.

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2 thoughts on “The Consequences of Being a ‘Good’ Early-Career Academic

    • I hope that something useful can be done with this notion that economic models are at least partially dependent on how groups share character evaluations and how individuals create positive self-projects… something useful for addressing the issue of banal precarity anyway. It might just save colonial capitalism from its own discontent. :-P

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