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.

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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 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 (mrfabiancannizzo@gmail.com 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

“Potential, Possible or Probable” Predatory Publishers List Pushed to the Archives

As a postgraduate researcher, you are often warned, repeatedly, to watch out from predatory journal publishers, offering to review and publish your labour of love (perhaps at a fee), and more often than not addressing you as “Dr.”, “Professor” or “Chairman” (yes, it happens). If you had then gone on to ask how to identify predatory publishers, a thoughtful colleague might have sent you to a source such as Jeffrey Beall’s List of (what he describes as) “potential, possible, or probable predatory scholarly open-access publishers” and journals (You’ll note that all of Beall’s pages are currently archived on web.archive.org). If you have never heard of Beall’s List or Jeffrey’s work, check out this short segment from a CBC clip on “Cleaning up bad science“.

Beall’s List – De-commissioned

The frequent qualifications that attend comments on Beall’s List (i.e. “potentially” or “allegedly” predatory publishers) should remind users of the list that Beall’s work does not sanitise scholars of the need to use their own judgement and do their research. For any journal or publisher included on the list, Beall has maintained an Appeals page where he and his advisory team have sought to address scholar’s concerns and review inclusions on their list. While attempting to assist scholars in guarding their own reputations, Beall’s List has attempted to improve academia’s meta-cognisance, making itself aware of the need to question the institutions on which its practitioners depend.

Unfortunately for these ideals, Beall’s List was discovered to have been taken down in mid-January, with most being left to speculate as to why. Both Beall’s Facebook and staff page at Auraria Library have also been deactivated/dismantled.

Retraction Watch (a rather self-explanatory name really) claims: “The decision to take down the site — and Beall’s faculty page at the Auraria Library, where he remains a tenured associate professor — was his own, the University of Colorado Denver tells [us].” Beall appears to have remained silent over why he has pursued this decision, although Retraction Watch notes that Beall has been threatened with lawsuits before, from a publisher on his list. If indeed some form of litigation has compelled Beall to act, then the scholarly enterprise may be all the worse for it. As Ivan Oransky and Adam Marcus have noted, Beall’s List wasn’t just a blacklist, but a “a catalog of remarkably bad behavior” – a glimpse between the value-spheres of academia and business and a reminder of where organised scholarship is far from perfect.

For many, this bad behaviour is not limited to publishers. On the blog Derivance, Luděk Brož, Tereza Stöckelová and Filip Vostal lament the loss of Beall’s List and recall its utility in raising the publishing history of Dr Wadim Strielkowski to controversial status. The trio comments that

Strielkowski, then a junior lecturer at the Faculty of Social Sciences, Charles University in Prague, first attracted the attention of colleagues in early 2015, when it was discovered that he had published 17 monographs and more than 60 journal articles in just three years. It is probably not surprising that a number of these texts were published in a rather unconventional way: Strielkowski’s monographs, with one exception, were in fact self-published and self-illustrated, even though each appeared to have been published by the Faculty of Social Sciences. A substantial amount of his articles were published in journals that could be described, following Beall’s terminology, as “potentially, possibly or probably predatory”.

Mark Carrigan notes that the case of Dr Strielkowski emphasises the agency of scholars in the transformation of scholarly norms:

The case is a fascinating one because it illustrates how metricised evaluation and predatory publishing cannot simply be regarded as imposed from outside, leaving academic victims with no choice but to adapt or be left behind. Strielkowski is an extreme example but his case illustrates how the opportunities these systems create for advancement are drawn upon and engaged with knowingly by scholars, in a way that is always implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) orientated to the others embedded within them.

The rise of predatory publishing is perhaps something of a misnomer because it implies a unilateral process of domination by publishers and journals. Certainly for more naive scholars seeking to find some source of security in our academic pursuits, journals engaging in (ostensible) flattery and promises of publication are predators. However, taking a more ecological (and systemic) view, both academics and publishing companies may indulge new sets of norms, centred around metric rankings and outputs rather than scholarly merit. A culture of publishing, focused on the value added via publication metrics is not predatory or “bloodsucking”, but rather parasitic: the host is the ideal of intellectual development and the parasite is the technocratic norm that reconstitutes the world in an abstract game. Both publishers and academics alike must choose to play at the expense of self-scrutiny.

 

The Value of Academic Freedom

A little while ago, a paper emerged from the interwebs titled, “Overflow in science and its implications for trust“. As its parsimonious title suggests, the paper concerns itself with the over-production of scientific research publications (“overflow”) and the implications of this speed of productivity for trust between scientists. The ever growing demand for academic productivity has produced new challenges for scholarly research, as information becomes more readily accessible, voluminous and specialized. The high speed of production of scientific publications (and also academic publications more generally) produces a Matthew Effect within the academic attention economy, whereby well-known scholars become valuable anchors for guiding the broader field and thereby increase in value and esteem. Meanwhile, lesser-known scholars find it increasingly difficult to accrue similar degrees of peer esteem. Essentially – the academically rich get richer and the poor get “I regret to inform you…” Overall, the fields affected by overflow may be experiencing a growing lack of trust, as the push to be ‘visible’ (and hence valuable) provides incentive for researchers to make bolder claims about their findings, to stand out, while journals find it harder to secure reviewers competent in the assessment of the volumes of articles being submitted to them (see Seibert et al.’s paper for an account from USA’s medical sciences).

The pressure to be popular produces distortions in a range of domains associated with academic and scientific work. Alongside the growing important of gaining fame in the scholarly attention economy, managerial pressure to produce ever more research publications also has the potential to transform values fundamental to both academic and scientific enterprises. The illustrative example that I will focus on in the remainder of this post is the valued idea of “academic freedom”.

Academic freedom is a value that has attained a high degree of normative integrity across the academic profession. Even in a post-modern era where the values of ‘truth’, ‘beauty’ and the ‘good’ face not only epistemic but ontological fracturing, academic freedom is still held a primary norm through which these values are explored and contested. The absence of this freedom is also the condition under which truth, beauty and goodness are warped by ‘external’ interests. The academic pursuit entails a kind of free speech, which Foucault may have perhaps described as necessarily “fearless” (the first lecture here is pretty neat). But free speech itself is not enough to fire the engines of an academic freedom. Free speech must be paired with free inquiry – the ability to pursue truth, beauty or the good. Robert Merton perhaps most clearly outlined the values and norms required to pursue truth in modern science. Merton’s values/norms of Communism, Universalism, Disinterestedness, and Organized Scepticism (CUDOS) highlight the necessarily social and organizational nature of modern science. For science, as for the academic profession more generally, the freedoms of the individual cannot be ensured apart from institutions. The university has a vital role to play here.

In an era in which universities are facing large organizational restructuring, the power relations that had once encouraged the maintenance of (an admittedly masculine, European and restrictive) vision of academic freedom have mutated and no longer aspire to the separation of the academic, and the profane world of everyday life and economy. The “impure” world of economics and the broader social are now regularly invoked to argue that academics should be more open and responsive to “the rapidly changing world in which we live“. The challenge is to remain open to social needs whilst avoiding outsourcing ethics to poorly suited proxies such as economic gains or governmental policy agendas. It is within these milieu – the ‘disorganized’, the ‘runaway’, the ‘postmodern’ – that academic professional norms and universities have mutually-constitutive responsibilities towards their enterprise.

Academic freedom is insufficient when conceptualised as negative freedoms (i.e. the freedom from interference, censorship, etc.) because this view presupposes that academics have access to the means to conduct their pursuits. In a corporatising university, subjected to every more restrictions on the resources available to research and teaching staff, access to the means to conduct academic duties are not ensured. The “ivory tower” vision of academic freedom as a negative freedom is also a privileged view of academia – of a wealthy and self-sustaining endeavour. In a scenario of resource abundance, negative freedoms may be enough to ensure that worthy research projects commence and that valuable lessons are conducted. It is not commodificaiton per se that threatens academic freedom, but rather the failure to recognise that in an era of resource scarcity, academic freedom must be conceptualised as a positive freedom. This would entail, among other things, the freedom to conduct worthy research, the freedom to disseminate research, the freedom to have that research acknowledged by the broader academic community – for what value is a message sent that is never received?

Academic freedom is not the freedom of any individual, but the freedom of truth, beauty and the good to exist with some degree of consistency among human beings. Merton’s norms and values of modern science are concerned with the enactment of the scientific enterprise, not the benefice of any individuals. Merton’s CUDOS are the norms through which the pursuit of truth is to be realised in a modern society. They are the integrity of science in human minds. Both academics (as the actuators of these values) and universities (as institutions with any sense of self-integrity) have an inherent interest in sustaining academic (alongside scientific) norms and values. Academic freedom, as the broadest of these values, is hence paramount to distinguishing the academic from other (non-professional) modes of communication and action. Conceived in the negative mode, academic freedom is divisive, as academics may compete against one another for (for example) less interference or less censorship through economic means. The tenured professor wealthy in both grant funding and prestige can purchase the time and attention of lesser academic commodities, more easily dictate the terms of research, to a degree. Conceived in the positive mode, academic freedom must be pursued in cooperation. Competition over scarce resources produces appeals to the private interests of funding bodies, incentive for academics to engage in “boasting” research findings and generally self-interested conduct. (Mark Carrigan aptly describes the competitive self-interest produced by the recent digital metrification of academic work, claiming that “The depressing thought is that I struggle to imagine not being interested in them [publication and citation metrics]“.)

Although academic freedom is not a freedom for the benefit of individuals, it does entail an ethics of the individual – a mode of relating to oneself as an academic. That is, academic freedom is normative. When taken for a negative freedom, the maximisation of academic freedom might entail the maximisation of discretionary effort – that is, the effort one expends above the threshold required to avoid “getting in trouble”. Maximising academic freedom in this manner is fraught with deleterious consequences for both academic work cultures and perhaps even the academic profession in general. Individuals encourage each other to overwork via positively reinforcing workaholism and the broader academic profession becomes obsessed with proxies of academic value, such as publication formulae, citation counts and grant dollars.

A positive conception of academic freedom – as a freedom of the academic profession, not the individual – is a useful conceptual tool to re-frame what is at stake in the corporatised/managerial university. Individual academics are encouraged within metric assemblages to become self-interested actors, seeking to maximise their personal freedoms often in competition with other academic actors. While this survival-of-the-fittest model of academe may indeed assist universities in adapting to changing funding environments, producing leaner and meaner bureaucracies, it does not ensure that academe will remain a distinct realm in which truth, beauty and the good are openly sought, spoken and heard. This would require a bureaucracy that recognises that academic freedom and integrity are systemic. The danger is not individual dishonesty (which is rare and readily sanctioned), but the systemic normalization of self-interest over scientific interest.

Competing with Neo-liberalism

The future of higher education within Australia and across borders has been subjected to critique for at least as long as universities have been public institutions. Critique is the duty of a citizenship that entrusts representatives to develop and distribute public goods. Representatives must be made aware of the desires of their polity: you may govern us to these ends, but not these ones; by these means, but not these ones. Public universities in Australia and overseas are at least in part the preserve of the public good – of the education of citizens at least as much as employees. But as Willem Halffman and Hans Radder have commented in their ‘Academic Manifesto’, there lurks a great Wolf within academe: the ferocious and jealous beast of management. The Wolf shepherds academic sheep into line through the logics of competition, assessment, evaluation and the ever-present rhetoric of ‘quality control’.

In the Wolf’s den, the public good of the education of citizenship is redefined as a private good. Education becomes described within education policy as a means to train a work-ready labour force, budget shortages are filled by increased demands for commercialisation of research, the sale of degrees to international (full-fee-paying) students and the re-orientation of academic values in response to changing demands.

ABC’s Four Corners program recently exposed to the public via broadcast what many academics have known for quite some time: the current system of marketising education forces academic standards and financial imperatives into direct competition. Plagiarism, dishonest conduct and the emergence of ‘black markets’ for the sales of essays, English language competency certification and (ultimately) degrees are only one rotting corpse revealed from within the Wolf’s dark lair.

Although Halffman and Radder attempt to recommend some interesting means of resisting the Wolf’s campaign of complacency through terror, collective resistance requires an academic culture which supports solidarity. One academic may make a mess through sabotage or leaving her post, but the lair is deep. One strategy which Halffman and Radder touch upon but do not explore may perhaps prove a useful starting point: acting upon the ethical socialisation of academic staff.

For the moment, forget the Wolf. As threatening as it is, it’s also a puppy dog chasing its own tail. Performance metrics are here. Budgetary goals are mandated. What impact globalisation has in store for us is beyond our individualised, immediate control. Now what? I propose a rethink in tactics.

Rather than seeking to ‘compete’ with the neoliberal managerial metricated commoditised underpaying and outsourced beast (while also competing with our colleagues, other departments and universities, KPIs and H-Indices too), we might consider a new question: How might we compete ‘with’ one another? In other words, how might we restructure our work patterns to share our successes with colleagues? Are there means of directly contradicting the logic of competition through which academics are individualised and pitted against one another in selection panels, performance evaluations and league tables? Halffman and Radder suggest that we might muddy the metrics as a means of resistance: why not muddy reality beyond the grasp of metrics?

Obviously, this is not a simple solution, but it is a call to ethical reflection. The transformation of academic ethics (from elitism to individualisation) has developed over a century of political and economic reforms to higher education systems across the globe. Further ethical transformation is bound to be just as multifaceted and perhaps a little unpredictable. But we can certainly begin to experiment and share our visions of what an academic ethic might look like beyond popular disdain for the Wolf.

One ethic which I advocate I describe as “careful advantage”: to engage with colleagues in the pursuit of mutual gain. This ethic manifests already in practices such as mentoring, peer-review groups, taking an interest in the work of those around you. Through this ethic, perhaps we can further bolster reciprocated, practiced and felt trust between academic staff – the building blocks of collective agency. Careful advantage perpetuates the ‘gift economy’ (see Slaughter and Rhodes, chapter 3) of open sharing of knowledge and social capital, making the divide and conquer tactics of management less practical options.

Critique is inherently a political act. It must be enacted. It must be practiced and make alternatives seem less practical to have a lasting effect. The pernicious effects generated by our current higher education system will require some large policy interventions to redress. But perhaps while our leaders and reprogrammers are working on the bugs in that system, we might continue to experiment with the routines and practices through which we establish our security and seek to take careful advantage with those around us.