Life in the Accelerated Academy, part 1

When questioned by a friend in 1980 as to whether he was happy at Princeton, the philosopher Richard Rorty replied that he was “delighted that I lucked into a university which pays me to make up stories and tell them”. He went on to suggest that “Universities permit one to read books and report what one thinks about them, and get paid for it” and that this is why he saw himself first and foremost as a writer, in spite of his already entrenched antipathy towards the philosophical profession which would grow with time. It’s a lovely idea, isn’t it? This is the thought that keeps coming back to me as I’m preparing to participate in the Time Without Time symposium in Edinburgh later this week.

The invited speakers have been asked to reflect on “their practice, roles and research interests” in terms of the themes of the symposium. Perhaps slightly depressingly, it’s occurred to me that so much of what I do has in a sense been motivated by frustration that the university is not what I once (naively) believed it to be. My interest in social acceleration (how I approach the themes of the symposium) is in large part an attempt to understand how and why this is so: this is where my thoughts currently stand and I’m running this international conference with Filip Vostal in December.

The problem is that employment in a university no longer requires that one simply reads books and reports what one thinks about them. Was this ever really the case? Either way, it’s a seductive vision. Unfortunately, it is belied by the over one hundred metrics to which each academic working within UK higher education is potentially subject. Contrary to Rorty’s ideal of scholars reading books, writing about them and occasionally deigning to share their reflections with students, we’re instead measured constantly in matters such as workload, teaching and research within institutions that are themselves ranked in a way constituted through the measurement of the individuals within them.

Professional lives are judged according to opaque criteria, ratcheted up between assessment exercises such that anything less than ‘international excellence’ is coming to be seen as worthless. At some institutions, including my own, we see the introduction of the demand that staff meet a certain baseline of ‘income generation’ in order to keep their jobs: despite the fact that the money apportioned by way of research assessment exercises is intended to fund research. For instance a Bristol University lecturer was sacked, allegedly for not securing enough grant income. The phrase ‘publish or perish’ acquired new resonance when Stefan Grimm, a respected figure in Toxicology, committed suicide after being threatened with redundancy for failing to win enough research funding.

The culture this breeds is corrosive and unhappy. All the descriptions pertaining to artists in the e-flux article assigned as reading for the symposium apply with unnerving accuracy to academics: “barely capable of distinguishing themselves from the consuming desire to work at all times”, “neurotic people who deploy a series of practices that coincide quite neatly with the requirements of the neoliberal, predatory, continually mutating capitalism of the every moment”, “people who behave, communicate, and innovate in the same manner as those who spend their days trying to capitalize every moment and exchange of daily life”. In a much circulated paper, the feminist scholar Ros Gill suggests that a ‘sacrificial ethos’ silences stories of stress and insecurity. At all career stages, though perhaps most harmfully amongst PhD students and early career researchers, a sense of commitment to a calling helps license acquiescence to precarious and exploitative labour relations which make a lie of the ideal of collegiality still alluded to within the academy.

However this is more than just overwork and over-identification with a job. The Tumblr blog academia is killing my friends contains 40 personal narratives of “abuse, exploitation and suffering in academia”. We shouldn’t conclude that postings stopped in July 2014 because the editor exhausted the available stories. This doesn’t end with graduate school and, if anything, it looks likely to get worse: a recent survey by the Guardian Higher Education Network of 1366 academics who had experienced bullying at work, half of whom were based in the UK, pointed to management structures orientated towards ‘research excellence’ which had created a pervasive culture of fear amongst staff. Higher education has become a deeply toxic place and, through a sociological lens, it’s easy to see how this has its roots in structural features of the sector rather than simply being the aggregate tendency of a collection of unpleasant people.

The image Rorty presents us with of scholarship is idealistic. It reflects his own privilege. It’s an artefact of a higher education system that in the 1980s Ivy League was substantially different to what we see in 2015 in the UK. Most strikingly of all: the image is of a slow life. It suggests Rorty dreamily ambling through his days, going for long morning walks through the Gothic splendour of Princeton’s campus and spending long afternoons reading books in front of a fire place, occasionally putting pen to paper to record what thoughts they have provoked within him.

In an important way, what’s changed can be characterised in terms of speed… the imagined slowness of Rorty’s Princeton life has given way to a frenetic pace, defined by a perpetual ratcheting up of demands and an entrepreneurial ethos seeking new and quantifiable opportunities. As the ‘self-employed mindset’ begins to take hold, it’s difficult to know how much to give: am I doing enough? The demand for ‘excellence’ is open-ended because it’s never clear what this will constitute in the future. Nonetheless, it’s the only thing that will be accepted. As David Cameron put it recently, “if you’re not good or outstanding, you have to change … if you can’t do it yourself, you have to let experts come in and help you”. He was talking about secondary education rather than higher education but I’ve yet to encounter a more succinct statement of what the political theorist Will Davies memorably describes as heating up the floor to see who can keep hopping the longest. Anxiety thrives, demands intensify and metrics are the informational thread which holds this tangled web together. These numbers can be transparent and they can also be opaque. They can be sources of pleasure and sites of anxiety. When everything moves so fast, we rely on these metrics as cyphers for quality: ways of assessing in lieu of evaluation, assessing others and assessing ourselves.

In my work at the moment I’m developing the notion of ‘cognitive triage’ to make sense of how agents come to operate in such an environment. It was initially offered by the journalist Kevin Roose to describe the frantic state of day-to-day survival into which trainee financiers fall in order to survive their deliberately brutal socialisation period. When we’re triaging, we attend to the most immediate requirements and our temporal horizons begin to shrink. Under these conditions, imagination becomes more difficult and so too does extended deliberation about our circumstances and what matters to us. This isn’t inexorable and I think we can see many contemporary trends as attempts to escape triaging and to get beyond ‘the day-to-day’ e.g. digital detoxes, information diets, life hacking, productivity culture, mindfulness. With the exception of the latter however, I’m sceptical that these help because they tend to intensify our focus on our immediate behaviour: even if they help us cope with the pernicious effects of cognitive triage, they further narrow our horizons rather than broadening them.

Cognitive triage breeds a mentality within which tasks become obstacles to negotiate rather than activities through which we can become who we are. Consider the to-do list: each item is given a equal weight, regardless of the meaning it holds for us. When we’re triaging, we rush. We don’t attend to the task at hand, following its internal logic as we lead our way through it. There’s a relational richness to practical activity which can so easily be obliterated by the mentality produce by triaging. Ironically, I’m triaging right now. I want to get this post finished so I can answer a couple of e-mails and go to bed. But this post is an attempt to lay out as a whole strands of thought that have been obsessing me for a number of years. My disparate interests actually do fit together and the urge to articulate how this is so feels of profound concern to me. But I also have to get up early tomorrow morning, clean my house, do a mass of event organisation, edit some posts for the Sociological Review blog, get my special issue of Discover Society off the ground, pack for Edinburgh and practice this at least once as a talk so that I don’t just start rambling when I get up to speak on Thursday. The urgent is crowding out the important. It happens a lot. For now, I’ll give in to it, in order that I can write a ‘part 2’ tomorrow which is slightly less rushed.

4 responses to “Life in the Accelerated Academy, part 1”

  1. Thank you for writing this Mark, and voicing so elegantly the fears and frustrations that so many of us feel.

    I don’t know if Rorty’s description was ever the case in academia (or the norm, anyway), but I do think that this is still the image held by many non-academics. I gave up trying to explain to my non-academic friends and relatives why I need to work on weekends and outside of term time, including throughout the summer and festive periods. I think that they think that I am either workaholic or utterly incompetent (or, perhaps, a bit of both), which makes the whole situation even more frustrating and difficult.

    Good luck with your talk, and I look forward to reading part 2.

  2. Oh that’s really interesting, thank you. That hadn’t occurred to me but it’s a very important aspect of this, isn’t it? A ratcheting up of demands without any corresponding recognition of this on behalf of non-academics.

  3. If you haven’t already read this, you might enjoy Davies, Bronwyn and Bendix-Petersen, Eva. (2005). Neo-liberal discourse in the Academy: the forestalling of (collective) resistance. Learning and Teaching in the Social Sciences. 2.2. 77-98.
    Really excellent critique.

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