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The ascent of the spiralists

I wrote recently about a short article by Michael Burawoy in which he bemoaned the ascendancy of the spiralists within universities. These relentlessly ambitious new entrants to the university system see it as a theatre within which they can make themselves known, spiralling into the university before once more spiralling out of it to bigger and better things. As Burawoy describes them:

Spiralists enter the university from the outside with little knowledge of its inner workings. They don’t trust the local administration and instead cultivate, promote and protect each other through mutual recruitment, at the same time boosting their corporate-level incomes and contributing to administrative bloat. At UC Berkeley, senior managers have increased five-fold over the last 20 years, rising to 1,256 in 2014, almost equal to the number of faculty, which has barely increased over the same period (from 1,257 to 1,300). While the number of faculty has remained stagnant, student enrollment has increased by 20 percent.

Coming from the outside and concerned more about their future, spiralists are in the business of promoting their image — Dirks employed a firm to do just that at a cost of $200,000 to campus. Branding takes priority over ethics. This last year we have witnessed the cover up of sexual harassment by prominent faculty and administrators and the exoneration of punitive football coaching that led to the death of a football player and a $4.75 million civil suit — all designed to protect the Berkeley brand.

While he appeared to be using ‘spiralist’ in a way that was as much rhetorical as anything else, I’ve had the concept stuck in my mind since then and firmly believe it’s a potentially powerful way of conceptualising a particular form of biographical trajectory within organisations. I just encountered another example of spiralists at work in The Gospel of Self: How Jesus Joined the GOP, a reflective confessional written by one of the leading figures in the creation of modern televangelism in the United States. On loc 2196-2214 he bemoans the ascent of the spiralists in American television:

Of all the things that the press obscures in the gathering and reporting of news, this career self-interest bothers me most. Many, if not most, of the reporting staff at any local news operation don’t really want to be there. Each TV station is viewed as a stepping-stone to a bigger market, and so many enter through the front door with one foot already out the back. Their work in the smaller market includes the strong motivation to do highly flamboyant pieces for their résumé tape that will quickly grab the attention of a “more important” news director elsewhere. It is why the farm system for local TV news is corrupt. The business is almost entirely self-centered and self-driven.

Where else can we see the spiralists at work? If we take a ‘spiralist’ to be a new entrant to an organisation who has immediate and practical designs on moving upwards and/or outwards – as opposed to merely harbouring future ambitions, without formulating plans about how to achieve them through immediate action – it looks as if the spiralists are everywhere under present circumstances.

Categories: Digital Universities The Intensification of Work Thinking

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Mark

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