In his wonderful memoir, Adults In The Room, Yanis Varoufakis reflects on the frustrations of politics and how they compare to academia. From loc 5504:

Possibly because of my academic background, this was the Brussels experience I least expected and found most frustrating. In academia one gets used to having one’s thesis torn apart, sometimes with little decorum; what one never experiences is dead silence, a refusal to engage, a pretence that no thesis has been put forward at all. At a party when you find yourself stuck with a self-centred bore who says what they want to say irrespective of your contribution to the conversation, you can take your glass and disappear to some distant corner of the room. But when your country’s recovery depends on the ongoing conversation, when there is no other corner of the room to retreat to, irritation can turn into despair –or fury if you grasp what is really going on: a tactic whose purpose is to nullify anything that is inimical to the troika’s power.

I found it fascinating to read this. Since encountering this paper by Richard French a few years ago, I’ve been interested in the implicit conceptions of politics which animate the publicly-orientated activity of academics. How do they think power works? How do they think problems are solved? How do they think challenges are negotiated? It seems as if Varoufakis’s intellectual interests (particularly game theory and political economy) left him well attuned to the dynamics of power but his nostalgia for academia certainly resonates with what French argues here:

Many academics misunderstand public life and the conditions under which policy is made. This article examines misconceptions in three major academic traditions—policy as science (e.g., ‘evidence-based policy’), normative political theory, and the mini-public school of deliberative democracy—and argues that the practical implications of each of these traditions are limited by their partial, shallow and etiolated vision of politics. Three constitutive features of public life, competition, publicity and uncertainty, compromise the potential of these traditions to affect in any fundamental way the practice of politics. Dissatisfaction with real existing democracy is not the consequence of some intellectual or moral failure uniquely characteristic of the persona publica, and attempts to reform it are misdirected to the extent that they imagine a better public life modeled on academic ideals.

April 8-10 2015 University of Sunderland London Campus, South Quay, London, UK 

This conference, co-hosted by the Centre for Research in Media and Cultural Studies, University of Sunderland, and the Onscenity Research Network will take place on April 8-10 2015 at the University of Sunderland London Campus, London, UK

Along with two keynote speakers addressing themes of intersectionality and sexual cultures, there will be keynote panels, bringing together key academics and activists on the topics of:

·         Sex and disability

·         Trans* and non-binary activism

·         Sex worker and stripper activism

·         Youth, race and sexuality

The overriding theme of the conference is the bringing together of academia with activism. Submissions are particularly welcomed from: academics who are also activists, activists who are also academics, academic/activists on the inside and outside of conventional academia, and academics and activists who are working together on projects relating to sexual cultures.

We particularly welcome proposals for non-standard types of presentation which question the academic/activist distinction, such as fish bowl discussions, pecha kucha, creative methods workshops, and interactive workshops.

All presenters are requested to make their material accessible to an audience which will include academics, activists, practitioners and community members.

Deadline for the submission of proposals is October 31 2014.

For all individual papers please submit a 150 word abstract and 150 word biographical note. Please indicate which key theme of the conference your paper belongs to.

For panels, workshops and roundtable sessions please submit a 600-800 overview and set of abstracts with 150 word biographical notes. Please indicate which key theme of the conference you want your panel to be considered for.

All submissions should be addressed to sexualcultures2[at]sunderland[dot]ac[dot]uk 

Full details available at http://www.onscenity.org/sexual-cultures-conference-2/

One of my favourite academic blogs is Understanding Society. Written by Daniel Little, Chancellor for the University of Michigan-Dearborn, it covers an extraordinarily broad range of theoretical topics and sustains the rigour of serious academic writing while nonetheless being written in a relatively accessible way. I think it’s the best theory blog on the internet (by quite some way) and I’m always stunned by quite how much interesting stuff there is in the archives. The author, who has also done some excellent video interviews with leading social scientists, describes the blog as a ‘hypertext book’ and you can find an index of topics here.

My blog, UnderstandingSociety, addresses a series of topics in the philosophy of social science. What is involved in “understanding society”? The blog is an experiment in writing a book, one idea at a time.  In order to provide a bit more coherence for the series of postings, I’ve organized a series of threads that link together the postings relevant to a particular topic.  These can be looked at as virtual “chapters”.  This list of topics and readings can serve as the core of a semester-long discussion of the difficult philosophical issues that arise in the human sciences.  It roughly parallels the topics I cover in the course I teach in the philosophy of social science at the University of Michigan.

http://www.changingsociety.org/syllabus.html

I’d be interested to know if Little still sees it as book. The sheer size of the blog’s archives suggest that it’s now something approximating a whole series of books. Clearly, it’s been a success. What I have always been curious about is the author’s institutional role (which I assume is the equivalent of a UK vice-chancellor) and the role which the blog perhaps serves as an outlet for his continued scholarship when he presumably has many other commitments competing for his time. I was pleased to see this addressed recently in a really thoughtful and thought-provoking post. The blog recently had its sixth birthday and the author reflected on the evolution of the blog and his understanding of the role that it serves:

This week celebrates six years of Understanding Society.  This effort represents over 850 posts, on topics ranging from current debates in philosophy about causal powers to China’s urban transformation to the conservative war on the poor, leading to nearly three million page views since the first post in 2007.  I’m grateful to the communities of interested readers who have followed Understanding Society on TwitterFacebook, and Google Plus. There are almost 4,000 readers in these groups, and I’m grateful to everyone who has read, followed, tweeted, commented, and Googled the blog — thanks!

http://understandingsociety.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/six-years-of-understanding-society.html

What I found particularly interesting was the author’s description of himself as an ‘open-source philosopher’. The integration of the blog into his working practices, such that it constitutes the starting point for traditional scholarship rather than something in opposition to it, is something which deeply resonates with me from the opposite end of the career spectrum. When I’ve written about continuous publishing in the past, this is exactly what I’ve been trying to say:

Virtually all the new academic publishing I’ve done in these six years began as a couple of posts on Understanding Society. You might say I’ve become an “open-source” philosopher — as I get new ideas about a topic I develop them through the blog. This means that readers can observe ideas in motion. A good example is the efforts I’ve made in the past year to clarify my thinking about microfoundations and meso-level causation. Another example is the topic of “character,” which I started thinking about after receiving an invitation to contribute to a volume on character and morality; through a handful of posts I arrived at a few new ideas I felt I could offer on the topic.  This “design and build” strategy means that there is the possibility of a degree of inconsistency over time, as earlier formulations are challenged by newer versions of the idea. But I think it makes the process of writing a more dynamic one, with lots of room for self-correction and feedback from others.

The blog has also given me a chance to write about topics I’ve long cared about, but haven’t had a professional venue for writing about. These include things like the reality of race in the United States; the lineaments of power that determine so many of the features of contemporary life; and the nuts and bolts of education and equality in our country. And along the way of researching and writing about some of these topics, I’ve come to have a better and more detailed understanding of them. Not many philosophers have such a wide opportunity to write on a variety of topics beyond the confines of their sub-disciplines.

http://understandingsociety.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/six-years-of-understanding-society.html

It’s really interesting to read about the blogging experiences of someone who has been a philosophy professor for decades. I was struck by the homology between his experiences and my own in spite of our very different positions within the higher education system. I wonder if there’s something interesting about freedom here. As someone who has blogged throughout my PhD, I’ve experienced it as an intellectual outlet which has no real implications for my academic position (though retrospectively that’s not really true). Perhaps Daniel Little feels similarly free about his blog, for entirely different reasons, as a result of his institutional position leaving scholarship via his blog being something he does for its own rewards rather than any need to make a living out of it. Reading his post has increased my confidence in the notion of ‘continuous publishing’ and strengthened my conviction that, with time, this is a way of working that will become ever more common. Both the short-term and long-term gains available to those who begin to work in this way are such that it seems inexorable, barring a trend towards heavy-handed institutional regulation or something along those lines. I think the implications of this are hugely significant. Here’s how Pat Lockley and I described it in a blog post we wrote quite some time ago:

Perhaps it’s time to move from ‘the Cathedral to the Bazaar’. These metaphors from the open-source software movement refer to contrasting models of software development. In academic terms we might see them as referring to distinct orientations towards publishing: one which works towards the intermittent, largely private, production of one-off works (papers and monographs → cathedrals) and the other which proceeds in an iterative and dialogical fashion, with a range of shorter-term outputs (blog posts, tweets, online articles, podcasts, storified conversations etc) standing in a dynamic and productive relationship with larger-scale traditional publishing projects: the ‘cathedrals’ can be something we build through dialogues, within communities of practice, structured around reciprocal engagement with publications on social media platforms.

http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2012/02/29/reflections-continuous-publishing/

The idea which is still insufficiently clear in my own mind is how my advocacy of this relates to my belief in academic over-production. I’ve had a vague intuition for a long time about the potential ‘rebalancing’ away from ever more journal articles which ever fewer people read and towards a continuous making public of provisional work which ultimately leads to fewer though better journal articles. In a future post I’ll try and elaborate my understanding of the institutional constraints and enablements upon such as process, as well as what I imagine the landscape of scholarly publishing might look like when it is filled with a preponderance of open-source academics.

(via AyeshaKazmi from the Occupy Boston protest)

There is a name for those under- and precariously employed, but actively working, academics in today’s society: the para-academic.

Para-academics mimic academic practices so they are liberated from the confines of the university. Our work, and our lives, reflect how the idea of a university as a place for knowledge production, discussion and learning, has become distorted by neo-liberal market forces. We create alternative, genuinely open access, learning-thinking-making-acting spaces on the internet, in publications, in exhibitions, discussion groups or other mediums that seem appropriate to the situation. We don’t sit back and worry about our career developments paths. We write for the love of it, we think because we have to, we do it because we care.

We take the prefix para- to illustrate how we work alongside, beside, next to, and rub up against, the all too proper location of the Academy, making the work of higher education a little more irregular, a little more perverse, a little more improper. Our work takes up the potential of the multiple and contradictory resonances of para- as decisive location for change, within the university as much as beyond it.

Specialists in all manner of things, from the humanities to the social and biological sciences, the para-academic works alongside the traditional university, sometimes by necessity, sometimes by choice, usually a mixture of both. Frustrated by the lack of opportunities to research, create learning experiences or make a basic living within the university on our own terms, para-academics don’t seek out alternative careers in the face of an evaporated future, we just continue to do what we’ve always done: write, research, learn, think, and facilitate that process for others.

We do this without prior legitimisation from any one institution. Para-academics do not need to churn out endless outputs  because of the pressures of a heavily assessed research environment. We work towards making ideas because learning, sharing, thinking and creating matter beyond easily quantifiable products. And we know that this is possible, that we are possible, without the constraints of an increasingly hierarchical academy.

As the para-academic community grows there is a real need to build supportive networks, share knowledge, ideas and strategies that can allow these types of interventions to become sustainable and flourish. There is a very real need to create spaces of solace, action and creativity.

The Para-Academic Handbook: A Toolkit for making-learning-creating-acting, edited by Alex Wardrop and Deborah Withers, calls for articles (between 1,000-6,000 words), cartoons, photographs, illustrations, inspirations and other forms of text/graphic communication exploring para-academic practice, and its place within active intellectual cultures of the early 21st century.

It will be published by HammerOn Press in 2014.

Enquiries tomail@hammeronpress.net
Deadline for submissions 1 July 2013.

Precariousness is one of the defining experiences of contemporary academic life — particularly, but not exclusively, for younger or ‘career early’ staff (a designation that can now extend for one’s entire ‘career’, given the few opportunities for development or secure employment.) Statistical data about the employment patterns of academics shows the wholesale transformation of higher education over the last decades, with the systematic casualisation of the workforce. Continuing contracts — understood in the US as tenure-track appointments — now represent only just over half of academic posts, with 38 % of all academics in higher education on fixed term contracts in 2006-7 (Court and Kinman, 2008). While, in the past, short-term contracts were largely limited to research positions and tied to specific, time-limited projects, today they also characterise teaching posts which are frequently offered on a one-year temporary basis at the bottom of the pay scale. However, even these posts constitute the ‘aristocracy of labour’ when compared to the proliferation of short-term, part-time teaching positions, contracted on an hourly paid basis, in which PhD students or new postdocs are charged with delivering mass undergraduate programmes, with little training, inadequate support and rates of pay that — when preparation and marking aretaken into account — frequently fall (de facto) below the minimum wage and make even jobs in cleaning or catering look like attractive pecuniary options. Alongside such jobs is the newly created stratum of ‘teaching fellowships’ in which, as a cost-cutting measure for University management, work once rewarded with a lectureship is repackaged for lower pay, stripped of benefits (eg pension) and any sense of obligation or responsibility to the employee, and offered purely on a term-time basis, frequently leaving teaching fellows without any source of income over the summer.

Gill, R (2009) Breaking the silence: The hidden injuries of neo-liberal academia in Flood,R. & Gill,R. (Eds.) Secrecy and Silence in the Research Process: Feminist Reflections. London: Routledge