In the last few years, I’ve become increasingly preoccupied with the notion of ‘the literature’ and how it is invoked by scholars. I’m now rather sceptical of the way in which many people talk about ‘the literature’ and the role it plays in scholarship. It’s not that I don’t think it’s important to identify, engage with and record the existing work that has been done on a topic you’re working on. Rather I’m concerned that the invocation of its necessity serves a disciplinary function when scholarly literature proliferates at the speed which it now does, with an estimated 28,100 journals publishing 2.5 million articles a year. The problems which those who enthusiastically invoke the importance of ‘the literature’ are concerned with, such as perpetual reinvention of the wheel and a failure to recognise relevant work taking place in adjacent fields, have such obviously structural roots that to frame the solution in terms of personal practice seems to accord almost magical powers to the intellectual discipline of individual scholars.

My concern is that invoking ‘the literature’ increasingly functions as a conversation-stopper: it’s a disciplinary action which serves to curtail, though rarely halt, a line of inquiry. If we are inclined, as Richard Rorty once put, “to keep the conversation going” then we need to “protest against attempts to close off conversation by proposals for universal commensuration through the hypostatisation of some privileged set of descriptions” (377). Or in other words, we need to reject the idea that there’s only one way to talk about the topic in question. This is what the invocation of ‘the literature’ does, usually implicitly though sometimes explicitly. It implies a unified body of work which must be the reference point for scholarship on a given topic, even if the intention is to break away from it. In many cases, there’s perhaps no such unity in the first place, with its apparent coherence being underwritten by the most influential figures within the field have talked about ‘the literature’ in a way which performatively brings it into being by justifying the implication that much (potentially relevant) material exists ‘outside’. Judgements of salience aren’t written into the fabric of the knowledge system, they’re suffused with epistemic relativism: made from a particular standpoint, by a person with their own interests, reliant upon their own conceptual apparatus. Instead, behind apparent coherence, we have a complex network of citation cartels, ‘unread and unloved’ publications and influential beneficiaries of Matthew effects.

My point is not to dispute the value of reading and engaging with literature. I only want to situate invocations of ‘the literature’: made by people struggling with the problems of scholarly abundance, in relation to others similarly struggling with these problems. The idea of one definitive point of orientation becomes fetishistic when we all suffer from the vertigo of the accelerated academy. From Sustainable Knowledge by Robert Frodeman, loc 1257:

I feel like I am drowning in knowledge, and the idea of further production is daunting. Libraries and bookstores produce a sense of anxiety: the number of books and journals to read is overwhelming, with tens of thousands more issuing from the presses each day. Moreover, there is no real criterion other than whim for selecting one book or article over another. To dive into one area rather than another becomes a willful act of blindness, when other areas are just as worthwhile and when every topic connects to others in any number of ways. The continual press of new knowledge becomes an invitation to forgetfulness, to lose the forest for the trees.

Under these circumstances, our concern shouldn’t be to ensure everyone pays allegiance to ‘the literature’. We can assume this will continue to grow continuously while everyone feels compelled to write hyperactively, continually churning out publications with more hope that they are counted rather than that they are read. Instead, we should be asking how do we sustain the conversation under these circumstancesWhat kinds of conversations should we be havingWhat purposes do they serve? The well known problems of scholarly publishing mean traditional exchange in journals is becoming progressively less amenable to productive conversations, particularly across boundaries of field and discipline. How do we have conversations which serve, as Nicos Mouzelis puts it, to build bridges?

To be specific, there is little satisfaction with the present status quo where the boundaries between economics, political science, sociology and anthropology have become solid blinkers preventing interdisciplinary studies of social phenomena. But such compartmentalization will not be transcended by the facile and mindless abolition of the existing division of labour between disciplines.

[Instead we need] a painstaking process of theoretical labour that aims at building bridges between the various specializations. Such a strategy does not abolish social science boundaries: it simply aims at transforming them from impregnable bulwarks to transmission belts facilitating interdisciplinary research … what is badly needed today are more systematic efforts towards the creation of a theoretical discourse that would be able to translate the language of one discipline into that of another. Such an interdisciplinary language would not only facilitate communication among the social science disciplines, it would also make it possible to incorporate effectively into the social sciences insights achieved in philosophy, psychoanalysis or semiotics.

Sociological Theory: What went Wrong?: Diagnosis and Remedies, By Nicos Mouzelis

A large part of my enthusiasm for social media comes from the possibilities it offers for having these kinds of conversations. But trying to resolve the problems of the accelerated academy through an invocation of the need for disciplined practice is taking us in the wrong direction.

There’s a powerful counter-argument that can be found here by Patrick Dunleavy, concerning the importance of citation. I want to think carefully about this but my instinct would be to add two additional columns: “how scholarly abundance complicates this role” and “how might this lead us to change practice“.


Our opening talk at the second Accelerated Academy conference in Leiden in December:

Some two years ago the two of us started discussing Hartmut Rosa’s theory of social acceleration and how it manifests in the present condition. Though we found his theory fascinating and provocative we also noted important conceptual and empirical problems with his account, namely the incomplete notion of agency in his conceptual scheme and Rosa’s overall tendency of treating acceleration as some sort of a sweeping mega-force colonising human lifeworld in its entirety and irreducible complexity. We were compelled to explore such Rosa’s theory and intuitively felt that not only individuals might step back and reflect upon accelerating modernity, but also that many embrace it without necssarily associating it with neither capitalist forces nor with what is now labelled as ‘accelerationism’. We begun thus to think about acceleration in a more nuanced way and concentrated on our own environment – the academy. 

For both us the phrase ‘accelerated academy’ signifies a research trajectory, one we’re pursuing collectively but also through our own independent projects. Filip’s research concern encompass sociology of time and specifically then ‘hidden rhythms’ in and of academia. In his current project he examines the causes and manifestations of temporal pressure in the lives of scientists in the Czech Republic and its personal and epistemic consequences. Focusing on theoretical, experimental and applied physics he and his colleagues investigate what ‘lost time’ means for scientists and how scientific institutions ‘trade’ (with) time. Mark’s particular interest is in digital technology within the university, particularly the implications of social media for the future of intellectual life. Too often framed in terms of the personal gains to be accrued for individual careers, the full significance of social media has often been missed. This encompasses positive dimensions (such as new forms of solidarity and new capacities for political mobilisation) as well as more negative ones, such as the intensification of labour and the possibilities for expanded surveillance by university managers. Building on his book Social Media for Academics, his current project seeks to develop a broader theoretical framework within which the digitalisation of the university can be understood. 

But we also saw ‘accelerated academy’ as an assembly device, a provocative way of bringing together researchers from different disciplines and traditions in order to find new ways of understanding and intervening in the transformations going on around us. This could be seen in the diversity of the participants at last year’s conference in Prague, encompassing scholars of education, time, political economy, labour, science, organisations and metrics as well as natural scientists. But it could also be found in the sheer range and quality of the papers themselves, as well as the dialogues they gave rise to before, during and after the event itself. 

The phrase has indeed seemed to resonate with many. There is an apparently pervasive sense in the contemporary scientific world that things are speeding-up incessantly – scientists report chronic busyness, psychological discomfort, anxieties and insufficient time for research-related activities. They are expected to publish more papers, read more texts, meet strict deadlines, ‘fundraise’, engage in science administration, press ahead. Similarly as the Red Queen in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass it seems that scientists simply need to run ever-faster but only remain where they are. This widespread experience in the contemporary academy needs to be nonetheless contextualised with rapid other important trends in science organisation, administration, evaluation and culture. However, we also note that recent propositions offered by slow science movement and similar initiatives are rather problematic and that acceleration in/of academic life cannot be reduced solely to the aforementioned pathologies and differs significantly across disciplines, institutions and national contexts.  

We hope that the ‘accelerated academy’ can continue to be a useful device to facilitate interdisciplinary conversations about the transformation of the university. Ones that link the psychological and the social, connect technical systems to lived experience and couple a critique of managerial power with an analysis of how the affectivity and concerns of academics leave them entangled and sometimes complicit within these power structures.

In September this year Milena Kremakova organised one-day symposium on acceleration and anxiety in academic life. The papers and discussion addressed how contemporary ‘accelerated academy’ induces anxiety environment and how careers, working lives and identities of scholars and academic institutions are affected. We’re hoping to have one or even two events in the UK next year, subject to success with funding. Hopefully there can be further events beyond this and we can sustain these conversations on an ongoing basis.

This isn’t solely a matter of face to face meetings. We are extending last year’s series of blog posts on the popular LSE Impact Blog and we’re inviting everyone here to contribute to these discussions. There are many podcasts and videocasts from last year’s conference, hosted on The Sociological Review’s website. We’re hoping that the Accelerated Academy website and Twitter feed can provide a platform for further projects and events going forward, using the affordances of social media to facilitate ‘accelerated’ conversations in the best sense of the term.

In a recent article on Derivace, Luděk Brož, Tereza Stöckelová and Filip Vostal reflect on the case of Wadim Strielkowski, whose over-enthusiastic game playing was the subject of extensive debate within the Czech academy. There are many factors which have, as a whole, led his prolific rate of publication to be regarded with deep suspicion, such as the self-publication of his monographs, typos in his journal articles, extensive recycling between papers and a continuously rotating cast of co-authors:

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”. Since many of his articles were skilfully placed in dubious journals that were featured in SCOPUS or even in the Web of Science’s databases, they were recognised by the Czech evaluation system as research outputs. As a result, Strielkowski’s employer was awarded the appropriate amount of funding, and Strielkowski himself, according to the Czech media, received bonuses to his salary as a result.

What makes his case interesting is how skilfully these articles were placed. As the authors note, a substantial number of his articles were placed in journals that could be described as “potentially, possibly or probably predatory” while nonetheless being included in relevant indexes which meant they counted as research outputs for formal evaluation, with all the advantages that entails. Not only was he skilfully navigating the publishing environment to facilitate his own rapid ascent, he made a business out of helping others do the same thing:

In addition to being a prolific author, Strielkowski also happens to be a globetrotting entrepreneur. Through his companies, he has offered courses on how to publish in academic journals, with special emphasis on SCOPUS and the Web of Science. Participants primarily hailed from the countries of the former USSR; if they paid conference fees, they were guaranteed publication of their text(s) in one of the journals that Strielkowski himself (used to) publish and which Beall monitored until January 2017 (such as Czech Journal of Social Sciences, Business and Economics, and International Economics Letters). For those ready to pay €3,000, Strielkowski, referring to himself as “professor” and “Vice-Chancellor”, even offered academic degrees. His Prague University of Social Sciences and Humanities Ltd. offered not only MBAs (apparently without an accreditation in the Czech Republic) and postdoctoral positions one had to pay for, but also a “MAW” degree, which stood for “Master of Academic Writing”.

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.

We do not simply ‘internalise’ these imperatives or find ourselves moulded to become ‘neoliberal subjects’. The exercise of agency to be found here is varied, complex and confusing. Denunciations of individual cases, which I don’t think Luděk et al are doing in this case, doesn’t help matters. I’d argue that what often understands itself to be theorisations of such cases, invoking the idea of the neoliberal subject etc, in reality more often represents a thematisation of them.

How do we counter this though? At one point, the authors write of Strielkowski’s papers that “they have hardly any readership to speak of to notice such a statement in the first place”. Similarly, when I read this article, the second thing I looked at after Strielkowski’s personal website was his Google Scholar profile, immediately noting that he has relatively few citations for someone who has published so prolifically, with a majority seeming to be self-citations. I wonder if there is an element of bad faith in finding reassurance in such things, an invocation of readership and citation as a quality threshold, when we know that the systemic problems preclude the reliability of such standards? I wonder if this represents a unacknowledged attempt to evade the vertigo of the accelerated academy:

I feel like I am drowning in knowledge, and the idea of further production is daunting. Libraries and bookstores produce a sense of anxiety: the number of books and journals to read is overwhelming, with tens of thousands more issuing from the presses each day. Moreover, there is no real criterion other than whim for selecting one book or article over another. To dive into one area rather than another becomes a willful act of blindness, when other areas are just as worthwhile and when every topic connects to others in any number of ways. The continual press of new knowledge becomes an invitation to forgetfulness, to lose the forest for the trees.

From Sustainable Knowledge by Robert Frodeman, loc 1257:

We have more room for manoeuvre then we acknowledge. Strielkowski’s game playing represents what Ruth Müller calls anticipatory acceleration taken to an unprecedented extreme: mindlessly speeding up the rate of publication in pursuit of competitive advantage within an overcrowded field. But if Trump academics are in the ascendancy, we’re liable to see more of this. The system is fucked and all the evidence suggests it is becoming more so with each passing year.

We need a honest account of our investments within the system of scholarly communication, building from the basic constraints which the requirements of pursuing an academic career impose. Looking at extreme cases like Strielkowski can help us doing this, by providing prompts to elucidate our assumptions and concerns about scholarly publishing that we might not otherwise feel the need to put into words.

On a related note:
(click through for the whole thread)

Some notes on Gary Hall’s Pirate Philosophy, a book I found more thought-provoking than any I’d read in some time. The podcast above is an interview I recorded with him a couple of months ago. 

  1. The forgetfulness of technology which critics like Stiegler argue afflicts contemporary thought also applies to the narrower world in which such criticisms are made. Theorists and philosophers, as well as academics as a whole, have “forgotten and repressed the technologies by which their own work is not only produced, published and distributed but also commodified and privatised (not to mention controlled, homogenised, and standardised) by for-profit companies operating as part of the cultural industries” (p. 12). This forgetfulness could, I suggest, be read as a corollary of what Bourdieu called skholḗ, the condition of distance from the world, an escape from it necessary in order to think it. If the conditions for skholḗ are being systematically undermined within the accelerated academy, an orientation to systems of production, circulation and engagement represents a central vector of reengagement with the world.
  2. We need criticality rather than paranoia, to invoke Sasha Roseneil’s useful distinction, with Hall’s theoretical commitments often inclining him to the former register rather than the latter. Criticality in this sense entails a practical “emphasis on the potentiality of the present, in all the complexities of our implication in its creation and re-creation” in contrast to a register of paranoia in which analysis is inflected through the sensation that things are bad and getting worse. As I understand the notion of paranoia here, it reflects a fundamental intolerance of ambiguity and ambivalence. What is at stake is recognise the positive and negative inherent in our condition, holding both in the same frame while looking towards the potentiality of the present and the ameliorative possibility latent within it for our collective future. This leads us to construct a world of perpetual co-option and insidious normalisation, with regression and retrenchment lurking behind every putative gain. My claim is not that Hall falls into this, the enormous array of innovative and practical projects he’s collaborated on reveals this not to be true, but rather that his analysis does.
  3. The way Hall critiques what he sees as “philosophical complacency and thoughtlessness” in reengagements with these systems, characterised by “predefined – and sometimes only superficially understood – ideas of copyleft, Creative Commons, open access, and open source and of the differences between them” (p. 12-13) seems unfair to me. He recognises the performative contradiction in making such a critique within a physical book published by a university press. Yet this contradiction seems tellingly under-theorised, a tension that remains on the level of the singular individual to be recuperated through piratical acts of surreptitious open distribution, rather than something which informs the overarching account of the place of the academic as cultural producer within the digital university. These faltering, perhaps thoughtless, steps towards a reengagement with the world reveal the entanglement of these figures within precisely the same systems that he (and myself) operate within. I want to theorise degrees of entanglement, ranges of co-option, which I think remains impossible unless we draw on other conceptual resources.
  4. These systems of production, circulation and engagement have individualism encoded into them. Hall resists “a theory that could be too easily sold, blogged, and tweeted about as my original work, intellectual property, or trademark” which would serve to “reinforce my own expertise and position in the academic marketplace, and thereby gain advance in the struggle for attention, recognition, fame, authority, and disciplinary power” (p. 19). But there’s an suppressed voluntarism implicit within this, as if the ascription of authorship reflects nothing more than the aspirations of an individual to claim that authorship, rather than being a systemic feature of the digital university. This can be evaded, but it can’t be avoided.
  5. Reclaiming this agency serves a crucial analytical function if we are to explain how “the requirement to have visibility, to show up in the metrics, to be measurable, encourages researchers to publish as much and as frequently as they can” (p. 30). But we need to reintroduce the agency of others at the same time as reinscribing our agency in the analysis. Not in the sense of the liberal individual, but rather as the quotidian subject. The living, sleeping, hoping, dreaming, embodied person who gets up every day and sometimes gets bored. This is the agency which academics are often so blind to, the person who performs an occupational role within an organisation, an employee in relation to employers, whose relationality extends far beyond the job they take too seriously.
  6. Claiming we should avoid paranoia should not license naïveté. There are hugely important questions we need to ask about digital capitalism’s transformation of the university, see for instance Hall’s discussion on page 34-37. My point is that we should be precise about the mechanisms through which their influence operates, the implications for scholarly practice and the transformations taking place. No one account can do everything, but even if we’re remaining at a certain level of abstraction, we should try and lay the groundwork in a way amenable to future investigation. My claim is that the largely absent agents within Hall’s account leaves technological change framed as an intrusion from ‘outside’, engendering a tendency to slip into the register of paranoia. This tendency is one that engaging with Jana Bacevic’s work has left me newly aware of.
  7. Academic authority is undergoing a profound change within the digital university. The image of the lone scholar motivated by a “desire for pre-eminance, authority, and disciplinary power” (a quote from Stanley Fish) who seeks to “make an argument so forceful and masterly it is difficult for others not to concur” (p. 58) seems obviously antiquated. Yet the academic scene is dominated by over-producing figures who have come to represent brands in their own right. We’ve seen a transition from authority grounded in mastery to authority grounded in dominating the attention space. My point is not to suggest the former was a simple matter of intellectual merit, far from it, rather a transition from authority being a matter of meeting socio-epistemic criteria to authority being a matter of socio-epistemic efficacy. Nonetheless, as Hall points out on page 64, the book lingers on as something which grounds this authority. Could the book be seen as a transitional object, to which academics feel a fetishistic attraction, while we make a transition from the ‘Gutenberg Galaxy to the Facebook Universe’ as Hall put it in the interview?

In the last couple of months, I’ve been thinking a lot about the poetics of impact. I’ve always been somewhat ambivalent about the impact agenda, initially suspecting that it might open up opportunities for valuable activity to be recognised within the increasingly restrictive confines of the accelerated academy. I wasn’t alone in this. This is how Les Back described his own changing relationship to the impact agenda:

It is embarrassing to remember that some of us – at least initially – thought that ‘impact’ promised the possibility of institutional recognition for public sociology. Might the emphasis on relevance and engagement create a ‘public agora’ for sociological ideas of the kind described by Helga Nowotny and her colleagues?

Another President, this time of the British Sociological Association, had a very different view. John Holmwood warned in 2011 that it was “naïve” to think that the turn to impact would lead to an enhanced public sociology. Rather, he suggested in contrast that UK research would likely be “diverted into a pathway to mediocrity”. Surely not, I felt when I first read this piece. John you are being overly pessimistic! How right he has been proved to be.

Underlying this ambivalence is a tension between the impact agenda as a top-down imposition and a bottom-up expression of a desire to make a difference through research. This tension explains why, as John Brewer puts it, “Impact is at one and the same time an object of derision and acclaim, anxiety and confidence”. While it’s seen as innocuous within the policy evaluation community, it’s irrevocably tied up with the unfolding audit culture within higher education, particularly within the UK. It’s an imposition which seems liable to profoundly reshape working life, in unwelcome and unclear ways, but it also resonates, however vaguely, with a sense of what motivated the work of many people in the first place. I’ve always like Michael Burawoy’s description of this as the sociological spirit:

The original passion for social justice, economic equality, human rights, sustainable environment, political freedom or simply a better world, that drew so many of us to sociology, is channeled into the pursuit of academic credentials. Progress becomes a battery of disciplinary techniques—standardized courses, validated reading lists, bureaucratic ranking intensive examinations, literature reviews, tailored dissertations, refereed publications, the all-mighty CV, the job search, the tenure file, and then policing one’s colleagues and successors to make sure we all march in step. Still, despite the normalizing pressures of careers, the originating moral impetus is rarely vanquished, the sociological spirit cannot be extinguished so easily.

The impact agenda both reflects this spirit and is tied up in the apparatus which is crushing it. How could it not provoke ambivalence? My growing interest is in how this manifests itself at the level of discourse surrounding impact. Could the tendency towards what Pat Thompson analyses as heroic narratives of impact be in part a response to this underlying tension:

You know these heroic narratives – they are everywhere from nursery rhymes to popular films. It’s the knight on a white charger who slays the dragon, the cowboy who rids the town of lazy barflies, the cop who cleans up the burb and sends all those good-for-nuttin drug dealers and pimps to the big house.

There is a research version of this kind of narrative. You know them too I’m sure. The researcher/lecturer/professional rides into town – usually this is an impoverished neighbouhood/really dumb class/group of people/ hopeless policy agenda. Through the process of intervention/teaching/participatory or action research/evaluation the impoverished neighbouhood/really dumb class/group of people floundering around/hopeless policy agenda becomes improved/enlightened/empowered/transformed. Work done, the researcher/lecturer/professional simply has to write the paper and ride out of town.

These stories create a rather dangerous division between the hero/heroine and the saved. The hero/heroine knows and can do everything, and can do no wrong. Those to be saved know/can do nothing and are destined for a hopeless future until the hero/heroine shows up.

I realise this is more narratology than poetics but these perhaps constitute two distinct phases of an investigation. What are the structures of stories about impact? What do they share and how do they differ? What rhetorical devices are used in these stories? What linguistic techniques are used in talk about impact more broadly?

The tendency that fascinates me involves a perpetual oscillation from idealism to pragmatism. Impact is hailed as an opportunity to live a more authentic life as a researcher, change the world with your research and be a better human being. Plus this is the way things are now and you’d better adapt or you’ll be left behind. The invocations are at times explicitly ethical (right or wrong to do), supplementing the aforementioned moral dimension (good or bad to be):

  1. You have a responsibility to tax payers to ensure your research is put to use.
  2. You have a responsibility to knowledge to ensure your research leaves academic silos.
  3. You have a responsibility to society to ensure your research makes a difference.

At an event in Belgium at the start of December, I saw a senior figure in the UK impact community explain that academics who claimed not to ‘get it’ should be “ashamed of themselves”. The expression varies in its tenor and force but it’s usually there. But this is accompanied by a pragmatism with a similar range. From mild claims that being engaged will make you a better scholar, up to outright threats that you’ll be left behind and won’t be able to survive in the new academy unless you develop your impact skills.

When I raised this on Twitter, Penny Andrews made the fascinating suggestion that this oscillation between carrot and stick resembled a religious sermon in its tone. I think there’s a fascinating project which could be undertaken exploring this comparison at the level of the texts, as well as detailing the poetics and narratology of impact discourse* and situating them within an account of the accelerated academy.

*I don’t feel the slightest bit capable of doing this with a sufficient level of sophistication, but if anyone wants to collaborate please get in touch!

  1. Does the situation of skholḗ still obtain in the accelerated academy? This is what Bourdieu described as “the free time, freed from the urgencies of the world, that allows a free and liberated relation to those urgencies and to the world” (p. 1). This condition was always unevenly distributed, its ubiquity apparent only relative to one’s own elite status within similarly elite institutions, allowing practicalities in here to pass unnoticed and those out there in other institutions to evade recognition. The organisational sociology of skholḗ seems implausible, suggesting the distance is between the institution and the outside world, rather than within the institution itself. There are many changes in the university which have undermined the experienced situation of skholḗ but the one which interests me most is automation. In so far as support staff have been replaced by digital technology, meeting the practical demands of professors now entails their own participation in what Craig Lambert calls ‘shadow work’ (i.e engaging with automated systems) rather than delegation to those within the institution whose role it is to handle practicalities. I’m still relatively new to Bourdieu’s work on universities but thus far, it’s hard to avoid the impression that he sees universities as exclusively populated by ‘professors’ and ‘students’ (see for example p. 41).
  2. If the scholarly vocation involves a form of learned ignorance, in which “base calculations of careerist ambition” are systematically excluded, scholarly blogs and tweets which address professional issues become a crucial site of struggle over shared identity. The lived frustrations of pluralistic ignorance, as well as the more mundane challenge of what to tweet/blog about and the fact this generates traffic, generates a tendency for academics to blog about their own practice. This reclamation of scholarly craft must proceed within strict boundaries, lest it be accused of advocating careerism. I was fascinated by someone who felt the need to comment on sociological imagination that they found some career advice I linked to ‘disgusting’ because it represented the ‘neoliberal subject’. The discursive tendencies of academics who have taken to social media represent a challenge to the disavowal of the practical which, argues Bourdieu, should be seen as partly constitutive of the scholarly field. But perhaps this represents a form of “making explicit what ordinarily remains implicit” (p. 37) which opens up the professional socialisation process to those excluded from it.
  3. Are we seeing the emergence of an organic reflexive sociology of the digital university? It seems to me that we are but we should add a crucial caveat about its organic character. It necessarily reproduces the illusio of its players, with even the most sophisticated accounts taking the stakes of the academic game as a given. This is why arguments about ‘careerism’ and the coverage of ‘ex-academics’ prove so richly divisive. This is when the stakes of the game are seen to be susceptible to challenge, even by those who are party to them, opening up contrasting possibilities that this is just a game that we are playing and furthermore it is a game that we can elect to leave. This mechanism produces systematic blindspots, leading what might otherwise be communally empowering reflections on shared conditions into meandering and myopic alleys which permit of little practical development. There are cultural forms which circulate successfully under these conditions which it is valuable to critique on this basis e.g. the slow professor. The politics of advice in academic social media are complex and little scrutinised.
  4. Social media can prove alluring for the scholar because of the “excessive confidence in the powers of language” which plague them (p. 2). It offers an imaginative recuperation of the “apartness from the world of production” that is experienced as “both a liberatory break and a disconnection, a potentially crippling separation” (p. 15). The combination of a vaguely defined audience on to which one can project and architecture of platforms which encourage contention provides a perfect forum in which those who “regard an academic commentary as a political act or the critique of texts as a feat of resistance, and experiencer revolutions in the order of words as radical revolutions in the order of things” can act out their political ambitions on a safe and inconsequential stage of their own making (p. 2).
  5. Until perhaps they confront those from adjacent fields, their movements similarly inflected through comparable processes of digitalisation. What happens when scholars meet journalists? What happens when they meet policy makers? What happens when they meet their own students? What happens when they meet ‘trolls’? How do these increasingly everyday encounters provide opportunities for the reproduction or transformation of their investment in the scholarly field? The sociology of such boundary encounters is much more complex than tends to be acknowledged. What seems clear to me is that accounts of social media as democratising the academy in relation to wider society fail to capture what is going on here.


In the nine years since I first entered a Sociology department, I’ve had a deep interest in academic writing that has only increased with time. In my past life as a philosophy student, writing had never occurred to me as a topic of intellectual interest. Despite having once aspired to be a writer before concluding that I wasn’t good enough at writing political polemics to stand much chance of joining that small class of people who write them for a living. This self-critical concern with the quality (or otherwise) of my writing has perhaps been more of an animating force than I’ve tended to admit to myself. But the other driver was the inspiration I derived from ‘On Intellectual Craftsmanship’, the appendix to The Sociological Imagination, the first book I read as a Sociology postgraduate. As Mills puts it on pg 217-218:

I know you will agree that you should present your work in as clear and simple language as your subject and your thought about it permit. But as you may have noticed, a turgid and polysyllabic prose does seem to prevail in the social sciences … Such lack of ready intelligibility, I believe, usually has little or nothing to do with the complexity of subject matter, and nothing at all with profundity of thought. It has to do almost entirely with certain confusions of the academic writer about his own status.

I’m fascinated by what sociological writing can reveal because of where it sits at the intersection between sociologists, sociology, higher education and the wider world. In such writing we find an (often unintended) disclosure of sociologists, the discipline they have been socialised into, its status within the wider academy and their conditions of labour within it. All while purporting to be an examination of the world ‘out there’. In fact, it’s through concern for how we can produce knowledge of this world, as well as put it to work in changing that world, that it becomes imperative to address writing in a diagnostic mode. How does actually existing sociological writing impede knowledge production? Can we strive to ameliorate these pernicious effects? As Andrew Sayer has put it, the alienated writing of social scientists reflects their own alienation. In addressing one, we unavoidably encounter the other.

One of the most striking things about contemporary scholarly writing is how obviously rushed some of it is. We can read this back from quantitative measures, looking at the increasing rate at which individuals publish, as well as the aggregate growth of publications as a whole. Though there are other factors at work (e.g. digital technology offering time savings in the writing and research process) the basic trend is clearly one of acceleration. We can recognise it qualitatively in a lack of innovation across publications and the well-recognised tendency towards ‘salami slicing’. But as Michael Billig points out in his Learn to Write Badly, we can also recognise it in the texts themselves. From pg 133:

The trouble is that the specialists do not handle their big nouns with care, but they rush to use them, knocking over verbs in their haste and barging other parts of speech out of the way. In their rush, they fail to tie the big words firmly to the grounds of human actions, leave them flapping loosely, but flamboyantly, in the wind.

Rushing does not create this tendency towards vague, grandiose and depersonalised language. As this interview with Howard Becker rather beautifully illustrates, we can find intellectual roots for these tendencies in the world views of prominent and influential theorists:

“Bourdieu’ s big idea was the champs, field, and mine was monde, world—what’s the difference?” Becker asks rhetorically. “Bourdieu’s idea of field is kind of mystical. It’s a metaphor from physics. I always imagined it as a zero-sum game being played in a box. The box is full of little things that zing around. And he doesn’t speak about people. He just speaks about forces. There aren’t any people doing anything.” People in Bourdieu’s field are merely atom-like entities. (It was Bourdieu’s vision that helped inspire Michel Houellebecq’s nihilistic novel of the meaningless collisions of modern life, “The Elementary Particles.”) …

As Becker has written elsewhere, enlarging the end-credits metaphor, “A ‘world’ as I understand it consists of real people who are trying to get things done, largely by getting other people to do things that will assist them in their project. . . . The resulting collective activity is something that perhaps no one wanted, but is the best everyone could get out of this situation and therefore what they all, in effect, agreed to.”

But we can find the conditions within which these ways of writing and speaking propagate in the academy itself (as as a corollary, in the work of the great theorists themselves). One thing I’d like to explore much further with the Accelerated Academy project is how we can use tempo as a way to understand the organisational influences upon scholarly writing. Billig rather persuasively diagnoses how the intensification of academic labour, particularly in relation to securing a position when facing competition on all sides, incentivises self-promotional writing. This is how do things, it’s better than how they do things, join my club. But in reality, most of us are likely to join someone’s else club… taking shelter from the cold winds of an organisation undergoing rapid deprofessionalisation by huddling together around a camp fire of shared certainties (not to mention opportunities for networking, publication and engagement). I was struck by the contrast Billig draws between how a figure like Foucault innovated and the contemporary realities of scholarship. From pg 148:

There is something very old-fashioned about Foucault’s lectures to the Collège de France. It is not just that he cites obscure writers from the early modern period and that he presents no ‘literature reviews’, in which he positions his own work in relation to the approaches of his contemporaries. His lectures were lectures: he did not seem eager to rush them into print to boost his tally of publications. Nor did he place key lectures –such as that on ‘governmentality’ –in influential sociological journals. Instead, he addressed his audience directly. And most importantly, he addressed them as individuals, who might be interested in his ideas, rather than as potential academic producers whom he wishes to recruit to a new mode of enquiry. In this regard, Foucault was not a Foucauldian, spreading the Foucauldian message and seeking to promote a Foucauldian subdiscipline.

It reminded of David Graeber’s argument about the dead zones of the imagination in higher education. Has rampant scholasticism coupled with inane managerialism destroyed the conditions under which the objects of that scholastic zeal were able to thrive?

The explosion of paperwork, in turn, is a direct result of the introduction of corporate management techniques, which are always justified as ways of increasing efficiency, by introducing competition at every level. What these management techniques invariably end up meaning in practice is that everyone winds up spending most of their time trying to sell each other things: grant proposals; book proposals; assessments of our students’ job and grant applications; assessments of our colleagues; prospectuses for new interdisciplinary majors, institutes, conference workshops, and universities themselves, which have now become brands to be marketed to prospective students or contributors. Marketing and PR thus come to engulf every aspect of university life.

The result is a sea of documents about the fostering of “imagination” and “creativity,” set in an environment that might as well have been designed to strangle any actual manifestations of imagination and creativity in the cradle. I am not a scientist. I work in social theory. But I have seen the results in my own field of endeavour. No major new works of social theory have emerged in the United States in the last thirty years. We have, instead, been largely reduced to the equivalent of Medieval scholastics, scribbling endless annotations on French theory from the 1970s, despite the guilty awareness that if contemporary incarnations of Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, or even Pierre Bourdieu were to appear in the U.S. academy, they would be unlikely to even make it through grad school, and if they somehow did make it, they would almost certainly be denied tenure.

The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy pg 134

In what I’ve discussed so far, there are a number of distinct (overlapping?) factors which these thinkers have diagnosed as harmful to academic writing:

  • Status insecurity of social scientists, particularly vis-a-vis natural scientists.
  • The time pressures of the accelerated academy and increasing tempos of expected publication.
  • Competition in the academic labour market and the imperative to achieve security through publication.
  • Managerialism and metricisation creating an organisational environment within which marketing and PR have engulfed even scholarship.

At the risk of stating the obvious, what each of these factors have in common is the scholar. Note that when I write ‘the scholar’, I abstract from actually existing embodied persons. This carries the same cost that Billig notes of ‘the subject’:

It sounds much grander, more official, and less personal. The definite article – the ‘the’ – adds cachet. By using ‘the subject’, the authors turn ‘people’ into another theoretical thing. (pg 158)

I’m not trying to write about a category. I’m trying to write about the people who occupy that category. The living, breath, hoping, despairing, finite beings for whom ‘academic’ is one social role amongst others occupied in their lives. Furthermore, within the confines of that role, they might aspire to ‘scholar’ and feel constrained by the realities of the organisations within which they work. Writing offers an interesting route into ‘the scholar’. A way to diagnose what troubles them so. Another way of exploring the ‘deep somatic crisis’ that critics like Roger Burrows and Ros Gill have claimed afflicts the contemporary academy. But this is a much bigger project than one blog post can contain.

Friday September 23rd at the University of Warwick, 9:30am to 6:00pm

The culture and organisation of knowledge production are undergoing dramatic transformations.

Neo-managerialist models for the management of research and teaching, the expansion of audit and academic rankings, and the recasting of universities as service providers and students as consumers are just several of the main features of the ongoing marketisation of science, higher education and academia. Further important structural changes include the casualisation of academic labour and the “acceleration” of academic life.

These transformations concern the mathematical, natural and social sciences and humanities in equal measure, if perhaps in different ways. The careers, working lives and identities of scholars, researchers and higher education teachers are all affected.

In this symposium, we bring together international and UK-based scholars who study science, higher education and academia. We focus on a particular aspect of neoliberal academia, namely its anxiety-inducing environment – not as an object in itself, but as a symptom of what Ros Gill called “the hidden injuries of neoliberal academia” and of the need for meaningful change. We will discuss what is happening to the work, careers, lives, identities and epistemic communities of scientists, while the scientific institutions are changing.

We invite everyone interested in issues of work, labour and employment in the sciences and academia – scholars, students, practitioners, administrators – to join the symposium and take part in the discussions.


Liz Morrish – Metrics, Performance Management and the Anxious University
With responses by Gurminder K. Bhambra & Maria Ivancheva

Maggie O’Neill – Pace, Space and Well-Being: Containing Anxiety in the University
With responses by Vik Loveday & TBC

Filip Vostal – Beyond the dichotomy of slow and fast academia: On temporal multidimensionality of science
With responses by Mark Carrigan & Milena Kremakova

Each speaker will talk for thirty minutes, with responses of fifteen minutes each, before an hour’s open discussion.

Register here:

Notes for my talk in Leeds tomorrow

It is increasingly hard to move without encountering the idea that social media is something of value for academics. The reasons offered are probably quite familiar by now. It helps ensure your research is visible, both inside and outside the academy. Many of us might be sceptical of the dominant discourse of impact within which such a concern for visibility tends to be expressed. I certainly am in many ways, worrying that this is irrevocably tied up in the instrumentalisation of research, the declining autonomy of researchers and the marketisation of the Academy within which research takes place. Nonetheless the imperative to make and demonstrate impact is already an entrenched characteristic of the research economy and looks likely to stay that way.

In this short talk, I will make the case that social media in general and blogging in particular represent a way to expand academic autonomy, improve the quality of our scholarship and nonetheless meet the demands of what I have elsewhere called the Accelerated Academy, all at the same time. This might seem implausible, so please bear with me. If it seems overly optimistic, let’s talk about this at the end because my actual view of the research economy is pretty grim and depressing. My enthusiasm for social media comes in large part because I see it as something that can, at least potentially work to ameliorate a whole series of problems that afflict those within the contemporary research economy.

A good way into this is to consider some of the other benefits increasingly held to obtain through academics using social media. I already mentioned visibility, internal to the academy and outside of it. Related to this, is the chance to practice communication with nonspecialist audiences. It’s a faster way to get your research findings out. It allows you to build an audience for future publications, in advance of their actual release. In doing so, it allows you to find people who share your research interests, as connections more or less inevitably form on the basis of what you publish and what you read online.

But the advantage that I’m most interested in and the one that will be key to the argument I’m making here, is that the more you write, the easier writing gets. The more you think, the easier thinking gets. My enthusiasm for social media in general, as well as blogging in particular, stems from the endless occasions they offer for thinking and writing.

But isn’t thinking and writing what we do anyway? Well yes, on one level, it is. Though I think there are important questions to be asked about how the accelerating pace of working life in contemporary universities impacts on the time and energy available for thinking and writing. But talk today is not about that.

It’s this presumably everyday quality to academic thinking and writing  which has increasingly left me confused about one of the most common concerns, even objections, to academic social media: isn’t it just one more thing for already busy people to do? On the surface, this makes complete sense. This is certainly true for some people. It’s almost certainly true for everyone at least some of the time. But much of what academics do on social media  should not be something extrinsic to their scholarship but instead should be constitutive of it. As the sci-fi author, digital rights activist and blogger Cory Doctorow puts it: blogging is “my major way of thinking through the stuff that matters to me”. This is true of myself as well. I think it’s true of many academics using social media, even if they don’t recognise it. Furthermore, I think much of the value that social media has for academics within the contemporary research economy won’t be actualised until this has become a ubiquitous feature of how we talk about the way we can use social media as researchers.

There’s a lovely extract of the Academic Diary in which Les Back reflects on the life and work of the social theorist Vic Seidler. Remarking on the vast range of topics on which Seidler has written, Les suggests that this deeply committed man “writes not because his academic position expects it but because he has something to say and communicate”. For someone like Seidler, writing is something a person does because they are “trying to work something out”.

This captures what I see as the promise of academic social media. It’s a platform for trying to work things out. More so, doing it in the open grants each of these attempts a social existence, one that comes with undoubted risks but also enormous rewards. Little bits of thought shrapnel, brief attempts to make some sense of the ‘feel of an idea’, come to enjoy their own existence within the world. They’re mostly forgotten or even ignored from the outset. But there’s something quite remarkable about occasions when these fragments resurface as someone sees something of value in them, perhaps when you saw no value in them yourself.

In this way, it attunes you to the impulse to write because you have “something to say and communicate”. This isn’t always the case and I worry that the metricisation of scholarly blogging will prove immensely destructive of it. But there is at least for now something deeply rewarding about seizing on an inchoate idea, developing it and throwing it off into the world to see what others make of it. For no other reason than the pleasure inherent to it. Whether this non-instrumental exploration of ideas remains the norm or could be sustained in the long term is a different question – as I’ll come on to, I think there are reasons to worry that the research economy is inimical to this.

What does this all mean practice? I’m talking about quite straight forward practices which all of those conducting research engage in to differing degrees. I’ve often used the term ‘public notebook’ and the existence of non-public notebooks is the most obvious point of comparison here. Prior to starting a research blog early in my PhD, I use to scribble notes in a succession of moleskin notebooks – ones I would later struggle to decipher due to my scrawled handwriting. The radical sociologist C Wright Mills wrote a wonderful appendix to his famous The Sociological Imagination about scholarly craft: he argued for the necessity of keeping a ‘file’ in order to ‘keep one’s inner world awake’.

These are activities we all engage in but which, rather interestingly, tend not to feature in public discourse: the daily minutae of scholarship. Notebooks, filing cabinets, file cards, newspaper clippings, print outs, drawings, marginalia in books, annotated papers, reading lists etc. Modern digital equivalents involve tools like Evernote or OneNote. These have many of the advantages of using social media – they can also of course be integrated with them, for instance by quickly sharing notes from Evernote or automatically clipping content you discover on social media into the appropriate Evernote folder. But as with social media use, they have the advantage of mobility, in so far as that one can use them across devices and across contexts – rather than the careful work of keeping physical files or the necessity of ensuring one always has one’s physical journal and never, under any circumstances, lose it.

The features I discussed earlier might all sound individualistic. But it’s in considering how the use of social media differs from contemporary alternatives like Evernote that it becomes apparent how the benefits of social media are intrinsically social. Later in the book I mentioned earlier, Les Back suggests that Twitter sometimes facilitates our “inhabiting the attentiveness of another writer” by providing “signposts pointing to things going on in the world: a great article, an important book, a breaking story”. Through the things that others share, we sometimes enter into their world and participate in an economy of “hunches and tips” which is the “lifeblood of scholarship”. These provide pathways through the literature, allowing others to use them as guides into and through often difficult bodies of work.

It’s in this sense that I’m arguing social media increases the autonomy of researchers, both individually and collectively. If we accept the argument that metrics necessarily entail the evisceration of self-governance, with hierarchical regulation replacing horizontal norms, then this new horizontal space of collaboration and cooperation begins to looks exceedingly valuable. It’s a new kind of space and one which could be easily destroyed if we too easily accept that what we do within it should be measured and incorporated into the logic of career advancement.

The kinds of scholarly communities of practice we can see perpetually coming to life online are obviously not confined to the digital sphere. But academic social media is at present profoundly generative of them, whereas the broader research economy is increasingly characterised by a competitive individualism which works to preclude them However I think this not just important within the academy but also in the relationships between academia and other institutional spheres. For instance, academic social media is changing how journalists and academics interact: it’s easier to identify academics, but it’s also easier to make demands upon them which might be unreasonable or unwelcome, often with only a cursory understanding of what they hope to achieve through such a potential collaboration. It’s also changing the relationships between social scientists and the communities they research, as organised groups increasingly monitor and engage with academic research, in ways that can throw up all such of problems. This is why the nature of the ‘third space’ of academic social media is so important.

There are all sorts of instrumental gains to be had through engaging with social media: increasing your visibility, expanding your network, ensuring your work is widely read, engaging with non-academics publics and making an impact outside of the academy. But there are gains to scholarship which are more important and perhaps more diffuse than this. What increasingly interests me is the tension between them the two tendencies: how the instrumental use of social media, encouraged within the contemporary research economy, might imperil the gains which I’ve suggested can be made on the level of craft and collaboration.

I’ve suggested that the value of social media for academics can be seen in terms of craft and careers. These two dimensions often overlap but I think it’s useful to separate them analytically: contributions to individual and collaborative scholarship on the one hand, contributions to the development of careers on the other. Obviously the former usually takes place in the context of the latter – though the rise of the ‘alt-academic’, pursuing scholarship without pursuing a traditional academic career, can be seen to break this link. But the relationship between them isn’t always clear. For instance, in recent work, myself and Filip Vostal have been exploring the manner in which the accelerative pressures found in the contemporary academy militate against good scholarship. If people are asked to do more with the same or less, then what effect does this have? If we construe it in traditional terms, particularly as something conversant with and contributing to ‘the literature’, then good scholarship becomes structurally difficult 28,100 journals publishing 2.5 million articles a year. Under such circumstances we come to encounter surface writing rather than depth writing, rearranging ideas rather than developing new ones: scholasticism on the one hand, empiricism on the other. My point is not to explore the accelerated academy here but simply to flag up how institutional changes complicate the link between craft and careers. This is the environment within which the latent value of social media for academics comes to be actualised along either dimension.

As I mentioned earlier, I’m particularly interested in how time pressure figures into the developing discourse about social media for academics. On the one hand, I think the idea of social media being ‘just one more thing to do’ is straight forwardly a mistaken way of understanding what academics do on social media. On the other hand, I think the temporal pressures to which academics are subject in their institutional lives will inevitably shape the character of their social media use:

  1. Time-pressure can be a symbol of status and flaunting it can represent one of the few socially acceptable forms of conspicuous self-aggrandizement available (Ian Price)
  2. Time-pressure can reduce the time available for reflexivity, ‘blotting out’ difficult questions in a way analogous to drink and drugs
  3. Time-pressure can facilitate a unique kind of focus in the face of a multiplicity of distractions: past commitments ‘choose’ for us
  4. The accelerative pleasures and creative inducements of ‘binge writing’ and working to a deadline (Maggie O’Neill)
  5. Time-pressure can leave us feeling that we are living life most fully. If the good life is now seen as the full life then living fast feels like living fully (Harmut Rosa)

These all contribute to a broader context in which speed becomes problematic within the academy. It comes to enjoy an immense psychic charge as something which feels like, to paraphrase Homer Simpson, the cause of and solution to all life’s problems:

Coupled with intense competition within the academic career structure, as well the broader spectre of redundancy which Bauman argues characterises academic life as a whole in late modernity, it’s inevitable that what Ruth Müller theorises as anticipatory acceleration arises as a situationally logical strategy: going faster without specific goal in mind, seeking to outpace competitors given limited positions available for a cohort. As I understand her argument, which I really recommend reading directly, this gives rise to a subjugation of present pleasures to anticipated future rewards, with a contraction of alternative futures envisaged by the subject. The more hyper kinetically you commit yourself to career advancement, pursued through anticipatory acceleration, the more difficult it becomes to climb off the treadmill because your horizons narrow to the next goal. Though her empirical work has focused on post-docs in the life sciences, the scope of her concepts seem broader than this, both in terms of discipline and career stages. The conditions she describes in the condition from post-doc to faculty surely also obtain in the transition from lecturer to senior lecturer, from senior lecturer to reader and from reader to professor.

The ensuing dynamic of competitive escalation is crucial to understanding labour in the contemporary academy. It is a social mechanism driving the intensification of labour and destroying solidarity, tied up in a life-destroying feedback loop with the systems of audit which work to replace the horizontal regulation of professional standards with the vertical regulation of metrics. The value of social media for academic craft can mitigate these effects by grounding individuals in non-instrumental motivations for their work (curiosity, playfulness, exploration) and facilitating collaboration between such individuals outside the rubric of competitive individualism. But how likely is this to continue? I’m interested in how what Jose Van Dijck calls the popularity principle intersects with the competitive individualism of the accelerated academy: will the metrics of social media become just one more way in which academics can evaluate themselves in relation to others and be evaluated as they proceed through an increasingly rigidly defined career structure? If the logic of careers comes to dominate academic social media, can the logic of craft survive? If not then what does this mean for the broader conditions of academic labour? The institutionalisation of alt-metrics seems likely to be the most important vector through which the answer to these questions will begin to unfold. How will social media activity be measured and how will this new process of measurement intersect with existing processes of measurement? Will alt-metrics unsettle existing hierarchies or simply lead to dual hierarchies that might converge upon the same academic celebrities who dominate the intellectual attention space?

However there are other substantive areas in which these issues are currently being played out: online harassment of academics, social media policies within universities, institutional reaction to online academic speech, regulation of the corporate brand, social media training and support offered by staff. I think the way in which the benefits of social media are coming to be framed is particularly interesting and we’re likely to see this come to be dominated by the language of ‘impact’ and ‘engagement’ on the one hand, ‘academic citizenship’ and ‘academic civility’ on the other. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with these things but what gets squeezed out in the middle is scholarship. I’ve not really talked about substantive cases in these areas today. There’s a few reasons for this: some of them are very contentious and I’m more comfortable writing about them then speaking about them, doing them justice requires a lot of empirical detail and would take a long time, it’s easy for this reason to get lost in detail and miss the broader picture. After all, it’s this broader picture which interests me. Social media is tied up in all manner of ways with the transformation of the university, as well as the transformation of the universities place within wider social life. There are many other factors, but the institutionalization of social media is a key vector in these unfolding changes. One which, I’ve tried to argue and hope we can discuss further, has important ramifications for academic labour.

November 30th t0 December 3rd 2016, Leiden University

From the 1980s onward, there has been an unprecedented growth of institutions and procedures for auditing and evaluating university research. Quantitative indicators are now widely used from the level of individual researchers to that of entire universities, serving to make academic activities more visible, accountable and amenable to university management and marketing. Further demands for accountability in academia can be related to general societal trends described under the heading of the audit society (Power 1997), and the evaluation society (Dahler-Larsen 2011). As part of broader transformations in research governance, indicators on publications and citations are now permeating academia: from global university rankings to journal-level bibliometrics such as the journal impact factor and individual measures like the h-index. Yet, it is only recently that considerable interest has been directed towards the effects that these measures might have on work practices and knowledge production (c.f. de Rijcke et al. 2015), and the role they might be playing in accelerating academic life more generally (c.f. Vostal 2016).

The Accelerated Academy draws together a number of cross-disciplinary conversations about the effects that acceleration towards metric forms of evaluation is having upon research, and the implications this holds for living and working in contemporary academia (Felt et al. 2009). Building on the successful maiden edition of the Accelerated Academy series in Prague in 2015, this year’s Leiden conference will be especially focussed towards the following questions:

  • What does acceleration mean in different research contexts?
  • What are the implications of digitally mediated measurement and tools for quantifying scholarly performance?
  • What are the knowledge gaps regarding the effects of metrics on scientific quality and societal relevance of research?
  • How can we harness the positive and minimize the adverse effects of performance measurement in universities?

Confirmed keynote speakers include Peter Dahler-Larsen (University of Copenhagen), Ulrike Felt (University of Vienna) and Michael Power (LSE).

We invite submissions for presentations of around 20 minutes. The deadline for submitting abstracts will be August 31st 2016. Please send two pages or 800 words describing your contribution including a short biographical note to:

Conference organisers

Sarah de Rijcke, Centre for Science and Technology Studies, Leiden University
Björn Hammarfelt, University of Borås, Sweden | Leiden University
Alex Rushforth, Centre for Science and Technology Studies, Leiden University

Scientific committee

Mark Carrigan, University of Warwick
Tereza Stöckelová, Czech Academy of Sciences
Filip Vostal, Czech Academy of Sciences
Paul Wouters, Leiden University
Milena Kremakova, University of Warwick

Event registration will be free of charge. In addition, a limited number of travel and accommodation support bursaries will be made available for researchers especially inhibited by the costs of travel. Please contact the conference manager Andrea Reyes Elizondo  for more information.

A letter Filip Vostal and I have written to University Affairs in response to this interview:

We read your recent interview with the authors of the recent book Slow Professor with interest. While we welcome the continued expansion of critical debate concerning academic labour, we nonetheless found much to be concerned with in the interview. Perhaps this is inevitable, as neither of us are professors. In this we are like most within the academy. Though we recognise the complex considerations that factor into the naming of a book, this titular exclusion is indicative of the more substantive problems we have with the idea expressed in this interview and the broader discourse of slow scholarship within which they are embedded.

The interview with the authors confirms our assumption that slow manifestos of such a kind might account for projections and experiences of the authors, rather than for ethnographically or empirically informed studies. The archetype of the distracted time-poor scholar on the verge of psychological breakdown is far from being the norm – as many promoters of academic slowdown often tend to automatically assume. Whether one is distracted, accelerated, stressed, burn-out or just about the opposite – whether one thrives and enjoys plenty of quality and unhasty time – very much depends on other sociologically relevant variables such as age, gender, academic status, discipline, family situation, psychological disposition. 

We are aware that the notion of slowness is attractive and even seductive for academics but, at the same time we think that personal individual stories (and inferences made thereupon) – with all due respect to their seriousness – from academia often give an incorrect impression that academia is flooded with stress, despair and misery and that other corners of society are not (or not so seriously). It is also very much the case that the perceived acceleration of academic life is massively socially differentiated and often reflects power relations and hierarchies within the academy. This we think should be something of a start, perhaps a ‘working hypothesis’ to be explored, rather than more or less bold conclusions indicating that academia is taken by unprecedented speed and frenzy upon which one may be declaring the desperate necessity of slowness.  

One of the key components of such a hypothesis is thus this one: to be a slow professor is a privilege. It’s a privilege only available to those already at the summit of the academic career structure. Indeed, it is likely only available to some of them, certainly excluding the assistant and perhaps associate professors who are ambiguously subsumed under the catch all term ‘professor’. In reducing the temporal regimes of academic life to a matter of lifestyle choice, regarding it as a matter of learning to be ok with having fewer lines on your CV the authors not only fail to recognise their own privilege but actively mystify the institutional hierarchy within which they enjoy a security being systematically denied to ever greater swathes of their younger colleagues. We would suggest, in the spirit of well-meaning critique, ‘slow professorship’ only makes sense when such decelerating professors can take it for granted that junior associates will accelerate to pick up the slack.

Mark Carrigan (University of Warwick & The Sociological Review)

Filip Vostal (The Czech Academy of Sciences & CEFRES)

The notion of ‘publish or perish’ has become something of a cliché. But its reality is starkly confirmed by the sheer quantity of scholarly literature produced each year, with an estimated 28,100 active scholarly peer-reviewed journals publishing around 1.8-1.9 million articles in 2012. How much of this literature is written as a contribution to knowledge and how much of it is written to be counted? How many of these papers provoke serious engagement and how many are largely forgotten? After all, it’s estimated that 82% of papers in the humanities are never cited, 27% in the natural sciences and 32% in the social sciences.

Does keeping up with the literature remain feasible when so much is being produced? Graham Scambler suggests we are seeing a ‘compression of the past’ in which many Sociology papers increasingly make reference to “a handful of ‘reified’ classics from the past century and a flowering profusion of twenty-first century offerings”. His point is that when we have access to a “a bewildering and heterogeneous assembly of up-to-date sources” we tend to combine uncontentious canonical sources with “what we have most recently digested”. He argues that great bodies of work are lost under these conditions, contributing to a situation thatStephen Mugford describes as the eternal sunshine of the spotless sociologist: long studied topics and well developed approaches are ‘invented’ afresh, without reference to the originals, such that endless reiteration and forgetting replaces cumulative intellectual progress

This special section of The Sociological Review’s website seeks short blog posts reflecting on the challenge for scholarship under conditions of abundance. This might include topics such as the following:

  • Is it becoming more difficult to keep up with the literature within any given field?
  • What role does specialisation play in the explosion of scholarly publishing?
  • Do our reading practices need to change under these conditions?
  • Is the proliferation of journal articles simply a distraction? Do we need a renewed focus on quality rather than quantity?
  • How do the demands of career progression contribute to the proliferation of journal articles?
  • Should we place more value on review articles because of their capacity to systematise and condense sprawling literatures?
  • Do we need new practices of reflection to consolidate what has been established within a field? Could social media help to this end?

Please contact Mark Carrigan with submissions or any questions relating to the special section: The deadline for contributions is March 31st 2016.

From Sustainable Knowledge by Robert Frodeman, loc 1257:

I feel like I am drowning in knowledge, and the idea of further production is daunting. Libraries and bookstores produce a sense of anxiety: the number of books and journals to read is overwhelming, with tens of thousands more issuing from the presses each day. Moreover, there is no real criterion other than whim for selecting one book or article over another. To dive into one area rather than another becomes a willful act of blindness, when other areas are just as worthwhile and when every topic connects to others in any number of ways. The continual press of new knowledge becomes an invitation to forgetfulness, to lose the forest for the trees.

An interesting extract from Social Media in Academia, by George Veletsianos, conveying one reason why I’m instinctively cautious about open access. From loc 614-631:

empirical evidence relating to citation metrics indicates that OA articles may be cited earlier than NOA articles (Eysenbach, 2006; Zawacki-Richter, Anderson, & Tuncay, 2010), suggesting that OA may allow faster access to scholarly work and thereby accelerate scholarly dissemination and development.

As he goes on to write:

Such data may help scholars gain a more nuanced understanding of the impact and reach of their scholarship, provide transparency to the research community, and allow richer depictions of a scholar’s influence.

It’s not obvious to me that these are intrinsically good things. Whose agenda do they serve?

Saved here for my own reference:

There is little doubt that science and knowledge production are presently undergoing dramatic and multi-layered transformations accompanied by new imperatives reflecting broader socio-economic and technological developments. The unprecedented proliferation of audit cultures preoccupied with digitally mediated measurement, quantification of scholarship and the consolidation of business-driven managerialism and governance modes are commonplace in the contemporary academy. Concurently, the ever-increasing rate of institutional change, (the need for) intensification of scientific and scholarly production/communication and diverse academic processes seem to characterize the overall acceleration of academic life. Quantification and metrics have emerged not only as navigating instruments paradoxically exacerbating the general dynamization of academic life but also as barely questioned proxies for scientific quality, career progression and job prospects, and as parameters redrawing what it means to be/work as a scholar nowadays. Metrification now seems to be an important interface between labour and surveillance within academic life, with manifold affective implications.

This three-day conference investigates the techniques of auditing and their attendant practices and effects and will also probe into scholars’ complicity in reproduction of such practices. It will consider processes of social acceleration within the academy and their implications for the management of everyday activity by those working within it. This will include:

  •  empirical and theoretical engagements with the acceleration of higher education
  •  the origins of metrification of higher education
  •  metrification as a form of social control
  •  the challenges of self-management posed by metrification and/or acceleration
  •  common strategic responses to these challenges
  •  the relationship between metrification and acceleration
  •  how metrification and acceleration relate to a broader social crisis

Keynote Speakers

Roger Burrows (Goldsmiths, University of London) – Ancient Cultures of Conceit Reloaded

In 1990 the sociologist Ian Carter published Ancient Cultures of Conceit – a brilliant analysis of campus fiction. It provides a wonderful rendering of a world we have lost – a world where academic life was slower paced and where spreadsheets, metrics, business plans and impact agendas were largely unknown. This paper attempts to carry forward Carter’s analysis over the last 25 years examining more recent examples of the campus fiction genre but also including fictional representations of campus life to be found on social media.

Philip Moriarty (University of Nottingham) – The Power, Perils and Pitfalls of Peer Review in Public

There are major deficiencies in traditional peer review. Not only can clearly flawed papers easily  pass ‘scrutiny’ with flying colours,  but the idea that a study is accepted into the scientific literature on the basis of a handful – or, not infrequently, one – set of anonymous reviewer comments seems quaint and archaic in a Twitter-, blogoshere-, and BuzzFeed-enabled world. Post-publication peer review, enabled by sites such as PubPeer, is an exceptionally important tool for online critique, analysis, and scrutiny of published papers. For the next generation of researchers, PPPR will almost certainly be de rigueur. Before we get to that point, however, there are quite a number of teething problems that need to be addressed. These include, in particular, the key issue of the role of anonymity and moderation in online commentary.

Susan Robertson (University of Bristol) – Vertigo: Time and space in the contemporary university

One of Henri Lefebvre’s great intellectual contribution was not only how we think about the spatiality and temporality of social life but that lived/in spaces and their social relations are the outcome of ongoing cultural, political and economic projects and their dynamics. In this lecture I explore the changing nature of the contemporary university, and the ways in which recalibrations of time and space are also simultaneously the medium, object, and outcome of these projects and dynamics.  I invoke the idea of ‘vertigo’ – the sensation of the world moving, and profound anxieties about the potential for a loss of height – as a way of exploring the complex ways in which governing the university through temporal and spatial strategies mediates the ongoing experiences of living, learning, and working, in the university.

James Wilsdon (University of Sussex) – The Metric Tide: Reflections on the UK’s Independent Review of Metrics in Research Assessment and Management 

There are powerful currents whipping up the metric tide. These include growing pressures for audit and evaluation of public spending on higher education and research; demands by policymakers for more strategic intelligence on research quality and impact; the need for institutions to manage and develop their strategies for research; competition within and between institutions for prestige, students, staff and resources; and increases in the availability of real-time ‘big data’ on research uptake, and the capacity of tools for analysing it. Citations, journal impact factors, H-indices, even tweets and Facebook likes – there are no end of quantitative measures that can now be used to assess the quality and wider impacts of research. But how robust and reliable are such indicators, and what weight – if any – should we give them in the management of the UK’s research system? Over the past year, the UK’s Independent Review of the Role of Metrics in Research Assessment and Management has looked in detail at these questions. The review has explored the use of metrics across the full range of academic disciplines, and assessed their potential contribution to processes of research assessment like the Research Excellence Framework (REF). It has looked at how universities themselves use metrics, at the rise of league tables and rankings, at the relationship between metrics and issues of equality and diversity, and at the potential for ‘gaming’ that can arise from the use of particular indicators in the funding system. The review’s final report, The Metric Tide, was published on 9 July 2015. In his talk, James Wilsdon will reflect on the review process, outline its main findings, and consider the opportunities and obstacles to more responsible uses of metrics in the research system.

Oili-Helena Ylijoki (University of Tampere) – ‘Projectification’ and conflicting time orders in academic knowledge production

Under the current conditions of academic capitalism and market-driven managerialism, university research is increasingly conducted in large projects on external, competitive funding from various national and international sources. The project format offers a fixed-term, fast and flexible organizational mode which fits together with constantly changing needs of the turbulent university environment. This paper argues that the ‘projectification’ of science creates a special project time which stands in conflict with process time. Project time, embedded in standardized and abstract clock time, is decontextualized, linear, cumulative and predictable, entailing a strictly defined timeframe with a fixed beginning and end. This is in a sharp contrast with nonlinear, context-dependent and unpredictable process time involving unforeseen periods of standstill, deceleration and acceleration. Furthermore, project time includes      1) commodification of time by translating research process into money, 2) control of time by dividing research into beforehand determined phases in which accountability of the use of time is required, 3) compression of time by speeding up research productivity, and 4) colonization of time by subordinating alternative temporalities in research. The paper discusses how the intensification of project time reshapes and remoulds research practices and academic subjectivity, and what possibilities for alternative temporalities can be created and sustained at the accelerated academy. This is done by distinguishing temporal dilemmas and ways to live with them: long-term commitment vs. short-term funding; fast pace vs. slow thinking; time efficiency vs. wasting time; linear career time vs. circular project rat race; and work time vs. existential time.