At a recent event, I heard an extremely distinguished professor make the argument that there was a certain sequence to career development which all academics who sought jobs in high status university ought to pursue. One ought to publish papers in well regarded journals before writing books. One ought to establish a reputation within a field before writing for a broader audience. The professor qualified by this recognising the dynamic might not hold for lower status universities. The statements were also clearly couched in terms of the United States, without this framing being qualified.

It nonetheless raises an interesting question which has often occurred to me in recent years: does advice about ‘playing the game’ have a shelf life in a system which is itself undergoing change? The tenure system in the United States plays a large role in creating continuity between successive cohorts, as careers pass through a nodal point which only changes incrementally. The research assessment system in the U.K. brings a different dynamic with it because so much of institutional status hinges on your relative value for the forthcoming assessment exercise. My perception is that the rules of the game change with each cycle, in terms of the institutional requirements and how they are articulated on a local level, meaning advice about career development necessarily has a shelf life.

From The Research Impact Handbook, by Mark Reed, loc 1575:

Andrew Derrington, in The Research Funding Toolkit , tries to help by conceiving of research as a “grants factory”, in which researchers churn out proposals dispassionately on a production line, starting work on the next proposal as soon as the last one is submitted, and accepting the odds that if your work is any good, then eventually one will get funded. Whether or not you are able to detach yourself from your work to that extent (I’m not sure I can), I think that there is something to be said for just picking yourself up and carrying on, no matter how bad your failure.

I just came across this sentence by Mark Granovetter on loc 721 of Ross Perlin’s Intern Nation:

“There may be just enough cases around that people know about to give people encouragement, but not enough to really make it likely that that’s going to happen for any particular person.”

This is another way of talking about ‘publicising successful outliers to propagate the illusion’

I’m increasingly interested in the disjunct between structure and culture that characterises occupational trajectories: as opportunities are objectively contracting, a cultural of wishful thinking emerges that focuses on a minute percentage of cases – “I realise it’s difficult but I’m sure I’ll be different” – something which many employers and entrepreneurs are happy to encourage out of sheer self-interest.

Later on in the book, the author contrasts the older apprentice system with internships. The former was suited to a technologically stable environment in which occupational opportunities persisted intergenerationally. In contrast, internships proliferate at a time of occupational flux, creating the perception of offering a structured way of navigating change. From loc 1234:

Nonetheless, says Jacoby of internships, “We don’t really grapple with what you have to master to move to the next level effectively … They create the sense of an open architecture where people feel like they can move into fields where they don’t have a lot of background … but I think that’s going to be more sleight-of-hand than reality.” Through high school and college, everything is made to seem possible, and internships extend the fantasy, until it comes time to land a stable, comfortable, decently paid job.

Over the next few months, I’m planning a series of podcasts with academics who have pursued non-conventional career paths. This is a remarkably clunky term: what does ‘non-conventional’ mean? The difficulty I’m having defining my terms is precisely why I think it’s so important to explore this topic. In essence, I’m planning to talk to people who have finished PhDs and/or post-docs without subsequently applying for lectureships while animated by ambitions of a future trajectory up a fixed institutional hierarchy.

This is a broad category within which there’s a great deal of variation in terms of ambition and circumstances.  There are lots of things that people with PhDs go on to do which, in many cases, complicate a simple dichotomy of being in the academy or being outside of it. But there seems to be a pervasive lack of career advice for those who might see such a pathway as being intrinsically desirable. Hopefully these podcasts can contribute in their own small way to rectifying this problem.

My sense of this problem has emerged from my own experience. For a long time, I’ve realised that I’d like to balance sociological communication with sociological research. Increasingly I can see how this would work in the short and medium term: at the moment I’m effectively doing the former for 3 days a week and the latter for 2 days a week, supplemented by occasional consultancy and training invitations.

It works for me and I’d like to continue, doing consultancy half the time and (I hope) within a few years working on my own grant-funded projects the other half of the time. But there’s a distinct lack of people I can turn to for advice about how to make this work in the long term. While the plans in question might be different, I’m certain I can’t be the only person contemplating a ‘non-conventional academic carer path’ in the absence of any obvious examples or available guidance about the viability of their plans.

The idea that a part 2 to yesterday’s post would be less rushed seems rather naive in retrospect. Feeling rushed in the morning is different to feeling rushed in the evening but it is nonetheless feeling rushed. Much of my motivation for the Accelerated Academy project comes from a desire to understand this aspect of my daily experience in a sociological way. It’s not quite linking ‘personal troubles’ to ‘public issues’ however because I’m aware that I like speed. Much like the experience of rushing reflects something more than my own psychology, so too do the pleasures which can be taken in acceleration. Here are some suggestions about what they are:

  1. Time-pressure can be a symbol of status and flaunting it can represent one of the few socially acceptable forms of conspicuous self-aggrandisement available.
  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. If we accept that priorities are invested with normative significance (i.e. they matter to us in direct and indirect ways) then prioritisation can be pleasurable. This can take the form of people who rely on deadlines to ensure things get done. More prosaically, it can undercut procrastination by leaving one with finite temporal resources to utilise for non-negotiable obligations.
  4. 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.

I think this conveys the feeling I’m trying to conceptualise more effectively than I can using the abstract words which are the only tools too many years of higher education have equipped me with:

It’s a feeling that provokes ambivalence but does so in a way that can be thrilling. C Wright Mills once wrote that “My plans have always exceeded my capacities and energies”. This is a sentiment that resonates with me in the sense that it describes my own experience. But I think there’s more to it than that. There’s some latent moral force to this resonance, as if part of me thinks that a life of which this was not true would be in some sense a life wasted. I’m not sure if I believe this reflectively but something in me endorses it nonetheless. Part of me believes that a failure of one’s plans to exceed one’s energies would point to a failure of imagination, an inability to keep pace with the possibilities for creative activity afforded by digital capitalism.

I find myself fantasising about working on one thing at a time. If I play the game, mark myself out in the right way then I could win funding and immerse myself in one project. But I’m not sure I really want this. I may think that I do but all the evidence I have suggests that at the first sign of frustration or boredom, I would seek out new distractions to which I could commit myself, justifying this as structured procrastination – perhaps we are veering into individual psychopathology after all… more to the point though, even if I did this and committed myself to it, would it be possible any longer? The schemes I’d be applying to demand impact strategies which presumably have to be put into practice. There is monitoring and assessment, consultation with mentors and demonstration of progress. The Rortyean image of unstructured immersion in creative work reveals itself once more to be a fantasy, at least under present circumstances.

The further problem is that, as Ana Canhoto pointed out in a comment on part one, Rorty’s image of slow academia is still the one held by many non-academics. Friends, family, partners fail to understand the relentless pressure to do more, ascribing situational demands to individual pathology (and perhaps this leads to a tendency for all three groups to be composed heavily of other academics). The three most desirable jobs in Britain are author, librarian and academic. It would be interesting to know how much respondents to this Yougov survey know about the conditions of working life faced by authors, librarians and academics. Perhaps authors are free – if social media is my most practical escape hatch then being a writer is my most desirable one – in the way that only the truly precarious can be, with it becoming effectively infeasible to live full time as a (non-superstar) author, all the more so if one has dependants. Is it a desirable freedom?

In many ways, I’m probably as free as I’m going to get right now. The problem is that embracing that would mean stasis. It would mean wanting to hold things in their current place. It would mean foregoing the pleasures of acceleration. It would mean, crucially, investing myself in circumstances that are by their nature transitory. This is the dilemma of acceleration: any resting place we find, any point of respite from speed, by its very nature cannot be assumed to be anything other than temporary. The stable career trajectories, as well as their associated life narratives, which Richard Sennett announced the end of in the early 90s involved a different temporality: a slow and steady movement through life (and the firm). Could acceleration be something that we seized upon as an alternative? Defining ourselves through perpetual motion, identifying with going somewhere even when the ‘somewhere’ perpetually shifted?

In part 3, I’ll talk about social media and craft, given that this is what my talk was originally intended to be about.

Lou Bloom is a petty thief, prowling Los Angeles by night while seeking some purpose in his life. He exists on the fringes of society, stealing to survive while also offering himself as an employee prepared to work under any conditions. We see the rejection he must have faced on many occasions, in spite of his ostentatious subservience (“my motto is if you want to win the lottery, you have to make the money to buy the ticket”) and genuine acceptance of the dogma that demands this of him as a precondition for employment. However a chance encounter on the roadside introduces Lou to the world of LA’s stringers, the freelance video journalists chasing ambulances and assaults, striving for the most lurid footage (“if it bleeds, it leads!”) to buy their way into a local news media concerned for crime reporting above all else. Lou is captivated by what they do, the urgency and action which defines it, leading him to take his first fumbling steps into this occupational world. He rapidly advances, soon revealing himself to lack scruples – putting it mildly – with the film closing at what we can only assume is the beginning of his ascendency to power within the seedy world of TV journalism in LA. In the interests of avoiding spoilers, I won’t say precisely what he does but it’s not pleasant.

Jake Gyllenhaal is superb throughout (incidentally, wouldn’t he make the perfect Patrick Bateman if American Psycho was ever remade?) and much of the film depends upon the consistency with which his performance sustains the balance between calm self-mastery and the rage we know exists beneath the surface. Too much of either would have detracted from the sheer creepiness of Lou Bloom, a man equally unblinking when blackmailing his employer into sex as when filming a corpse. The only time Lou’s mask slips is when his ambitions are thwarted, with this experience of denial prompting an outburst of rage as disturbing as it is understated. Other than this, the only emotion we see from him is delight, with involuntary smiles only becoming sinister because of context.

It’s this quality that renders the homolies which he delivers throughout the film quite so unsettling – he regurgitates nuggets of wisdom from the online business courses he consumes autodidactically, advising those around him on their negotiating positions and reflecting on the status of his transactions. However in an important way Nightcrawler isn’t about Lou Bloom’s sociopathy, it’s about his calling: he genuinely loves his newfound profession, exhibiting a natural flair and impulse towards self-improvement that combine to facilitate a rapid ascent into TV journalism and an escape from the precarity that had defined his existence heretofore. We only see hints at his previous life, most pointedly in the certainty with which he recognises that his newfound assistant was leaving sex work behind to work for him, but it seems to have been one that left him driven towards ‘bettering himself’ and with a very particular idea of what ‘better’ entails. He is an American success story, as Henry Barnes puts it in the Guardian, with the satire of this being constructed through the careful arrangements of parts rather than simply holding up Lou’s vacuity as an inditement of the America that produced him. Many aspects contribute to the force with which this critique is conveyed, not least of all the incisive assessment of TV journalism and the endemic insecurity which drives a race to the bottom, however without Lou’s fundamental earnestness I don’t think it would work. He seeks self-improvement, to embrace his newly discovered calling and earnestly strives to make a success of himself through it. The moral bankruptcy is contextual, expressed through Lou but not originating in him – satirising the American dream in terms of the immorality it licenses is far from a novel project but I found Nightcrawler a peculiarly gripping and elegantly constructed example of it.