A version of this piece was originally published as ‘Conformity blunts creativity’, The Australian. Higher Education Supplement, Dec 12, 2007.
I have added a few minor tweaks to bring it more up to date. But unfortunately not a lot has changed since 2007!
Up till now there have been two dominant images of the humanities and social sciences scholar. The first picture is of a dry-as-dust individual obsessed with arcane pursuits far removed from the run of everyday life. A more attractive model, emerging from the upheaval of the 1960s and 70s, can be found in the ‘library militant’. This is the academic who uses scholarship to expose long standing social injustice and to give new value to knowledge sidelined by mainstream institutions and mechanisms of power.
Both cliches still survive of course, but we are now seeing the advent of a third model of scholarship in universities. This new scholarship is a dreary and miserable process of conforming to the straitjacket of multiple rules laid down by endless committees deliberating on ‘productivity’ and ‘standards’. Academics are exhorted to be ‘innovative’ and ‘original’ but only so long as their work fits into normalising Government guidelines or that new byzantine labyrinth of bureaucratic regulation which is the metricisation of research output (formerly the RQF, now the ERA in Australia). Failure to comply relegates all rogue work to hobby status.
So what actually happens when an academic is deemed to be non-productive on the research front, either through misrecognition of their work or failure to produce due to unmanageable teaching and admin workloads? Said academic may be threatened with ‘disciplinary action’ (a phrase previously only ever heard in the most extreme of circumstances: murder, madness or scandalous sexual misdemenour). Or, alternately the offending individual is subjected to the dire punishment of being ‘mentored’ until he or she can meet benchmarks of corporate productivity.
But publication is not all: there is the anxiety ridden, and now virtually obligatory, process of applying for grants. It is an exercise which is time consuming, onerous and often unproductive (when the application is rejected) and again, only research which addresses set government and industry priorities need apply. The days of the university as an independent and self-determining contributor to the general social body are long gone indeed.
A whole new taxonomy of academic and scholar has likewise arisen. We find the eager, fresh, and often not so young, early career researchers (ECRs or ECARDs in bureaucratic speak), delicate flowers who must be carefully nurtured through a strictly designed cursus of mentoring and specially targeted grants. Then there are the more traditionally named ‘Professors’, often appointed more for their administrative and networking talents than for any major contribution to their field. (Of course, to be fair, there are still many Professors who have earned their position through notable scholarship). And lucky last, we must not forget the middle ranks of anonymous ‘B’ and ‘C’ ranked lecturers eking out an existence with limited promotion prospects, crushed under the drudgery of impossible teaching loads and of increasingly strident demands to produce the requisite minimum of two refereed publications a year. Of course these are just the staff with permament jobs. There is also an entire underclass of poorly paid casual and part time labour in the form of sessional tutors.
To compound matters, there is scant respect from other sectors in the social body for the kind of work academics do. The political furore over a disregarded 2007 University of Sydney study of the impact of Prime Minister John Howard’s Industrial Relations package is a case in point, providing a striking example of the cavalier disregard for the expertise of those working in universities.
The net is littered with blogs describing the impossibilities of teaching and writing in the new university, the career and promotion dead ends, the impossibility of even getting a job and any number of other woes. Amazon helpfully offers solutions in the form of books with titles such as Write to the Top: How to be a Prolific Academic and A PhD is not enough!: A Guide to Survival in Science.
This is a bleak scenario indeed and doom and gloom reign supreme. There is very little mention in this landscape, beyond mere lip service, of how exciting research and scholarship can be, the positive contribution it makes to human knowledge and culture and the possibilities for present and future freedoms it opens up for everybody. Creative ideas (even down to the word ‘creative’) are forced into a corporate mould and it becomes a matter of quantity not quality. How many refereed articles did you publish this year? How many dollars in research grants did you receive? This is a point that has been made so many times before that it has become a mantra, but in a society where the quantifiable exchange of goods is all, nobody is listening.
So what is the solution to all this? I would like to make three modest proposals. To begin with, there should be more of a refusal to play along. Academics often comply unnecessarily with the frequently counter-productive rules which are handed down from on high every week in universities. A healthy passive resistance, a polite and nodding agreement while waiting for it to go away, works wonders when practised en masse.
Secondly, academics might take back some control of their own sociability and organise informal networks in addition to participating in the carefully structured and monitored ones on offer by the corporation. These informal networks could encourage an atmosphere of mutual support rather than one of relentless competition and ostentatious display.
A third strategy might involve seizing back some minimum enjoyment of the scholarly process of reading, research and writing. This could be undertaken as a desperate counter measure to deal with the stressful necessity of adding yet more metrics shaped notches to the CV in an attempt to satisfy the demands of increasingly invasive performance reviews.
Small suggestions perhaps, but in a situation where there is very little room for manoeuvre, one has to start somewhere.