Sunday, 1 July 2007

Words of Advice for Young People Regarding University

1. University can be construed as a stereotypically "masculine" institution. Academics are trained to empathise with students only on an intellectual level.
The work of the late British sociologist Ian Craib presumes that it is more useful to speak of elective affinities and "ideal types" rather than causality, when understanding the relationship between "the structured divisions of interest within organizations and settings for distorted communications" and how "it so happens that because of child-rearing methods men are more easily able than women to distort their relationships in the required way". Drawing on Goffman’s (Goffman 1968) conception of an "institutional self" to denote the ways of being required by an organization, Craib is able to speak of how an organization in its routine activities makes use of certain feelings and defences. He suggests that it might be possible in such terms to speak of "masculine" and "feminine" organizations. The university is his example of a masculine organization, given the requirement that its staff empathize with students only on an intellectual level, and that they also channel aggression and competitive feelings into research and around a hierarchy of universities. On the other hand, in terms of Craib’s ideal type, the empathy for children, parents and colleagues required in infant schools, make them "feminine" institutions. Where things become complicated, Craib notes, has to do with the "fate of women in masculine institutions and men in feminine institutions". In this context he raises some important questions around the issue of whether the stereotypically masculine defence mechanisms are counterproductive, as evidenced both by an inability on the part of an organization to meet its goals and the perceived unhappiness of people, ‘Is there evidence that the situation is at least unconsciously perceived as being the "same" as the phantasized or really dangerous situations of infancy? Do women in these situations develop different and more effective ways of coping with the situation?" (Craib 1998: 99-101)
Craib’s writings are suggestive of the need to ascertain the degrees of correlation between defence mechanisms, gender identity, and the structuration of action across a range of institutional settings. In light of all these considerations, there may be sufficient reason to agree with Craib’s related observation that the extension of women’s life chances outside the home, and a greater involvement of men in interpersonal care and nurturing are interconnected, but are not necessarily dependent on each other. Greater articulation of these related areas would accordingly require a more expansive social vision predicated upon deep structural changes.
But until this vision can be fully realized, any success in the academy may need to be tempered by Craib’s assessment of the degrees of correlation between personal and institutional identity:

"Most modern, bureaucratic, technologically based organizations require "masculine" behaviour, not because they are peopled by men but simply because that is the way they work. The elimination of structured gender inequality in these organizations will not change men: it might make them more anxious and, over a period, the reality of women’s performance might make it more difficult to project on to them the qualities at the root of male anxiety. On the other hand, it will require that women accommodate to and learn some aspects of masculinity. It seems to me that this would have no necessary implications for the way men behave in the home, the nursery or the bedroom; it would, however, intensify the pressure on couples" (Craib 1998: 101).

2. "Reflexive" knowledge does not necessarily mean that individuals increase their knowledge of the world.
Pahl appears to offer anecdotal evidence of this potential conflict when he describes the working life of "Laura", a fellow sociologist. Pahl suggests that Laura’s narrative is highly reminiscent of Bauman’s distinction in Legislators and Interpreters (Bauman 1987), regarding the role of knowledge as fostering positive change in the world (Pahl 1995: 128). As Pahl soon discovered though, the problem for Laura was that a lack of compatibility developed between the ontological and public forms of narrative used to construct her identity. This tension was exacerbated by a culture of managerialism, a "control revolution", which developed at her university. Thus she commented to Pahl:

"You construct your own goals and your achievements are measured in some ways by your own internal standards as well as by those around you. And so there’s always a lot of uncertainty. You’re never sure if you’ve achieved those standards or those standards are right or what you’re doing is worthwhile, and there’s a lot of tension between what you’re wanting to do and what’s required of you by various sorts of rules and regulations. And so I think that can lead to a lot of burnout and depression" (Pahl 1995: 130).

Laura claims it is her reflexivity and self-awareness which creates the personal style and standard of success she uses to separate herself from the predominant " masculine model" of career success in the academy. She is cognizant of the danger of pushing beyond a certain level, particularly given the existence of a new psychic economy said to obtain the " postmodern" university, wherein ever more more territories of the self are colonized by managerial control mechanisms. Laura would consequently be in principled agreement with Blackmore and Sachs in their paper, available online, The Psychic Economy of Higher Education, regarding the double-bind for women who are promoted to senior university administrative positions; in part on the basis and expectation that they can effectively utilize sterotypically "feminine" senses of empathy and communication as team building resources (Blackmore and Sachs 1997).
The elaboration and reflexive incorporation of such difficulties into one’s theoretical work can become a rationale for merely accommodating oneself to a seemingly hopeless situation. It is more sobering then to recall Adorno’s stark assessment:

"So great is the power of the advancing organization of thought, that those who want to keep outside it are driven to resentful vanity, babbling self-advertisement and finally, in their defeat, to imposture…Between delight in emptiness and the lie of fullness, the prevailing intellectual situation allows no third way" (Adorno 1978: 21-24).

3. Do you wish to devote your time to publishing articles or books that few people, including other academics, will bother to treat seriously?

This is one of the key questions posed by Steve Fuller in his book The Intellectual. Fuller suggests the lack of parity in how books are cited by academics is suggestive of how much citation practices have to do with networking/ institutional gatekeeping. More is produced than can ever be "consumed". Some folks become information scientists because they tire of the hyperspecialization and also realise how much "new" knowledge is ignorant of the fact that the answers academics come up with are already out there in previously published work.

4. Overcoming the intimidation of "mundane excellence"

Don't be overwhelmed by preceding reputations. When Chambliss critically described "mundane excellence", that article was referring to a monopolisation on resources that gives academics a huge advantage in producing impressive results. Don't forget, aside from the networking on the conference circuit, this includes the replenishment of fresh blood from successive generations of undergraduate and postgraduate students. Given that the computer is like an umbilical cord for academics, you can attain some parity by likewise registering yourself at the "contents alerting service" of major academic publishers websites, such as Sage for example. This will help you keep up to date with developments in the field.

In other words, yes, you can develop your skills of critical thinking and be immensely enriched by your experience at university, but just be forewarned that there are a lot of tricks and traps that have to do with Liz Stanley's description of the politics of organizational life in terms of a process of "cloning" designed to ensure the academic's self-reproduction (Stanley 2000: 65).

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