Wednesday, 5 August 2009

More on the psychic economy of higher education

I've felt my interest in this topic heating up lately, what with all that discussion over on the Crooked Timber blog and elsewhere about the precarious nature of independent scholarship, the need for public intellectuals (complemented by a "public sociology") to compensate for the careerism that threatens to make academia a symptom of fast capitalism (i.e. one writes primarily to amass a publication record for the sake of the impressive curriculum vitae that will advance your career). I am someone who believes in constructive criticism though, so I point toward six conditions for realizing the university in these difficult times. I believe that the characteristic difficulties described in the links that feature in the later part of this post are well covered by the sixth of the aforementioned conditions i.e. communicative tolerance: the quietness of staff is not a sign of high morale. Everyone must be encouraged to express themselves, even if this carries the risk of more whistle blowing.

Of course, there must be interaction between each of the conditions before there is any chance of realisation. Condition 6 is very closely allied with condition 1 i.e. critical interdisciplinarity: different schools might find themselves having to work more collaboratively for a greater interest, rather than continually forming strategic alliances inhouse which merely encourages the politics of cloning- mentoring others to say the same things as you- albeit not quite so well expressed (according to sociologist Liz Stanley). Indeed, derridata tipped me off to some eloquent testimony of how academic business as usual can foster disenchantment:

"The scariest thing a young faculty member experiences is not, as is conventionally supposed, the “need to produce” and therefore her/his experience is not aided by the “mentorship” of an experienced scholar. Rather, the young scholar’s fear stems from the fact that no one in the department is talking to each other about scholarship. Faculty are socializing, going out, schmoozing all the time, and the ideas that supposedly drive the work they do are not being discussed. The mentor, if assigned, will try to teach the young faculty member how to navigate the minefield of the department, but that is exactly what is alienating. . The mentor, especially when well-intentioned, may be the model for what is wrong, not an aid in coping. Indeed, if the mentor is really similar to the young faculty member in terms of ideology or social identity, the mentor may be a model for what the young faculty member does not wish to become.

The one conversation everyone is having incessantly is the one about the micropolitical maneuvers within the department. This conversation is, of course always done with armor on, with an eye toward alliances and enemies already made, with everyone watching to find out which camp the new faculty member will join. And while there is a relationship between micropolitics and geopolitics, it is far more tenuous, far more mediated by local institutional conditions, than the new faculty first imagines.

Because no one is talking about substance, only alliances, and because alienation is general, a vacuum exists at the center of institutional power which is not filled by talent or argument, but by those who feel most comfortable or justified taking advantage of it. For those in power, and for those who hope to attain power, the arrival of a new junior faculty member is to be watched closely for his/her schmoozing choices. As a result, it is not simply the case that junior faculty fear senior faculty, but that the senior faculty fear the junior faculty, walking around wondering whether this new person will contribute to their already hatched plan to take over the curriculum. The fact that the new person was hired with accomplishments and expectations much higher than so many senior faculty members does not help this form of fear, of course.

While it remains true that the power differential between tenured and untenured faculty makes the ubiquity of fear particularly threatening to the careers of junior faculty members, the longer one stays the more one discovers that one’s unhappiness is simply an example of the larger misery of faculty members. Senior faculty don’t exactly help or support one another either. Tenure might lead to a sense of security; it surely does not breed happiness".

This anecdotal evidence about micropolitics certainly squares with my ex-university. The school of sociology split into two mutually hostile camps, meaning that collegiality was almost non-existent, to the point where certain staff members would not even acknowledge each other in the hallway. It's probably not unreasonable to surmise such generative factors have played a part in other professions of exhausted patience. During the course of my own postgraduate work it was a piece written by Jill Blackmore and Judyth Sachs that left an indelible impression on me. This may have had something to do with the fact that I had already read so many books by Ian Craib, in addition to, somewhat ironically, (given they were faculty at my university that had split into the opposite camp), Game and Metcalfe's Passionate Sociology. What particularly haunted me in that book was the admission that the "deception is cruelest" when the academic poses as a "friend" to the student, as this masks the power/knowledge inequalities in the relationship. These authors buttress their case through a semiotic reading of graduation ceremonies: the student ascends the stage to tip the mortarboard to the academic, and for that fleeting moment is symbolically acknowledged as the academic's "equal", before walking back down the steps and assuming the "lower" position.

And yet I appreciate this must be hard on some academics too, as they must feel forced, sometimes in spite of themselves, to shut off their emotional responses so as not to get too personally involved, even when they have previously enjoyed talking about the subject for which they and their student "share" (a word loaded with all sorts of ambiguous connotations in this context) a mutual love. This "lost love" is what Game and Metcalfe wish to reignite in their "passionate sociology". Irrespective of the prospects for its realisation, I have some sympathy for the commitment behind it, at least to the extent it dovetails with Ian Craib's shrewd insight that sociologists may otherwise be particularly prone to normotic (i.e. no internal life) personality structures.

There is something else I would like to say about this issue but it will take a while longer for it to crystallise, so another time perhaps.

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