I’ve just read a piece by Rosalind Gill of King’s College, London trying to describe something I’ve also been trying to describe for years: the pressures of contemporary academic existence. When I talk about it I usually start by laughing at how we continue to speak of the tension between research and teaching while our daily practice has increasingly nothing to do with either, but instead involves us in middle management roles that come sometimes under the heading of “faculty governance” and sometimes under the heading of “accountability” and mostly in any case just involve writing emails, and answering emails, and filling out surveys, and building websites, and making excel files, and checking other people’s excel files, and attending meetings from which we emerge with more emails to write. My personal approach to email has become almost entirely whack-a-mole. If I see it when I have a minute I’ll bang off an answer, but if it slips away it might as well be gone forever, since every time I sit down at my screen there are 30 more waiting to be dealt with. While I wouldn’t go so far as to describe my situation with the words “a punishing intensification of work,” or “a profession overloaded to breaking point,” I know what Gill is talking about. I rarely read any more, let alone think.
Where Gill is particularly good is in the sense she provides of our acceptance of the new normal, acceptance and collaboration. We recognize that we’re overworked, sure, but we don’t question the sources of the pressure, for instance the bizarrely augmented demand for accountability (or what they call in Britain “audit culture”) which, there as here, was “once treated with scepticism,” but “has now been almost perfectly internalized.” Nor do we raise questions about whether the “’freedom’, ‘flexibility’ and ‘autonomy’ of [the academic job] has proved far more effective for extracting ‘surplus value’ or at least vastly more time spent working, than any older modalities of power.” These are just two of several directions that could be followed up if one wanted seriously to consider how and why we work ourselves to bone, putting up so little resistance to these new demands.
There are a couple of other things Gill doesn’t mention that might augment an account of why we don’t resist. One, not just an academic problem, is the proliferation of distractions, for instance what are technically known as “stupid games” (on which subject see this excellent article). Academics don’t play Angry Birds more than anyone else, but they do play, and they play for the same reasons the rest of the world plays: not to avoid work, but to avoid the guilt that would otherwise fill the hours in which they find themselves unable to work, guilt which, if indulged in, reflected on, and criticized, might lead eventually a desire to change our conditions and those of others. Distraction can’t help but dampen resistance.
Also relevant to the question of collaboration is Gill’s discussion of how peer reviewing has become so much less civil in recent years. “When,” she wonders “did it become acceptable to write of a colleague’s work ‘this is self-indulgent crap’ or ‘put this manuscript in a drawer and don’t ever bother to come back to it’ — both comments I have read in the last year on colleagues’ work.” She suggests two analyses: “repressed rage bursting out as an attack against someone who is not the cause of it” and “[peer reviewing] as one of the few sites where academics may feel that they can exercise some power — thus they ‘let rip,’ occasionally cruelly, under the cloak of guaranteed anonymity.”
It’s related to the question of collaboration because for sure we’re never going to gang up on the masters if we keep tearing away at each other. But it’s still unclear why we’ve taken to doing so. I’m going to take a stab at this in the next post.