The solitary academic: a dying breed

In Britain a way of academic life is dying out.  The research environment has changed.  It demands 'impact', 'relevancy' and 'connection'.  In this climate, dissenting voices are isolated, and compromised.

The old academic: soon to be a historical curiosity

My colleagues tell me that the age of the solitary academic is over.  I must join hands with my co-researchers in a brave new world of academic endeavour.  The large funding agencies prefer to finance collaborative research, where those who wander between disciplines, creating new networks and building novel partnerships are more likely to be rewarded.  As the assault on higher education continues, with funding streams tightening, those who fail to play the game face the prospect of poor career progression, but more importantly than that, they face an overload of administrative and teaching responsibilities that places any intent to remain ‘research active’ in jeopardy. 

As with all great extinctions, it is a change in the environment, rather than the weakness of a species, that renders individuals vulnerable.  And as a scientist would say, it is important to place sentiment to one side.  The academic species facing extinction is not superior to its successor; it just performed different functions.  So let us cast a cold and impersonal gaze on the species we once knew. 

The old academic: afraid of thinness

Academics once feared over-reaching themselves; they were afraid of becoming thin.  Constrained by this anxiety, they measured the security of their truth by the strength of the quarantine that contained it.  Academic truths, it should be noted, were situated within ongoing conversations.  These conversations were not collective, in any broad sense.  They were divided into a variety of exclusive sub-disciplinary fields.  Those statements that were permitted as contributions to each separate but ongoing dialogue were those that could say something ‘original’.

In order to make this judgement of originality, to decide whether a statement was sufficiently academic in its form, there was an expectation that those participating in this conversation were familiar with previous statements concerning the object of enquiry.  Without this knowledge they would be unable to judge its ‘newness’.  The quality of a statement, the feature that marked it as distinctive, and thereby permissible in this context, was its relation to other similar (though not entirely equivalent) remarks.  This positioning was what gave the statement in question its academic substance. 

Through these arrangements, academic discourse excluded all those who had not been inducted into the debate, those who were unable to place a statement within a series of statements to which it belonged and thereby make academic sense of it.  Academic discourse denied access to those who were unable to understand a statement in terms of its positioning.  It debarred those who refused, or those who were unable to make an appropriately small contribution to a wider and thicker scholarly dialogue.  What this all too often did was to maintain the boundaries of the discourse as an autonomous field of study, to secure it against dilution or infection from without. 

A new species: in pursuit of output

Whatever one thinks of this old way of life – a way of life that has not yet expired and may still adapt – a new species of academic is in the ascendant.  It retains some of the characteristics of its predecessor but manages to approach the problem of thickness in reverse.  Academics now over-reach themselves as a matter of routine.  Indeed they must do so, if they are to make new and distant connections.  

It is said that the old seclusions of academic life are no longer viable.  All research must have ‘impact’ and be accompanied by impact statements explaining how this will be achieved.  The individual researcher must become ‘relevant’ or be seen to become relevant, for distance and detachment are no longer praiseworthy attributes of the academic gaze.  As Nietzsche, that great provocateur, once put it: “the journalist, the paper-slave of the day, has emerged victorious over the academic in all cultural areas.”  In this climate the academic’s response is to adopt the “weightless elegance of that sphere as a cultured butterfly". 

Academics are cultured folk.  They breeze through life exuding the sophistication and learning for which they are esteemed.  And yet, that weightless elegance to which Nietzsche refers is never entirely achieved.  Combined with this very academic ceremony in which great sensibilities and powers of discernment are thrown aloft, academics also double over in their anguish to connect with the world below.  They are increasingly forced to respond to the instrumental demands of society, and experience a form of discomfort here that a spectator familiar with the haughty tones of the old academic may find pleasurable to watch.  

This is the new injunction: academics will have no choice but to engage with reality, to relate to the needs of the present as they are presently defined, and to speak even if they have nothing to say

Those applying for research funding are asked to explain how this will be achieved, to outline how they will become ‘connected’ to the world.  This is perceived by many of the more progressive academics as a revolution in how they work, as a momentous switch in academic discourse, one that gives voice to others, and diminishes the influence their own all-too-privileged perspective.  Such academics like to think that they no longer speak from above. 

To question this revolution is near heresy.  But question it we must.  The problem is a serious one, for as the more progressive academics fall over one another in a display of respectful, cultured, and salaried diffidence, they are also pushed into the service of wider interests. 

As they prepare successive bids in pursuit of funds that will support their research and advance their careers, researchers find themselves forced to explain how they will build for the future.  This work will involve networks, established across multiple agencies.  It will be a grand collaborative endeavour (though one that is strangely constrained in its vision).  Within the academy, those directly involved in the research will be drawn from many disciplines, combining multiple perspectives and forms of understanding. The future is multi-disciplinary, or so it is said. 

This future requires a university environment that can promote, support or pursue innovation, and thereby serve the interests of the economy.  Indeed, in writing their bids researchers are encouraged to consider how their project might enable the development of robust government or private sector strategies to ensure sustainable growth (these phrases are not my own).  

A good research project may promote resilience, or increase understanding between disconnected communities.  It might act as a minor palliative, improving community wellbeing through its support of voluntary action or social enterprise.  Good research always asks itself in advance how it can meet the needs of its users and beneficiaries.  It identifies who those beneficiaries are likely to be and explains how they are likely to benefit.  It justifies itself as a public good, using whatever language of social need may be current at the time.  In effect, research must serve the interests of the status quo or it is not worth the investment. 

What this disallows is the possibility of objecting to the entire discourse within which contemporary needs are set.  As academics chase each other about in ever widening arcs across departments, faculties and institutions in search of the next big research project grant, they lose the protection of an earlier, more monastic form of existence.  This way of life, one that unashamedly embraced its practices of seclusion, was able to stand aside and disregard the instrumentalities of the day.  The old academic was deluded, of course, in claiming that his processes and utterances escaped the effects of an oppressive power.  And yet the minor protections he did experience allowed for the possibility of dissent.

Related debate from the archive: Capitalism and the University