It’s cold and dark (and that’s just inside the academy). And this post kinda reflects that January feeling of doom.
This piece in Aeon by David Labaree, ‘Gold among the dross’, has much to offer in helping non-insiders understand US academia, and the perverse incentives pertaining to an academic job more generally (that academics are driven less by fear and greed and more by ‘token’ marks of ‘glory’). But it raises more questions than it answers when it comes to comparing the merits of the US (and similar UK) system and other ways of organising universities.
And that’s to ignore what in my view is the untenable, but widespread view, that scholarship is an ‘internal good‘ a lá Alisdair MacIntyre. (An ‘internal good’ is the result of a practice within an ‘institution’ – i.e. where there are understood rules of the game – where that practice is undertaken according to a moral principle of excellence. One pursues excellence for its own sake – hence being ‘internal’ to that practice).
I’ve been thinking about the ‘internal good’ element of certain social practices for a long time, particularly via Russell Keat’s interpretations of MacIntyre’s ideas. In my research, I examined how Russian blue-collar workers engaged in DIY activities in ‘competition’ with each other for ‘sport’. The internal good is ‘expert’ peer recognition of the skill and excellence performed in constructing DIY-decorative-but-useful domestic pieces, such as fish tanks and metal furniture. Crucially, there is no ‘prize’ beyond that recognition, in marked contrast to how an academic career operates. (actually there’s a bit of a wobble here in defining the ‘good’ as it could be seen as both/either the value in the practice itself ‘means’, rather than ‘ends’, or/and the peer recognition in a community of practitioners – Keat does address this problem in his reading of MacIntyre).
Thinking about academic institutions in this way, many subscribe to a view of the ‘nobility’ of intellectual work, They do so in a way that recalls the idea of MacIntyrian practices and goods. Perhaps because I’m not quite smart enough, I’ve always found it very surprising that smart people could think in this unsociological way. I can’t quite disassociate this belief with other ‘hegemonic’ yet flawed ideas. And not least this is because of the deep and pervasive anti-intellectualism I perceive that underpins so much academic practice (actually that’s the initial bee I had in my bonnet, but will have to wait for another time).
To be fair to Labaree, he argues that academics are motivated more by ‘fame’ than intellectual curiosity or the belief in furthering understanding. What I think he underplays is that the very pursuit of academic prestige is inseparable from other motivation such as vanity, greed, or fear. Possibly all of them at the same time!
His topline argument (in favour of the US system) is this: ‘Maybe it’s worth tolerating the gross inefficiency of a university system that is charging off in all directions, with each institution trying to advance itself in competition with the others. The result is a system that is the envy of the world, a world where higher education is normally framed as a pure state function under the direct control of the state education ministry.’
I can’t help but reflect on this in comparison with my own institution in Scandinavia, which more or less is described using Labaree’s phrase: ‘under direct control of the state education ministry’. The author assumes that where there are purer market incentives, like in the US, then entrepreneurial academics lead to the best outcomes (albeit with a lot of waste).
Leaving aside whether this it is really true that market incentives rule, I think it underplays how different (and diverse) non-US contexts are. This in turn illuminates the problem with the piece’s argument: that the ‘market’ is best (of all possible worlds) even if it is wasteful and pernicious in large part. My main problem then with the piece is another kind of hegemonic logic – almost a self-congratulatory social darwinism. A good reposte to this sort of thing was recently published by some Finns who reflected on the experience of publishing with British colleagues. They found their findings were relegated somewhat upon publishing as less relevant. They framed their argument in this way: “Drawing on Laclau and Mouffe’s (1985) political theory of discourse, we argue that institutions of academic publishing are constantly reproduced through hegemonic practices that serve to maintain and reinforce core-periphery relations.”
Perhaps the hegemony of the “university-as-market” idea is just one of a number of Anglophone-world assumptions. Another might be that ‘tenure’ in Europe works like in the US and I think inattentive readers of the Aeon piece might also make that assumption (because the piece begins by talking about endowed chairs). A fundamental difference is that ‘tenure’ in the non-US is largely linked to the institution’s, or ministry’s evaluation of the utility of the subject taught (not researched) by the academic in question. Thus in some places even ‘full’ professors can lose their jobs (as they have done even in the UK in less research-active universities).
Overall though, I think the Aeon article (and those who share its sunny perspective, particularly within academia itself) wilfully ignores the hidden ‘network’ of clientalism and patronage. Especially when Labaree resorts to statements like this: ‘As a grad student, you need to write your way to an academic job.’ Hmmm, can we really say that’s true, now or in any period? This is not a market based on merit. This is, like so much of the global moment, about hidden cartels, backhanders and networks of ingratiation (not grace) and favour.
Also, is it really true, as Labaree states based on a previous study, that Liberal Arts (economics) academics only publish 5 peer-reviewed article in their entire careers? (Is this a misrepresentation because they’re more likely to publish books and chapters?) And then there’s this: “lowest end of this top sliver of US universities has faculty who are publishing less than one article every five years. The other 80 per cent are presumably publishing even more rarely than this.” Perhaps I’m only surprised because I know little of the US system.
If that’s the case then what’s interesting is now metric-led requirements have invaded even less research-intensive universities in Europe in comparison to the Liberal Arts system in the US. Or is this just an artefact of the huge number of small LA institutions in the US versus the vast majority of state unis in Europe that have to show ‘value for money’ in research? It’s ironic that many of my UK colleagues think that I have fewer research pressures in Denmark than under the REF regime in the UK, and largely that is true. However, if looked at purely through the lens of ‘quantity’, a Danish academic in Humanities or Social Sciences is expected to produce two ‘higher-tier’ outputs a year, which is more than the average a UK academic is likely to produce for consideration in the REF cycle. And this is in an institutional environment where research time (whether as annual number of hours or as a percentage of time) is not officially counted. Food for thought.
Okay, let me get back to the essence of my gripe. Articles of this type ignore the broader question of power. In my (humanities/social science restricted, though diverse) experience of academia, the pursuit of power (institutional, financial, situational) motivates many (tenured or middle- to high-ranking academics). I would not put the ‘practice’ of the pursuit of knowledge even in the top three motivations. Autonomy in work, financial security, sure. Name whatever you like as a third.
Of course, personally I am bound to argue that I am ‘not like that’. I.e. driven more by the intellectual ‘practice’ that results in ‘internal goods’ – recognition of a contribution to knowledge, some new, some old, some wrong, some right (after all, only in the long term is it possible to say with any certainty). But it’s not for me to judge myself. What I will say, and what motivated this post, is the long-term observation that one meets few people so lacking in intellectual curiosity as career academics. And this is not just a question of overspecialisation – as is sometimes argued. Many are disturbingly uninformed not only about the world ‘in general’ and even basic social facts, but also about related disciplines that should have purchase on their thinking. (One colleague often points out that this is generally not so much the case in the former Eastern Bloc where the idea of the rounded intellectual worker remains). And this is despite the language of ‘interdisciplinarity’ gaining ground if not substantive meaningfulness. Then there are the snake-oil scholars, the empty echo equation solvers (where social or humanist knowledge is divorced from the world, is it knowledge?), not to mention the types one finds in all organisations – office-holders.
This brings us back to the ‘institutional design’ of universities. No one should be under the illusion that they actively foster ‘internal goods’ such as the pursuit and peer-recognition of intellectual excellence (MacIntyre scholars here may say I stretch the meaning of internal goods too far, but the point should be clear). These are at best happy coincidences and thanks to the minority – those naïve souls, often never getting tenure or even institutional recognition. While you may say this is too pessimistic I would argue that only by acknowledging this can we start to change it. All the more so because, As Keat observes:
“internal goods, are not only virtue- (or morality-) dependent; they also depend on institutions, and hence on the use of external goods such as money, status and power. [… ] External goods must serve the integrity of practices and their internal goods; internal goods must not be subordinated to external goods, but the latter to the former.”
Of course my criticism of marketised hegemony in the university is nothing new. Keat references Jerome Revetz’s work from the early 1970s. His Scientific Knowledge and Its Social Problems examined issues of the ‘industrialization’ of science and the need to reinvigorate the idea of ‘critical science’. The risk with increasing specialisation in science is of course the difficulty in detecting in a timely manner various kinds of ‘degeneration’, or shoddy science. We can see this at the root of the mistargeted ‘grievance studies hoax’. (See my brief response to this weasel defence of the bad faith fraud) By all accounts, fake science and flawed science is fundamentally the problem in much heftier disciplines than gender studies and queer theory (where the fraudsters have uncovered weak peer review and the failure to call out poor argumentation). As Craig Pirrong points out, the reproducibility crisis in psychological research is acute (50 percent of psychological studies being non-replicable). And most involve relatively simple experiments.
As Revetz might argue, the ‘cleaning up’ and outright falsification of data is partly the result of a relentless focus on entrepreneurial science, “where a scientist becomes more concerned with research grants and power than with the quality of his scientific research”. The wiki for Revetz’s book continues in MacIntyrian fashion: “The need for ‘good morale’, i.e. for an ethos of science upheld by a community of peers is mentioned in relation to the danger that such an ethos may not survive ‘industrialized science’.”
To ground this in reality I offer my example of Russian working-class men making fish tanks. They were pursuing ‘internal goods’ – the recognition of excellence in practice. These practices were wholly divorced from power, money or fame (beyond the institution of the practice – their social circle of confreres). By contrast, the university sees internal goods (the production of knowledge) subordinated to more ‘worldly’ ones. This isn’t any answer to the problem, just a call to think more about how one’s own research (in places as distant as former Soviet factories) can inform an understanding of the institutional world that academics inhabit.
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