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March 15, 2010

Doom and Gloom in the Academy: The View from the Down Here.

Writing about web page http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=410583&c=1

"One of the most pathetic things I’ve seen in the academy was one of the world’s leading Foucauldians, whose life’s work dealt with power and governmentality, advising me how to play the system when filling out a grant application. If he couldn’t use his scholarship to challenge what was happening in his own backyard, what good was it?"

-THE, March 2, 2010. 'The Insecure Scholar' Blog.


The global recession and banking crises of the last year or so have had a distinct and powerful effect on the academic community and its public organs like the Times Higher Education Supplement. A kind of intellectual fugue has enveloped the printed discourse on education in the UK, motivated in part by pending 'retrenchment' cuts, and the financial woes of the many of the country's universities. The narrative is familiar: money is short, jobs in the academy will become even more scarce than they are at the moment, the scene of the coming years shall be grey and grim.

Added to this list of woe is yet another ongoing and rather more institutional concern: about the 'managerization' or bureaucratisation of higher education as a whole, about the stifling of academic freedoms, the nepotism and secrecy of the grant and application processes, and the adverse effects of 'the corporate' on the pursuit of knowledge.

I'd like to offer a perspective on these prevailing winds, from the position of a lowly first year in the History PhD program; coming from a solid and uninterrupted 6 years of higher education in Canada, but before that, let's make the bias clear.

To say that I myself am safe from the problems that beset academia at the moment would be entirely accurate. I have a cushion of over two years between myself and the harsher world of postgraduates and job applications. I have a scholarship that allows me to subsist, in a fashion reminiscent of treading water, as a foreign student paying foreign rates in the UK. I can devote myself to career building and to my thesis with all the intensity I can muster, and I am allowed, nay, encouraged to be professionally selfish in this period of my life.

But to say that I am thus ignorant of the true ramifications of the current academic climate would be inaccurate at best. I will have to walk into a 'post-recession' academic community if we are lucky enough to see the end of our global financial woes inside of 2 years time. This community will likely be even more gun-shy, even more managed, and even less willing to bite the hands of government or business that are willing to feed it. Jobs will go to less people, those people will be more qualified, and there will be a backlog of 'road scholars' with years of publications and teaching contracts all aiming for the same positions as me.

But for the moment I can indulge, I can sit somewhere 'safe' and comment upon the state of higher education, and I can spend time thinking about wider effects, and I can explain what it looks like to me.

Let's be 'Task-Oriented' (tm) about it shall we?

Grants: No one is more familiar with the tedium, banality, and general 'jump through these hoops' atmosphere of scholarships and grants than a PhD student. The nature of these processes is not news to us. You are introduced to the precursors of full-time academic grants right out of high-school, and you become acquainted with the heavy price of that one C+ you got in Classics 301 when you apply for Masters Funding. Not even perfection guarantees funds, you need connections too. You need letters of reference, written and eternally re-written by professors everywhere and every year and initially treasured by their subjects, until the monotonous tedium and excessive paperwork of application #63b of the second round of the Juniper water polo society's travel bursary becomes finally apparent to them. You need a bang-up statement of interest, one that you could send into Yale's PhD application process in good faith, and that will subsequently be good enough for 45 year old trustees who know nothing about anything you do.

I'd say that the grants system is somehow broken, except even with strong evidence for that case (like the hundreds of bursaries that go unfilled or end up desperately searching for a recipient), we still know that it really isn't broken. It just sucks. So to answer the unspoken complaint of so many in the academy, from 'lowly' students gearing up for a Masters in Something Cool to full-time professors, on this one I just have to say:

Suck it up. It could be way worse.

Jobs in the Academy: Oh now here is a real pickle. What do you do when you have literally hundreds of incredibly well-educated, gifted, articulate, and tenacious people who all possess the exact same work-related aspirations, and the jobs they aspire to are rare and highly coveted? Well, hilariously appropriate episodes of 'The Apprentice: University Edition' aside, there really is not much that can be done, ever. We live, for better or worse, in a world that is more heavily based on 'knowing' every single day. The pool of people perfectly capable of explaining the social forces and formations of early modern England to undergraduates expands considerably every year, and it does so much slower than most other fields, thankfully. There won't be a baby-boomer exodus from academia either, neither the culture nor the career itself encourages that kind of mass retirement.

Solution for us up-and-comers? Be better. Be cheaper to hire and happy to teach first year classes. Enjoy what you can get and avoid the sour grapes. Less people care about academic freedom and the pursuit of research with every passing day, even though more people have access to the fruits of higher education.

I find the quote that I opened with to be emblematic of some of the more unsavoury symptoms of the current fugue. This fellow who is 'one of the world's leading Foucauldians' is studying Foucault, or using his theories, he is not Foucault himself, and his advice on 'playing' the grant application game is probably good advice. I think that maybe one of our problems in the Ivory Tower is that we are somehow convinced that our turrets are somehow taller and less stained by the inexhaustible banalities of the world, when of course the exact opposite is true. In studying the world, the academy perfectly represents it in miniature.


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