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The intellectual par excellence used to be the writer: as a universal consciousness, a free subject, he was counterpoised to those intellectuals who were merely competent instances in the service of the state or capital — technicians, magistrates, teachers. Since the time when each individual’s specific activity begun to serve as the basis for politicization, the threshold of writing, as the sacralizing mark off the intellectual, has disappeared. And it has become possible to develop lateral connections across different forms of knowledge and from one focus of politicization to another. Magistrates and psychiatrists, doctors and social workers, laboratory technicians and sociologists have become able to participate, both within their own fields and through mutual exchange and support, in a global process of politicization of intellectuals. This process explains how, even as the writer tends to disappear as a figurehead, the university and the academic emerge, if not as principal elements, at least as ‘exchangers,’ privileged points of intersection. If the universities and education have become politically ultra-sensitive areas, this is no doubt the reason why. And what is called the crisis of the universities should not be interpreted as a loss of power, but on the contrary as a multiplication and reinforcement of their power effects as centers in a polymorphous ensemble of intellectuals who virtually all pass through and relate themselves to the academic system.”
Michel Foucault. (1984) [1977]. , ‘Truth and Power’. In Paul Rabinow (ed) The Foucault reader. New York: Pantheon Books, p. 68

Random thoughts in response

This very interesting reflection by Foucault resonates strongly today. Perhaps one could argue that the remnants of the old – perhaps romantic – figure of the intellectual as writer are now being thoroughly expunged from the system in favour of the new ‘politicised’ figure of the academic – but that ‘politicisation’ has perhaps changed in emphasis since the late 1970s when Foucault made this remark. If perhaps he was referring to political radicalism, this ‘politicisation’ is now skewed in the sense of being a functionary of governmental systems. Certainly this passage by Foucault is one that could bear more thought on its applications within a contemporary context.

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A version of this piece was published in The Australian Higher Education Supplement on 4th April 2012 as ‘Credit where it’s due – but who deserves top billing?’ I posted this on my blog last year but have moved it up as I have made quite a few revisions.

We do not characterise a ‘philosophical author’ as we do a ‘poet’, just as in the eighteenth century, one did not construct a novelist as we do today. Still, we can find through the ages certain constants in the rules of author construction.

Michel Foucault, ‘What is an author? In The Foucault Reader. Edited by Paul Rabinow. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984, p. 110

Random thoughts in response

In the late 1960s, French theorists Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault famously pronounced the author to be, if not dead, then decidedly fragile. Foucault in his 1969 article ‘What is an author?’ drew attention to the considerable ambiguity surrounding contemporary and historical notions of the author, defining the author as the originator of certain socially agreed upon types of writing.

To explain what he means by the ‘certain constants’ referred to above, Foucault invokes the four criteria Saint Jerome used to determine whether a body of work had the same author, namely (1) consistent quality across works attributed to one author (2) conceptual and theoretical coherence (3) consistent style (4) references only to events which happened before the designated author’s death. (p. 113) While recognising that Saint Jerome’s criteria might appear very simplistic in the context of contemporary literary criticism, Foucault argues they are still descriptive of the basic processes used to attribute authorship.

What I want to do here is offer a few reflections on the idea of the author in the current university context. Authorship is perhaps one of the most highly prized commodities in the academic world. It is used as a measure of reputation and a measure by which individuals are judged worthy of promotion through the ranks of what remains an intricately feudal hierarchy. Being an author who has produced numerous works published by prestigious publishing houses and journals and which are cited and otherwise referred to by many others (‘impact’) is the nirvana of academic achievement. Other functions such as being a good teacher, a good administrator or engaging in community research and consultancy, still come in a remote second in this tacitly agreed upon academic pantheon, in spite of the best efforts of university administrations to valorise these latter roles.

But authorship does not function in the same way across all academic disciplines. The sciences, social sciences and the humanities all have different rules which govern what it means to be an author. In the sciences, the rules are complex. A paper often has numerous co-authors. This can reflect the notion that the paper or journal article tends to function more as a report or a write up of findings than a piece of argued writing and that everybody involved in conducting the experiments and theorising the empirical research should therefore be acknowledged as an author. Thus authorship becomes a category which is used to recognise the generation and ownership of certain research practices and theories rather than simply writing. The authors listed on a scientific paper might not always necessarily be the actual writers of that paper.

Further to this, sometimes attribution has more to do with the relative rank of the author in a hierarchy of power than the amount of actual work done by the named author(s). For example, a professor and supervisor may be given far more weight than a student – even if the student has done most of the work. This rather worrying practice is being imported into the social sciences and humanities and sees postgraduate students (a minority as yet) automatically listing their supervisor as co-author on papers for which the student has been solely responsible. Thus the Matthew principle begins to operate and the professor/supervisor accrues more power, adding items to their publication list at little cost. The student (perhaps) improves their chances of publication and the status of their work by the addition of a prestigious name to their work. One might also mention another practice, which is hopefully less prevalent than it once was, namely the publication by the god-professor of the work of anonymous research assistants and postgraduate students under his own name (and the gender attribution here is deliberate).

To deal with the problem of the order in which co-authors should be listed, there is now even a piece of software – Authorder – which is purportedly designed to simplify the process, using complex calculations of percentages in relation to work done. Theoretically at least, the order of authors listed should then reflect who has done the most work on the paper.

This situation in the sciences has long been recognised by those involved in the field as one fraught with dangers and wide open to corruption and abuses of power. Practices which have been observed to be highly problematic in their scientific disciplines of origin are now seeping through, without any apparent thought as to the consequences, into the humanities and social sciences. The adulation of science and scientific method as a benchmark of truth for all forms of knowledge, even after coming under heavy attack in the 1960s and beyond, is clearly reasserting its primacy in ever more sophisticated forms in the new millennium.

In the humanities however, the link between author and writing cannot be attenuated in this fashion. Humanities output is defined by the writing and argumentation itself: it is not simply a report on some other exterior ‘research’ activity. The problem of how others should be recognised in the production of this kind of writing, has usually been solved by the practice of acknowledgements, rather than by granting co-authorship. So, for example, research assistants, editors, typists, colleagues and friends who have read the writing and made suggestions, colleagues who have helped to write research grants and other institutional supports are thanked in footnotes or dedicated acknowledgements sections, they are not listed as co-authors.

But things are perhaps not so cut and dried in the social sciences where various types of empirical research such as statistical, interview and survey data are all reported on. Is the model of multiple authorship of papers, in the science style of recognising contributors to the research (or even supervisors), rather than solely those involved in the writing and conceptualisation of the paper valid here? This is an interesting question. Often a paper in the social sciences is more than a matter of mere reporting of findings: it includes an argument about the data. Given this is the case, should those merely collecting data be included as authors?

In some areas of social science there has been a trend towards granting co-authorship to the diverse categories of people involved in the infrastructure of producing a journal article. This is sometimes done in a democratic spirit of inclusivity, expressing a desire to help people accrue points in the struggle to achieve the holy grail of promotion. Laudable as this inclusive impulse may be, can this diversity of contributors be granted the title of ‘author’ without unduly attenuating what this is generally understood to mean?

Perhaps we could ask a further question from a slightly different angle. What is the general expectation of a reader when he or she sees an author’s name attached to a piece of published writing? I might specify that we are talking about the ‘author function’ here. As Foucault notes ‘A private letter may well have a signer – it does not have an author; a contract may well have a guarantor – it does not have an author. An anonymous text posted on a wall probably has a writer but not an author’ (pp. 107-8). The reader of an article in the social sciences or humanities usually assumes that the author of a published piece of work has been involved in some way in the actual drafting of the text and the construction of its arguments.

Foucault adds that the historical invention of the notion of ‘authorship’ marked a ‘moment of individualisation in the history of ideas, knowledge, literature, philosophy, and the sciences’ (p. 101). One might be tempted to argue that once the number of listed authors has expanded beyond a certain numerical threshold, then there is a move away from this moment of individualisation. But this doesn’t take into account the fact that each listed author accrues another point on their CV which individualises them further both within the power structures of the institutional field of the university and that of the larger global academic community.

If a new model of authorship is going to be instituted in the social sciences, then in the interests of truth and transparency, there needs to be a far clearer delineation of just what the attribution of ‘author’ means. Or, perhaps to make things simpler, there needs to be a return to earlier and still existing models of acknowledgements with author status only being granted to those who have actually done the writing and arguing.

What is not in doubt in any of this, however, is that the notion of the author is, and has always been, shot through and through with complex relations of power. These need to be the subject of constant vigilance and critical consideration within the academic economy if the integrity of the research process and the value of its contribution to the wider social body is going to be maintained.

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A version of this piece was originally published as ‘Conformity blunts creativity’, The Australian. Higher Education Supplement, Dec 12, 2007.

I have added a few minor tweaks to bring it more up to date. But unfortunately not a lot has changed since 2007!

Up till now there have been two dominant images of the humanities and social sciences scholar. The first picture is of a dry-as-dust individual obsessed with arcane pursuits far removed from the run of everyday life. A more attractive model, emerging from the upheaval of the 1960s and 70s, can be found in the ‘library militant’. This is the academic who uses scholarship to expose long standing social injustice and to give new value to knowledge sidelined by mainstream institutions and mechanisms of power.

Both cliches still survive of course, but we are now seeing the advent of a third model of scholarship in universities. This new scholarship is a dreary and miserable process of conforming to the straitjacket of multiple rules laid down by endless committees deliberating on ‘productivity’ and ‘standards’. Academics are exhorted to be ‘innovative’ and ‘original’ but only so long as their work fits into normalising Government guidelines or that new byzantine labyrinth of bureaucratic regulation which is the metricisation of research output (formerly the RQF, now the ERA in Australia). Failure to comply relegates all rogue work to hobby status.

So what actually happens when an academic is deemed to be non-productive on the research front, either through misrecognition of their work or failure to produce due to unmanageable teaching and admin workloads? Said academic may be threatened with ‘disciplinary action’ (a phrase previously only ever heard in the most extreme of circumstances: murder, madness or scandalous sexual misdemenour). Or, alternately the offending individual is subjected to the dire punishment of being ‘mentored’ until he or she can meet benchmarks of corporate productivity.

But publication is not all: there is the anxiety ridden, and now virtually obligatory, process of applying for grants. It is an exercise which is time consuming, onerous and often unproductive (when the application is rejected) and again, only research which addresses set government and industry priorities need apply. The days of the university as an independent and self-determining contributor to the general social body are long gone indeed.

A whole new taxonomy of academic and scholar has likewise arisen. We find the eager, fresh, and often not so young, early career researchers (ECRs or ECARDs in bureaucratic speak), delicate flowers who must be carefully nurtured through a strictly designed cursus of mentoring and specially targeted grants. Then there are the more traditionally named ‘Professors’, often appointed more for their administrative and networking talents than for any major contribution to their field. (Of course, to be fair, there are still many Professors who have earned their position through notable scholarship). And lucky last, we must not forget the middle ranks of anonymous ‘B’ and ‘C’ ranked lecturers eking out an existence with limited promotion prospects, crushed under the drudgery of impossible teaching loads and of increasingly strident demands to produce the requisite minimum of two refereed publications a year. Of course these are just the staff with permament jobs. There is also an entire underclass of poorly paid casual and part time labour in the form of sessional tutors.

To compound matters, there is scant respect from other sectors in the social body for the kind of work academics do. The political furore over a disregarded 2007 University of Sydney study of the impact of Prime Minister John Howard’s Industrial Relations package is a case in point, providing a striking example of the cavalier disregard for the expertise of those working in universities.

The net is littered with blogs describing the impossibilities of teaching and writing in the new university, the career and promotion dead ends, the impossibility of even getting a job and any number of other woes. Amazon helpfully offers solutions in the form of books with titles such as Write to the Top: How to be a Prolific Academic and A PhD is not enough!: A Guide to Survival in Science.

This is a bleak scenario indeed and doom and gloom reign supreme. There is very little mention in this landscape, beyond mere lip service, of how exciting research and scholarship can be, the positive contribution it makes to human knowledge and culture and the possibilities for present and future freedoms it opens up for everybody. Creative ideas (even down to the word ‘creative’) are forced into a corporate mould and it becomes a matter of quantity not quality. How many refereed articles did you publish this year? How many dollars in research grants did you receive? This is a point that has been made so many times before that it has become a mantra, but in a society where the quantifiable exchange of goods is all, nobody is listening.

So what is the solution to all this? I would like to make three modest proposals. To begin with, there should be more of a refusal to play along. Academics often comply unnecessarily with the frequently counter-productive rules which are handed down from on high every week in universities. A healthy passive resistance, a polite and nodding agreement while waiting for it to go away, works wonders when practised en masse.

Secondly, academics might take back some control of their own sociability and organise informal networks in addition to participating in the carefully structured and monitored ones on offer by the corporation. These informal networks could encourage an atmosphere of mutual support rather than one of relentless competition and ostentatious display.

A third strategy might involve seizing back some minimum enjoyment of the scholarly process of reading, research and writing. This could be undertaken as a desperate counter measure to deal with the stressful necessity of adding yet more metrics shaped notches to the CV in an attempt to satisfy the demands of increasingly invasive performance reviews.

Small suggestions perhaps, but in a situation where there is very little room for manoeuvre, one has to start somewhere.

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The Artist's Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher CreativityThe Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity by Julia Cameron
My rating: **

Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam; 2nd Edition, 2002.

This book is an international best seller and often referred to in discussions on writers’ process, with many fiction writers claiming it has changed their whole approach to writing and other creative writing teachers and writers referring to it as a notable text in the field.

I bought this book to see if it could offer any tips on writer’s block, but it is a fairly standard New Age self help manual. I am not opposed to New Age approaches but having read so much of this kind of material in the past, new offerings tend to blend into sameness when I read them these days. Some of the suggestions in the book are useful from a technical point of view, but personally I didn’t find them very inspiring. Its firm location in North American culture probably didn’t help me to identify with much in the book either.

By far the best and most practical book I have read on writer’s block is Robert Boice’s well researched Professors as Writers. If his advice is aimed at an academic market, it doesn’t just work for academic writers, it provides helpful tips for writers of all genres.

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Links via Stuart Elden’s blog

Geoffrey Galt Harpham notes the following (citation via JJ Cohen at In the Middle)

[Research is] an immense undertaking in which countless people performing the most tedious small tasks are able, collectively, to liberate the modern world from the grip of doctrine, authority, and myth. The value of each contribution can, he says, be measured only in the aggregate, and in many cases only much later: many scholarly or scientific projects are like abandoned mines, awaiting rediscovery by future generations. … Redundancy is the price we pay for other, less measurable but very real benefits. But we should be concerned about the mind-set that sees the past as inert, the humanities as old knowledge, and scholarship as the problem. [1]

I find this a wonderfully inspiring and optimistic statement. Often one worries as a writer or researcher that one has nothing to contribute to an already massively overcrowded field and that neither can one ever hope to measure up to the standards set by major artists and scholars who stand out through their innovation and immense productivity. Further to this, are the problems of navigating the enormous bureaucratic and ideological pressures exercised on those teaching and conducting research in universities at present.

Harpham argues that every little bit counts and is worth the effort: an approach that one also finds in Foucault’s work. It is the optimistic view that every human action, every human investigation makes a difference, no matter how tiny. Certainly, at present, concerted mass efforts are required to resist the logic currently in evidence in every social sector: a logic which seeks to organise systems into immovable and well-oiled mechanisms which work well for a few, but less well for a great majority. A logic which also seeks to convince people that their contributions are of no value, reducing them to inaction and despair – a condition which makes them easily tractable – ‘passive and docile bodies’ indeed!

[1] Geoffrey Galt Harpham “Why We Need the 16,772nd Book on ShakespeareQui Parle: Critical Humanities and Social Sciences, Volume 20, Number 1, Fall/Winter 2011, pp. 109-116)

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Kate Clancy notes the following on The Scientific American blog (link via Jo VanEvery’s blog)

But are peer-reviewed publications, read and cited by only by a select group of those peers, the best way to assess influence and importance? They are certainly no longer the only way. My 2006 paper on iron-deficiency anemia and menstruation has been cited by six other papers; my 2011 blog post on this paper has been viewed tens of thousands of times and received almost sixty comments between its two postings. Some anthropology blogs have been responsible for starting entire new branches of the discipline, others show an applied side of anthropology that helps us see the impact of this field in our everyday lives; some ground their writing in a historical and evolutionary approach or move us with their perspective on war and poverty, where still others are not only influential, but regularly get more hits than the website for our main professional association. Some use their blog as a service to the discipline, and a newcomer is dispelling myths about milk (full disclosure: both of those blogs are by collaborators, kickass collaborators in fact). This is by no means an exhaustive list.

This is another confirmation of earlier observations I and others have made about the relative impact of academic blogging and publication in peer reviewed journals. Kate Clancy also remarks

There are two problems with the current criteria for tenure: they don’t reflect modern, interdisciplinary scholarship, and they don’t include metrics to evaluate influence and perspective beyond peer-reviewed publications.

One might add that this applies to criteria for promotion as well as tenure. There is no doubt that the global university as an institution is ill-equipped at present to deal with innovative practices engaged in by the academics in its ranks. This is perhaps one of the effects of the corporatisation of the university over the last twenty years. Academics have been recast as employees of an institution, rather than the university being an administrative arrangement to support the work of academics as they seek to introduce innovation into various fields – including how their own work is dessiminated within the social body.

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In a most interesting post titled Open access -for all?, Stuart Elden remarks:

We started the Society and Space open site as a partner to the print journal and the publisher’s site […]

You would think that a quick – material goes up usually within a day or two of being delivered in final form – and open-access venue would be appealing. And certainly, some people have already taken advantage of it and we have more to come. But there has also been a very curious resistance. People have complained about ‘being relegated to the blog’ or suggested that they are ‘old-fashioned’ and want their book review in print.

In my view, this hesitation reflects the fear that publication online – even when through a reputable commercial press – is not as serious or as permament as paper publication. The written word is a solid and permament object in the physical world when it is on paper, but an ephemeral thing of light and energy online. There, it could disperse into the ether at any moment, leaving the author with no material possessions and no physical evidence of his or her accumulating presence as an author in the world. One could perhaps refer to Foucault’s notion of the materiality of discourse here – what does that materiality mean in digital form?

For another post which touches on these and related issues see the In the Middle blog (via Stuart)

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