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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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There has been quite a discussion of late going on in the academic blogosphere about both the advantages and difficulties associated with academic blogging. (See links at the end of this post).

I have found references in this discussion to an avoidance by academics of public exposure particularly interesting. This kind of avoidance has become a notable trend in certain sectors of the humanities and social sciences. Too much public exposure and too public a statement of position (unless it supports the status quo) is tacitly, and sometimes explicitly, seen as detrimental to one’s career in the university institution as it is currently structured.

The publication of large numbers of articles which are able to be counted by metrics systems which measure academic performance is the type of academic output currently preferred by institutions. Such activity can be easily quantified and ranked by money dispensing bureaucrats with little knowledge of the truly byzantine rules which govern the academic field. The actual content of this kind of production is of secondary importance to those doing this kind of measuring. As for other types of academic publishing – books, magazine and newspaper articles, blogs – these are simply too difficult to evaluate in terms of their relative status and impact by those outside the relevant fields.

This is having the effect of pushing many academics down very narrow paths in relation to the dissemination of their work. In the current fearful environment which surrounds academic appointments and cut-throat promotion processes, many academics are only too willing to comply with this metricised vision of their role and their work.

As various studies have shown, and which have been cited in the current discussions, the readership of journal articles in the humanities is extremely low. The end result of the institutional insistance on this form of academic publication is thus the implied censorship of academic work. I might qualify this, however, by drawing attention to the growing practice of university libraries in publishing ‘eprints’ of journal articles produced by the academics of their associated institutions. This practice (at least from the statistics of hits on these sites) seems to have boosted the readership of journal articles.

The narrow set of rules concerning what counts as valid academic output is a sad state of affairs – surely it is the social duty of the humanities academic to try to push not only the boundaries of knowledge and critique but also how this work is disseminated. One can reasonably argue that one of the social functions of taxpayer funded academics is to offer their expertise to the broader academic community and to the wider social body in every way possible. Participation in online communication technologies therefore seems obvious. Otherwise why research and write if nobody can see what you are doing?

Many of the counter-arguments in relation to academic blogging seem to assume that it is an either or situation – but any academic blogger will point out that blogging is simply only one of their publishing activities which complements their publications in journals or books for example. Blogging enhances and enriches these other avenues of publication allowing new ideas and trains of thought to be tried out in a public forum without the lengthy delays and formal requirements that refereed and commercial publication involve. Blogging also allows for the sharing of information and the creation and maintenance of intellectual networks.

Another counter-argument is that blog posts are ephemeral and soon forgotten – but my own experience looking at the statistics of readership on my own blogs is that people use search engines to find blog posts that have been posted at any time. Blogs may once have operated this way – but this is no longer the case.

Blogs are, I would argue, an ongoing continuation of the ideal of the ‘republic of letters’, [1] an informal network held in high esteem in early modern Europe which fostered the global interchange of scholarship and ideas. As far as I am concerned, the blogosphere is nothing less than a wonderful way of continuing that utopian and generous ideal.

I’ve listed some links below to current entries in the discussion on academic blogging. I’ve listed them as much for my own records as in the interests of the dissemination of information. If you know of any other contributions to the debate – send them on!

Alex Reid on Digital Digs
Tim Morton’s Ecology without nature
Scu at Critical Animal
Stuart Elden at Progressive Geographies
In Socrates’ Wake
Immanence blog
JoVAnEvery.ca Helping you be a better academic
Another comment from Jo
Craig McFarlane at Theoria
Ray Brassier makes some incendiary remarks in an interview

Links added later…

Nigel Thrift, ‘The power of blogs..’, The Chronicle of Higher Education

[1] I am indebted to Christian Callisen and Barbara Adkins for this idea.

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I was interested by this comment by Rhiannon Bury in an interview on Henry Jenkin’s blog

Let me close by saying that Web 2.0 technologies are changing the way I disseminate research on fandom. The norm in academia is to analyze our data behind closed doors and not report on it until we have a finished “product” in the form of a conference paper, a journal article, a book chapter, etc. With the use of blogging and microblogging technologies, I plan to informally report on findings as I work my way through the data in the coming months. I hope this will provide opportunities for dialogue with fans and fan scholars, and in turn provide feedback to inform my analysis.

Christian Callisen and Barbara Adkins have written an interesting paper (to be published in New Media and Society) arguing that the academic blogosphere is actually a contemporary rendition of the early modern ‘Republic of Letters’.

The Mapping the Republic of Letters project, describes the Republic of Letters as follows:

When early modern scholars (from the Renaissance through the Enlightenment) described the broadest community to which they belonged, they most frequently called this international community of scholars the “Republic of Letters.”

The Republic of Letters was an intellectual network initially based on the writing and exchange of letters that emerged with and thrived on new technologies such as the printing press and organized itself around cultural institutions (e. g. museums, libraries, academies) and research projects that collected, sorted, and dispersed knowledge. A pre-disciplinary community in which most of the modern disciplines developed, it was the ancestor to a wide range of intellectual societies from the seventeenth-century salons and eighteenth-century coffeehouses to the scientific academy or learned society and the modern research university. Forged in the humanist culture of learning that promoted the ancient ideal of the republic as the place for free and continuous exchange of knowledge, the Republic of Letters was simultaneously an imagined community (a scholar’s utopia where differences, in theory, would not matter), an information network, and a dynamic platform from which a wide variety of intellectual projects – many of them with important ramifications for society, politics, and religion – were proposed, vetted, and executed.

I very much like the idea of the academic blogosphere as a continuation of these utopian ideals of intellectual community and the free sharing of ideas in an environment which minimises institutional hierarchy (although one can certainly debate how far this latter ideal can actually ever be realised). It is a way for academics and other intellectuals to sidestep the increasingly regulated and corporatised institutional environment of the university and continue their collaborations, work and outreach to other sectors in the social body.

Incidentally, for an amusing and, alas, all too accurate a take on this issue of academic versus corporate university culture see Joseph Gora and Andrew Whelan’s opinion piece: ‘Invasion of the Aca-zombies’

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Stuart kindly responded to the comments in my previous post with some further interesting observations. I am adding a couple of clarifications here to clear up the amibiguities in my initial comment. I should emphasise that I am coming from the point of view of readership and impact, rather than production. The problem of readership is something that has interested me for a long time. Essentially it is the question of how academics can best disseminate their ideas to their own community and also to the broader non academic community.

Stuart remarks

Thanks Clare. That’s not where my comments were heading – nor would I agree! From my perspective, journal articles and books accomplish different things. I prefer books, and see those as my major outputs. But as preparatory works that feed into books, collaborative ventures, or side-projects, articles have also been important to me. I have prioritised books (and will continue to do so), but wouldn’t want to have chose one entirely over the other.

I was debating recently the idea of not writing anything to do with a book for a year – I’ve written my books to date almost back-to-back – and just write articles and other shorter pieces. I’m not sure I will accomplish this – I know the next two books I want to write after The Birth of Territory

I should also add that as a journal editor, I do think it matters who reads articles! Nonetheless, I definitely agree on the problems of quantification of outputs.

My remarks were of course provocative. As a former journal editor myself I agree very strongly that it matters a great deal who reads the articles and my statement: ‘who cares who reads the articles’ was perhaps too ambiguously ironic. It was intended to criticise certain institutional interests in quantity at the expense of any interest in the actual content of what is being written.

What worries me is academic writing that is published but not read. In this case one could argue that this work is not serving its social function and that forms of quasi censorship are in operation by requiring too hermetic a form. Some forms of journal article writing can close down the impact of academic work, rather than opening it up In this sense they operate like a closed club – or in Foucault’s terms ‘a society of discourse’ whose rules are only accessible to a very restricted few.

Of course one needs specialist discussion to advance knowledge – but if this is not being read even by other specialists then there is a problem.

You can find Stuart’s reply to this and further comments here.

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Stuart Elden has a number of particularly interesting posts on academic writing on his blog Progressive Geographies. Recently he put up a post offering excellent advice on preparing for journal publication and then another on his own writing practices which has prompted the following reflections on my part.

Stuart notes that his book:

The Birth of Territory is almost completely new material, rather than reprinting previously published work. In fact, though it might not appear so, in the last few years I’ve actually submitted very little to journals, concentrating on the book…
I currently have no articles in review, due, or awaiting revision. I don’t owe any book chapters or other pieces, apart from a short dictionary entry on ‘Foucault and Space’ for the end of the year. I just have three book projects – one authored, one edited and one five-volume collection for which I’m managing editor – to complete in the next three-six months…

This may not necessarily be where Stuart’s comments were leading, but my own personal view is that journal publishing is not really where it’s at if you want to make a real contribution to the field that people actually read – at least in the humanities area. Many journal articles I find turgidly unreadable and not tractible for use as lecture or teaching fodder either.

Journal articles are something the institution has fixated on as being a quantifiable measure of academic performance. Who cares whether anybody actually reads them? I would argue that those who measure such things are in the rear guard in relation to new developments in how academics actually do their work as academics (as opposed to their work as employees of an institution). It’s rather like Bourdieu’s point that those who are not part of the educated elites think that impressionism is great modern art and a sign of culture – whereas the educated elite are all looking at bleeding edge contemporary art..

It’s a different situation in science – well perhaps not – as the publishing lead times are too long and scientists are resorting to online publication to get their work out before somebody else beats them to it in their chosen research areas.

Journals articles are, in my view, the impressionist art of academe for those not quite in the cultural know.

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Posted on my site michel-foucault.com

No-one is forced to write books, or to spend years elaborating them or to claim to be doing this kind of work. There is no reason to make it obligatory to include footnotes, bibliographies and references. No reason not to choose free reflection on the work of others. It is sufficient to indicate well and clearly what relation one is establishing between one’s own work and the work of others.

***
Nul n’est forcé d’écrire des livres, ni de passer des années à les élaborer, ni de se réclamer de ce genre de travail. Il n’y a aucune raison d’obliger à mettre des notes, à faire des bibliographies, à poser des references. Aucune raison de ne pas choisir la libre réflexion sur le travail des autres. Il suffit de bien marquer, et clairement, quel rapport on établit entre son travail et le travail des autres.

Michel Foucault, (1994) [1983] ‘A propos des faiseurs d’histoire’. In Dits et Ecrits vol. IV. Paris: Gallimard, p. 413. This passage translated by Clare O’Farrell

Random thoughts in response
In 1983 a scandal erupted in France around the publication of a book of popular history Histoire du Temps (Paris: Fayard, 1982) by then advisor to the president François Mitterand, Jacques Attali. Attali went on to become in 1991 the first president of the European bank for reconstruction and development (BERD) which was set up to help former soviet block countries in Europe integrate into the Western European economy. He is currently founder and director of PlaNet Finance a microfinance company and president of a commission appointed by the president Nicolas Sarkozy to relaunch French economic growth. Attali has also authored large numbers of essays and novels.

The scandal revolved around the discovery that if Attali included a list of references at the end of his book, he was less than careful about putting quotation marks around certain passages in his text. As Daniel Rondeau wrote rather amusingly in Libération, ‘[Attali] works, he says, every day from 4 to 7am. Let us try to imagine what these early morning work sessions are like. In the silence of the night, the sound of scissors is more to be heard than the nib of the pen…’

Foucault, of course, as a prominent intellectual was dutifully wheeled in by journalists to comment. After giving short shrift to the centre/right wing newspaper Le Matin, Foucault gave a more considered response to Didier Eribon in Libération the left-wing newspaper he had helped to found.

What I like about Foucault’s remarks here is how liberating I find them within the context of academic writing. Working within the university one becomes weighed down by the obligations of a certain type of work and loses sight of why one might originally have wanted to spend years painstakingly collecting and verifying every detail. What Foucault is suggesting here is that why do this unless you really want to? Nobody is forcing you. But at the same time he is saying that if one is writing a popular essay for public consumption in order to raise a few interesting ideas, one should make it quite clear that you are not writing a scholarly work. One must be careful to define what one’s work is doing and what it owes to the work done by others.

One might also raise here the question of the productivity requirements of the current university. Scholarly work takes time and effort. It is a slow process. One cannot turn out work in the same quantities as can be produced by journalistic processes. A minority of scholars are able to sustain combined levels of enormous quantity and quality (Foucault is a case in point) but for most it is a slow and difficult task of research, verification and organization of ideas.

Scholarly work is essential in order to guarantee certain standards of truth and accuracy, of value to the social body. But popular books are also essential to communicate ideas to a non-specialist general public. It is a matter of two different types of work and there have long been debates over the relative status of each. Popular writers heap scorn on dusty academicism and academic writers deplore the facility of popular writers. In the case of Attali’s work, however, it would appear the author was making claims to a scholarship that had in fact been undertaken by others.

Foucault is making the point that whatever one decides to write, from an ethical point of view, one needs to make its relation to other works quite clear and not try to pretend that it is something that it is not. A book does not stand alone, it is intrinsically bound up in a social network of work done by others.

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Daniel W. Drezner, ‘Public Intellectuals 2.0’, Chronicle of Higher Education, v 55 n12, Nov 2008, p. B5
My rating: ***

Link to article (word doc)

Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in the USA and has run his own blog for about seven years. His interesting and well referenced article lists some of the objections to academic blogging and systematically refutes them.

The first section is a brief history of public intellectuals in the United States. What I find interesting about (North) American discussions on this subject is that they rarely refer to intellectuals outside the United States and the effect is much like that curious phenomenon of American World Series baseball which imperiously seeks to render the local global.

This criticism aside, the second section on the blogosphere (although still American in its focus) as a new arena for intellectuals and for academics is an interesting read.

Drezner notes for example:

For academics aspiring to be public intellectuals, weblogs allow networks to develop that cross the disciplinary and hierarchical strictures of the academy – and expand beyond the academy. Rebecca Goetz observes, “Because I blog I now have contacts, online and offline, with a variety of scholars inside and outside my field. They don’t particularly care that my dissertation is not yet done; the typical hierarchies of the ivory tower break down in the blogosphere so that even graduate students can be public intellectuals of a kind.” Brad DeLong characterizes scholar-blogging as creating an “invisible college” that includes, “people whose views and opinions I can react to, and who will react to my reasoned and well-thought-out opinions, and to my unreasoned and off-the-cuff ones as well.” Provided one can write jargon-free prose, a blog can attract readers from all walks of life – including, most importantly, people beyond the ivory tower. Indeed, citizens will tend to view academic bloggers that they encounter online as more accessible than would be the case in a face-to-face interaction. Similarly, survey evidence also suggests that academics view blogs as a form of public service and political activism. This increases the likelihood of fruitful interaction and exchange of views about culture, criticism and politics with individuals that academics might not have otherwise met.

I might add here that intellectual activity in the public media outside the traditional circuits of academic publishing has long been regarded with more than a little ambivalence by universities. This is quite evident in France for example, which has a long and sometimes acrimonious history of a split between university academics and intellectuals active in the public media dating back to at least the eighteenth century. The blogosphere is perhaps the latest chapter in that struggle over the ownership and dissemination of knowledge and what counts as truth. And also, not to put too fine a point upon it, over modes of intellectual fame and reputation.

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