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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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Posted on my site michel-foucault.com

‘Je suis un expérimentateur, et non pas un théorician. J’appelle théorician celui qui bâtit un système général soit de deduction, soit d’analyse, et l’applique de façon uniforme à des champs différents. Ce n’est pas mon cas. Je suis un expérimentateur en ce sens que j’écris pour me changer moi-même et ne plus penser la même chose qu’auparavant.’

Michel Foucault, (1994) [1980]. Entretien avec Michel Foucault. In Dits et écrits, t. 4. Paris: Gallimard. #281, p. 42.

‘I am an experimenter and not a theorist. I call a theorist someone
who constructs a general system either deductive or analytical, and
applies it to different fields in a uniform way . This isn’t my case.
I am an experimenter in the sense that I write in order to change
myself and in order not to think the same thing as before’

Michel Foucault, “Interview with Michel Foucault” J. Faubion, ed., Power (New York: New Press, 2000), p. 240.

Random thoughts in response

Foucault is often either revered or feared as a ‘theorist’. ‘Theory’, the bane of undergraduates loathe to strain their brains, and the dreaded holy grail of postgraduate students looking for some way to satisfy their supervisors’ unreasonable requirements to organise their empirical data into some meaningful form. In the 1970s, 1980s and even the 1990s ‘theory’, particularly in its French, German and Italian incarnations was the object of aspiration: exciting, difficult and mysterious. Its practitioners were much admired for their lofty intelligence and ability to explain the world and perhaps change things for the better as a result. Alternately, of course, they were reviled as a bunch of obscurantist and dangerous radicals exerting a pernicious influence on the young and foolish.

But the new millennium has seen the erosion of the high status of theory. University courses have systematically eliminated this kind of reflection in favour of pragmatic, so-called ‘vocational’ concerns. That’s what the ‘market’ wants. In vocational courses such as teacher training – the suggestion that reading of reasonable difficulty might actually take place outside of class time and then be discussed in said class, leads to either sullen resistance or open hostility and poor ‘student evaluations’ of the course. The client is always right. Yet paradoxically, many people (even undergraduates) still have a creeping suspicion that there must be more to life and social existence than learning how to conform to ever more oppressive work-place regulations or propping up the economy in this time of GFC (global financial crisis. I will pass on the sheer utter pomposity and Sartrean bad faith of reducing this to an acronym). In desperation, many people, faute de mieux, turn to that nineteenth-century mechanism of social control, psychology, only to find the dreary parade of rats and stats, pseudo-scientific jargon and statements of the obvious has advanced them no further.

Further, postgraduate students in vocational areas such as education bemoan in mantra-like fashion the fact that they have been given no proper training or exposure to ‘theory’, which once they start reading, they actually find to be of some interest in organising interpretations of the world and events.

But, of course, Foucault claims not to be a ‘theorist’ in spite of universal insistence to the contrary. This further confuses students and a number of academics who see theory as little more than a grid or template, inexplicably insisted on by supervisors and journal referees for slotting empirical data into convenient boxes. Foucault’s work can’t really be adequately used as a template – although some interpreters have taken aspects of his work and produced handy digest forms for such use.

Foucault’s work is an approach, not a formula for the easy cataloguing of data. His point of view is that we are profoundly historical beings who produce forms of knowledge that are also governed by history. The next step is to describe these historical orders, and history by definition involves constant change. There can be no universal ahistorical template of order. Each historical situation requires reflection and investigation in order to discern the patterns of order which emerge, and further, these patterns of order vary according to the level being examined – are we talking about ships entering a harbour, scientific medical theories, economics or political reform? In a given period, these can all be related at various levels but they have to be examined in turn and the connections between them drawn. This is not a recipe for the production line organization of data and its easy filing into suitable catalogue drawers, drawers which can then be hastily closed and readily forgotten.

II
A comment on this post raises the question of the relation between ‘theory’ and everyday life. I have posted my response here to give it more visibility.
The answer to this question depends on how you define the relation between the kind of reflection that Foucault offers and day-to-day activity. I don’t believe in theory/practice divides. So-called theory is already a practice. The way one thinks about the world is fundamental to how one lives in the world.

For example, if you believe that men are superior to women and that one ‘race’ is superior to another, or that money and status are what count and have a whole set of ideas to support those beliefs – this will determine how you act in the world. If, however, you change your mind about these beliefs after reading some books or having been exposed to these books through education, you are (perhaps) going to behave differently.

It is not a question of abstract tools (‘theory’) which can somehow be applied to deal with specific problems in the so-called ‘real world’ (practice). This is not what Foucault’s work is about. As I’ve said above – he’s not offering a template. It’s about challenging beliefs people might have about the way things work. It is then up to people reading books such as Foucault’s to decide what they want to think about it all and to decide in what ways they want to conduct themselves at an everyday level in their own very specific situations.

In short, as Foucault said himself elsewhere, a ‘theory’ is not the answer. It is only one element – but a non negligeable element – in a complex equation. And being exposed to ‘theories’ gives one more choices in the ways one thinks about the world and therefore interacts with it.

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