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An Increasingly Ordinary Affair
The office work of research
August 26, 2012

Partly responding to my recent post on ideas versus their commercialization among writers and intellectuals, I came across this excellent and tragic paragraph on the state of intellectual work in this post:

‎Meanwhile, academic life is becoming an increasingly ordinary affair, a job in which you hurry from task to task in an attempt to satisfy the demands of your bosses. There was a time when a tenured professorship meant you could think whatever thoughts you like, and reaching this state of intellectual freedom was the goal. Now, it seems, smart people have another goal. They develop "ideas worth spreading", meaning by "worth" that they can make a great deal of money off it, enough to buy their freedom I guess.

I know we academics don't gain many supporters by complaining about our often cushy jobs, but the fact is, they have become a lot more like office work. And not just among mid-level administrators like school chairs and program directors: even research faculty are now often more like heads of lab divisions, spending much of their time doing sales and management rather than thinking and creating. Organizational operations certainly don't have to be a black and white affair, but one of the more mundane and therefore under-discussed aspects of the corporatization of the university is the fact that the professoriate—once its wacky, creative assets—are being processed into middle managers. Under such conditions, "intellectual freedom" becomes a luxury that nobody has much time for.

Related and even more under-discussed, a fact missed by recent austerity and efficiency arguments in higher education hell-bent on measuring work by time spent in the classroom: the professoriate is increasingly doing operational work for which they have no training nor competence.

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Add to that that professors have always had managerial and mentoring responsibilities without receiving any formal training for it, nor these being made an explicit – or explicitly valued – part of their role (and too often, that extends to teaching). The quasi-apprenticeship model of becoming a researcher always had all non-research practices as its big blind spot/hidden curriculum.

Thanks for the plug, Ian. I think it's important to keep in mind that this transition towards office work has been going on for a long time. In 1938, Martin Heidegger held a lecture in Freiburg about metaphysics and modernity. It was later published as "The Age of the World Picture" and can be found in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays (Harper, 1977). Here's a passage that inspired mine.

"The decisive development of the modern character of science as ongoing activity [Betrieb, hustle, business ... i.e., office work]," he said, "also forms men of a different stamp. The scholar disappears. He is succeeded by the research man who is engaged in research projects. These, rather than the cultivating of erudition, lend to his work its atmosphere of incisiveness. The research man no longer needs a library at home. Moreover, he is constantly on the move. He negotiates at meetings and collects information at congresses. He contracts for commissions with publishers. The latter now determine with him which books must be written." (125)

In a sense, that's what happened to Ferguson, he gave up his erudition for something with an "atmosphere of incisiveness". Punditry.

The golden age of academic creative freedom, I think, has almost always been an elusive luxury of the idle rich. Galileo had to spend many of his days playing the patronage game, tutoring the children of the rich, following the same sort of bizarre-but-everyone-agrees-on-them rituals that inform modern day bartering ("$10!" "What, it's only worth $2!" "$8!" "$4." "Fine, we'll settle at $6"). His was a life of getting in the right place at the right time, being careful not to offend his patrons while balancing his quest to find richer more powerful ones to latch on to.

Pavlov ran his lab like an industry machine, sort of the platonic ideal of the manager academic, inputting grad students and churning out ideas and papers in industrial-level wholesale.

It's (for the most part) been the idly rich, the wealthy amateur academics like Darwin who already could afford not to worry about securing patronage, grant money, paid positions, and so forth. Those, or the friars and priests (like Mendel) who had the leisure time to do what they wanted.

I think we've always sort of yearned for a perceived freedom that's only rarely existed. It's a bit like the musician who's hit it big and, stifled by the difficult touring and recording schedule, yearns for the "freedom" of pre-fame, selectively forgetting the various minimum wage jobs, dirty couches, and difficult landlords that happened to go along with it.

Until I showed up at Rice, my experience had been diametrically opposite. Scholars were being sidelined on operations and admin in favor of people with no understanding of what scholarship was.

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