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On the Busyness of Academics

Busyness Anxiety

Over the last two years I have had occasion to make various requests of 108 academic colleagues from outside my university, in 17 countries – “please participate in this event”, “write for that publication”, “join yon collaboration”, “have your say in hither debate”  etc.  92 responded to my enquiries; and irrespective of whether they were accepting or rejecting my request, 80 of them informed me that they were very – sometimes frenetically – “busy”. Of the 80, 71 also let me know what they were busy with (teaching commitments, writing deadlines, examinations, fieldwork, seeking funding, conference attendance, administration etc.). In this period I also received several such requests myself, and found myself responding similarly. Casual conversations with colleagues in my university are now largely devoted to workload pressures and reasons to be busy. I suspect this situation is not unusual in academic institutions in various countries.

Announcements of extreme busyness seem to have become a remarkably uniform feature of semi-formal and informal exchanges among academics almost everywhere, around the world. Further, a constant accounting of such busyness – the enumeration of the professional obligations and responsibilities and conditions that are weighing us down – has become a standard component of such exchanges, so that busyness-accounting works as a confirmation of academic camaraderie, often provides a discursive structure underpinning specific interactions (which may be commiserative, collegial, pragmatic, supplicatory, accusatory etc.).  As an international community with shared interests, we academics evidently feel a strong need to perform (by announcing) our busyness and ensure (by accounting) that our work is considered productive.

27 years of being employed in academia gives one a reasonably long view of developments. Such announcements and accounting were far from unknown at the beginning of my career, and I had recognised them as being the preserve of certain important colleagues: who let others know of their superior claims to esteem, their weightier investment schemes of cultural capital (always the lifeblood of academic careers). That, of course, is still occasionally the case. However, now that such announcements/accounting are more the norm for interactions rather than the recourse for self-promotion, these habitual performances strike me as symptomatic of a deep and widespread anxiety in the academic profession.

Academics – those engaged professionally in teaching, researching, and the administration thereof -- certainly are being made more obviously busy and more oppressively accountable everywhere, and there is some evidence that they feel it keenly. In the UK (and no doubt elsewhere too) this has spurred some public discussion. A March 2014 Guardian blog on rising mental health problems among academics led to an energetic and revealing debate.  The University and College Union’s report on “Workload and Stress” of 2014 found: “The proportion of Respondents [numbering 6439] from HE who agreed or strongly agreed that they find their job stressful has increased from 72% in the 2012 survey to 79% in 2014”. And so on. There are a significant number of scholarly papers on the matter.

Seven Phases

From such publications it is possible to identify the specific factors (such as employment insecurity, life-work balance, target/condition setting, underfunding) that affect particular segments (by age group, gender, type of contract [adjunct/temporary/tenure-track/tenured], etc.) of academics. Such carefully evidenced analyses are immensely useful; however, they tend to convey a divisive sense of a condition that appears to cut across the entire sphere of academic work. Somewhat speculatively then – and very sketchily – I go in the opposite direction here: I try to articulate several broad and consecutive phases in engineering the relationship between academic work and conditions for that work in the context of liberal economies. These are phases which seek to rationalise academia in cost-benefit accounting terms. It seems to me that such phases are being – have been – unrolled in some such order very widely in different countries, increasingly globally. Though some are perhaps further along the line of such phases than others, almost all are converging on their direction.

A significant part of academic work is by nature introspective and relatively intractable in terms of time/resources/outlay: such as preparing for teaching, consulting research sources and conducting experiments, reading and writing, engaging in conversations, etc. Easy tractability typically attaches to what is externalised after the introspective process: lectures and tutorials, turning out qualified persons, conference presentations and seminars, publications, data sets, experiment results, patents and so on.

Setting the conditions of academic work involves making some calculations of tractability, which in turn depend on various ideological subscriptions within the liberal fold. Other kinds of ideological subscriptions may have actuated different calculations (sometimes intrusions) in various contexts, especially in the past, but (shifting) liberal subscriptions along the line of the phases below are now globally discernible.

With these very general propositions the following phases in engineering the relationship between academic work and conditions thereof can be outlined.

Phase 1: Academic work as a whole – both introspective process and externalised product – in all its dimensions is regarded as a public good, as conducted in all academic institutions (however funded, but thereby particularly justifying state or public funding). It is held that the precise character of the public benefit cannot necessarily be accounted strictly in terms of specific externalised products at any given time: it is impossible to predict when and where the benefit of some product will become apparent (if it exists it may come to be useful in expected and unexpected ways). But the evidence from a long view of the contribution of academic work to social development shows a salutary, indeed inextricable, relationship. Further, it is considered that an intractable (that is, free and open) introspective process is necessary for the realization of the externalised product, and those engaging with academic work are therefore best placed to understand and manage the conditions for such work – so a high degree of academic self-determination in managing the conditions of academic work is desirable. Typically, this means that the intractable introspective process is allowed reasonable free play and kept outside strict accounting; the latter is confined mainly to even-handed distribution of the more tractable externalised production among workers (especially teaching contact, administration). By way of regulating productivity: systems for informing academic workers of  expectations, incentives to encourage effort and productivity (promotions, increments, etc.), peer-reviewing and external-peer-assessing at every stage, and disincentives for poor work (appeals procedures and disciplinary procedures, etc.) suffice.

Phase 2: It is soon argued (to begin with by those administering government budgets) that academic work should not be considered a public good without accountable evidence thereof: i.e. every investment made by a putative public (whether through states or other entities, including private) in academic work should be tractably accounted in terms of benefits to the public. Academic self-determination of the conditions of academic work is not questioned; but academia is now required to make itself “professional” and tractable in ways that can be recorded by, for instance, auditors and bureaucrats and ministers. In the first instance, this means creating more disaggregated and stable measurements of the relatively tractable exteriorised products -- that is, measurements which comply with existing, albeit so far loose and unsystematised, academic values and norms. Thus, specific exteriorised products begin to be subjected regularly to certain strict evaluative measures – effectively withdrawing the notion that their public benefits are impossible to affix firmly at any given point of time. So, firm measures of scholarly importance, influence, esteem, impact and so on for activities like teaching and research (measures of “quality”) are instituted -- which can ostensibly be immediately gauged through some regular bureaucratic procedure. The principle of academic self-determination is maintained by keeping such disaggregated measuring and accounting of exteriorised products at the behest of “peer-reviewing”, which is given the character of a bureaucratic accounting procedure.

Phase 3: Once the value of the exteriorised product is thus disaggregated according to firm “quality” measures, the introspective process preceding it becomes open to tracking too. The introspective process is then broken down into parts, and each part is given a value in accordance with the value attributed to the exteriorised products that putatively derive from it. So, the cost of time for teaching preparation is considered as measurable against the measured quality of the tractable teaching done (affixed by consulting peers and students, from recruitment figures, etc.); the cost of time for reading, writing, experimenting, discussing etc. is considered as measurable against the measured quality of publications produced (affixed by consulting peers, checking “bibliometrics”, creating indexes of “prestige”, etc.); and so on. Gradually, therefore, the conditions for academic work are revised. Now, instead of allowing free play for introspection and even-handed distribution of tractable exteriorised products, the apparently disaggregated parts of the introspective process are themselves made subject to accounting – which, in turn, allows for calculations and trade-offs in terms of the “quality” of the exteriorised product that is likely to follow at any given time. That what’s “likely to follow” is itself an intractable variant is too obvious a weakness in this accounting process: so measures of probability of performance according to each worker’s record are generated and factored in to make this shaky variant appear measurable. It makes for a more atomised academic sector as workers and institutions bargain with and calculate against each other to obtain the most advantageous performance records and trade-offs as part of their condition of work.

Phase 4: The disaggregation of both the exteriorised product and introspective process of academic work, and the generation of performance records, is then brought to bear upon the further fashioning of conditions for academic work through two crucial steps. Step one: it is deemed that the accounting practices invented through Phases 2 and 3 are an area of specialization which demands too much time and effort, interferes too deeply into the core of academic work (teaching and research), to be left in the hands of academics as self-managers of their working conditions. So a professional management stratum is inserted into academia, partly by co-optation from within and partly by recruitment from without. It comes under the guise of “academic leadership” as a specialised and discrete role. The job of this management stratum is no longer justified by its understanding of the relation between introspection and exteriorisation in academic work. Instead, its role consists in taking charge of the accounting practices invented through Phases 2 and 3, and it is soon given (or wrests) the power to engineer all aspects of academic work so that such book-keeping could be conducted to optimise the use of investments (costs of time, resources, outlay etc.). The measures of performance put in place for this stratum itself has no relation to academic work. These managerial performance measures derive from comparisons (typically between institutions and sectors) of success in optimising use of investments, and in ensuring the compliance of academic workers and manipulation of academic work for that purpose. The obvious way of doing the latter is by upping the pressure of atomisation and competitiveness mentioned at the end of Phase 3: introducing targets for exteriorised production and accordingly rationalising the distribution of parts of the introspective process –and thereby, trying to influence the record of predictable performance (which easily translates into behaviour profiles for workers).

Phase 5: Step two, which follows on the heels of step one in Phase 4, involves taking the measurements of value put in place in Phases 2 and 3 largely out of the hands of academic self-assessment (peer assessment) and passing it on to external representatives of the so-called public, which is often now the same as agents of private interests (“stakeholders” in short – employers, industrialists, community leaders, political bosses, bureaucrats, etc.). This is aided, indeed motivated, by step one: the management stratum, isolated from academic workers and with license to act upon them, often has aligned interests (in cost-benefit accounting terms) with such non-academic stakeholders and find them useful for pressuring and extracting compliance from academic workers. The management stratum is able to argue that the public benefits of academic work can only be attested disinterestedly from outside academia by such stakeholders: e.g. employers can testify whether the teaching done is useful in producing a workforce outside academia; community leaders can testify whether teaching and research is producing social stability and development; corporations can bear witness to the contribution of teaching and research to business development; and so on. By this stage, almost all of the justification for public – i.e. state – funding of academic work has evaporated. Academic workers come to be regarded as a part of the “human resources” (a small part of the gross resources) and as “service-providers” of institutions, and students along with other “stakeholders” become “clients” or “consumers”.

Phase 6: The next move is inevitable: the disaggregated measures invented to render exteriorised product and introspective process tractable in Phases 2 and 3, initially in keeping with academic values and norms, are modified to align with these “stakeholder” interests. So, incremental adjustments in those measures can now be used to not merely keep track of the exteriorised product and the introspective process but to change and direct those. For instance, now teaching has to be designed to produce skilled workers for particular sectors of employment, research has to be undertaken to produce innovation in industry or encourage political harmony, and so on. The thrust of academic work is now not considered in the service of a public good in the broad sense, but as an instrument of dominant and conservative (i.e. determined to preserve themselves) alignments which claim to represent and embody and dictate the public good (that they are able to do so make them dominant). Typically, this phase involves a culling of academic workers who continue to adhere to what they consider key to an academic identity (freedom of introspection followed by exteriorisation), and increased recruitment of workers who are able to accommodate their academic instrumentality with those dominant and conservative alignments. These moves are managed under the guise of “strategic management”, “forward planning”, “restructuring”,  “efficiency measures” etc. At the rawest, the introspective process which is the starting point of academic work and the academic worker’s raison d’être is itself taken over and directed from without; a kind of thought-control seems to be exercised which annuls the impetus of what was understood as academic work in Phase 1.

Phase 7: The identity of academia -- academic workers’ understanding of academic life -- begins to fragment; so that “what is a university?” and “what is an academic?” appear increasingly rhetorical and old-fashioned questions.  Academic institutions and workers are gradually replaced by large or small organizations peopled with service providers, under the control of various split management strata, sometimes as a federation under a super-management stratum for a large so-called “university”. All these organizations and service providers that constitute the so-called “university” are now geared up for training personnel and utility-based knowledge production to serve different dominant interest groups of society (not really the “public” in general any longer, but social alignments like corporations, state-policing-and-publicity units, community groups, consumer associations and the like). Some elite parts in this so-called “university” (which still appear to bear a resemblance to academic institutions of Phase 1) also generate knowledge and instruction for scholarly hobbyists who can pay for their intellectual pleasures.  At this point, any pretence of academic work being regarded as a public good can gradually be withdrawn, and former commitments to public investment (especially direct state funding) reduced to a mote. Academic institutions are now fragmented bodies, parts of which are outsourced, and parts of which remain as self-funding and profit-making components of a range of establishment interest groups/offices (government, non-government, corporate, represented by “stakeholders” in academic boardrooms) which finance them according to their own needs. The ultimate aim of such loose federations, each controlled by a complex management stratum in synch with “stakeholders”, is to offer a flexible and obedient means for generating economic growth and social stability for the perpetuation of dominant interests.                  

Acting the Annulled Self

In the UK, I think, we are somewhere between Phases 6 and 7; in a few so-called “modernizing” contexts that I am aware of, academia is still at Phases 2 or 3, or leaping ahead eagerly to Phase 4. But let me return to where I began from – the pervasive busyness of academics.

Akin to the rationale sketched above, the broad outlines of contemporary liberal cost-benefit accounting was laid out, with unusual prescience, in Michel Foucault’s 1979 Collège de France lectures published relatively recently as The Birth of Biopolitics (2004/in English 2008). The lectures referred to a much broader field, which Foucault dubbed “biopolitics”, wherein such cost-benefit accounting practices have become a naturalised and pervasive grounding for liberal “governmentality” – in conjugal partnerships, conceiving and raising children, property and employment relations, the penal system, and so on. Under the sway of liberal governmentality, Foucault observed, individuals become “entrepreneurs of the self”, constantly realising themselves and advancing their interests and confirming their existence through cost-benefit accounting. Announcements and accounting of busyness, so pervasive in academics’ interactions now, appear to be a particular manifestation of such entrepreneurship of the self. But it is more than that. It is riven with anxiety because the academic self that academic workers seek to realise, promote, sustain and confirm is slipping away – is ceasing to be recognised, seems to be falling unnoticed into a black hole. The core of the academic self – the freedom of introspection and consequent exteriorization – is slipping away; or rather, introspection is gripped by extrinsic thought-control and exteriorization squeezed by constraints of permissibility. Even on the superficial surface of academic life, markers of value and integrity in thinking and practice, communal rites of mutual recognition and acknowledgement, gauges of effort and aspiration have been redefined out of existence. All these have been redefined into something that the academic worker is unable to identify with. All that’s left then is a kind of automatic performance of academicity emptied of selfhood; an imperative and continuous and somewhat stricken announcement and accounting of busyness – as if to hold on to something that doesn’t exist any longer, or to petulantly announce our importance to those who don’t care, or to haplessly persuade bosses (leaders) that we are obedient hard-working souls, or to simply get a nod of recognition from others who are in the same situation as ourselves. In a way, it is a gesture which constantly confirms that we, as academics, have helplessly bought into the evolving system which has annulled or will soon annul ourselves. 

Suman Gupta, May 2015