I recently commented on the Australian Anthropological Society mailing list that universities seem to be fast becoming the worst places to produce academic scholarship as the trend towards metrics takes over. I received responses adding up to "It's not just you that thinks this... but where else do we go?"

Academic jobs are increasingly won and defended by playing into a system of metrics that measures scholarly output by ranking journals and so on. But, as we all know, this increases pressure to publish prematurely and decreases overall quality of what's in print. As a result, the production of rigorous scholarship within universities appears to be more of a luxury than a default practice. 

Many academics are campaigning hard to change this, especially by working on issues such as job security and teaching workloads. There are debates about university business models, journal business models, and how these may be changed to accommodate a slower, more reflective production of scholarly work. However, by most accounts, the metric trend looks set to continue into the foreseeable future.

If universities aren't listening to academics or their unions, what can we do? Are there ways to side-step universities? After all, not everyone depends upon tertiary institutional channels to get work done.

Alternatives for individuals could include:

  • Staying in the university system, but resisting the metric turn (difficult for many)
  • Staying in the university system, but seeing corporate funding to buy time (can result in problems of bias)
  • Creating a hybrid position, connected to academia but with an alternative salary source such as through consulting, journalism, etc (problems of instability, time management)
  • Working for a company, NGO or other, but staying involved in independent scholarship (severe time restrictions)

The problem with individual strategies is that they all require compromise and do little, if anything, to improve academia's position. We need to convince funding institutions that the independent and rigorous production of academic scholarship matters. Sciences such as biology and physics have cemented their position by producing tangible discoveries and engaging the public imagination. How important is it for the social sciences and humanities to do something similar? Will this increase our bargaining power within universities? And if we can't, where should we go?  

Views: 1639

Replies to This Discussion

This is powerfully put, Erin. It's hard to know where to begin. I just read a piece over at Savage Minds which was about some lucky young person who made the transition from adjunct to tenure track assistant professor. I don't think he was anticipating being subject to the miseries of the metric system. I do know of young anthropologists with heavy teaching and administrative loads, but how much time and effort does it take to write and publish a journal article? If I am not mistaken, working in the universities probably still offers more opportunity to do your own thing than almost any other kind of employment. This is especially the case when one has tenure, but it doesn't answer the case of all those who would like to get in and can't.

I have always pursued a path of what the French call pluriactivite. But I found that working outside universities was more demanding than working in them. The life of a freelance is miserable, since you can never afford to turn down a job; and most day jobs are exhausting.

But let's assume that the universities are losing the plot and we have to explore other ways of teaching and producing knowledge. The fact is that a middle class person seeking higher education around 1900 in Britain would as likely go to a theological seminary as anywhere. The preeminence of the universities in the 20th century was a feature of the dominant economic form which I call national capitalism. It was proposed by Hegel in The Philosophy of Right; the system has been in decline for decades and now faces outright collapse. That is why it is so demoralizing to be in the universities these days. The logic of bureaucratic pseudo-markets has taken over as a conservative reaction to social and technical forces undermining the institution. The academics have always been passive in the face of all this, choosing to adapt to a sinking ship rather than mobilise for progressive change.

Where can you find in the humanities and social sciences analytical perspectives on the anthropology, sociology, politics, economics, culture and history of this decline? There are some sources. But surely, when asking what individuals can do, it would pay to ask why all this is happening. Only then might we articulate a forward-looking rather merely reactionary strategy. I think that we are witnessing the drive for self-government of corporations at the expense of nation-states, even though national bureacracies tamely follow corporate interests.

It is easy to see that most academic knowledge published in the humanities and social sciences is useless. But academics always did a lot more than that. Our jobs are among the most varied on the planet (as I said, the question of how to get such a job is another matter). The elevation of research publications above all other facets of our work was historically contingent (Cold War politics). Our real job, especially as anthropologists, is education. But we actually command a wide portfolio of skills. In a dozen instances I have advised individuals on whether to quit academia for a job outside and every one found that life outside the universities was wonderfully refreshing. The trap is to assume that we have to stay in school all our lives and that the job is essentially independent scholarship.

Independent scholars were traditionally like other kinds of artists. They needed patronage, a reliable sinecure or some other source of income to produce their original work. There were very few of them compared with the army of would-be academics today. Instead of asking what can I do? ask what do the people want and how can I give it to them? You, Erin, more than almost anyone I know in the world of anthropologists, are alert to this question. Hence PopAnth. We can only find out what the world wants from us by inserting ourselves into the social movement of our times.

I still think that having a toehold in the universities is better than most options, as long as they last, that is. They do give you a chance to read, blog, consult, travel, write journalism, run a flea market stall etc. We are much more talented than life in the universities would have us believe. Anthropologists in particular are remarkably inventive and adaptable people. Those I know who made the break did not regret it. But you can't imagine what it would be like before trying it out.

Keith writes,

The preeminence of the universities in the 20th century was a feature of the dominant economic form which I call national capitalism. It was proposed by Hegel in The Philosophy of Right; the system has been in decline for decades and now faces outright collapse.

I come not to refute his argument but, instead, to extend it. If the system has been in decline for decades (a proposition that feels right to me), a place to begin is to ask why. Can we move beyond the decline of national capitalism implies the decline of the university to understand more deeply the mechanisms driving both declines? The following is a sketch in search of a more fully fleshed-out argument. Details may well be wrong. At least it may be a place to begin a search for that deeper understanding.

Let us consider supply and demand. In what are now the OECD countries, the post-WWII democratization of higher education supplied the the new mass of white-collar, middle-management workers required by the corporations that  rebuilt or repurposed industrial capacity to meet the needs of a war-devastated world. In other words, demand for white-collar workers and the dream of upward social mobility based on meritocratic achievement drove the expansion of higher education. That postwar world no longer exists. 

ICT technology has eliminated the need for armies of white-collar paper pushers to do what computers and now the cloud do more cheaply and efficiently. The globalization of capital has enabled corporations to move repetitive physical labor to places where labor is cheap. Slumping demand for run-of-the-mill middle class skills has met a huge oversupply of graduates. From this perspective, the oversupply in the OECD countries is small compared with the oversupply in South and East Asia, India and China in particular. Corporations that need smart, hungry people with higher education are no longer restricted to hiring in Europe or North America. 

The implications are stark. The problem with academia isn't academia's problem alone. It is part of a global structural rebalancing that will not be complete until rising standards of living worldwide erase the differences in cost of labor that corporations now exploit—but erasing those differences may, in the meantime, lead to ecological catastrophe. These are, indeed, wicked problems. The question for academia is whether the academy will be part of solving these wicked problems or a gated community of those who are lucky enough to be able to live pretty well until the catastrophe wipes them out. 

Where, then, do I look for hope? In places like Open Source Ecology or Massive Change, where people who are makers as well as doers seem more likely to make a difference.

Thanks John for posting the link to this discussion thread on SM.

I am glad to see this post, and all of the questions that Erin is bringing up.  I ask these same questions all the time.  I also wonder whether to try to stay within academia and make changes, or to look elsewhere and seek other avenues outside of the academy.  A tough question.

I think that maybe there is some hope in resisting the whole metric turn.  But this would require a lot of collaborative effort and solidarity among the ranks.  Hard to tell if building that support would be possible.  Many folks seem to be cruising along with the status quo for now.  Maybe that needs to be shaken up.  Maybe we need to offer up some other possibilities.

I do think that Keith makes an important point when he says that education should be our real job.  If our value was tied more to our role as educators, that might help with the whole metric turn.  Or it could.  We have to be something more than peer-reviewed article producing machines.  I think we have to find a way to reintroduce education, teaching, and even something like community service as a primary aspect of what we do.  These kinds of things should "count" with promotions, jobs, and tenure much more than they do.

I also like John's question: are we going to jump in and help solve these problems or just take our places within our own little gated communities?  I think the answer is obvious.  But apparently it's no so obvious to many folks who make up this big thing we call "academia."  A lot of folks going with the flow and such.  Well, it's about time for that to stop.

PS: Here's the SM post for anyone who is interested:


Ryan, I mentioned this to Francine in my reply on Analog & Digital, but just to complete the circle: It seems to me that Francine, Erin, and you are all doers as well as talkers and could be the core of a highly effective group if you sorted out among yourselves what you want to accomplish.

Just an example: as this recent series of posts on SM, OAC and A&D illustrates, you are all acting as well as thinking along similar lines. It might be interesting to see what would happen if you were to coordinate your efforts, taking one step further along the path that you illustrated by pointing to Francine's piece and recruit a few friends to help you push your message out more widely. I will be happy to be among them.

Not a bad idea John.  I think you are right that a little coordination and collaboration might be in order...

Some practical suggestions, not exhaustive and not equally serious.

1) Migrate: you are much more valuable abroad than at home. The world is not just N. America and Europe; in fact these are the most depressing places to be in our line of work.

2) Join a small interdisciplinary research team, but be prepared to be the only anthropologist.

3) Make money any way you know how (TEFL in Asia, betting, construction etc) and cash it in on what you like doing when you have enough.

4) Ask how people get their education these days and see if you can find a job there. (School teachers work really hard!)

5) Work for the media.

6) Join a research project (scientific, development, architectural, whatever) and take it from there.

7) Keep on blogging to raise your public profile.

8) Get out of the anthropology ghetto: you have to insert yourself in the rest of the world to find out what is available there.

9) Keep your academic c.v. active just in case (publish articles, go to conferences etc).

10) Publish with the OAC Press and win friends in our discussion forums. Think outside the box.

I appreciate Ryan's call for action. We may find that what adjuncts/grad students can do and what can be done as a whole to remedy some of the wider issues are likely to demand different trajectories. Erin's debate, for instance, is framed for those who are already in positions of power (academics with union representation) and have the ability to take a stand against the system in the four ways she suggests. My post was only partly about adjuncting (a role I no longer even hold) and more so about responsibility and respect across the board. Senior and junior staff should not be talking past each other, but united in securing and maintaining certain standards. I hope that what is also ultimately taken from my post is the idea that, even within the confines of a failed "system", small changes in the way we treat each other can be made by individuals at all levels. So while not coterminus, Ryan, Erin's and my posts are all intrinsically related. I still worry that we might have inadvertently co-opted this post.

Forgive me, but Keith's suggestions of varied seriousness could sound slightly condescending to struggling postdocs. But I am actually glad that he offered them here, because I hear variations of them often. So here goes.

1. People's abilities to migrate around the world at a whim are limited by cash funds (lack thereof) and life circumstances. I invested in expanding my "value" by moving abroad when I was 17 and took out federal loans to stay in the UK, do fieldwork in Spain, move to Germany, learn the languages, etc. Returns on this are actually quite low and my value added (experience abroad for an anthro is no exceptional feat) does not compensate for my loan debt.

2. This is research intensive work. Who has time for this with no income?

3. Whatever you do, do not gamble to get ahead. The house always wins. Take risks, yes, but not betting.

4. Tried this. It is near impossible to "get on the list" for substitute teaching. You have to pay to take a course to get certified for full-time work. Also, they don't teach anthropology in schools and a decade out of school I'm lost on other subject curricula which is invariably taught to a set exam structure. A PhD doesn't guarantee a teaching post in a school; in fact it holds no weight at all.

5. ?? Media companies don't reply to my job applications.

6. Haven't had much luck here. Do you mean paid or just collaborative projects? You could end up investing a lot of time and free labor into long-term projects that may have no end in sight.

7. Let's see how that goes. Tip of the hat to Ryan!

8. Another question: do anthropology PhD programs prepare students for a life outside of the ghetto? I'd venture that most do not. This is a whole other can of worms.

9. Goes without saying. Publishing is one thing that I need to make more time for somehow, but conferences are way too expensive so are out of the question at present.

10. Debates like these highlight the importance of the OAC and what we've built here.

I'm not picking on Keith here, just injecting some reality as devil's advocate based on my own experience. Another suggestion that I have heard which I would add to the list of condescension is "just find a normal job in the meantime". I worked every free moment throughout my undergrad and postgrad education and every summer. I've cleaned offices, packed books, photocopied thousands of documents and answered phones. On one memorable occasion I was paid to untangle a very large ball of miscellaneous computer cables. A "normal" job is of no help to me in this abnormal world.

Francine, Erin, Ryan: Keith mentions TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) in Asia. There are real possibilities here. If I were young and adventurous, I would probably choose China. See, for example, Peter Hessler's River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze, for what this can be like. If I were looking for something a bit more comfortable I would check out the Japanese Government's JET Program. And, of course, if you pick that route, you will have a friend in Japan. If you get placed in the countryside, you will have an open invitation to our guest room in Yokohama when you need a bit of city life to refresh. There are also opportunities in Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Indonesia.

Whichever country you choose, you will need to be wary of companies that promise the moon to recruits but turn out to be grossly exploitive. The good news is that, thanks to the Internet, you can check reputations pretty easily. 

A related but different source of possibilities is SIETAR (Society for International Education Training and Research). This is a group for people involved in corporate training programs, which, I have heard it rumored, are now among the world's largest providers of teaching jobs—bigger by far than universities.  

Hope this is helpful.

I would be very happy to join a cooperative effort to think through, and act upon, some of these issues. It has been becoming more and more apparent that they are all connected. Job tenure, public engagement, applied anthropology, the role of universities, teaching, open access, and the end of the world might sound like a motley crew of topics, but Keith and John are right that they share common historical threads and future trajectories.

To me, it all sticks together under the banner of 'knowledge production'. Whether we're teaching, researching or writing, we're trying to contribute to a body of knowledge that is housed not just in journals but also in people. Hence while metrics and the like could - and should - be resisted from within the academy, what we're trying to achieve goes far beyond the academy. This is well-recognised by the open access movement. Access to academic knowledge shouldn't be limited to academics. In fact, there's no reason why its production should be limited to academics. At PopAnth we certainly don't demand that people have PhDs before they publish with us. They don't even have to have anthropology degrees, though up til now pretty much all our authors do. Anyone with talent should be able to contribute to knowledge production, not just those who hold the right pieces of paper. And with the internet, the gates are falling down. One could argue that in this sense, the declining relevance of universities is a good thing.

However, this doesn't mean that universities don't have a role to play. But we need to be far more cognizant of what our social role is and, as Keith points out, reach beyond our institutions, find out what people want, and actually collaborate. This does require significant change in how universities and academics think. It would be a useful beginning to view teaching, research, academic writing and public engagement as all integral parts of one bigger project.

On the point of teaching, I think we can do more. What if there were something like life-long learning in anthropology? Last year, I learned that a friend in Paris is writing history books for eight- to ten-year-old kids. Each focuses on one historical figure, and not necessarily your usual suspects. It struck me that books about the Malinowskis and Margaret Meads would also make great stories. Then I began to wonder why there isn't a Jules Verne of anthropology. We have so many great stories to tell! There is a potentially huge, untapped market in books for toddlers, kids and teens, not to mention far more popular anthropology for adults. Imagine teaching first-year tertiary anthropology students who already had exposure to our major concepts. Wouldn't that make teaching so much more productive? Not to mention the benefits of having a world full of people who understand something about cultural difference.

How to get anthropologists thinking and acting out of the box? Many anthropologists seem confused about open access and don't know which open access journals to trust. Gawain and I have recently begun talking with Ryan and others at SM and OAA about prodcuing a wiki as a central source of information that anyone can update. I know that there are various databases out there, but they are hard to find. The debates are spread across multiple sites. Perhaps a Wikipedia page on Open Access Anthropology would be the way to go, as it ranks high in Google searches and so people could find it easily. Plus, it's familiar to everyone.

Of course, none of this addresses the question of salaries. I totally agree with Keith's suggestions, but I also sympathise with Francine. I lectured for three years full-time at The University of Sydney. I enjoyed teaching for the first two years, but was frustrated by not having enough time to research and write. I find it ridiculous that many of us get into the game because we like research; if we're good at that we're allowed to teach, then if we can juggle both of those together then we're shunted into admin. So we get further and further away from what propelled us to start with. I escaped to Portugal to take up a three-year research-only fellowship that gives me absolute freedom. After Portugal I'm hoping to do some consulting to maintain a decent income, and remain affiliated with a university so that I can spend my spare time doing research.

I'm optimistic that this will work, despite having met with quite a bit of resistance. I find it alarming that many senior academics tell PhD students that they have no options besides tenure track, that if they don't get a tenure track that they've failed, and that even if they do get an alternative job they will be miserable. Bullshit! There are tonnes of people doing interesting things. I stumbled across many as I was researching various things for PopAnth. Graduate students should be made aware of their options, and senior staff must stop stigmatizing applied anthropology.

In sum, universities need to realise that they're not the only game in town. If they don't, we will take over the game, and do it far better than they do. They will find that they'll have to jump on board and will no longer set the rules. Let's see if we can shake them up a bit before it gets to this point.

Erin, before I forget. In Lisbon there is an up-and-coming business anthropologist you should know about—Pedro Oliveira. He works for an outfit called Couture, whose Decode+Disrupt website is one you ought to know about. Since you are in the same city, you should check them out.

Erin B. Taylor said:
In sum, universities need to realise that they're not the only game in town. If they don't, we will take over the game, and do it far better than they do. They will find that they'll have to jump on board and will no longer set the rules. Let's see if we can shake them up a bit before it gets to this point.

This makes perfect sense and is the kind of thing that happens in other industries all the time, like what Napster, YouTube and even Myspace did for music; what open source browsers did to Internet Explorer; what online media is doing to print media. Demand will force the giants to change their old habits, one way or another, once better alternatives present themselves. We're not there yet, but I hope we get there soon.

This morning I came across this very relevant HuffPo article by anthropologist Paul Stoller: Changing Culture in Higher Education.

Here's an excerpt:

In many, if not most institutions of contemporary higher learning a troubling irony has emerged. In those scholarly institutions, there is an increasingly limited pool of institutional respect for scholars and the results of their hard and time-consuming labor--scholarship.

This reservoir of morale depleting disrespect is the result of a gradual and increasingly powerful cultural shift--the use of business models to run universities. Having witnessed this gradual shift over the past 30 years, I fear that these cultural changes, which tend to have longstanding consequences,, threaten to undermine the heart and soul of the university--a respect for the construction and articulation of knowledge. It takes time and considerable effort to develop courses, craft a research proposal, conduct research, or to write essays and monographs that report research findings. In the corporate culture of the contemporary American universities--a virtual minefield of administrative obstacles--time and patience are in increasingly short supply.

Such a cultural climate discourages student creativity and makes a career in the academy less and less attractive to our best and brightest. Such a culture will not change until university administrators and their corporate and political benefactors truly return to the belief that the vitality of their institutions is inextricably linked to the creativity, productivity and morale of their faculties.



OAC Press



© 2019   Created by Keith Hart.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service