I Have No Time to Think and Write

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One of the most frequent complaints I hear from colleagues is that they have less and less time for scholarship. On the one hand, they are heavily engaged in the administration of their academic departments. On the other hand, as far as teaching and research are concerned, a growing portion of their time is taken up by the need to respond to incessant requests for self-surveillance by corporate management. Grant budgets need to be updated, the use of research funds needs to be reported, and your performance as a lecturer needs to be accounted for. It might even occur to someone in management that it is a good idea that you participate in a mandatory time use survey that asks you to record your activities for four weeks and explain how much of your time is dedicated to income-generating research. (I have had to take part in such surveys, and it soon may be your turn, too!)

This, however, applies only to the privileged few who have permanent or long-term academic jobs. There are many others who are employed as teachers or project assistants for a semester or two or three. As the salaries for such short-term work are often parlous, many members of this group have to take on several jobs at the same time. This requires them to divide their attention between institutions with disparate expectations and to split their time between a very wide range of tasks. Of course, while they may still do very well in such temporary positions, they will nonetheless not be full members of their host departments in any sense, and, many times, they will not be able to take much credit for the courses or research projects to which they have contributed. They are assistants in the proper sense of the word, and they have little chance to engage in original scholarly activities of their own. On top of this, the practicalities of holding down several jobs at the same time complicate their situation even more. If you have to teach a class in Brighton at 9am, help with a research project in Nottingham at 2pm, and conclude your day with an evening course in London at 7pm, you are very unlikely to have time to write that groundbreaking monograph that will finally earn you a permanent lectureship and the right to a stable life. (You are also very unlikely to have a wide circle of friends, let alone family life of some sort, but that’s a topic for another post.)

Of course, in order for you to end up having these problems, you need to complete some sort of postgraduate degree – most likely a PhD – in the first place. For many of the students I have taught in the UK over the past ten years, getting that far is a big challenge. Few of them could fully rely on their parents or on personal savings to fund their studies, many of them had to work to make a living, and less and less of them really had time to really engage with the subject matter of their courses. For PhD students in particular, there is the additional challenge of finishing an unstructured programme of study that relies on self-motivation and personal discipline while having to teach, sell hamburgers, or man a call centre to make a living. (Teaching, to be sure, is a vital part of any scholarly career, but there is a big difference between teaching to teach and teaching excessively long hours to make a living.)

These concerns offer an interesting opportunity to reflect on patterns of privilege in academia. In order to develop as a scholar and intellectual, it is necessary to own one’s time – or at least very substantial portions thereof – and to dedicate them creatively to relevant activities. The extent to which academics in different situations own their time appears to be closely associated with the distribution of privilege. In an academic world that is elitist and fundamentally unequal in many ways, one needs to acquire privileges of various sorts in order to have time. For example, a prospective PhD student may need to successfully compete for a rare scholarship in order to compensate for a lack of personal wealth and avoid the need to spend countless hours stacking shelves at Tesco. Successful participation in such a competition will require this student to develop a promising and original research idea. Moreover, the student may need to gain the attention of potential referees at her university who are willing to comment enthusiastically on her work. She will also need to build her awareness of the context of her efforts, in terms of the research topics that are currently considered fashionable or politically desirable and thus are more likely to attract funding. All this will take a lot time, which she just may not have. She may therefore find herself at a disadvantage in competition with other students who possess greater economic (e.g. substantial personal or familial wealth) and cultural capital (e.g. certain markers of social class that convey a sense of education and convince potential referees to support the applicant).

Thus, the acquisition of academic privileges may require one to already have the time necessary to demonstrate one’s intellectual abilities, build networks, recruit support, and so forth. This, in turn, may require one to enter academia from a position of privilege. This is particularly important because privilege reproduces itself over time. The agendas of scholarly enquiry are by and large defined at a relatively small cluster of elite universities. In order to make an impact on one’s discipline, it may be necessary to work at one of these universities; elsewhere, there might simply not be enough time for productive and innovative scholarship, regardless of one’s talents. To be appointed to a lectureship at an elite university, it will likely be necessary to have a PhD from another elite university. (Just take a look at the online staff profiles of relevant universities in the UK or the USA, should you doubt this claim.) In order to gain admission to such an elite university, one will need to struggle hard or be in a privileged position to begin with. Even if one’s ambitions are more modest, finding one’s way through postgraduate study and into a stable academic career of any sort is a struggle in which some enjoy very substantial advantages over others. Some can afford to sit down and think and write, while many others cannot.

It may seem trite to write about academic privilege in the land of Oxbridge. However, to treat the matter as an unchangeable given would mean to ignore notable historical changes in the significance of privilege. A simple example may serve to illustrate this point: During my time as a student, I was taught by professors who had been able to move from a working-class background into leading positions in their fields. I finished my PhD in 2008, a year which, in hindsight, seems to mark the beginning of a period of economic, social, and political turmoil characterised by the abandonment of core commitments of the welfare state, of socio-economic equality as a central political value, and of education as a public good. I now wonder whether the professors who taught me would have been successful, had they been required to build their careers in the emerging plutocratic society of the early 21st century. Would they have been able to afford several university degrees and years of exorbitant tuition fees? If so, would they have had time to really engage with their studies, even though they would likely have needed to work to make a living? Would they have had time to sufficiently develop their portfolio of publications and research grants and their presentation of self as credible academics? Would they have survived in an environment in which stable employment is becoming an exception and the smallest advantage may make you prevail over the other 200 candidates who also applied for your job? Or will the academic world of the early 21st century come to resemble the academic world of the late 19th century and become a preserve of the affluent and privileged? This question certainly deserves much more attention.

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Daniel Nehring

My career so far has taken me to a fairly wide range of places, and this has allowed me to experience a wide range of approaches to sociology and social science. In my blog, I reflect on this diversity and its implications for the future of the discipline.

Over the last few years, I have also become interested in exploring the contours of academic life under neoliberal hegemony. Far-reaching transformations are taking place at universities around the world, in terms of organisational structures, patterns of authority, and forms of intellectual activity. With my posts, I hope to draw attention to some of these transformations.

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mel bartley

It would be nice to see less of these dispairing blogs from PhD candidates in social science. There is a HUGE demand for people with knowlege of social structure plus competence in social statistics. You don’t have to be Einstein, just a sound grasp of how to interrogate a data set. If you are starting from not much of a mathematical background there are huge amounts of help and support available for you.There is a £3000 supplement to the standard ESRC grant for doing advanced quantitative methods. And with the avent of Big Data you are guaranteed a job at… Read more »

Esther Adu-Dwumaa

That’s a scary thought!

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