As higher education is being commercialised, academic disciplines and academics become brands, and competition-driven exchanges through professional networks shape scholarly activity. This increasingly seems to be accepted as a matter of course. For example, in a recent advertisement of its annual conference, the British Sociological Association described sociology in passing as a brand, and the higher education section of the Guardian is full of advice on how to use your networks for professional gain. On March 25, you received Matthew Goodwin’s suggestions on how to make the most of your engagement with policy-makers, and on March 27, a piece on edutech entrepreneurship emphasised the need to make the most of your networks in finding good investors. Sound advice most certainly. As I implied in previous posts, the early failure of many promising academic careers might to a large extent be due to a lack of awareness of these new rules of academic success and the lack of opportunities that results from young scholars being insufficiently networked. What you can do as a scholar certainly matters, but whom you know and how you are known may be crucial. Thus, Matthew Goodwin explains in The Guardian:
“If you are able to become a ‘trusted voice’ – someone who is objective, reliable and not pushing a political agenda – then you own a major asset. Achieving this status requires careful navigation, and it can be easily lost. One example is an academic who was invited to a seminar but turned up unprepared, talked for 30 minutes about a different issue and appeared dogmatic and aggressive when asked about his research. This was enough to raise questions about whether they would be invited back.”
This kind of arguments illustrates the understanding that academics’ value is determined by their brand – the image they build for themselves as, for instance, objective and reliable or dogmatic and aggressive – and the quality of the assets that result from membership in networks built on this brand.
One problem with this approach to academic life is that it creates so much noise. Building your brand, growing your networks, selling your ideas and achieving impact simply takes a lot of time and effort. A friend recently told me that his constant presence at conferences and the need to hobnob with just the right people to get into the next big project certainly had helped his career, but that he hardly had time left to read and engage in truly original scholarship anymore. In popular culture, there is a common stereotype about academics being out of touch with the ‘real world’. This stereotype is odious for its philistinism and the way in which it devalues academic labour in favour of instrumentally useful economic activity. It’s nowadays also patently wrong, as the ivory tower has been toppled and academia demonstrably has an impact in the ‘real world’. The problem is that such change may have come at the expense of truly innovative and critical scholarship. For their success, individual academics and universities as a whole increasingly depend, apart from an elite minority, on consultancy, knowledge exchange, the funds and prestige generated from large research grants, and so forth. These are activities that take up a lot of time and that, by themselves, may not do much to truly advance one’s discipline. Matthew Goodwin writes that, when talking to policy makers, it’s important to “drop the jargon” and speak in short and simple ways. Sound advice again, but there also must be spaces in which one can express ideas in the long and complex ways that are often the hallmark of true innovation. These spaces seem to be shrinking considerably.
My intention is not to advocate for a return to the ivory tower. This is neither possible nor necessarily desirable. Such an argument would also be misleading. While academia is changing, academics have not lost their interest in the scholarship and intellectual innovation. Moreover, many of the changes that are currently underway have obviously positive implications. Exchanges with policy makers may be genuinely productive, and impact may often be more than just another management fad. The point to be made is rather that, as academic labour is changing and serious additional demands are being placed on our time, it is essential to cut through the noise and return to the basics. While it may be really important to get your views out there on Twitter, thinking, reading and writing are still unavoidably the central pillars of worthwhile academic labour. So how can we make time to think, read and write?
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