The Myth of Academic Stardom

Idea go

For brands to work as brands, it must be possible to rank them. Blackberry’s smart phones are out, Samsung’s smart phones are in. Burger King sells bigger burgers than McDonald’s. And so on. For academic disciplines, academic departments, and academics to work as brands, it must likewise be possible to rank them. Disciplines are thus ranked in terms of the measurable benefits, such as salaries, they produce for those who study them. Departments are ranked in terms of the measurable benefits they produce for universities (money from various sources, such as fees and research income) and students (student satisfaction ratios, employment ratios, staff-student ratios, etc.). Academics are ranked in terms of the measurable benefits they produce for academic departments (e.g. income generated through stellar publications in the REF, grants, consultancy, etc.). Such rankings create and sustain competition in a marketplace of ideas, people, and educational products that can be systematically compared and assessed for their excellence.

Competition has been a central feature of academic life for a very long time. Nonetheless, the current system of market-based competition built around brands and imagery is arguably quite new. Scholars like Daniel Boorstin and Jean Baudrillard wrote about social worlds dominated by images quite some time ago, but even they did not foresee what has recently happened to academic life.

Arguably, this new system is a result of sustained political will and effort and has been imposed onto universities from the outside. This point is important because the modus operandi of branded academia is based on an astonishing misunderstanding of scholarship. The recent and on-going reforms of higher education are enforcing an individualisation of academic labour. High-stakes audits such as the REF, for instance, treat scholarship as a matter of quantifiable ‘outputs’ (Do you have the four you need?) that can be neatly attributed to individual scholars and academic departments. From this perspective, the knowledge contained in such ‘outputs’ is a valuable commodity (literally – lots of money at stake in the REF) that is owned by its producer and should be shared only under very specific conditions (e.g. if it’s been published and protected by copyright). Academic labour therefore can be described in terms of the efforts of individuals who are fundamentally in competition with each other.

That academics would gamely play along with such a system is astonishing, as the collective nature of scholarship is nowadays so widely acknowledged in sociological and anthropological studies of processes of academic enquiry. The mad genius who scribbles revolutionary secrets on his office walls in the middle of the night might make for entertaining Hollywood movies, but it’s really very rare to meet such a savant on a real-life campus. (I do think I saw John Nash at the airport once, but I was probably wrong.) Academic labour is a collective process in many senses. For instance, one could think of it in terms of the cumulative development of academic knowledge that is systematically tested and refined. Or one could consider the construction of academic knowledge through historically and geographically research cultures, power structures, and institutional arrangements. And so forth. In one way or another, we all know about the collective nature of academic life, simply by virtue of our day-to-day work experience. That’s, for instance, why we make sure to include a page, or two, or three, of acknowledgements in our books and why failure to do so might be considered bad form indeed.

This new individualism in academic life has serious consequences. Notably, it promotes a winner-takes-all culture that greatly rewards the most highly achieving and leaves little room for the scholarly development of many junior academics. Universities and departments nowadays have internalised that they are brands that continuously need to demonstrate their excellence in teaching and research to get by. Making strong claims to labels such as “world-class”, “internationally leading”, or “internationally excellent” is eminently important in the academic marketplace – so important, indeed, that nothing else will do anymore. This trend has led, for instance, to inflationary entry requirements even for junior academic positions. If you don’t have those world-leading publications straight after your PhD, you might as well kiss that lectureship goodbye! In turn, this increases the advantages enjoyed by those who have been privileged or fortunate enough to receive special mentoring, opportunities, and support during their doctorates and who have studied at the most prestigious universities. Those who might need just a little bit more time to make good on their potential probably won’t get that extra time. Thus, the ‘culture of excellence’ is making an uneven playing field even more uneven. Moreover, it obscures this achievement by treating successful scholarship as the outcome of individual efforts, and not as a result of collective labour processes. Up there, among the stars of academic life, all this probably makes a lot of sense. Down here on the ground, one wonders…


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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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