Benign violence and academia

Written by Heather. Posted in News

benign violenceIn Ansgar Allen’s book Benign Violence, he writes ‘for every academic luminary, there are 100 academic men and women who have had their spirits broken by the reductive demands of the academic machinery, which insists that they enhance productivity for its own sake, measured by values which are not their own’. He suggests that professors who want to ‘speak on behalf of that intellectual constituency’ treat their inaugural lectures not as sites of celebration but as sombre occasions ‘devoid of all glamour and charm’. While it’s unlikely any new professor would want to do this, in this post Heather takes Ansgar’s suggestion as a provocation to academics to consider the kind of careers we pursue. In this blog post she offers some thoughts along those lines, explaining why, unless something changes, she no longer want to be a professor.

As well as reading Benign Violence, I have been provoked to consider my career because I’m in the position of having resigned from my current post without having secured another job. I handed in my notice in January but decided to see out the year. This means I’ve had about six months in my job while being structurally and emotionally detached from it through having resigned. Perhaps this has made me more critical of what’s happening around me in academia than I might be otherwise.

There are lots of things I love about being an academic in a university. I particularly value the opportunities to teach courses that I have designed and where I choose the mode of assessment, after years of teaching GCSE and A-level groups, following a prescriptive scheme of work, practising examination-style questions, and trying to second guess the examiners to give my students an edge. I also enjoy doing research – talking to people, observing the world, and trying to make some sense of it all. CelebYouth has been an opportunity to do this and to collaborate with and meet lots of wonderful people.

But increasingly, despite all these things, I wonder whether or not I want to work in universities. And even if I do, I’m pretty sure I no longer want to be a professor. Here’s a couple of reasons why…

Universities are being transformed into businesses who see their bottom line as money and structure themselves accordingly. Staff, particularly, those at Reader and Professor level are under growing pressure to bring in external income with sometimes tragic consequences. Yet with funding cuts, and the incorporation of research funding into so many people’s targets, there are more and more of us chasing less and less money. Logically, we cannot all achieve these targets so why would I put myself in the position where I am set up to fail, have to spend time chasing money I have virtually no chance of getting, and even when I succeed, knowing that I’m only as good as my last grant. Below Reader level, grant submission can be good enough, above that only grant capture at levels above the sector disciplinary average seems to cut it.

Along with the corporatisation of the university has come an intensification of management practices based around audit and performance. These have been widely critiqued. Last week Philip Moriaty blogged advice to university managers to: Trust your staff and Not insult our intelligence. That managers need to be reminded of this is very sad. People at all levels in universities are subjected to the mistrust, the insults to intelligence, the successive restructurings and the obsession with metrics and rankings. Being a professor may even offer you some possibility of escape from this. However, it also means that you are more likely to be in the position of having to inflict this on others. I have seen the horrible impact of this on thoughtful, politically-committed, caring academics who find themselves in management positions.

Right now, even with the inevitable salary cut, a demotion to senior lectureship or research assistant is looking the best option.

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Comments (1)

  • Pat morton


    Always insightful thoughts from Heather. We need more researchers like you. I have decided to retire from academia in September. The direction and ethos is not one in which I can thrive. Will still be an activist if I can though


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