While there are some, perhaps-justified, fears about modern academia effectively losing the insights of the next Newton, it’s worth recalling the circumstances in which many of the well-known figures in the history of science conducted their work. While they may not have been writing grant reports of marking exams, they were likely seeking patronage, carrying on journalistic careers, undertaking the duties of a doctor or a vicar, teaching, family business or otherwise making a – usually non-scientific – living.
Those who really were excluded were not solitary geniuses who could not find sufficient time for thinking, but those who were, as a result of class, geography, race or gender, never likely to have the opportunity to begin an education, let alone contribute to the established scientific societies and journals. And this affected the science that was done: ample research shows how the norms, assumptions and interests of elites have shaped supposedly value-free science.
This quote brings us to the heart of “well-in-the-bad-old-days-things-were-simpler ‘argument’, that has been trotted out since time immemorial. It’s the academic’s equivalent of the Four Yorkshiremen.
Right. I had to get up in the morning at ten o’clock at night, half an hour before I went to bed, eat a lump of cold poison, work twenty-nine hours a day down mill, and pay mill owner for permission to come to work, and when we got home, our Dad would kill us, and dance about on our graves singing “Hallelujah.”
But you try and tell the young people today that…
The demands made on academics are of course onerous, and we can’t deny that. But nor should we let this blind us to the situation faced by others in the wider academic and research world. We cannot let the poor working conditions of those who are employed blind us to the undermining of the work itself. We see this in the nouveau-indentured labour of the graduate students, the adjuncts, the non-tenure track lecturers, and the researchers on short/fixed-term contracts, all with little hope of security. Being aware of this casualization of academic labour, and the erosion of tenure, is imperative.
Getting rid of the academic as the heart of the academy is not a matter of ‘including stakeholders’, or ‘increasing efficiency’, or bringing better organizational models to bear. It is a coup against knowledge, and all the processes required to create it. Lecturers and researchers are at the heart of academia, as they live their lives in it. They cannot do what they do without the university. Administrators could go and administer anything, elsewhere. Students hang around for 3-4 years (any longer, and they cross over the border from student to researcher, on to the academic side of things) and then are gone. Presidents and Rectors always have the option to helm other forms of organization. But when we allow the role of the academic as researcher and teacher to be shunted to one side, we lose something. It is not to suggest that, Smaug atop the horde, the academic is at the pinnacle of a hierarchy, and all others are subordinate to them. Rather it is that the academic has the centrality of the hub, the central node in the vast knowledge-creating network that is the university. Only by recognising, and asserting this can we preserve the workers as well as the work.