The Irrational Pace of Craft-Time

Image: Tristan Colangelo

Wednesday 28th March, 2018

Fabian Cannizzo

The era of mass higher education is riddled with competing motivations, each shaping academic work and planning. For Blackmore and Kandiko, academic life is an intersection of enjoyment, monetary rewards, and ‘prestige economies’. Affect, capital, and status might be seen to draw the attention of intellectual labourers in different directions. Enjoyment may emerge from doing work itself, while remuneration and prestige rewards (such as a corner office) are often described as ‘external rewards’. Not all motivations are attributed equal legitimacy in academic life. While intrinsic rewards, such as enjoyment, are an accepted by-product of academic work, external rewards are distractions. When this occurs, it is because ‘real’ academic work is assumed to be a certain kind of work: craft work.

Craft work grinds against the gears of capital. Both the production of monetary value and status are governed by accelerating rhythms: research writing and grant applications are subject to anticipatory acceleration, as key conduits of status and finance in academia. There is a temporal logic at play here. The most gains in the least time parallels the economic rationality of capitalism more generally, in that competition incentivises doing more with less. The clash between craft and commerce is temporal: craft work is premised on temporal irrationality precisely because it is personal. Academic craft work consumes time without promise of profit. This is the time it takes to read, to think, to experiment, to communicate. In a paper in Time and Society, Nick Osbaldiston, Christian Mauri and I describe how younger, early-career academics see this ‘substantive’ and subjective writing and research time as central to the scholar’s sense of self.

C. Wright Mills describes academic labour as ‘the practice of a craft’ – the work of a social scientist is claimed to be inseparable from their personal lives and intrinsic motivations.

The most admirable thinkers within the scholarly community you have chosen to join do not split their work from their lives. They seem to take both too seriously to allow such dissociation, and they want to use each for the enrichment of the other… Scholarship is a choice of how to live as well as a choice of career; whether he (sic) knows it or not, the intellectual workman forms his own self as he works toward the perfection of his craft; to realise his own potentialities, and any opportunities that come his way, he constructs a character which has as its core the qualities of the good workman. (pp. 195-196)

Edwards claims that the form of labour control most appropriate for craft work is where the skilled craftsperson ‘establishes their own working conditions, protected by the quality of their products, and limited access to their industry’ (in Tancred-Sheriff, p. 380). Mastery of a craft both allows for and requires the development of a ‘personal style’ of working. As Richard Sennett notes in The Craftsman, ‘thinking and feeling are [both] contained within the process of making’ (p. 7). While scientific procedures may be more-or-less reduced to mechanistic routines capable of production-line labour control, the creativity of craft work resists standardisation. Human bodies need to be individually attuned to craft work – to each walk that taxing 10,000 hour road towards mastery.

The privileged place of craft work in academic practice offers a novel lens through which to view the slow movement in academia. The call to slow down the pace of personal and work life, as in the slow culture movement, can be seen as one expression of the desire for craft work. In The Slow Professor, Berg and Seeber claim that increased time pressures in the university are ‘detrimental to intellectual work, interfering with our ability to think critically and creatively’ (p. 17). If this call for slowness is read as a yearning for ‘substantive time’ or craft-time, then understanding time-pressure becomes a parallel task to understanding what kind of labourers academics desire to be. The experience of academic temporalities will be bound up with what they imagine academic work should look and feel like: the telos of their craft.

Fabian Cannizzo is an early-career sociologist at RMIT University, Australia. His latest research explores the socialisation of academics into time management practices and the political economy of higher education. You can find him on Twitter (@fabiancann) and read about his research on The Social Thinker.

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