The Love of Labour in Academia

Image: Cathryn Lavery

Friday 11th August, 2017

Fabian Cannizzo

Both the spirit and structure of higher education across the globe have been restructured over the last four decades. In “‘You’ve Gotta Love What You Do’: Academic Labour in a Culture of Authenticity”, I attempt to describe how this global restructuring has had very personal impacts for academic labourers and their work lives. Before describing its impact on academics’ sense of self, organisational transformation should be given some historical and political context.

Much has been written of the transformation of academia, especially through the global restructuring of knowledge as both commodity and vital resource of our present global political economy. The internationalisation of knowledge economy discourses, bolstered by shifting national governmental paradigms towards economic security have encouraged the strategic support for universities as providers of both innovative technologies and education as an export product. Both the structure and spirit of higher education have become entangled with the materiality of finance and the regulation of benefactors whose interests lay beyond the ideals of science, the arts or a craft skill. Richard Sennett characterises the changing face of organisations well, claiming that the need for flexibility within production processes have resulted in more fickle institutional career narratives.

The political economy of higher education in Australia is now (and to some degree has been) inseparable from the state’s governance of the population and economy. Education is the third largest export economy in Australia (behind iron ores and coal). Reports such as The Higher Education Reform Package are primarily about cost accounting; the employment benefits that apparently accrue to students are cited as a justification for applying a greater burden of cost upon them and the improvement in the efficiency of universities is cited as a reason to “expect some of these efficiencies should be shared with the taxpayer”. While the report frames its analysis in terms of “transparency” and “accountability” to the taxpayer and students, the principle outcomes appear to center around the mobilisation of a work-ready population that is justifiable in budgetary terms. The use of higher education policy as a form of economic and population management extends back to the massification of higher education in Australia during the 1980s.

It is within this context that I began my doctoral research, exploring the career paths and pitfalls in academic life. I was keen to understand how Australian academics imagined a future in academia and their contribution to it, having heard and read so much about the “corporatisation” of power in academia. There seemed to be an inherent conflict between the idea of a self-motivated intellectual entrepreneur and a corporate enterprise with efficiency in mind. I was keen to dispel two over-determinisms: the first, that the careers of academics are determined by capital or material culture, and second, that the trajectory of academic work could be accounted for by some libertarian voluntarism. These two determinisms often emerge in discussion of ‘resistance’ to the macro-level forces perceived to be driving organisational change in academia - notably, economic rational or neoliberal reforms to the state (Parker and Jary 1995). While the voluntarist is more clearly an overdetermination, there is of course some sense of agency worth elaborating. There are no Bartlebys among early-career academics, no room to reply, “I would prefer not to” in a singularly mild, firm voice. Yet, there is certainly some recognition that even junior academics create friction for their “flexgility”- seeking managers, as Mauri suggests.

My response to encountering this apparent contradiction was to transform it into the basis of a four year doctoral dissertation, using interviews with 29 Australian academics, which resulted in the publication of “‘You’ve Gotta Love What You Do’: Academic Labour in a Culture of Authenticity”. That paper outlines a key finding from the study: that an academic’s understanding of their work trajectory is inseparable from their ideas about valuable labour. Locating the career conceptualisations and motivations of academics within this background has been problematic. Academic cultures are permeated by their own mythologies and norms, which ground members in common assumptions and produce a platform for dialogue. The notion that academic labour should be experienced as meaningful, which I explore in the paper, highlights the internalisation of ethical norms. When a labourer claims they are ‘driven’, ‘inspired’ or ‘passionate’ about their work, they are making an ethical claim. Recognising labour as intrinsically motivating (or satisfying) requires the cognitive processing of affective experiences in relation to the labour task, reading these experiences as intimately connected to one’s sense of self. To claim that you are a passionate academic is to claim that the affective experiences associated with scholarly labour emerge from one’s being.

The assumption that academic work should be meaningful bears political consequences for the reproduction of academic labour. Mary Henkel has argued that the growth in complexity of university bureaucracies have required academics to spend more time on ‘developing and complying with procedures and rules… for institutional purposes’. For academic teachers, researchers, and administrators, changing policy environments have brought with them ‘a gradual shifting of the terms of survival’. In a past research project my colleagues and I found that Australian academics often express attachment to idealised aspects of their practice, such as writing, research and discovery. A narrative commonly invoked to explain the personal impact of growing instrumental and bureaucracy-focused activities in academia is the disintegration of a ‘Golden Age’ of scholarship. The sense of loss expressed through this narrative conveys common values within an academic collective. Mourning the loss of a Golden Age becomes political when this form of nostalgia is mobilised to act on the transformation of higher education and academic work practices in the present.

The most notable cohort difference that I observed among the participants in my research were between more senior and more junior academic staff. While nostalgic sentiments were expressed at both ends of the seniority spectrum, the mobilisation of nostalgia in discourse differed. While more senior academics (especially in ongoing employment) spoke about how academics shape careers in response to organisational change, junior (and early-career) academics tended to describe how career trajectories shape academics. Employment security was suggested to be an especially important factor here. While those in more secure forms of employment were more willing to discuss what they could meaningfully do in a changing academic bureaucracy (linking their identities to a nostalgia for a Golden Age), early-career academics were more likely to assume the dominance of economistic and performance-driven demands, as captured by an early-career Lecturer in the social sciences:

This is why I’m a good neoliberal subject: I actually felt that the performance expectations actually helped create some kind of equivalence. And there was obviously older academics who were just fluffing around and early-career academics who were busting their balls, getting [a] PhD, getting published, now trying to get grants and still haven’t got a permanent position.

Experiences of ‘passion’ and discourses of nostalgia are important objects of study for those seeking to understand the motivations of academics because they connect affect to ethics: how we feel is related to how we believe we should act. Phillip Vannini’s American research supports a similar conclusion: while the experience of authenticity is motivating, ‘Inauthenticity seemed to mark the life of professors who become ‘burned out’ with their work’ (p. 188). Inauthenticity here was expressed by participants in feeling a sense of ‘unfamiliarity with oneself’ (p. 186), linking self-authenticity with the discovery of self-knowledge. In a sector that is driven by organisational and governmental performance indicators and an economics of scale, the encouragement of staff to invest a personal sense of self into their workplace activities should be treated cautiously. When combined with the ongoing performance-oriented motivators in contemporary academic bureaucracies, discourses of authenticity and nostalgia could operate to pacify resistance to organisational transformations in spite of moral objections to the trajectory of organisational change. Further research on how forms of resistance have developed in proximity to discourses of authenticity, especially among early-career academics, may offer some hope for higher education in advanced capitalist economies.

Fabian Cannizzo is a sociologist who studies the careers of intellectual and creative workers. His doctoral thesis, Governing Australian Academics, explores the ethical cultures that shape the ideals and motivations of academic workers in higher education. He teaches at Monash University, Australia.

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