Falling in Love in Academia: A Response to Mona Mannevuo and Oili-Helena Ylijoki

By Fabian Cannizzo

I’d like to thank Mona Mannevuo and Oili-Helena Ylijoki for taking time to read and respond to my study of the nostalgic language that characterises accounts of academia, ‘“You’ve got to love what you do”: Academic labour in a culture of authenticity”, in this previous post. I would especially like to thank them both for drawing my attention to the work of Lauren Berlant and her commentary on the changing affective structures of our present, which she characterises as ‘cruel optimism’. I offer here some reflections on the comments and questions posed by Mannevuo and Ylijoki, respectively.

Mannevuo makes an excellent point when she claims that ‘Love is not the victim of vicious neoliberal governance but its partner in crime’. While many of my participants described feeling passionate about their work and characterised this as a desirable experience, the claim that one is passionate was also a justification for enduring less desirable aspects of the work role. In my broader doctoral research thesis (with the same participants as the paper), I hypothesised that the global restructuring of higher education towards managerial models of governance was fuelling a crisis in how academics identify with their profession. Most academics in my study openly spoke about the ambivalence and tensions between their desire for meaningful work and the expectation that they would serve the university’s corporate objectives. Enduring stress to engage in meaningful work is a demonstration one’s passion. As Mannevuo suggests also, love for academic work is demonstrated through the trials that one overcomes in its name. Committing oneself to undesirable duties and overworking are a marker of group belonging and the foundation of a common experience. Certainly, ‘bad’ feelings (such as experiences of dissatisfaction) have their place in academic social structures, just as ‘good’ feelings (such as passion) can support a university’s corporate objectives.

In my paper, I outline how techniques of self-inspection have taken a special place in the heart of university bureaucracies – as frameworks for understanding and training academic workers in an entrepreneurial spirit. Furthermore, many academics have themselves internalised the distinction that these techniques for self-management employ: between ‘intrinsically’ desired activities and those that are pursued for ‘external’ rewards. As Mannevuo has pointed out, this ‘oft-repeated separation’ obfuscates capitalism’s own use and reliance on the intrinsic motivations of individuals – whether a love of work, of goods/services, of ‘lifestyle’, or an ideal self. As noted above, the love of academic work is no exception. ‘You’ve got to love what you do’ can be read as a word of caution as much as a statement of desire; discourses of intimacy (i.e. passion) are also gatekeeping practices, both political and economic in effects. My point is not that we should continue to practice this discourse of ‘love’ for our work unreflexively (thereby maintaining the dichotomy of intimacy and economy), but rather acknowledge the political mobilisation of our feelings through discourse.

My paper in The Sociological Review is selectively focused on conversations where the discourse of passion and ideal of authenticity were apparent. Ylijoki poses a fair question: Were there any who ‘rejected this ideal [of authenticity]?’ In short, yes. But the story becomes complicated by association of an authentic academic self with living a good scholarly life. When a personal ideal becomes intertwined with the norms of a community, as authenticity has become in academia, to reject an ideal is to place oneself under suspicion. This sentiment is as old as the scientific institution and the male privilege implied in Max Weber’s ‘Science as a Vocation’ lecture (1912):

[W]hoever lacks the capacity to put on blinders, so to speak, and to come up to the idea that the fate of his soul depends upon whether or not he makes the correct conjecture at this passage of this manuscript may as well stay away from science. He will never have what one may call the ‘personal experience’ of science. Without this strange intoxication, ridiculed by every outsider; without this passion, this ‘thousands of years must pass before you enter into life and thousands more wait in silence’– according to whether or not you succeed in making this conjecture; without this, you have no calling for science and you should do something else. For nothing is worthy of man as man unless he can pursue it with passionate devotion.

The discourse of nostalgia for a Golden Age of scholarship is not just an expression of personal values, but a public act of aligning oneself with the spirit of scholarship (or ‘personal experience’, as Weber terms it). To be anything less is to admit that one is a technician among scholars, whose heart lies elsewhere. To reject the ideal of authenticity in academia is a loss of status and mystique. (And that’s not altogether a negative outcome.).

Both Mannevuo and Ylijoki have questioned where we might start searching for ‘cases where academics have found collective, non-managerial practices and techniques to orient their self-conceptions’. I offer two possible avenues. The first is in what we might call the mid-career transition. As Coate, Kandiko Howson and de St Croix note, the reward structures in British institutions is ‘highly individualistic and competitive’, suppressing recognition of ‘the collective efforts of all types of teams that help higher education institutions achieve success’. The perception of ‘promotion-readiness’ among those in the mid-career phase is an affective experience that warrants further investigation, especially in its place in focusing the attention of academics on individual or group-based coping strategies.

The second avenue is in the broader transformation of academic labour relations, as highlighted in Australia by Fair Work Commission’s recent decision to terminate Murdoch University’s Enterprise Bargaining Agreement. Aside from placing union representatives on the back foot in the current round of Enterprise Bargaining negotiations at Murdoch and removing provisions for current Murdoch Uni staff, such as paid maternity leave, the decision is surrounded by a strong public discourse about the imagination of academic staff. In response to the event, Vice-Chancellor of University of Queensland, Professor Peter Hoj claimed that ‘people realise an agile university sector is a stronger university sector’. In an ‘agile’ sector, it will be pertinent to trace how differential work roles and the associated insecurity of ‘flexible’ work arrangements might manifest in collective political action. Though it seems unlikely that a longing for an age of stable bureaucracies could support an ideal of freedom, nostalgia has a strange way of playing-up the past.

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.

Originally posted 20th September 2017.

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