‘You’ve Got to Love What You Do’; ‘Otherwise You’d Be Totally Mad’

By Oili-Helena Ylijoki

Passion, love and dedication belong to the core vocabulary of academic culture. In a similar manner as Australian academics in the study of Fabian Cannizzo, the Finnish academics I have interviewed tend to describe their work as a way of life and an inherent part of their personality: “It’s nice to get paid for being myself”, as one academic remarked.

These remarks are embedded in the traditional image of a true academic who follows one’s calling and devotes the whole life to intellectual struggles, aiming at leaving a mark in one’s scientific field, and thereby attaining recognition within the disciplinary community. This ideal sets a high standard, requiring total commitment and sacrifices from one’s private life, but at the same time it allures by promising a sublime life with space and time for creativity, authenticity and self-realization.

In the current neoliberal university context, the ideal of a true academic gets intermingled with the managerial ideals of excellence, productivity and efficiency. This combination creates an exceptionally powerful social construction in which academic and managerial values reinforce each other. Publishing an article in a top journal is not only a response to the demands of the audit culture but also a valuable scientific contribution. Winning a large research grant is not only a sign of adaptation to the pressures of academic capitalism to attract funding for the institution, but also testifies of scientific ability and high competence of the applicant. Long working hours do not only tell about an excessive workload demanded by the greedy university, but also about academics’ own commitment and enthusiasm. From this angle, resisting managerial demands is a risky endeavor, allowing doubts to emerge about whether one is a true academic suited for the academic profession or rather only incompetent, unqualified and lazy.

Cannizzo’s study highlights that academic staff experience managerial pressures in different ways, manifesting the polarization within the profession. No doubt, science has always been hierarchically structured as already the Mathew Effect proposed by Robert Merton underlines: those who have will get more, and those who do not have will get even less. Yet, the increasing competition of external funding, university positions, and rankings strengthens the division between winners and losers and intensifies stratification between countries, universities, disciplines, departments, research groups and individuals.

In Cannizzo’s study, the borderline lies between those with a permanent employment and those with temporary contracts. The former enjoy career security, offering them a luxury to cherish nostalgia. Nostalgic yearning constructs an idealized past which makes visible what is felt to be wrong with the present, thereby sustaining and cherishing the traditional core values of the academic culture. For the short-term academics, nostalgia is not an option. In order to survive, they need to adapt to the managerial demands and become “good neoliberal subjects”. Under this fraught condition, the ideal of an authentic self offers cultural resources to find a personally meaningful way to make sense of one’s work. One Finnish junior academic in my study expressed the same point by saying that “nobody would do this work if it was just a job, otherwise you’d be totally mad”. This resonates with the notion of cruel optimism by Lauren Berlant. Passion and love for work are motivating impetus, which ultimately act against the well-being and flourishing of vulnerable early career academics.

Cannizzo’s findings present a coherent picture of the power of the ideal of authenticity. This raises a question whether there were any interviewees who rejected this ideal? In my interviews with the Finnish academics, the answer would be yes. There are early career academics who follow a career story of academic proletariat, which demystifies academic work from all special glory: it is normal paid work, and passion needs to be found elsewhere. There are also academic freelancers who hold on to passion but abandon commitment: they have a passionate relationship with several targets and academia is just one platform for their realization.

Cannizzo concludes by recommending that “future studies could consider cases where academics have found collective, non-managerial practices and techniques to orient their self-conceptions”. I wonder where one should start to look for them.

Oili-Helena Ylijoki is Senior Researcher at the Research Centre for Knowledge, Science, Technology and Innovation Studies (TaSTI), University of Tampere.

Originally posted 30th August 2017.

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