Monday, May 27, 2013

Science as Hustle and Bustle (1)

I'm changing the routine a bit here at RSL. The next few weeks I'll posting five days a week at around 9:00AM. I'm trying to get my thoughts organized for the first part of the book that I really must start taking more seriously. I thought about this again when reflecting on one of Jonathan's posts about how we conceive of "academic labor" these days. I agree with him that many of the stories we hear about the pressures people are under suggest that scholars are not being treated like professionals. Somewhat more controversially, I think they have stopped seeing themselves as professionals, and have come to understand what they do as no different from any other job.

But there's a small hitch here, which I think it is worth remarking on. Non-academics, including those who enter the so-called "professions", make a clear cut transition from the end of their schooling to the start of their careers. Scholars, however, never really leave school as they start their careers. So by the time they think they have to "grow up" and think of their work as "just like any other job", their image of such a job is based mainly on their experience with part-time temporary jobs and what they've heard from others. That is, they are operating with a caricature of what a "real job" is, and they too easily reduce their academic labor to that image.

[Update: read the Cold Hearted Scientist's related post about here. This one is worth reading too.]

This problem is exacerbated by the increasing tendency of non-academics to think they can tell academics how to do their jobs, even what the purpose of those jobs are. It can't be emphasized enough how foolish it is to demand that people who have been brought up in a tradition that emphasizes autonomous thought should suddenly begin to see their main responsibility as informing corporate decision making ("contributing to knowledge-based policy making," if you prefer) and and preparing students for the job market. Perhaps we do need an institution that prepares people for the realities of work in a modern society; but it is not at all obvious that the universities are the institution that should do it. Nor that their history should be interpreted as a failure to do so—a failure that has been allowed to go on for too long.

It was not their original mission.

The university is an institution in crisis because its organizations have been suddenly uprooted from the soil of their traditional purpose and transplanted into the artificial nutrients of a corporate economy. (I'll have to work on that metaphor a bit, I think.) Its members are not surprisingly feeling a bit disoriented.

I never tire of citing Heidegger on the "modern" transformation of science into research, which

forms men of a different stamp. The scholar disappears. He is succeeded by the research man who is engaged in research projects. These, rather than the cultivating of erudition, lend to his work its atmosphere of incisiveness. The research man no longer needs a library at home. Moreover, he is constantly on the move. He negotiates at meetings and collects information at congresses. He contracts for commissions with publishers. The latter now determine with him which books must be written. ("The Age of the World Picture", TQCTaoE, p. 125)

Maybe it's alarmist to point out that he wrote this four years after stepping down as Rektor of the University of Freiburg, having, I suspect, failed to "assert" the autonomy of the university in the face of the "total mobilization" required by National Socialism.

We live in a corporate state and corporatism is always in danger of turning fascist. One of the signs, in my opinion, is what Heidegger called "an atmosphere of incisiveness", i.e., the idea that we've got to "get out there" and "get our teeth into it" and "get the thing done". Something important is lost when this mood prevails in a university. And it is lost as people of a particular stamp, i.e., "scholars", are marginalized, and people of a different stamp, i.e., "researchers", take their place.


fmark said...

This is great, thank you. My only comment would be that you shouldn't forget to "follow the money" in this account. In Australia, at least, the wintry economic climate has meant an increasing emphasis on so-called "industry funding."

This is worse than book publishers determining the next book, IMO.

Thomas said...

Yes, definitely. If Heidegger was writing today he'd include the "external funding" issue as part of the hustling a researcher has to get into. Thanks for pointing it out, I'll take it up later this week.