Life in the accelerated academy

Mark Carrigan

When questioned by a friend in 1980 as to whether he was happy at Princeton, the philosopher Richard Rorty replied that he was “delighted that I lucked into a university which pays me to make up stories and tell them”. He went on to suggest that “Universities permit one to read books and report what one thinks about them, and get paid for it” and that this is why he saw himself first and foremost as a writer, in spite of his already entrenched antipathy towards the philosophical profession which would grow with time. It’s a lovely idea, isn’t it?

The problem is that employment in a university no longer requires that one simply reads books and reports what one thinks about them. Was this ever really the case? Either way, it’s a seductive vision. Unfortunately, it is belied by the over one hundred metrics to which each academic working within UK higher education is potentially subject. Contrary to Rorty’s ideal of scholars reading books, writing about them and occasionally deigning to share their reflections with students, we’re instead measured constantly in matters such as workload, teaching and research within institutions that are themselves ranked in a way constituted through the measurement of the individuals within them.

Professional lives are judged according to opaque criteria, ratcheted up between assessment exercises such that anything less than ‘international excellence’ is coming to be seen as worthless. At some institutions, including my own, we see the introduction of the demand that staff meet a certain baseline of ‘income generation’ in order to keep their jobs: despite the fact that the money apportioned by way of research assessment exercises is intended to fund research. For instance a Bristol University lecturer was sacked, allegedly for not securing enough grant income. The phrase ‘publish or perish’ acquired new resonance when Stefan Grimm, a respected figure in Toxicology, committed suicide after being threatened with redundancy for failing to win enough research funding.

The culture this breeds is corrosive and unhappy. All the descriptions pertaining to artists in this e-flux article apply with unnerving accuracy to academics: “barely capable of distinguishing themselves from the consuming desire to work at all times”, “neurotic people who deploy a series of practices that coincide quite neatly with the requirements of the neoliberal, predatory, continually mutating capitalism of the every moment”, “people who behave, communicate, and innovate in the same manner as those who spend their days trying to capitalize every moment and exchange of daily life”. In a much circulated paper, the feminist scholar Ros Gill suggests that a ‘sacrificial ethos’ silences stories of stress and insecurity. At all career stages, though perhaps most harmfully amongst PhD students and early career researchers, a sense of commitment to a calling helps license acquiescence to precarious and exploitative labour relations which make a lie of the ideal of collegiality still alluded to within the academy.

In an important way, what’s changed can be characterised in terms of speed… the imagined slowness of Rorty’s Princeton life has given way to a frenetic pace, defined by a perpetual ratcheting up of demands and an entrepreneurial ethos seeking new and quantifiable opportunities. As the ‘self-employed mindset’ begins to take hold, it’s difficult to know how much to give: am I doing enough? The demand for ‘excellence’ is open-ended because it’s never clear what this will constitute in the future. Nonetheless, it’s the only thing that will be accepted. As David Cameron once put it, “if you’re not good or outstanding, you have to change … if you can’t do it yourself, you have to let experts come in and help you”. He was talking about secondary education rather than higher education but I’ve yet to encounter a more succinct statement of what the political theorist Will Davies memorably describes as heating up the floor to see who can keep hopping the longest. Anxiety thrives, demands intensify and metrics are the informational thread which holds this tangled web together. These numbers can be transparent and they can also be opaque. They can be sources of pleasure and sites of anxiety. When everything moves so fast, we rely on these metrics as cyphers for quality: ways of assessing in lieu of evaluation, assessing others and assessing ourselves.

In my work I use the notion of ‘cognitive triage’ to make sense of how agents come to operate in such an environment. It was initially offered by the journalist Kevin Roose to describe the frantic state of day-to-day survival into which trainee financiers fall in order to survive their deliberately brutal socialisation period. When we’re triaging, we attend to the most immediate requirements and our temporal horizons begin to shrink. Under these conditions,imagination becomes more difficult and so too does extended deliberation about our circumstances and what matters to us. This isn’t inexorable and I think we can see many contemporary trends as attempts to escape triaging and to get beyond ‘the day-to-day’ e.g. digital detoxes, information diets, life hacking, productivity culture, mindfulness. With the exception of the latter however, I’m sceptical that these help because they tend to intensify our focus on our immediate behaviour: even if they help us cope with the pernicious effects of cognitive triage, they further narrow our horizons rather than broadening them.

Cognitive triage breeds a mentality within which tasks become obstacles to negotiate rather than activities through which we can become who we are. Consider the to-do list: each item is given a equal weight, regardless of the meaning it holds for us. When we’re triaging, we rush. We don’t attend to the task at hand, following its internal logic as we lead our way through it. Much of my motivation for the Accelerated Academy project comes from a desire to understand this aspect of my daily experience in a sociological way. It’s not quite linking ‘personal troubles’ to ‘public issues’ however because I’m aware that I like speed. Much like the experience of rushing reflects something more than my own psychology, so too do the pleasures which can be taken in acceleration. Here are some suggestions about what they are:

  1. Time-pressure can be a symbol of status and flaunting it can represent one of the few socially acceptable forms of conspicuous self-aggrandisement available.
  2. Time-pressure can reduce the time available for reflexivity, ‘blotting out’ difficult questions in a way analogous to drink and drugs.
  3. Time-pressure can facilitate a unique kind of focus in the face of a multiplicity of distractions. If we accept that priorities are invested with normative significance (i.e. they matter to us in direct and indirect ways) then prioritisation can be pleasurable. This can take the form of people who rely on deadlines to ensure things get done. More prosaically, it can undercut procrastination by leaving one with finite temporal resources to utilise for non-negotiable obligations.
  4. Time-pressure can leave us feeling that we are living life most fully. If the good life is now seen as the full life then living fast feels like living fully.

It’s a feeling that provokes ambivalence but does so in a way that can be thrilling. The further problem is that, as Ana Canhoto pointed out in a comment, Rorty’s image of slow academia is still the one held by many non-academics. Friends, family, partners fail to understand the relentless pressure to do more, ascribing situational demands to individual pathology (and perhaps this leads to a tendency for all three groups to be composed heavily of other academics). The three most desirable jobs in Britain are author, librarian and academic. It would be interesting to know how much respondents to this Yougov survey know about the conditions of working life faced by authors, librarians and academics. Perhaps authors are free – if social media is my most practical escape hatch then being a writer is my most desirable one – in the way that only the truly precarious can be, with it becoming effectively infeasible to live full time as a (non-superstar) author, all the more so if one has dependants. Is it a desirable freedom?

I’ve painted a rather bleak picture of the accelerated academy as a toxic environment. As things get faster, the possibility for withdrawal decreases: there’s always something else to do, providing a perpetual justification for deferring disconnection. My suggestion is that ‘cognitive triage’ involves what Jonathan Crary describes as “the incapacitation of daydream or of any mode of absent-minded introspection that would otherwise occur in intervals of slow or vacant time”. The greater the tracts of our lived life in which we are triaging, the less capacity we have for imagination and deliberation: we’re more prone to react to urgent situational demands rather than reflect on trans-situational concerns. We tend to accept things as they are rather than imagining  how they might be.

I’ve often hoped that social media can help solve these problem. This seems counter-intuitive to some because of the speed at which it operates. But it is this very speed which short-circuits cognitive triage. The limited investment necessary in exploring a single idea via one blog post helps liberate the author from the need for temporal accounting. In doing so, it opens up the imagination. The limited investment necessary in a 140 character tweet does the same, encouraging conversations across disciplinary and institutional boundaries which might otherwise be deferred by parties to them, not because they lack interest but due to an inability to prioritise an extended conversation when there are so many other things to get done. My experience of blogging has been that the occasion for writing feels different for these reasons. There’s always a reason to write, as a communicative act rather than as something for oneself. It’s much easier to seize on an idea and, through doing so, enjoy experiences of writing like this:

The notion of revelation – in the sense that suddenly, with ineffable assuredness and subtlety, something becomes visible, audible, something that shakes you to the core and bowls you over – provides a simple description of the facts of the matter. You hear, you don’t search; you take, you don’t ask who is giving; like a flash of lightening a thought flares up, with necessity, with no hesitation as to its form – I never had any choice.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, Pg 68 (Duncan Large translation)

For this reason I think social media can allow the imagination to thrive. Furthermore, at present it exists outside of prevailing systems of audit. This is not to say it does not come with rewards – I’ve stumbled into a whole parallel career due to engaging with social media. But these rewards are not usually those upon which progression in the accelerated academy depends. On the other hand, there are many risks, unequally distributed amongst those engaging online. The normalisation of the activity might also simply add to the ratcheting up of situational demands. If one feels obliged to blog then this adds another, potentially endless, responsibility to existing writing commitments.

Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash

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