Dusk in Academia

“Most people I know in academia want to get out." So says Terry Eagleton (in this interview), confirming something I've suspected since my own exit nearly five years ago. Eagleton was one of the first big academic figures I encountered at university: it was his Literary Theory I had to plow through in first year. It was often his name at the end of introductions to Penguin classics. By the time I began to specialise in early modern writing, he was no longer so prominent in my reading, since his own work lay in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. By the time I wound up my brief teaching career (by the age of 29 I was a former academic), I was both disheartened by my failure to land anything like tenure, and glad to be leaving a field where the prospects were so bleak, in which so many were so beleaguered, depressed, and embittered. That’s what Eagleton’s comments point to, and I find it reassuring that one of the superstars of the profession is happy to spill the beans on the “hideous neomanagerialism” that has exerted its clammy grip on universities, effectively scuttling their historic role as centres of critique. I knew many academics who said they were spending up to eighty per cent of their time on administration. They were constantly called on to justify their existence, and to demonstrate their productivity by the volume of work they managed to publish in journals rated highly not by their peers but by the federal Government. Their most important skill was not in research or teaching but in writing successful grant applications, mostly in order to buy themselves out of teaching so they could get on with the research they needed to buy themselves out of oblivion. Teaching was valued only by the students and the teachers: not by the people who actually made decisions about how teaching should be valued and what students should be taught. Reductionism, economic rationalism, managerialism were rampant, and they were killing the humanities (to say nothing of the sciences and other purities), which are intrinsically expansive, liberal, and enlivening. In my post-academic career I have encountered the same three forces at work, but in the corporate world, public and private, where so much matters so little, these are merely a plaque, not, as in academia, a cancer.