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.

The age of metrics

I heard Anand Giridharadas talking about the age of metrics, in which our increasing use of computers is gradually digitising our minds. He makes the very good point that in this age, where anything can be proved with metrics, everything must be justified metrically, so things that have not traditionally been quantifiable, such as the arts and humanities, have now to come up with numbers to justify continued support. In his own research field of politics, the influence of metrics brings greater rigour but at the price of having less to say about the world's big questions. The biggest losers in this intellectual economy are the most intuitive or unquantifiable disciplines, into which category literature neatly falls. 

This misplaced emphasis on numbers has been evident in English departments for some time, especially in the ludicrous exercise of measuring viability by numbers of publications, which every teacher and scholar of literature knows is bunk but none is in a position to defy. What I find most interesting is that not only the mode but the message of much literature is opposed to quantification. The whole idea of recording human experience in words rather than in numbers has bypassed the funders, managers and assessors of research excellence, who have no clue and no interest in the content of the research they fund, manage and assess. (Incidentally, in the 1980s with the early ascendency of computers, a trend emerged in which literature was analysed numerically, using new technology to measure the use of images and rhymes and so establish meaning. It wasn't long before everybody realised how silly this was, and went back to the more intuitive and intellectually supple methods of analysis, what Monica Fludernik has called “the creative endowment of significance.”)

An article in this weekend's Canberra Times made the same point in discussing Gordon Brown's proposal to slash hundreds of millions from universities in the UK. I find this decision, undoubtedly based on metrics, short-sighted in the extreme.  Apart from beggaring belief, it raises the basic question, do we want to have a civilisation or don't we? In a civilisation, like the one we're in the process of digitising, the most civilised and civilising things are often the least measurable.