Friday 7 December 2018

Ten years in the academic bubble: some fieldnotes, and a few confessions

This time ten years ago, I was in the first semester of my master's degree in politics and sociology at the University of Bristol. After that, I spent six years doing various jobs (mostly research admin work) at the same institution. In 2015, I moved to Aberystwyth University to start my PhD.

So, in one way or another, whether at the fringes or somewhere closer to the centre, I've spent the past decade within the (lately much-maligned) academic bubble. Of course, previous to that, I spent three years studying as an undergraduate but I don't think that really counts. It was a completely different experience.

It was during my master's studies that I was first socialised into the academic habitus—the norms, mores, and general engrained common sense of the community. It was at this time that I made friendship and acquaintance with those who were starting their own PhD projects, as well as those already embarked upon their careers. It was also at this time that I first realised that these people were not, on the whole, significantly more intelligent than I was (something I had previously, perhaps semi-consciously, assumed to be the case).

Being the first in my immediate family to go to university, and growing up in a small, rural, provincial town, I had little to no prior exposure to such conditions of middle-class being. However, being white, male, and speaking with a more or less standard southern English accent, I think I was able to 'pass' fairly quickly.

One of the first things that I noticed in this 'habitus' (some time before I learned of the concept) was what I call The Academic Nod. In my experience, it occurs during the course of most half-way intellectual conversations. You may recognise it: In the process of sharing some fact or theory you've read or think is interesting, your conversation partner will nod in a serious, subtly mannered fashion.

The Academic Nod occupies a zone of inscrutability between 'oh, how interesting' and 'yes, I know that.'

I found this quite difficult to navigate for a time, until I'd learned how to do it too. It's confusing because it is an approving gesture and yet it is difficult to tell whether the person is saying 'yes, yes, I've heard this all before' or 'please, do go on.' Indeed, this ambiguity seems to be its purpose.

The Nod would seem to come from competitive knowledgeability. Academics are, of course, supposed to be highly knowledgeable, often on a very wide range of topics. Therefore, their bodily comportment generalises this appearance, and their dialogical habits are gradually adapted to it. This disposition is perhaps found in its purest form in the classroom, where intellectual authority is performed most obviously, but it is evident almost everywhere.

I have since become quite adept at such mannerisms and, thus, am often able to appear significantly more knowledgable than I actually am. Of course, one has to be careful in maintaining this epistemically in-between position. You don't want to fall into the trap of committing to knowing something that you don't, since you could well then be contradicted and hence look foolish. That's where Theory becomes important (being able to formulate convincing and digressive responses on the basis of sometimes minimal information).

This has all been going around in my head, on and off, for a decade. However, what's brought it to my fingertips, now, is the recently heightened obsession, in the press and elsewhere, with 'academic bias.'

For instance, only today, an open letter has been doing the rounds, denouncing the appointment of a Research Fellow at the University of Cambridge who practices an updated version of the kind of race science often thought (naively, of course) to have been left behind in the nineteenth century. This denunciation has been met with the by the now-familiar gnashing of teeth from various apologists, many cloaking themselves behind half-baked notions of rationalism and intellectual freedom.

I don't intend to discuss this particular case here. However, it brings to my mind a number of issues.

There's no doubt that there is a left/liberal leaning to academia (more liberal than left), at least when compared with any other arm of civil society. This is well-documented. However, it is also, in my experience, rather over-estimated.

For starters, this leaning is heavily dependent upon discipline, career path, and funding stream. I write primarily of the social sciences and humanities, since these are the communities that I know. I've learned from those working in, for example, mechanical engineering (never mind business schools, etc.) that quite different political tendencies are evident there, where industry money is so abundant, and rather different psycho-social tendencies are generally rewarded.

It's not especially surprising that a career requiring many years of preparatory education, and that is considerably less well remunerated than occupations of similar social standing (though, of course, it is well-paid in general), tends to attract those for whom money is not necessarily the top priority. Nor is it surprising, then, that such persons tend not to be especially right-wing. However, we should also remember that not all academics teach or research. Indeed, the political dispositions of those who enter vastly better paid positions in bloated university administrations is wont to be quite different.

Moreover, I think it's important not to confuse theoretical and political positions. There are many academics in the social sciences and humanities who identify as, for instance, Marxist but whose concrete political convictions would seem to hew markedly more to the centre-ground (and beyond). Likewise for many other self-identified radical political-theoretical traditions.

Certainly, there are plenty of Marx scholars who wouldn't be caught on a picket line if their lives depended on it. Likewise, those scholars whose work brings them to engage in sustained, long-term community work, wherever that may be, are fairly unlikely to become jet-setting, high status professors. That's not how it works.

Some have argued that academics are, pretty much by definition, bought and paid for by the prevailing world order due to their structural socioeconomic position. I find that a little too all-consumingly deterministic. However, the problem is well-observed.

What is perhaps surprising for me, all things considered, is just how successfully certain leftist enclaves of academia have been able to hold onto whatever minimal hegemony they have, in spite of the onslaught from all sides by a neoliberal and conservative order that is incontestably dominant pretty much everywhere else.

For all the idle-minded commentators who bleat on about viewpoint diversity, where else has any such perspective been able to build any sort of foothold in the institutions of civil society? Certainly not in the oligarch-owned media. Certainly not in the constitutional and legal establishment of late-imperial Euro-American societies.

If certain 'viewpoints' stand out as over-privileged in some localised portions of academia, that perhaps says at least as much about what is taken to be unremarkable and conventional in almost every other position of social judgement.

So, to conclude, what I have really learned over the past ten years is that as naive, conflicted, complacent, suffocatingly bureaucratic, and frequently out of touch academia may be, it remains something worth fighting for. The almost infinite shades of pretence and dissimulated jealousy with which it is guarded only betrays the privileges that remain there, still.