Friday 8 March 2013

'Para-academics' or 'para-intellectuals'? A reflection on intellectual discourse and the academy

Terence on his Agent Swarm blog:
I do not like the term “para-academics” as it suggests a mere neighbouring but parallel position in relation to academia, as if the ghetto were isomorphic with the official hierarchy and seeking merger.
'Para-academic,' to me, implies 'wannabe-academic'.  There's a hint of condescension to it.  It implies that we're outside the main building where the real stuff is happening, cold noses pressed against the window panes, breathily gawping at what's going on inside.  More prosaically: in the phrase 'para-academic' the in-group ('academic') defines the out-group ('para-academic') but not vice versa -- and this denotes a hierarchy (since the 'academics' require no distinguishing prefix; they simply are what they are).

There are personal reasons why this is wrong but there could also be social and political ones.

On the personal side, I've been debating for the last few years whether to go back into education and pursue the PhD.  I currently work in a university on the research side of things but the study I work on has little to do with my academic interests (save for the fact that it's scientific and I'm interested in science studies).  Dropping this more-or-less stable employment and going down the academic route often seems like a great idea -- but just as often it seems like a terrible one.  Getting funding is incredibly difficult in the first place, the 3 or 4 years of PhD study (in the UK) are extremely stressful for most people and, at the end of it, academic jobs are scarcer than hens' teeth.

Of course there are many reasons for doing a PhD and diving into academia other than professional or financial advancement (which is just as well).  But does a PhD really give you so much more than a title and a certificate?  I'd say 'yes it probably does'; but, then, just how much?

I have quite a few friends who are completing or have recently completed their theses and their experience, so it seems, has been one of daily disillusionment.  Not that they had any illusions that it was going to be easy or that there'd be plenty of jobs waiting for them when they graduated.  The dire state of that side of things is a given.  What they're disillusioned about is the support they've received (or rather not received) from their supervisors, the alternately disinterested or malignant way they've been treated by university administrators and the general sense of living and working in a glorified sausage-factory -- less the "dynamic intellectual environment" promised by the prospectus, more REF-friendly unit shifting, churning out drab, cookie-cutter publications by the dozen.

In other words, far from 'intellectual' and 'academic' being synonymous it seems that, more and more, they're being pulled apart.  This is what is putting me off, far more than the hopeless job prospects, etc.

Of course, grad students and academics are wont to complain and I enjoyed my time studying in that school in the past.  I enjoy going to conferences, seminars and reading groups; I love thinking and writing.  The thought of teaching fills me with dread but I suspect that, over time, I'd come to love that too.  So, I'm also rather skeptical of those who make it seem as though academics and grad students are the most put-upon, oppressed workers in all of capitalism.  Plainly nothing could be further from the truth -- academia is, compared to most of the alternatives, a great place to work.

However, given all these problems, given that the intellectual and the academic are increasingly antonymous, is it such a bad time to be a 'para-academic'?  If, on the contrary, it's actually a very good time to be thinking and writing outside the academy then the dismissive connotations of that phrase are surely misplaced.

And, in actual fact, my soul destroying, low responsibility, relatively low paying 9-to-5 job gives me considerable free time to pursue my own interests -- much more than my Teaching Assistant, PhD-chasing friends seem to have.  People talk about academic publishing being archaic, a remnant of the days before information technology (never mind the Internet) -- and they're right -- but couldn't something similar be said of academia as the hallowed seat of the intellectual?

It's an open question but I'd argue that if academia does still dominate intellectual discourse then it needn't do so.  Self-consciously philosophical, political, critical, theoretical kinds of work can just as easily carry on elsewhere -- maybe they could even flourish outside the strictures of academic bureaucracy.

I was reading the other day about the composers Steve Reich and Philip Glass who, when they weren't able to make a living from their music back in the '70s, started a furniture removals company together to pay the bills.  Both had offers from academic institutions to teach and research but they chose manual labour and working on their music in their spare time.  Can you imagine many would-be philosophical radicals doing something similar?  And yet isn't this precisely the kind of conclusion that their ideas should reach?

For the better part of two thousand years, in the Western tradition, intellectual debate was dominated by aristocrats and clerics.  For the past century or so it's been dominated by university employees.  This model continues to be relevant, but is it always and everywhere appropriate?  Given near universal literacy, hyper-abundant texts and almost zero participation costs isn't the sociology of intellectual discourse bound to evolve sooner or later?  And wouldn't this be a good thing?  Wouldn't the rather stifling ecosystem of the academy be much more productive if it opened out, seamlessly, onto a civil society that was fully capable of carrying on similar debates under its own steam?

Maybe if academics were made to observe themselves not as card carrying intellectuals -- granted such status by dint of their profession -- but rather as 'para-intellectuals' -- actually hamstrung by the contradictions of their professional status -- then the whole discourse would come to have less to do with the bitter, jealous feuding of professional fiefdoms and and more to do with having some new bloody ideas for once.

Ah, one can dream.