Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Busting apart the silos of knowledge production

The southern European sunshine bounces off the Atlantic Ocean and into my eyes, making it difficult for me to read my laptop screen as I work at the dining table in my Lisbon apartment. Closing the curtains, I return to concentrating on my work. A few emails, some editorial work, and polishing off a journal article are my tasks for the morning. Later, I'll go for a stroll along the beach to stretch my body and my mind.

Today's nothing special: this has been my everyday life since I began my research fellowship eighteen months ago. Funded by the Portuguese government and based at the University of Lisbon, I have no classes to teach and not a shred of administrative responsibility. I'm expected to publish, of course, but like many of my colleagues, I work at home most days, and turn in a yearly report detailing my achievements. The pay isn't great, and the job is temporary, but the freedom is insurmountable. Freedom to think, freedom to create, and most importantly, freedom to fail. The perfect conditions for the production of knowledge.

I wasn't always in this position. I enjoyed my three years as a full-time lecturer at The University of Sydney in Australia and was well-supported by my department. However, having started teaching before I even finished my Ph.D., I felt intellectually under-developed and was desperate to carve out time and space to expand my thoughts and interests. I had also come to realise that the longer I stayed in teaching, the more impossible this expansion would become. So I abandoned the quest for a purportedly “secure” academic job to explore my interests – and my options.

One of my major objections to academic careers is that they seem to work in reverse. We ostensibly take up graduate studies because we love to research. If we're good at it, we might be lucky enough to land a teaching position, which places major limitations on the amount of research we're able to do. Then, if we can prove that we can publish while juggling heavy teaching loads, we may eventually be promoted into administrative positions. The harder we work, the further away we get from the values and motivations that drove us into academia in the first place.

This in itself is not the fault of the university system. With an ever-increasing number of people holding a Ph.D., there is no way that all of us can expect to be granted research positions. And as Keith Hart pointed out in a recent debate in the Open Anthropology Cooperative [1], we academics largely have ourselves to blame for ceding ground to metrics and outcomes-geared research at the expense of the exploratory approach that is required for us to make truly new discoveries. Even if we take the stance that the 'Leviathan' of neoliberalism [2] has created the problems we see in the academy today, it is still our responsibility to find ways to institute adequate conditions for knowledge production. Why? Because we're the ones who want to do it, and because nobody else will do it for us.

How, then, do we create this freedom? I suspect that much can be done within the ivory tower – but only if we are at all times prepared to jump ship. We reduce the value of our labour by refusing to consider other options and bowing to the demands of the system. There are numerous things we can do, including physically moving to where the market is better, collectively organising to improve conditions, seeking out (or creating) alternate sources of employment or spaces to engage in knowledge production, and transforming the measures by which our work is valued.

A common critique of contemporary capitalism is that while money and goods move readily around the world, labour is locked into place. Factory workers, unable to migrate, must accept rock-bottom wages. This is generally not true of academics, who are some of the most potentially-mobile people on the planet, especially viewed from within national contexts. Most of us have no excuse to let ourselves be treated like a captive labour force.

US-based scholars could learn from their European counterparts, who expect to have to shift country, and do so readily. This gives them far more individual choice regarding the working conditions they're willing to tolerate – and this gives them a bargaining edge when it comes to collective action. Europe is beset with economic problems, and job security is facing grave threats. However, labour mobility is extensive enough to possess resistance to the tightening of labour market controls and retain good conditions for knowledge production in many places.

What about anthropologists who have lost their university job due to the current crisis, or who never found one in the first place? Since starting the PopAnth [3] project in July, I've been in contact with dozens of academics who are doing applied work. They run consultancies, work in advertising agencies, design products, research technology, and so on. Plenty of them manage to also contribute to knowledge production. What's more, they tend to have a far clearer grasp of why anthropology is important to the world, and why it should be made available to the general public, precisely because they engage with both of these things on an everyday basis.

In fact, if we view knowledge production as a process that includes the whole of human society, we could argue that it is easier for applied anthropologists than for those working exclusively inside the academy. While fieldwork is supposed to keep academics grounded in reality, university-based research often has a rather narrow field of engagement. Most of us still work alone, 'study down,' and disseminate our results through densely-written articles published in closed-access journals. Applied anthropologists, on the contrary, are far more likely to engage with a broad range of people and institutions throughout the entire research process. Their end-products are not just cash-for-comment, either: doing applied work requires finely-honed skills on how to translate research for different audiences. Their products are ready-made to be absorbed and built upon. By producing relevant knowledge, they increase the global value of anthropology and retain an edge in a competitive job market.

Meanwhile, graduate students are taught that tenure track is the only option because their freedom to create knowledge will be severely curtailed in an applied world. The lecturers and professors who teach them this scramble like mice in a wheel to keep their jobs under adverse conditions because they believe there is no other viable path. They may study hegemony in their distant fieldsites, but they have no idea how to recognise it or deal with it when it affects their own lives. This is despite the fact that an increasing number of university-based academics understand that creating alternative spaces of engagement is not just a personal hobby that detracts from the serious business of publishing. Rather, it increases our bargaining power within the ivory tower and improves our position to spearhead debates about where humanity is headed.

Regardless of whether more academics engage, anthropology will live on. In fact, I suspect that it will become increasingly relevant in years to come as anthropologists find new and innovative ways to apply our discipline's insights to contemporary problems and capture the imaginations of people everywhere. What's not clear is whether the academy will play much of a role. Instead of becoming all the more irrelevant and exploited, university-based academics would be well-served to recognise that knowledge production neither begins nor ends in the ivory tower.

Erin B. Taylor, ICS, Universidade de Lisboa

Notes


[2] Collier, S. J. (2012). Neoliberalism as big Leviathan, or…? A response to Wacquant and Hilgers. Social Anthropology, 20(2), 186–195.

[3] PopAnth: Hot Buttered Humanity is a community website that publishes anthropologically-inspired stories that are written for a popular audience. It was co-founded by Erin B. Taylor and Gawain Lynch, and launched in September 2012. [http://popanth.com/]

5 comments:

Greg Downey said...

Hi Erin --
Great discussion, and I think one of the points you make echoes something that was in a longer version of the piece I put up, but deleted for space limits. You said it better, anyway, so I'm hardly upset.

You talk about the effect of perceived immobility on academic labour, how feeling trapped in university jobs affects academics, and I couldn't agree more. I've always felt like I could jump ship to a non-academic job at any time; in my own case, I was very successful in sales, and I know that I'd be better paid if I went back to that line of work, even moreso than if I went into consulting or applied anthropology (or I could SELL applied anthropology... hmmm....).

But I've also always felt really lucky to be an academic. If the day comes when I have to get a "real job" (that is, something I do only to pay bills and support my family), I'll do it. But so far in my life, that day has never arrived. I still get a thrill of doing what I do. I can't believe that I get paid a very decent white collar salary (yes, that's the case in Australia) to pursue my curiosity and teach about something I find fascinating. And, yes, I love the flexibility of professorial life.

I think we have to treat our academic jobs as our "day jobs" if that's possible; for some people, especially given the situation of some parts of the academic precariat – adjuncts, fixed-term contracts, untenured junior academics in hostile department or embattled institutions – this simply isn't possible. I understand that this is going to sound like a world away for some academics, under tremendous pressure at their own institutions, but if those of us who are secure can start to plant one foot outside the institution, it will actually put pressure on our employers to treat their people better.

If enough of us jump ship, say, "tell you what - I don't need this," the labour market itself can change.

Like I said, I know this sounds like a world away for some academics, but I believe, as a field, if we all behave like we're trapped and afraid, stuck in our institutions with no chance to switch industries or employers, well, we actually help to produce the terrorized, divided workforce that is much easier to control and degrade.

One of the most illustrative experiences here for me was when our union struck a couple of years ago because we weren't getting a good collective contract with our university. We withheld final grades, had meetings, put up posters about management greed, told students what was happening, picketed, got furloughed even though we said we would do every other part of our job... A real labour action that, after a few weeks of public battle and students going increasingly nuts, worked.

But the more we feel trapped, the harder this sort of action is. So consulting gigs, for-profit publishing, start-ups, businesses on the side, paid seminars to non-university providers, etc. can actually be a way that we feel less trapped individually, and thus less vulnerable as a profession. In that sense, Erin, I think you're spot on about the way that mobility of some can affect the situation, and the psyches, of all.

Ryan Anderson said...

Erin wrote:

"Even if we take the stance that the 'Leviathan' of neoliberalism [2] has created the problems we see in the academy today, it is still our responsibility to find ways to institute adequate conditions for knowledge production. Why? Because we're the ones who want to do it, and because nobody else will do it for us."

Exactly. We have pointed out problems and issues, and at some point we are going to have to actually start making some changes--or opting out. You're absolutely right that nobody else is going to step in and do this for us. And if we do nothing, well, then we're just reproducing the whole thing all over again.

"Meanwhile, graduate students are taught that tenure track is the only option because their freedom to create knowledge will be severely curtailed in an applied world. The lecturers and professors who teach them this scramble like mice in a wheel to keep their jobs under adverse conditions because they believe there is no other viable path. They may study hegemony in their distant fieldsites, but they have no idea how to recognise it or deal with it when it affects their own lives."

This point about recognizing hegemony in distant field sites and not seeing it when it's right in front of one's face is key, I think. Grad students ARE handed a very limited vision of anthropology in many cases, and they are basically taught that the tenure track/research route is the only real way to go. But there's more out there, and we all need to look up and see what *else* can be done.

Thanks for this post, Erin. Good stuff.

Ryan Anderson said...

Greg wrote:

"...but if those of us who are secure can start to plant one foot outside the institution, it will actually put pressure on our employers to treat their people better."

Yep. That.

Also:

"But the more we feel trapped, the harder this sort of action is. So consulting gigs, for-profit publishing, start-ups, businesses on the side, paid seminars to non-university providers, etc. can actually be a way that we feel less trapped individually, and thus less vulnerable as a profession."

Another good point. If everyone stays in the trap, that's it. They have few options. The key is building leverage and creating other options. And as Erin says, nobody is going to do this for us.

Anonymous said...

Hello Erin,
Very well said. I am a PhD student in Applied Anthropology and have been struggling with my commitment to the discipline. It seems as if academic anthropologists take a moral stand against capitalism and therefore consider applied work as highly suspect. What about cultural relativism? Would those with more experience than myself have any wisdom to share? Thank you!

Erin Taylor said...

Greg, I also really enjoyed Australian academia. So many people expressed concern at my decision to leave teaching that I began to question my own sanity. But it has proved to be one of the best things I ever did. I've managed to expand out in so many different directions and am not at all fearful for the future because I can now see so many different - and enjoyable, and well-paid - paths that I could take.

To the last person commenting, I'd agree that many people view applied work as selling out to capitalism - at the same time as they allow themselves to be exploited. More of the kinds of strikes that Greg Downey and co. held at Macquarie University wouldn't go astray. What particularly is it that you'd like comments on regarding cultural relativism? Happy to try to answer.