[URBANTH-L]the dark sides of the academia

Kacper Pobłocki kpoblocki at gmail.com
Sat May 5 22:58:37 EDT 2007

Dear Angela,

I think there is yet another problem that emerges from the current situation
on the academic labor market - i.e. the absolute discrepancy between theory
and practice. Academic papers are plagued by arrogant disdain towards other
professions, and many of they have a 'we know it better' undertone, and
assume that academics are there to save the world. The practice is radically
different. The quality of academic writing, let alone it's 'applicability',
accessibility to wider publics, and interest in taking parts in such
debates, has radically fallen over the last decades. In my own research I
have to read a lot of academic work published in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s,
and - as compared to what has been published recently - it's often of much
higher scholarly quality, only because the bulk of what is published now is
a recycled good, and refers to what others (in the 1990s and 2000s) have
been writing 'on the subject', it's mainly preoccupied with flogging dead
horses or fighting straw men, it's more and more detached from reality. The
reasons are simple: nothing can be taken for granted any longer, and
academic have to put as much effort into arguing that they have something
interesting to say than into actually saying it. Interdisciplinary, in other
words, so much cheered for in the 1990s, is a nice word for brutal
competition where the winner takes it all. The fact that anthropologists
have been criticizing so harshly neo-liberalism, yet at the same time they
were (and actually still are) practicing neo-liberalism themselves is the
best proof for this growing breach between words and deeds. What I mean here
is that just as academic jobs have become proletarianised and dominated by
the global free market, also academic knowledge has become commoditized, and
is of increasingly lower value for both and the 'outside world' and for
academics (who read less and less - not in terms of volume, because we have
to read more and more, but in terms of the actual content - many people gave
up reading whole books, but read articles that expire within a couple of
years, or even only scan paper abstracts, because they don't have the time
to actually read things properly). Phd projects are no longer book projects,
but people are expected to write 3-4 articles from their 3 year long
research, of which 2 years are spend at an academic institution that have
become much more isolated and hermetic too. Research is often
theory-oriented, and what it actually means is that theory is fetishised and
is turned into to a thing – let's take this notorious academic habit of
juggling with 'concepts' as if they were things, and 'borrowing ideas' from
big shots as if they were producing commodities, or projects of fishing out
indigenous 'ideas' that they are supposed to contribute to the scientific
tool-kit. Then such ideas-things are sold on the market, for example during
huge conferences where speakers exchange business cards and have 10 minutes
to 'make their point' in a Powerpoint presentation (this is still maybe not
so in anthropology, but in geography for example it is already commonplace).

Of course this is a snow ball effect - nobody is really personally
responsible for that, it's mostly the sheer volume of increased
communication that is to blame. But our responses to this also do not help
to solve the problem, since most people react to the increased competition
and declining working conditions by working harder and harder, but not on
their actual projects, but on things that will keep them 'in the game'. I
see it from my own colleagues, who invest a significant amount of their
energies into finding grants that will allow them to finish their PhD, but
once they actually get to doing the research, they might not have enough
energies for it as much as they could, or they can do it only for 12 months,
and in fact the biggest bulk of their research is spend at academic
institutions and in libraries where they work on their militant literature
reviews. I am also struggling with this, since I protracted my research
period from the 12 month that I was given the money for to 3 years that I
had to somehow fund. And in order to do that, I had to accept for example a
fact that I do not have a health insurance, I had to move back to live with
my parents for a while and so on. And I did it only because I was unable to
continue jumping from one academic institution to another – I left my home
country at the age of 17, and 10 years of nomadic life was really enough for
me at this stage of my life.

But all this means that it fighting harder and harder to keep 'in the game'
might be less and less worthwhile - since even if I manage to find a job in
the academia, it might be just entail an extremely tedious, isolated, and
bureaucratic work, that it might be a much better idea to try to 'make the
difference' (and this is why many of us decided to embark on an academic
project, right?) by some other means. I was told during my comprehensive
exam that I should enjoy my PhD research to the fullest, because it might be
the last time I have a chance to conduct a thorough empirical project -
simply because after getting a job at the academia, all other activities
(that you have to undertake in order to keep in the game) are so time and
effort consuming and there will be no time for actually doing what we all
came to the academia for. I for me personally this is the most disheartening
aspect of this issue.

But thanks for bringing it all up - I think it's time to start talking about
the nuts and bolts of academic life and practice openly.

Kacper Poblocki

Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology
Central European University
Budapest, Hungary

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