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20 May: Against Intellectual Suicide

Published onJul 09, 2019
20 May: Against Intellectual Suicide

Today I did an interview with a young academic who is editing a book of portraits of contemporary sociologists. I took her request to be featured among them as a compliment and I guess it comes from reaching a particular age and a certain stage in an academic life. The interview was an enjoyable experience and an opportunity to try and make sense of my own eccentric journey through academic life.

At one point my interviewer asked if I had any advice to offer younger academics. On occasions like this I often struggle to find any words of helpful guidance. This is not just the result of an in-growing sense of humility. It is also the nagging fact that I know I have played the academic game badly in some respects. I know my score on some of the key measures of academic status – like the H Index metric that correlates the number of citations of our work against the number of journal articles we publish – is much lower than it should be. This is a result of not harvesting large numbers of article citations in the right journals. So I know – in these terms – my example is not one to follow.

Part of the point of academic metrics is to make us as employees feel like we are failing even when we are killing ourselves to succeed. The corporatizing impulse is transforming the university and it is hard not to become possessed by these measures of intellectual value and worth. What struck me as I thought about what to say in answer to my young colleague is the importance of trying to defend the value of reading and thinking together against these limited ways of defining what is good. It means defending each other too and it is not an overstatement to say that the challenge we face is how to avoid committing either institutional or intellectual suicide.

There is a way to navigate a course that is something like this: be mindful of those formats, spaces and kinds of research writing that are valued within the hierarchies of the audit culture. It is unspoken but it is an open secret. There is a hierarchy of value and the hierarchy changes around a bit but we know that somewhere at the top of that hierarchy of value is publishing in the key disciplinary journals of whatever field you are in. Then comes writing monographic books – we know that is high up in the hierarchy of value too – and then things that are in the lower gradations are book chapters, online journalism and probably last of all blog posts.

Does that mean you only do those things that are valued within the hierarchy I have just described? I think that is a heart-breaking recipe for intellectual mortification. On the one hand, it is important to do things that are going to help young researchers make that transition into their first academic jobs. At the same time they have to keep their intellectual passions alive and curiosities awake. I have tried to keep both impulses alive but I have probably made the mistake of putting too much energy into formats that simply do not count and cannot be accounted for with the structures of academic audit.

I remember turning up to give a keynote lecture some years ago. The person charged with introducing me had done his homework for the introduction. He turned to me as said with surprise: ‘Oh you’ve got a lot of online publications?’ The implication was: are you sure you should be wasting your time on such things? I don’t think paper formats will dominate the structures of auditing value in the academy for much longer. I just don’t think that they can. Something will have to give because there is so much sociological life in digital spaces of what we refer to as alternative media.

If all you care about is your next article in Theory, Culture and Society (TCS) – and incidentally I do care about those things too – then you have foreclosed that possibility. I think younger scholars are much more in touch with those possibilities and watching them do great things makes me incredibly hopeful. Even the most prestigious journals like TCS know they have opportunities to be more inventive now and you can see that on their new website.

There is a wonderful project that Mark Carrigan does called The Sociological Imagination, which is a website and Twitter feed, and you get news from sociological imagination every day. He is a postgraduate student who will have graduated by the time this book is published. He is just somebody who is passionate and curious about sociology. He is interested in interesting things and he has got thousands of people following him and following what he is doing, and old lags like me saying, ‘You know, I would like to join in too.’

The energy that is in these online spaces of academic writing is not timid and it is not conservative. The level of public engagement and number of people following their passions and communicating things that they are interested in is inspiring. There is something about that which I find incredibly nourishing and important. But I would also say to those young colleagues – remember what counts and who is doing the counting.

end of term

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