I have been reflecting recently that research academics are in a similar predicament to musicians: there is no ‘middle class’ for either group. Either you are part of the majority struggling at the bottom from gig to gig, or you are straight-up famous.
Of course, there are significant differences too. Musicians are mostly operating in a market economy, while research is still largely done within a patronage model. But it’s clear that academia is becoming more market-based with the end of permanent positions coinciding with weird innovations like crowd-funded research and three-minute presentations. We are increasingly expected to be spruikers of our own brand and to perform labour in exchange for social capital as opposed to, you know, grubby old money. (Read especially everything by Sarah Kendzior on the adjunct crisis as well as relevant readings listed towards the bottom of this post).
There are no doubt problems with the old model as well as potential advantages with the new. Patronage offers security and dignity but had a funny way of institutionalising anti-meritocratic hierarchies. (Among other things, late-career researchers are almost exclusively male, and not always as productive and collaborative as might be hoped.) The neoliberal academy, on the other hand, is at least closer in its structure to the ‘real world’, meaning that if we want to change the way things are going we can count on having allies in other industries who feel our pain. They may even have the imagination to suggest ways of doing things that didn’t occur to us.
Above all, an accurate diagnosis of our situation as researchers—and our particular place within a wider context of social and industrial change—is certainly going to be more important than justified-but-futile whingeing. We don’t have to accept the status quo, but we are obliged to understand it.
This brings me to a fantastic article that appeared in The Atlantic recently: William Deresiewicz’s insightful and non-ranty, ‘The Death of the Artist—and the Birth of the Creative Entrepreneur‘. Lot’s of parallels here to the research sector.
Professionalism represents a compromise formation, midway between the sacred and the secular. A profession is not a vocation, in the older sense of a “calling,” but it also isn’t just a job; something of the priestly clings to it. Against the values of the market, the artist, like other professionals, maintained a countervailing set of standards and ideals—beauty, rigor, truth—inherited from the previous paradigm. Institutions served to mediate the difference, to cushion artists, ideologically, economically, and psychologically, from the full force of the marketplace.
The institutions that have undergirded the existing system are contracting or disintegrating. Professors are becoming adjuncts. Employees are becoming independent contractors (or unpaid interns). Everyone is in a budget squeeze: downsizing, outsourcing, merging, or collapsing. Now we’re all supposed to be our own boss, our own business: our own agent; our own label; our own marketing, production, and accounting departments. Entrepreneurialism is being sold to us as an opportunity. It is, by and large, a necessity. Everybody understands by now that nobody can count on a job.
Still, it also is an opportunity.