What I'm reading

The research academic as entrepeneur

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.

What I'm reading

Best journalism of 2014

Another year, another round-up of things I read online that I found amusing, though-provoking, challenging to my world view or simply validating of my smug sense of being right about everything. As with last year’s list, a piece will make the cut if I’m still thinking about it the next day (even if I’m thinking about it angrily). Some pieces are included simply because I enjoyed the writing style. The stand out publications for 2014 are The Appendix and Aeon.

This year I’ve introduced categories to make it easier for readers to ignore what they know is unlikely to interest them. The categories are fairly arbitrary but they have the advantage of showing up my biases. (Who would have thought I was such a cynic to have a whole category dedicated to the best writing on ‘nerd hubris’, and another for ‘activist hubris’? Alert: I do not think believe activism or nerdery is inherently hubristic.)

And if you only read two things from this list, make them:

  •  Andrew O’Hagan’s Ghosting: Julian Assange (London Review of Books, 6 March 2014). This is a superb piece of work from a brilliant writer who was commissioned to produce a biography of a narcissist and failed. The story of the failure becomes an eloquent biography in its own right.
  • Gene Weingarten’s The Peekaboo Paradox (The Washington Post, 22 January 2006). Technically not published in 2014, but this is when I read it. I enjoyed this piece because it reads like a fine piece of fiction.

Best writing on journalism and publishing for 2014

Best writing by or about writers and writing

Best writing on politics

Best writing on wealth inequality

Best historical writing

Best ethnographic and travel writing

Best writing on ethics and the examined life

Best writing on nerd hubris

Best writing on activist hubris

Best writing on children and parents

Best writing on sex

Most amusing writing (and photographs)

Best writing on feminism

Best writing on education and academia

Best writing on science

Best writing on language

Collection fishing, What I'm reading

Anting-Anting Stories, And Other Strange Tales of the Filipinos

Newly digitised is this little treasure from the the library of the University of Michigan, Anting-anting stories: And other strange tales of the Filipinos (Boston: Small, Maynard & Company, 1901).

Anting-Anting Stories and other strange tales of the Filipinos

I once got a hold of this as a cheap-and-nasty print-on-demand edition but now it can be read in all its original glory. Far from a genuine collection of Filipino folklore, it’s mostly a Boy’s Own series of adventure stories featuring brave Americans holding their own against superstitious, cruel and ignorant savages. Published in 1901 during the Philippine-American war the unapologetic racism must have had some propaganda value back in the United States, though one story — Told at the Club — is much more sympathetic. I don’t know who ‘Sargent Kayme’ was, but the Michigan edition includes the handwritten annotation ‘pseud.’ after his name. There is enough detail to suggest that the author was reasonably familiar with the Philippines to be able to describe details such as local architecture and the appearance of port towns like Dumaguete, but not quite clued in enough to know that gorillas are not endemic to the islands, for example. The front cover looks like a pastiche of various nineteenth century archetypes of the ‘savage’ from Africa to Australia.

What I'm reading

Sorcery songs to kill Hanson

gurindji-journeyContinuing the Japan–Australia theme, I’m re-reading Minoru Hokari’s Gurindji Journey, ahead of the event To celebrate the life and work of Minoru Hokari 1971-2004 at the ANU.

I especially love Hokari’s radically pluralist approach to oral history and his persuasive but uncomfortable demand that “we need to question the politics of this act of ‘rescuing and being respectful of’ the Aboriginal experience.”

But quite apart from all that, here’s a fun excerpt (p85):

When I told them that Japanese ‘law’ became more Westernised, they sympathised with me and said, ‘Kartiya way everywhere.’ My Asian background certainly created a particular dynamic between the Gurindji people and me. Here is another example: one day, a young man approached me and asked if I knew Pauline Hanson. He explained that she does not like ‘my mob’ and ‘your mob’. Then, he suggested that I sing sorcery songs with him to kill Hanson.