University Challenged

Our Mole wonders whether it was worth the effort to embark on a life in academia

Not long ago, when I was teaching in the English department of one of our better universities, I received from a student an email requesting some career advice. Addressing me with a breezy “Hiya” (a convention that today’s undergraduates appear to favour), the student said that he was interested in a career in academia. Could I explain how to go about pursuing such a career, and was it a career that was worth pursuing? The first part of the question was relatively easy to answer; the second part was rather more difficult. 

I had been planning a career in academia since my late teens. Now, a little more than a year out of my doctorate, I was without a research fellowship, I was teaching on a short-term basis for a “modest” wage, and my prospects of finding permanent employment were — let us say — slender. (I feel obliged to point out that my doctorate was from Oxford, I had plenty of teaching experience and I was developing a solid publication record.) Despite this, I felt sure that a career in academia was what I wanted — sure, that is, until I addressed the second part of my student’s question. Summoning what meagre reserves of moral seriousness I could find, I asked myself whether I could honestly recommend what used to be called “the life of the mind”, and found that I could not. In not much longer than 18 months, any pleasure that I had once found in my profession had vanished, and the recognition that this was a life for which I was not destined came as a relief.

Part of this relief was aesthetic and to do with the dreadful vocabulary — one thinks of Kingsley Amis’s brilliantly satiric “strangely neglected” — that has infected academic life: “publish or perish”, “research assessment exercise”, “social impact” — these pathetic phrases, which are also pathetic concepts, could be left behind. But it was also a relief to leave behind a world that was — is — introverted, mildly corrupt, self-serving, possessed of a philistine fixation on “originality” and exploitative of its junior members. This latter point is especially serious. I can recall feeling something close to pleasure upon being appointed to my post. It didn’t take long for the reality of my workload, euphemistically described as “challenging”, to dispel any pleasure I had felt. 

My department was divided into broad teaching and research groups — medieval, Renaissance and so on. I was to join the Renaissance research group, and I looked forward to working with some of the prestigious academics comprising it. On arrival, however, I found that six of its nine members were absent on research leave. Moreover, their teaching and marking duties were to be absorbed by the remaining three of us. This would have been a preposterous burden for an experienced academic, yet, two of us were junior scholars, teaching these papers and a number of their relevant texts for the first time.

To be so encumbered might have been more bearable if my post had been a permanent one. However, I had no assurance of reappointment in the following academic year and, with no time to devote to turning my thesis into a book or a series of articles, diminishing prospects of finding a permanent job. Struggling through the year, I slowly recognised that the steps I was taking were not steps towards a permanent job and a manageable teaching load with perhaps some time for research. They were steps, to more of the same — to another temporary job, with an unmanageable teaching load and no time for research and, crucially, no permanent post at the end. I had only to consider the fortunes of a number of friends. Some of them had secured junior research fellowships or British Academy postdoctoral fellowships — the most one could hope to achieve upon completing a doctorate — and yet still found themselves, in their late twenties, without the prospect of a job and having to consider a change of career. And why? Because there were no jobs. Or at least, those “entry-level” jobs that usually went to some terrible type with two unreadable books and no personality. 

Of course, such types have, in various forms, long been around. Certainly, they were familiar to the Cambridge scholar F. M. Cornford, who in his satire Microcosmographia Academica, published in 1908, identified them as “sound scholars”, exponents of the Principle of Sound Learning:

The Principle of Sound Learning is that the noise of vulgar fame should never trouble the cloistered calm of academic existence. Hence, learning is called sound when no one has ever heard of it; and “sound scholar” is a term of praise applied to one another by learned men who have no reputation outside the University, and a rather queer one inside it. If you should write a book (you had better not), be sure that it is unreadable; otherwise you will be called brilliant and forfeit all respect.

Cornford’s words were in my mind as I settled down to answer my student’s query. The university was alive with a discourse that seemed reminiscent of Cornford’s world yet, at the same time, distinct from it. My colleagues, for example, would never talk of the university in the manner of Cornford. They worked not in a university but in a department, and they routinely spoke and thought of the university as something else-as management, administration, head office and Big Brother. And my colleagues, unlike Cornford’s, were all writing, and under pressure to write, books. Their fellow academics wanted (in the Cornfordian sense) these books to be “sound”, or at least decidedly not popular. The university wanted them to be both “sound” and popular and the bodies that funded the research for these books wanted them to be “sound” with a quantifiable “social impact” (“Foucault and Town Planning”). I often mourn the failure of academics to interact more readily with the wider intellectual community, but whatever happened to the celebration of learning for its own sake? It is not an ideal that is alive in the universities, and with its demise we are losing, if we have not lost already, the commitment to teaching, to learning, and to ideas for their own sake that should be the very purpose of higher education. 

Instead, students are asked to think not in terms of knowledge and ideas, but rather of skills, relevance and marketability. Instead of educating, questioning and inspiring the young, it is demanded of academics that they treat their students like customers while bearing a workload that makes proper teaching and research impossible. Once, as I was struggling with one such load and wedged between a tower of essays and a tower of exams, a senior colleague offered me some words of comfort. “Don’t worry too much,” he said, gesturing at the of essays, “the exams will take half the time.” I offered a look that asked him to elaborate. “Exams?” he continued. “Students don’t get them back, do they? Skim the middle of the page, get the gist. No borderline grades. If in doubt, 2:1.” 

Not long after I left the university, this “sound scholar” wrote to me to say there was a job going and to ask if I should like to apply. But I knew that it was a job that I did not want, and that this was a world of which I should not wish to be a part. 

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