Dr Mary Murphy, Department of Sociology, Maynooth University
Maggie O’Neill’s seminar input ‘Anxiety and Work in the Accelerated Academy’ in MUSSI in late June 2017 and her (and other) arguments for a slow university are compelling and welcome. In an era where the university is relatively isolated, when expert knowledge is distained and where the neoliberal clamour for a small state dominates, it is hard to make tactical or strategic space for such arguments. The work of Maggie and others and qualitative research capturing and theorising the structure of feeling and highlighting the real pyscho- social impact of the accelerated university on academics lives is vital to such arguments.
It is important, as Maggie and others do, to locate such analysis as widely as possible and to situate the university in academic capitalism. We have in common with other public sector workers, educators and knowledge economy workers that our workplace, like all places of work, is increasingly subject to stresses associated with social acceleration of this turbo charged capitalist political economy. Algorithmic power, technological innovation and an accelerated speed of change dominate the pace of our lives as workers and as citizens. As O’Neill argues extreme busyness means acute time scarcity which means stress and anxiety in working life. This impacts on the quality of our academic work with students exposed to ‘factory universities’ rather than inducted into what Edwards called a ‘social science of love’.
In engaging with such debates, those working in Irish third level institutions should also be careful of our points of reference. Ireland is not the US nor the UK, and while we are culturally close to both countries, and are exposed to marketization, managerialism and performance management, Ireland has not (yet) formally adopted such extreme forms of research or teaching assessments and ranking. As academics we need to be careful not to get caught in the slip stream of the truly awful angst the Research Excellence Framework and the Teaching Excellence Framework causes amongst our British colleagues. We should be aware of and promote other (better) European academic practices.
While the practice of ranking trickles across the Irish sea, Irish third level institutions have has different engagement with implementing targets and publication quotas. Even in the context of strong structural pressures, Maynooth University still has capacity to both carve a unique path and also influence Irish policy. As academics we still have agency, and it is ironic that some academic predispositions (more dominant in some disciplines than others) use such agency to argue for and construct competitive frames of ranking. My experience straddling politics, sociology and social policy is that ranking mechanisms have featured more within and across Irish political science departments. Gender mediates this orientation to competition and gender also mediates the experience of such forms of academic capitalism. We know only too well that universities are gendered institutions and targets, and that ranking and league tables impact differentially depending on life, care and career cycles.
All of this impacts on political sociology and the potential role of public intellectuals, the urgent need to publish means we are less likely to research and write about what we think is important. The tendency towards myopic or abbreviated thinking limits our ability to contribute in meaningful ways to making sense of this world we live in and, as public sociologists, to enhance democratic deliberation. Lack of time and mental space for quality thinking, and the speed of the working day means less opportunity for collective deliberation and responses. The university undervalues societal contributions, new social media creates its own momentum of speed, and many academics find themselves withdrawing from a public sphere that wants little more than soundbites, the pressure of care in our lives mean women are more likely to withdraw.
Maggie talks of meaningful strategies for resistance and how such strategies need to be enacted collectively and imaginatively. While resistance is possible, it requires leadership particularly from those of us who are tenured and further on in our careers. Trade unions are still relevant, Grummel and Lynch note how Irish primary and secondary level teaching unions have successfully resisted at least some new public management practices in schools. We see examples elsewhere of the ‘right to unplug’, France for example has regulated against use of work emails from 9pm to 6am. A collective unplugging could create mental space and opportunity for a culture and ethic of care. As academics we can control what are acceptable forms of peer review communication and pull back from aggressive forms of feedback that leave colleagues with what Gill calls ‘hidden injuries’. University administrators need to re-evaluate what they value and what they count, and find innovative ways to measure and value care. While information technology offers multiple efficiencies, it comes at a price, incurring a loss of face-time and quality interpersonal communication without which a culture of care is difficult to nurture.
Research suggests new forms of work are creating more stressed working lives in many sectors, where the issue is not just the speed of work but also the capacity to have control over the pace of work in what were relatively autonomous careers. The metaphorical concept of a slow university is very useful in formulating our analysis, however as a sound bite it may be of limited tactical use in building allies or winning public support for the cause. The challenge is not to fetishise the university as experiencing more or specific pressure, it is more broadly about reimagining how work is and might be organised in an era of artificial intelligence and big data.