10 June 2012

The Way We Live Now?

Once every generation there’s a book that attempts to tell it as it is, or that simply resonates with the intended readers. Whackademia: An Insider’s Account of The Troubled University (Sydney: Newsouth 2012) by Richard Hil is that book for many Australian researchers and teachers, people whose vocation often still shines bright but who perceive their institutions as having lost their way.

Whackademia is indignant, informed, incisive and polemical. It joins other expressions of saeva indignatio such as Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, Swift’s Modest Proposal, Fussell’s Wartime, Pusey’s Economic Rationalism in Canberra and Heller’s Catch-22. It is a book that is unlikely to be welcomed - or even read - by Vice-Chancellors and marketers. More importantly, it offers a message that will be lost on those administrators whose culture of disregard for academics and academic integrity lies at the heart of Hil’s lament for the post-Dawkins university.

Whackademia offers a damning critique of ERA and of the Bradley Review. His conclusions are similar to those offered by Bexley, James & Arkoudis in last year’s The Australian academic profession in transition: Addressing the challenge of reconceptualising academic work and regenerating the academic workforce (Melbourne: Centre for the Study of Higher Education), Cooper & Poletti in ‘The ERA and Journal Ranking: The Consequences of Australia’s fraught encounter with ‘quality’’ 53(1) Australian Universities Review (2011) or Margaret Thornton’s Privatising the Public University: The Case of Law (London: Routledge 2012). 

Hil goes beyond those theoretical and empirical narratives by providing a cascade of comments from senior academics and early career researchers/teachers in the leading institutions and in the smaller universities. Their descriptions of increasingly powerful (and increasingly numerous) administrative staff, a proliferation of forms and user-hostile databases, and an emphasis on numbers rather than deep learning (reflected in pressure to meet production targets by passing students, if necessary at the expense of quality) appear to be consistent across Australia and across disciplines. The book is worth reading to hear those voices, which appear to come from conventionally successful academics rather than from embittered practitioners on the margin.

Does Hil offer a way out of the administrative morass? Regrettably no. He offers some hints that tertiary education in Australia will be fixed through institutional attrition and through a formal recognition by government of a two tier system in which an enlarged G8 will be rewarded for research excellence and the institutions outside the sandstone club will concentrate on teaching.

Overall however his message is deeply pessimistic, quoting senior G8 academics as warning enthusiastic novices not to enter the profession and encouraging survivalism’ (disengage from students, streamline the curriculum to facilitate marking, don’t stick out and of course publish publish publish). Survival includes subversive performance: being seen to be ‘busy’ is a useful defence. Hil accordingly echoes academic classics such as Cornford’s Microcosmographia Academica, suggesting that administrators can be lulled by embracing a breathless appearance and props such as a bulging briefcase, the academic equivalent of the clipboard. Make sure to rush, rather than wearily stagger, along the corridor when sighted by the beancounters. Beware of fashionable glass-walled offices. Engage in diversions during meetings that are destined to go nowhere, and pretend to be reading agenda papers on your laptop while really answering the flood of email from needy students or drafting the next journal article.

What’s missing from Hil’s report from the front line? 

One absence is the camaraderie: the endangered academic species survives through a sense of vocation and through mutual support. 

Another absence is a recognition that ‘renewal’ in universities has not been entirely negative. Hil assails senior academics for a disengagement from governance, an abdication that created a void filled by managerialists whose values are antithetical to scholarship. Regrettably all Australian universities contain dead wood. Hil rightly alludes to resentment among ‘achieving’ academics who are caught between aggressive bureaucrats and colleagues who don’t share the workload and whose performance in some instances is risible.

Regrettably, new students will be turning to Wikipedia rather than Whackademia as they enter university. That is unfortunate because student engagement with learning and with their teachers might be more effective if the ‘consumers’ had a greater sense of how the education factory operates.