English cricket is in yet another period of review. The periodic Ashes hammering generally precedes recriminations by senior management that place blame on those at the coalface and absolve responsibility for the institutional conditions that preclude success in the first place. As someone who stumbled upon cricket during its last nadir in the mid-90s, when it was broadcast on the BBC, I developed affection for a sport that was as alien to my childhood self as the sector in which I now work – HE.
Watching cricket, without ever having played it, was an exotic experience filled with questions that seasoned players dismissed with contempt: Do you not need different skill-sets to succeed in different formats? Why don’t players play scoop shots directly over the wicketkeeper’s head? Why don’t England play spinners who actually spin the ball? The ire of cricketing purists has grown ever more intense as specialist white ball cricketers, scoop shots and spinning spinners have emerged in response to the T20 revolution. In the wake of a series in which the leave and the forward defence were the most valuable shots, that ire seemed contextually justified, only for an equally depressing series in the Caribbean to confirm the need for innovation.
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Purists and reformers
The conflict between purists and bits and pieces reformers is all too apparent in HE. My PhD supervisor’s retirement conference attracted the great and the good of the world of political philosophy. I have heard him described, with good justification and by those capable of making the assessment, as having the finest mind of a generation replete with fine minds. A brief skim through a bibliography of his work is testament to that. I think his greatest contributions lay in a series of articles that used real world practical problems as launchpads into examination of the ethical foundations of policy. His ability, for example, to use the decision of an employment tribunal to flesh out a broader principle on bearing the consequences of belief was so understated as to make analytical philosophy appear synonymous with common sense. He produced many such examples, as sumptuous as a David Gower cover drive in impact, but with the concealed value of a Michael Atherton leave. The importance of that work only becomes apparent when it is no longer around.
I’m quite clear that I do not have the mind or the ability of my former supervisor – a point I made to him when I saw him recently. I say this, not out of self-deprecation, but out of an honest assessment of my capacities. I’m more than content with that. How, then, have I managed to become a Professor and do I deserve that position if my pathway involves equivalent glaring oversights to England’s current batting unit?
A lot of academic work is deemed unnecessary, unhelpful, or unacademic. Colleagues often take on administrative responsibilities with the view that they offer only slight scope for career advancement. Through this lens, there is little value in doing anything other than dispensing responsibilities to the minimum level of effort and competence. It often seems self-defeating and counter-intuitive to invest time and effort in conducting action research on the activity or agenda, of publishing on it, or engaging in reflective strategic development within the institution or across the sector. Similarly, it can often seem as if there is no instrumental value in engaging seriously in pedagogical development or production of teaching resources for the field.
Aside from instrumental career-based thinking, there is concern that engaging with these sorts of agendas is to reify and entrench neoliberal reforms that have done harm to HE. It often feels as if there is almost a professional crime in engaging in ‘unacademic’ educational research on subject area teaching and an ideological one bound up with taking emerging administrative agendas seriously.
I must confess that I am both guilty of those crimes and have been promoted for their commission. For the purists, this epitomises all that is wrong with the academy – the equivalent of promoting to the Test team on the basis of their slog sweep a batsman bereft of a good forward defence. How on Earth can I defend myself?
In the instrumental sense, empirically, taking agendas seriously and engaging in strategic development is actually a decent means of advancing through HE’s present institutional framework. That framework has been developed in response to a number of broader budgetary and social issues and enhances rewards for administrative action. Revisions to promotion criteria present opportunities for advancement that were simply not available to my former supervisor. In his time, many years of successful performance in various admin roles went relatively unrewarded, despite the opportunity cost for the very research activity that was rewarded. In defence of the new arrangements, it’s not necessarily that new promotion criteria create perverse incentives for non-research related activity; it’s that they offer potential recognition of tasks that have often been thankless. In particular, work with non-academic communities has suffered both for its being regarded as motivated by neoliberal market stimuli and/or its being unacademic by virtue of its being engaged. A modern aberration, that ought not to be reified.
However, ‘non-academic’ work is nothing new:
Read through the lens of modern transformative research methods, Socrates died for his Participatory Action Research (PAR) on wisdom. He engaged with his fellow citizens and a range of experts on an issue of shared concern and had a transformative effect on the public. The research was both high quality and impactful. Today, it may have led to a REF Impact Case Study rather than a death sentence.
To be clear, I’m not comparing my work to that of the academy’s great martyr. However, at a time in which every agenda is decried as neoliberal and participation equated with complicity, it is worth remembering that academics have engaged the general public and advanced their interests through that engagement from the very founding of organised education. Indeed, a great deal of critical, counter-hegemonic work can be conducted through and via agendas and can receive recognition from institutions in the process.
My applying for Principal Fellowship was, in part, driven by a sense that a lot of work in engaging non-academic communities and advancing participatory methods needed normalisation through formal processes. Applying required reflection on a load of activity that was often regarded as potentially valuable in a non-academic context, but a waste of time in the sector. Developing narrative threads through diffuse, diverse, and distinct programmes of activity helped me, in my own mind, to identify the potential contribution I make to the academy – a collection of metaphorical heaves into the leg side, attempted scoops and scuffed reverse sweeps that, together, amount to decent bits and pieces all-round contribution.
My colleague, Daniel Nettle, who would clearly have prospered at any stage in the academy’s history, produced a seminal piece of autobiographically-informed guidance for early career researchers, which talks of ‘staying in the game’. He presents extremely helpful reflection on setting realistic thresholds of expectation and maintaining a basic level of productivity to stay in academia when the overall context is one of regular rejection and failure. In that, he emphasises the value of dirtying hands with primary data as a means of cultivating the capacity to advance big ideas.
Dirty hands and hanging in
In one sense, my career has been replete with examples of hand dirtying in activities that have tangential relevance to the big ideas I want to tackle. Those dirty hands have been seen (including by me) as evidence of failure, rather than industry. However, what we have now is not just a diversification of activities within the sector, but an increase in recognition for those activities. That touch of recognition can serve to reduce the otherwise overwhelming sense of failure and defeat with which academics are confronted on an all too regular basis.
When I think about how I’ve hung in, it’s generally that I’ve persisted through that regular rejection because I have no alternative or none that are as good. However, my Principal Fellowship application helped to consolidate the notion that I’m fairly decent at identifying an issue, developing innovative means of engaging with it and bringing together teams of excellent colleagues to have a go at producing a response. That’s my way of ‘hanging in’ and I’m fairly content with it, even though there’s a good chance that, like T20 batsmen, I would have been less successful in previous eras. Securing the Principal Fellowship was a means of converting effort into a coherent form that my institution recognised. It’s worth exploring.
Matthew Johnson is Professor of Politics, Northumbria University, Principal Fellow of Advance HE, and Editor of Global Discourse. He has published widely on issues in political thought and on public policy with regard to economic insecurity and the health case for Universal Basic Income.
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