Thursday, March 17, 2011

The disposable academic

I tend to avoid Special Christmas Double Issues, just as I tend to avoid Exclusive news reports. If it's exclusive it's probably a beat-up that no one else is interested in; and if it's part of a Special Christmas Double Issue then it's likely to be - well - like what you might find in a Giant Xmas Stocking: space-filling, bland, untargeted, not indispensable.

Leafing through - rather belatedly - just such a double edition (The Economist, Dec. 18, 2010), I came across an article on a topic of rather limited interest which nonetheless impinges on a topic of greater interest.

The article itself was a dreary tract about the way PhD students and postdocs are exploited as teachers and researchers, and then not offered real jobs. But the broader, more interesting question relates to the status and role of university teachers and researchers generally, tenured or not - to the future of university-based academics.

The article seemed to be somewhat at odds with The Economist's traditional approach in its (at times) complaining tone and in its feminist subtext.

"One female student spoke of being told of glowing opportunities at the outset, but after seven years of hard slog she was fobbed off with a joke about finding a rich husband." The anonymous - as is the custom at The Economist - author then refers to her own experience of having "slogged [clearly a favorite word] through a largely pointless PhD in theoretical ecology." One would have thought that prospective PhD students would be better placed than most to take responsibility for their own decisions, and quite capable of assessing possible outcomes, relating to employment or anything else.

The author notes that the sorts of activities PhD students spend their time on (like writing lab reports, giving academic presentations and preparing regular literature reviews) do not produce the sorts of skills (like the ability to communicate with non-experts) which the job market demands.

She does ultimately, however, put the onus of responsibility where it should be put - on the individual student. Prospective PhD students "might use their research skills to look harder at the lot of the disposable academic."

But new PhDs and postdocs are disposable only because many classes of tenured academic are dispensable. Academics - especially in the humanities - have lost status. In a climate of economic stress and fiscal retrenchment, the future looks very bleak indeed for a category of professional whose prestige was inextricably linked to scholarly and intellectual values which are no longer current.

New values prevail in a harder and very uncertain world.