Artillery Row

How to Climb the Academic Pole

Ambitious young academics see the lecture hall and research laboratory as a shackle

Stumbling further into the ruins of the library, this repository of dead knowledge, I glanced amidst the rubble at another book. While knowing that the digital has long surpassed print, I retain the willingness to look at it out of curiosity – although I keep this indulgence secret from colleagues who encouraged the History Department to discard (in its zeal for correctness and the embrace of all modernity) references to archival sources. The book was Microcosmographia Academica, A Guide for the Young Academic Politician. The title was disturbing, with its use of a dead language scarcely inclusive, and also a sign of a work of hidden knowledge.

The guide talked of academic parties, of course today there are only two: the liberals and the progressives. Liberals believe in silencing all views contrary to their own and use the model of the inquisition to promote free enquiry. Progressives are those who want to support the cause of the disadvantaged, particularly the vocal middle-classes, who feel deeply that they have grievances to display. The common mark of liberals and progressives is their belief that those who disagree with them are dishonest or immoral.

I saw that ‘Acquiring influence’ was part of the advice offered in the dusty pages of Microcosmographia Academica. Happily, young academics seeking influence today have so many outlets for their talents. The mastery of teaching and research is so hum-drum and dull, that few bother to take it up. The path to power lies in the sunny bureaucratic uplands of quality assurance, ethics procedures, research administration and the rest. The young academic entering these groves can tell more talented colleagues what they can and can’t do. They are the guardians of the rules. And, as Microcosmographia Academica said, ‘the object of rules is to relieve the younger… of the burdensome feeling of obligation.’ It absolves them from the worry that they are mediocre teachers, or don’t do much research; they are, after all too busy with more important duties. These are the displacement and mindfulness activities of the modern university.

Thankfully, I thought, our systems have developed all sorts of structures to support the young academic seeking influence: peer reviews, committee memberships, external assessments, associate deaneries, pro-vice-chancelleries, all replete with deputies and assistants. These are places in which they judge those who have been left behind in the rubble to teach and research. I wondered how universities in the past managed to cope without them. Quality and quantity must have been so much lower. Degrees can hardly have been worth having, and it is clear from the metrics of giving so many higher grades, that we have made transformative progress.

Truly ambitious young academics quickly sees that the lecture hall or the research laboratory is a shackle, which will get in the way of acquiring influence and power.

Why was there no advice on how to rise on the back of apparent misfortune, to identify from middle class ease how to advance by claiming to represent the downtrodden, to denounce racism while ethnically stereotyping whites; and to demand action on one’s behalf as a woman, even though nearly three fifths of students are female? This work deserves its neglect today.

Where was advice about grants, the lifeblood of returned favours, the grease on the pole? Surely, the ambitious must be told how to win these by always thinking within the box, always supporting the powers that be, always fondling the egos of the academically mighty but intellectually impotent by repeating their platitudes. If the master made mileage by trotting out false consciousness and invented tradition, by finding past globalisation and transnationalism, or extending the spheres and periods in which revolution could be found, then so must the pupil. Argument by assertion, but only when oleaginous and therefore profitable. That was the teaching, and thus the research programme.


Jeremy Black and William Gibson’s previous article ‘The idea of a twenty-first century University’ can be found here. 

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