goodwill counts for nothing on the list
A good old-fashioned favour means little in credit-scoring
Academics seem constantly to be making lists. I don't just mean
designing reading lists. We are continually asked to provide lists
of publications, lists of teaching commitments, lists of administrative
duties, lists of grants. List-making has become an important by-product
of the trend towards the formalisation of university life. Many
observers have rightly complained that this tendency has the unfortunate
effect of privileging the quantitative over the qualitative. The
figures that universities produce often mystify rather than clarify.
Worse still, list-making can result in the really vital part of
everyday informal academic life - which is not quantified - becoming
Academics are frequently asked to perform duties that are in some
sense "voluntary" or a response to gentle informal pressure.
Participating in an academic community involves relations of reciprocity,
collaboration, cooperation and mutual support. It is astounding
how much we take each other for granted. I sometimes get an email
requesting me to comment on an article written by someone I do not
know for a publication that I do not know much about. I cannot think
of many professions where relative strangers feel that they are
entitled to ask you to give up some of your time to undertake an
unpaid and unrecognised assignment.
Yet it is these taken-for-granted informal arrangements that underpin
the life of an academic community. We are constantly asked to review
applications for research grants. Writing letters of references
is part of our normal routine. You might also get an email or a
phone call asking you to serve as an external examiner for a PhD
student who is based at the other end of the country. This task
can represent a significant claim on your time, but not nearly as
much as a three-year stint as an external examiner. And just when
you thought that you had the weekend to yourself, a publisher contacts
you and asks for comments on a manuscript that it is considering
I am pleasantly surprised that, most of the time, academics can
rely on colleagues for help. But how much longer can we rely on
goodwill and a culture of academic cooperation? The tendency towards
auditing university life has encouraged the formalisation of the
academic's role and activities. The main consequence of this trend
is to turn the informal give and take between academics into a transaction.
Something very important changes when we manage our affairs according
to formal procedures. For a start, we become less reliant on spontaneity,
intuition and individual judgement. We become less generous with
our time and less experimental in the way we interact.
As a new academic, I was asked to give the odd lecture by colleagues
in philosophy, English, politics and history. It was assumed that
I would find it fun and that students would gain something from
hearing a different take on their subject. Colleagues are now far
less likely to be asked to lecture across disciplines because such
informal arrangements sit uneasily with the institution of auditing.
Issues such as who is to get the credit make the pursuit of genuine
interdisciplinarity a confusing and eccentric activity.
The auditing imperative not only encourages purposeless form-filling
and list-making, it also prevents academics undertaking informal
arrangements, acting on their intuition or just being good citizens
Formalising relations in academia erodes the incentive to collaborate
with and support colleagues. It has an invidious and corrosive effect
on morale and serves to undermine one of the best features of academic
work. It is all a big drag since it is nice to do things because
you want to and not because it will make its way onto a list.
published in the Times Higher Education Supplement,
17 December 2004