Sunday, April 9, 2017

The Labor of Academic Writing

     Our analysis of academic life is curious.  We have increasingly recognized that most aspects of academic life can be understood through the category of labor, whether in the form of grading, our interactions with students or colleagues, or in the construction  of courses.  We've been forced to recognize this fact because of the privatization of the university, a process that has taken away our job security, increased our workload, and has decreased the time to accomplish that work.  Although rarely explicitly recognized, we might note that embedded in this shift is precisely the logic of the panopticon, the process of constructing hierarchies, of individuating subjects, and of making grids of intelligibility.   Through that process, we have also considerably lost our academic freedom, or ability to teach and engage in research as we see fit, even if that right has been, at best, never fully in place, and at times, an illusion.  The figure of the adjunct has come to stand in for this process, although that process has impacted all but a very few in academic life, albeit unevenly.

      However, when we begin to discuss academic writing, our tone changes.  We are suddenly shifted from the world of disciplinarity and precarity, to curiously sovereign space, one in which our production can only be understood individually, as our own burden.  Academic writing operates as a sort of empire within an empire, to borrow a phrase from Spinoza, an arena that operates outside the logic of the university, of capital, and squarely returns us to a fantasy of the sovereign individual.  We lose touch of the world that this writing is produced in, its structures, institutions, and the collective life that is embedded within it.  And through that erasure, we are offered a curious construct, a writer that has far more control over that process of literary production that we would ever recognize in or field of analysis, and yet a sovereign who inevitably fails or betrays us.  We are poor stylists.  We fail to engage the multitudes.  Often, we even fail in saying anything of significance in our dense, jargon-laden prose. In a sense, this mystification is understandable.  Our writing is only connected to our position within the academy indirectly.  After all, we are generally not directly paid for this work, either as writers or as editors or proofreaders.  Instead, we are paid by the opportunity to enter into a sort of lottery, the prize being a tenure track position, which can itself only be guaranteed through publication. One might say that we do know, but we act.

     I don't doubt that there is a lot of bad academic writing, and no doubt, I have done as much as anyone else to contribute to that problem.  But what if we moved away from the myth of the sovereign academic writer, the god who must inevitably fail, to an understanding of academic writing as an ordinary process.  That is to say, what happens if we understand academic writing a collective material process, produced in institutions, by subjects who are at least in part themselves produced by those institutions, operating within the terrain of the processes of capitalist accumulation, and the struggles that act as the engine of that process.  This is not to say our role in that system has as direct connection to the processes of accumulation as say a worker in an auto plant or a cashier at a grocery store or even a commercial engineer, but that our role must be understood in the reproduction of that system, both in the production of educated subjects that can work in that system, and in the production of forms of knowledge for that system.  Increasingly, we are demanded to reproduce the cultural logic of that system of accumulation through a regime of instrumental reason and immediate results.  In crude terms, we are facing a speed up of the production process, and an externalization of the costs of social reproduction.  Whether willingly or grudgingly, we are required to enact this grotesque pageant in order to gain a foothold in this process.

      Not surprisingly, I'm not in a position to develop this point with the sort of depth it deserves, which would involve something like the scholarly investigation of the public university produced by Christopher Newfield.  However, I will try to produce a rough sketch of some of the points that produce the sort of writing that is so often and understandably criticized.  We might start our investigation at the point that we enter into the university as potential scholars, that is when we become graduate students.  Our coursework spends a great deal of time developing our skills as writers, but rarely do we discuss the process of writing in such detail.  Instead, we push the process of writing to the last weeks of the class, to be produced in hurry isolation, and to produce essays to which we rarely return.  Often, we get very little in the way of response about this writing from our faculty, who are, after all, producing their own work. Once we move out of course work, we frequently lose any collective working environment, beyond those fragile ones we set up for ourselves, often in the form of small groups that are occasionally recognized and sanctioned by the university.  But more often, we write alone with the interventions of our advisers and committees.  I'm not attempting to criticize the individuals in this system, but if we want to prioritize writing, perhaps it would make sense to construct a system of instruction that incorporating developing those processes into it, of recognizing and incorporating the collective process of writing into grad school itself.

      By all descriptions, the process only becomes worse when you leave graduate school.  To begin, you're expected to produce published work in order to both enter into the tenure process, and to receive tenure.  David Harvey once noted that it used to be exciting if you put out a book, even more so if you put out two, but people started wondering if you were neglecting your students with the third book.  We've replaced this more modest system with a far greater demand for publishing, making the publication of a book as the precondition for tenure, and increasingly, the publication of material, a precondition for being hired at one of the increasingly dwindling tenure track jobs.  This demand has led to a glut in publishing, and frequently translates into us pushing out material that is insufficiently developed and hasn't gone through the editing process that it needed.  It's also led to a hyper-specialization that has led to more and more materials that are not of much interest except for a very small audience.  Moreover, non-specialized knowledge production, particularly for popular audiences is not terribly valued in the tenure process. In addition, the labor that allows for the publication, the process of editing, of the peer evaluation process, etc. is extraordinarily undervalorized, and is viewed as a voluntary labor that generally is the understandably last concern of those involved in the process.  Often, even established academic presses will demand that authors pay for the basic costs of indexing and books, rather than taking on those costs themselves.  At a basic level, we might say that the basic social processes of producing an interesting and readable text have been externalized, and placed back on the authors, who are patently ill equipped to deal with that process.

      In a sense, our former illusion perhaps becomes a bit more understandable.  After all, if the figure of the sovereign writer must inevitably fail, it still offers a fantasy of control that becomes impossible when begin to explore the process as ordinary labor.  We can harbor the illusion of choice.  We can choose not to be this bad subject, or perhaps more honestly, there will be a time when we will choose not to be this bad subject.  But when we turn to the material and collective process of writing, we have to face a system that shows no interest in putting in the necessary money to produce quality writing, to create the social structures that would allow for us to write differently.  Each of the problems I mention earlier in the essay is easily solvable, but it would require the funding that is increasingly being taken away from the humanities and social sciences, and has never really existed in the STEM fields.  We have to face a capitalist system that no longer sees our labor as central to its reproduction.  Therefore, our ability to produce quality writing feels very impossible, as that the precondition for creating the social tools needed to produce a different form of academic writing would involve a profound social transformation, one that would probably not be simply limited to refunding the humanities, the social sciences, or creating other writing opportunities for the STEM fields.  It's a transformation that I must confess that I find difficult to imagine at this point, but even with that difficulty, I prefer posing that as a project than continuing down a moralistic path of mutual incrmination.

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