Metaphors we work by

This post has been inspired by a vigorous discussion on Twitter initiated by a question from Jesse Stommell (@jessifer) (6th November) who had been attending the recent #opened16 conference. “How many of us have been told our work doesn’t count as research or scholarship? How many teachers, adjuncts, activists? How many students”? The question raises issues of autonomy, academic judgement, academic freedom – and all the mechanisms of audit and regulation which act to compromise these, making academic work and research a contested area of access and legitimation.

Helen Sauntson (@HelenSauntson) and I have been investigating how discourse constructs notions of what counts as academic labour, and we started by analysing the discourse of university managerial training courses. The choice of managerial, not management, is deliberate. Managerialism offers the sense of management for its own sake, of management as the central and privileged purpose of the university. Managerialism imposes ‘false’ needs (Klikauer 2013) – inconsequential management demands for their own sake – or rather for the purpose of rendering employees subordinate.  The management training courses, and the materials and documents used within them circulate widely in most university environments and their aim is to effect the reconstitution of academic subjectivities as ‘corporatised’. Included in our survey were documents from several universities’ courses: Personal Development Review (PDR) training, a team leadership course for middle managers, and a module on change management. We have carried out an analysis of the key metaphors used throughout the training course documents.

The rationale of PDR is to make sure that all employees’ objectives are in alignment with the university’s Strategic Plan. One of the possible outcomes of the process is that the employee may be recommended for a performance related pay award. It usually lies in tandem with the university’s performance management process, which ostensibly is designed to diagnose under-performance.

The team leadership course was designed to support employees across the university who had line management responsibilities. The course was detailed and drew on theories of management: teams, change, strategy, leadership, values. It was taught in three modules, consisting of two full days of activities, led by a facilitator. The associated learning packs, slides and documents provide the data.

Change Management was a companion module to the team leadership course, and the associated training pack provided the data. This module was aimed at senior university staff who were deemed to be in a position to implement change.

Metaphors

Metaphors are figures of speech. Words or phrases are used non-literally so that the usual literal ones are displaced, temporarily or habitually, in a particular context. Words are employed symbolically in order to activate images, and thereby associated meanings. For example, in the data of the management courses, work is presented using metaphors of sport. The frequent occurrence of such metaphors means that working in a university is constructed as competitive and is never described in any other terms. These metaphors also present a zero-sum scenario of victory or failure. The density of this lexicon is quite extraordinary. Examples include:

  • How do we kick it [change] off?
  • Kotter argues that many change projects fail because victory is declared too early.
  • Quick wins are only the beginning of what needs to be done.
  • ‘…striving to accomplish pre-determined goals or objectives…
  • The use of specific tactics can also smooth the change process.
  • …emphasises the need for keeping in the win-win area.
  • Targets will be set by the line manager and/or the management of the area and must support the goals of the department.
  • Coaching is about helping someone to get the best performance out of themselves – the potential for which was already there. Coaching is about releasing that potential.
  • This simple model takes the three questions of the sports coach

More concerning is the appearance of metaphors of war in relation to performance management.

  • …how to motivate survivors of a savage round of downsizing.
  • When people feel they are under attack, one response is to become defensive. This might result in territory battles
  • I quickly spot, and take advantage of, weaknesses in competitors.
  • Such individuals are not overtly self-protective or inclined to wage turf wars.
  • What might you do to sabotage your own efforts to reach this goal?

Examples such as these fit with a neoliberal conception of universities as competitive, not collaborative, and concerned with dominance. How often have we heard about education and its role in making us ‘internationally competitive’?  The aim is to win, or, even better, to win-win. We notice that a discourse is created in which it is acceptable (or even encouraged and celebrated) to exploit implied ‘weaknesses’ in a competitor or opponent.

As the opportunities for research funding diminish and panic escalates, the metaphors become more alarmingly violent. I have seen one university’s research newsletter which features cartoons and images depicting research as a gruelling, tortuous process. Achieving impact, for example, is illustrated with a mallet poised to crack an egg. The process of peer review is portrayed in a cartoon where a white-coated scientist is set to run a gauntlet of enemies with swords, cudgels, axes, a chainsaw and at the end the grim reaper ready to strike him down. The ‘welcome to the new academic year’ email from one vice chancellor mentioned that they had enjoyed a two-week holiday getting acquainted with a new chainsaw, which they had found ‘therapeutic’. This was taken by the appalled employees to have both a literal and a metaphorical meaning. One academic, recently promoted, was told they were on a ‘burning platform’ with a time-limited window before successful progression to the next level would be expected.

The work of academics and their experience with the management and structures of the university is presented as an exercise in mortification of the body and psyche. We are seemingly imprisoned in the logic of these metaphors, with all their neoliberal ideological underpinnings. With repetition, this discourse is normalised and institutionalised as a commendable activity; the danger is that we become desensitized to our own objectification.

It is only too evocative of the disintegration of public discourse in the recent US election. We are now left to contemplate the widespread endorsement of bullying, boastfulness and aggression. On Channel 4 News, reporting on the eve of the election Kylie Morris asked, ‘is this a permanent retreat from civility’? It probably is. Another academic colleague emailed this commentary: “the fact that we are asked/required/disciplined to become ever more the hard, ruthless, competitive, economistic, justice-indifferent, homogenised, torture-normalising/enduring, Embodied Metric while all of this is going on, says just about everything.”

References

Klikauer, Thomas. 2013. Managerialism. Houndmills: Palgrave MacMillan.

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