A recent post on Stuff About Unis reminded me of an academic ‘networking’ experience a few years ago. It is always interesting to be an onlooker to the internal workings of another university, as opposed to viewing the public face of an institution at a conference. On this occasion, I was visiting an Australian university which has frequently been cited as a trailblazer for the neoliberal academy. Through a local contact, I managed to secure a place on a staff development workshop, designed to groom mid-career academics in the image of the ideal university employee (Morrissey 2015). Normally, at my own institution, I would have scorned such a workshop, but this was a chance to be a fly on the wall, and to decode the culture of another university’s management.
The presenter was offering the participants the benefit of his experience in effective academic networking and collaboration. The advice he extended seemed to be geared to the rather younger academic than the assembled mid-career constituency rather reluctantly gathered before him, as he revealed that, early on, he had decided to “surround myself with excellence”. How to do this? One brief role play required us to imagine this scenario – you are at a conference and find yourself at lunch standing next to the keynote speaker. What ‘chat up’ line would you use, in order to make yourself memorable to this heavyweight, who might subsequently facilitate your self-promotion strategy? Apparently, the route to advancement is mediated through high quality academic partners who “make you look good”. I listened with my jaw progressively slackening; I had never been exposed before to such shamelessly direct exhortations to actualise self-serving sycophancy.
There was more. Building your network should feature high on your one-page career plan, which should be complemented with evidence of your esteem indicators. Your network should be viewed as an asset, and as essential to your CV as any actual professional accomplishments. However, networking and collaboration were defined in extremely limited ways. Partnerships were only viable if they led to outcomes – publications, grant application etc. There seemed to be no room for conversation, mentoring, interest groups, blogging etc. Instead, you were to be measured by the size and geographical spread of your network, and critically, by the status of its participants.
This presenter viewed networking as purely strategic. On the other hand, for many of us, it is experienced as a series of happy accidents, fortuitous collisions of minds, and sometimes bodies, at conferences. Collaborations are driven as often by personal appeal as they are by pure intellectual attraction. I was startled at the apparent contradiction between the stated aim of the workshop – collaboration – and the rather vulgar focus on individualism which animated this particular model of the developing academic career. I wondered how this sat with the HR representative in charge of the Academic Development program, positioned at the back of the room – how was this aligning with the wider mission of the university which surely is not just a vehicle for furthering the priorities of the individual?
At Neoliberal U the individual academic is also responsible for managing their time so that the proliferation of demands must be accommodated unproblematically. In the presenter’s own department, he has forbidden staff to claim they are too busy to take on new projects, organise seminars orwork with new partnerships. The individual should just learn to ‘work smart’. The self-managing academic must become the over-worked academic apparently.
I did come away with some good ideas about networking and collaboration. Go to conferences and talk to people you don’t know, not the other people from your institution. Look for collaborations outside of your own department within your university. However, I was also concerned that institutional impediments to networking were discussed, but I felt they were unlikely to be addressed. University managers have, for some years, sought to dismantle academic culture and sense of community which is seen as threatening to managerialist governmentality. Institutional loyalty is preferred to dangerously off-message subject affiliations, particularly in the ‘critical’ disciplines. Part of the management strategy has been the removal of social spaces where academics might actually mingle and coincidentally realise commonalities and opportunities for research. In a similarly self-defeating vein, REF culture in the UK has, because of research selectivity, and institutional research priorities, set limits on inter-unit collaboration. And so it must be re-built, but in a way which reinforces the neoliberal preoccupation with competition and audit.
The above image shows just how, in the intervening few years, the practice of self-audit has risen to the top of the agenda, particularly in Russell Group Universities. Some academics now include their H-index in their email signature, as some kind of self- nominated esteem indicator. This has led to a crisis of status-consciousness among academics. Rather than telling you what their research is about, they will often regale you with the star ratings of their ‘outputs’ and the impact factor of their target journals.
So I can agree with Stuff About Unis that networking-by-metrics seems artificial, joyless and poisoned. The “light presence of instrumentality”, it seems, is turning out to be a heavier presence than any of us might wish for.
Morrissey, J (2015) ‘Regimes of Performance: Practices of the Normalised Self in the Neoliberal University’. British Journal Of Sociology Of Education, 36 (4):614-634.