Or: How to Become a Model Neoliberal Academic Subject.
If you’ve met me recently, online or offline, you’ll know that I’m in the middle of finishing my PhD dissertation. That’s to say: I’m in the middle of finishing a manuscript, a book, the largest piece of writing I’ve ever written. Some 90.000 words, excluding bibliography.
So it should not come as a surprise that writing and everything related to it have been on my mind these past months. How to reduce procrastination time and be more effective in my time management? How to overcome writer’s blocks and deal with the anxiety that comes with trying to finish up a project like this? How to edit your own text and how to be satisfied with what you’ve written?
Because I’m nerdy like that, I also love reading, thinking, talking and even writing about writing. Yeah, that’s some ‘meta’ stuff! The genre of self-help books and articles for academics are a rich resource here. For a PhD seminar on academic writing offered at the Institute for Gender Studies (RIP) at Radboud University, we are having a seminar on academic writing. The text that was assigned to prepare for the session is Write to the Top: How to Become a Prolific Academic Writer (Johnson and Mullen 2007).
As I was reading this book, I noticed myself becoming increasingly angry and pissed off. Not just about this particular text, but about the discourse it represents: a neoliberal discourse about productivity and efficiency in academic work. I got so angry, that I was even spurred to write this blog as a response – well, Johnson and Mullen achieved something there!
To start with the positive: there are definitely some very helpful and practical tips to be found in this book. For example, there is the good advice to take your writing seriously and to make it a habit to write every day. I also agree with the tip of scheduling uninterrupted time for writing in your workweek and to take this ‘appointment’ with your writing as seriously as you would other appointments like teaching or meetings. There are also tips about how to structure such writing blocks, and practical advice about the publishing process.
But the main problem in this book and others in this genre is the neoliberal undertone, which puts the responsibility for the success of writing squarely with the individual scholar, eclipsing the structural conditions of contemporary academic life. I’ll go into three pieces of advice by Johnson & Mullen that I find deeply disturbing. I’ll juxtapose these with passages from Rosalind Gill’s insightful article “Breaking the Silence: The Hidden Injuries of Neoliberal Academia” (2010).
Tip 1) It’s not work if you’re doing what you love!
For Johnson and Mullen, writing and other academic labour should be considered a ‘vocation’ rather than a ‘job’. While many may agree that you should be driven by an inner motivation as a scholar, in the context of increasing precarization of academic labour this seemingly harmless argument can easily slip into something more disturbing. Consider the following passage:
When external rewards (e.g., cash) are applied to an activity that a person does for pleasure (e.g., writing), that activity often decreases in frequency—its positive valence declines. What was once done for the love of the activity becomes tied to one’s livelihood and thus associated with an onerous demand. Imagine your dean standing outside the door each day when you walked into teach, handing you a few twenties to compensate you for that day’s work. Although the thought of this individual giving you money might be appealing on some level, you get the point; soon, teaching would begin to feel less like a vocation and more like a job. Slowly, extrinsic incentives would upstage intrinsic rewards. (Johnson and Mullen 2007, 4-5).
Wait a minute… Are they seriously saying that it’s a bad thing to be paid for the work you do? Just because you ‘love’ something, does not mean it is not work and does not deserve to be compensated financially!
Just imagine being paid for teaching by the university (that dean standing at the door with a few twenties)– what a ludicrous idea!
Imagine writing not just because it’s so much fun, but as a job – how unappealing!
With these comments, Johnson and Mullen reveal themselves to be very blind to the contemporary working conditions in academia, which are characterized by precarity and casualisation, especially for younger academics. The discourse about academia as a vocation is strongly connected to these working conditions. Rosalind Gill comments:
the academic’s refusal to grubby his or her hands with talk about money is related to the idea of scholarship as a ‘noble’ calling or vocation — a fact that is probably not unrelated to our failure over many decades to secure pay deals that even keep pace with inflation. Financial hardship can be masked- and rendered difficult to speak of – by academics’ educational and cultural capital. (Gill 2010)
In other words, this rhetoric of ‘vocation’ that Johnson and Mullen advocate, along with their distaste for financial compensation, is the same logic that makes young academics accept work on shortterm contract after shortterm contract without view of anything permanent, and accepting payment that does not even equate to minimal wage.
But they are doing what they love, so it should not matter that they don’t have a pension… Right? Right?… Yeah, right!
Tip 2) Just work all the time! Time off is for losers!
Since writing is not a job but a vocation, it’s also not something that you really need a break from, Johnson and Mullen seem to think. In fact, they even advocate taking your manuscript with you on holiday!
You will find yourself traveling to a convention or a speaking engagement, as well as taking holidays and vacations, so why not bring along your laptop and writing files? Both of us have enjoyed writing articles, books, and proposals on jaunts around the world as well as in beach condos. Spring and summer breaks offer ideal times for achieving major progress on writing projects. In these instances, create a writing schedule before departing for a vacation or a conference: Discipline yourself to steal moments or even hours while away to get some important work done. Even at crowded conventions or on long travel days, “down time” can occur as an unexpected surprise. (Johnson and Mullen 2007, 19).
Sorry to break it you: if you’re ‘getting important work done’, it is not called a holiday. It is worktime. If you are disciplining yourself and creating schedules, it is not ‘down time’. It is worktime.
What a sad vision.. And what’s worse: what an unproductive one. Call me naïve, but I strongly believe in evenings, weekends, holidays and down-time as essential parts of being a whole person (something Johnson & Mullen advocate) as well as being a productive researcher and writer. You cannot be ‘on’ 24/7, and you really don’t need to feel guilty about taking time off.
This mania about working all the time is unhealthy and ultimately unproductive. Of course, I write this as a PhD researcher in the Netherlands, with good working conditions and the ‘luxury’ to take holidays. Maybe I’ll think differently about this if/when I will be doing a postdoc or trying to secure tenure. Maybe I won’t be able to ‘afford’ time off at a later stage in my career. But even if that were the case, I hope that that could be recognized as a problem, instead of seeing it as some sort of perverse virtue, as Johnson and Mullen seem to advocate.
Tip 3) Become a Robot! Or: How to write a book while the pasta cooks.
The last piece of great advice that Johnson & Mullen offer is to just be more efficient! To do this, they suggest tracking your time to find out where you can make gains.
Given the presumed constant of a 24-hour day, where does each of those precious 1440 minutes go? For a period of one week—including the weekend—keep a log of how you spend each 15-minute segment. Be specific. Rather than write “in office” or “working on administrative tasks” for a one-hour period between classes, specify exactly what you did. Be just as concrete with your description of evening and weekend hours. After diligently time-tracking for even one day, academics are often surprised and chagrined to realize how much of their discretionary time is offered up to the gods of distraction and inefficiency. Unnecessary, and often redundant, activities (e.g., browsing the Web, checking for new e-mail messages, chatting with colleagues, watching television) often occupy a prominent place in the daily log. Reflect soberly on your daily time allocation. Even if two hours of time each workday, and probably more on the weekend, are currently not well spent, think of the increase in writing time this would mean. What could you accomplish with an additional 15 hours of time to engage in scholarship each week? (Johnson and Mullen 2007, 8-9).
Browsing the web and chatting with colleagues, my goodness, it’s now obvious why I haven’t finished that PhD yet… And what do you do once you know where all that extra writing time is going? Streamline your calendar!
In our experience, extra writing time can be captured where none existed simply by being prepared to do some work in such circumstances as sitting in a doctor’s office waiting for an appointment, standing in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles, sitting in your office during a half-hour stretch between classes or meetings, during down-time at a convention, waiting for repairs to be completed on your car, for a child’s soccer practice to end, or even standing around in your kitchen while pasta cooks. (16)
For me, this reads like a parody of itself. Writing while cooking pasta: now that’s taking multi-tasking to the absurd. While you’re at it, why don’t you just become a robot instead of a human being! Why talk to colleagues at all? Who has time to watch their kids soccer practice or stand around waiting for the water to boil when they could be writing their next award-winning article at the same time!
In the neoliberal academy, the ‘solution’ to a heavy workload that leaves little to no time to write and think is often put on the individual academic, instead of looking at it as a structural problem and an organizational issue. As Rosalind Gill comments:
This is a collective, structural problem that is a direct result of workloads which leave many people with no ‘slack’ to take on anything beyond that which is directly required of them. Yet once again there is no discussion of this as an institutional or organisational issue. Instead universities ‘help’ staff to deal with these new intensified conditions with a barrage of ‘training courses’ (most of which we have no time to attend) which cover topics such as ‘time management’, ‘speed reading’, and ‘prioritising goals’, and require each individual to work on the self to better manage proliferating workloads, as if there were a technical fix (oh it’ll all be alright if I only check email once a day – why didn’t I think of that?! I’ll just pick all 115 of them up at 5 o’clock then I can stay up all night answering them!) while actively refusing any ‘reality check’ on the sustainability of contemporary academic workloads. (Gill 2010)
Here, Gill exposes clearly the ridiculousness of these ‘solutions’ like those suggested by Jonson & Mullen. While they think the answer can be found in individual efficiency, that that can only take you so far.
A Different Path? The Slow Scholarship Movement
I see so many colleagues on the verge of a burn out, that I find these tips depressing rather than inspiring. Johnson & Mullen offer not a model of how to become a prolific academic writer, but rather a handbook on how to become a model neoliberal academic subject. As Rosalind Gill warns:
All this happens in a context in which not only has the boundary between work and play (or non-work) become completely corroded, but in which we are deeply invested in and passionately attached to work — indeed, we often draw no distinction between our work and ourselves (and again there are powerful parallels with creative workers here)… We therefore need urgently to think about how some of the pleasures of academic work (or at least a deep love for the ‘myth’ of what we thought being an intellectual would be like, but often seems at far remove from it) bind us more tightly into a neoliberal regime with ever-growing costs, not least to ourselves. Lauren Berlant’s work on ‘cruel optimism’ may be helpful here in showing how such passionate investment (eg in the myth of the academic good life) allows us to survive, whilst simultaneously making things worse. (Gill 2010)
I think we have to really watch out as critical scholars not to fall into the traps of neoliberal academia. While undoubtedly well intended, the ‘tips’ offered by Johnson and Mullen are more destructive than productive.
Instead of listening to tips like these, I think we have to take seriously the emerging movement for ‘slow scholarship’ (Mountz et al. 2015, Hartman and Darab 2012). In their text For Slow Scholarship: A Feminist Politics of Resistance through Collective Action in the Neoliberal University, a collective of feminist geographers offer concrete tips to resist this neoliberal model: tips to ‘move deliberately through a fast world’. Those are the types of tips I would like to see discussed in a Gender Studies PhD seminar on academic writing – not the neoliberal checklist offered by Johnson and Cullen. Not how we can excell within a broken system, but how we can work to change that system, make it work for us and for a feminist ethics of care.
Let’s just face it: academic work takes time. It should take time. Books are not written while the pasta boils. Talking to your colleagues is not a waste of time – that’s called dialogue and exchange, and it’s a crucial element of academic life. Productivity is not holy, and time off is not optional. We’ve got to resist this neoliberal academic discourse!
Gill, Rosalind. 2010. “Breaking the silence: The hidden injuries of neo-liberal academia.” In Secrecy and Silence in the Research Process : Feminist Reflections, edited by Róisín Ryan-Flood and Rosalind Gill. London: Routledge
Johnson, W. Brad, and Carol A. Mullen. 2007. Write to the top! How to become a prolific academic. 1. ed. ed. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Mountz, A., M. Walton-Roberts, A. Bonds, B. Mansfield, J. Loyd, J. Hyndman, R. Basu, R. Whitson, R. Hawkins, T. Hamilton, and W. Curran. 2015. “For slow scholarship: A feminist politics of resistance through collective action in the Neoliberal University.” ACME no. 14 (4):1235-1259.