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Farewell to the academic gift economy?

Thomas Hylland Eriksen

 

Translation of article written for Dagbladet on 9 July 2006.


 

This English version is slightly different from the Norwegian one, which was inspired by the publication of, and subsequent media hum around, a campus novel written by the linguist Helene Uri, who resigned from her university job about a year before I wrote my article. Think Malcolm Bradbury/David Lodge, and you get the general idea.


* * *


There is presently much talk about networking, jealousy, plagiarism and similar perfidities in the academic system. It is about time that we begin to discuss why nobody can spare the time to do anything for free any more.

All good parents try to teach their children that the important things in life are free. This is also how it ought to be in the academic world, but after fifteen years of mounting student numbers, activity planning, auditing, efficiency-enhancing measures and reforms [I’m referring to Norway, but the situation is comparable elsewhere], it no longer appears thus. Today, what matters is everything that can be counted and measured, and in the last instance, this means death for the free exchange of knowledge.

Helene Uri’s recent novel De beste blant oss [The best os us] opens several secret passages in the university labyrinth. In particular, it paints a vivid picture of phenomena such as nepotism and personal vendettas, cheating and plagiarism, jealousy and deception; but it also has a few interesting things to say about the closed circuits and musty corners of academia, as well as the vain unwillingness to popularise. Yet like all descriptions of the lived life the book is incomplete, and one important dimension of university life is missing both in the novel and in its reception. Much of the disillusion and unhappiness in today’s universities is caused by the fact that their academic employees are about to be deprived of the right to spend a fair proportion of their working hours doing free work for others.

A good academic publishes both nationally and internationally. It may indeed often seem as if books and articles published are all that counts. However, those of us who work inside the system know otherwise. It is gratifying to have one’s work published wherever one likes, but the publications are part of a larger ecology kept going by a very substantial amount of largely unrecognized work. Those who publish without contributing to this invisible ecology may rightly be considered freeriders.

 



The good academic supervises, teaches and encourages students without hesitation, and does her best even when she is asked to teach courses she is tired of or uninterested in. She organises workshops and conferences, reads and comments upon draft manuscripts by collegues, and she responds to emails even from students towards whom she has no formal obligations. She accepts to sit on committees and to take part in exhausting evaluations, and she referees manuscripts for journals and publishers. Sometimes she has to get up at four thirty to catch the seven o’clock flight to Bergen or Stockholm, in order to give a guest lecture or examine a dissertation. She often goes to research seminars, and she accepts time-consuming administrative tasks at her own department.

Much of this work is anonymous, and it is either unpaid or remunerated with a symbolic fee.

It is sometimes said that one has to build networks and alliances in order to have a career in the university system. Such a strategy may work to one’s benefit unless one is revealed to be a shallow opportunist, but it is neither necessary nor sufficient. Allow me to illustrate.

Department X has a vacent post, and the scientific committee is left with a shortlist of two candidates after a tortuous process of sifting and discarding. Candidate A has published in the best journals of the discipline, he has published several books with good academic publishers, and has been awarded a prize for his research. Candidate B has published less, but he has edited several books, has organised conferences with international participation, has supervised half a dozen students to their doctoral degrees, has excellent student evaluations from his many courses, and has served as both board member and editor in professional contexts.

Who is best qualified for the job? Or rather: Who is Department X likely to hire? Probably, the department will choose Candidate A, who brings prestige and money to the place. However, Candidate A is rarely in his office outside his weekly meeting hour, since he is busy with his research and hates to be disturbed. Candidate B, on the other hand, is a sociable man, interested in what his collegues are up to; he enjoys discussing the latest journal articles with collegues, mentions relevant new books to doctoral students he happens to meet in the corridor, responds indiscriminately to any email that comes his way, encourages people and makes them feel significant, and generously shares his ideas with anyone who cares to listen

Most university academics know several specimens of both A and B, and few doubt who they’d prefer as a colleague. Also, nobody doubts who enjoys the highest prestige and is most likely to get tenure and promotion.

In this contrast we find one of the greatest problems in today’s academic system. Most of us who are involved in research and teaching may wish to be Candidates A and B rolled into one. We want to contribute to that which can be measured (chiefly publications at the highest professional level), and to that which cannot be measured (active participation in a community), but every year, this combination is becoming more difficult to manage. Recently, many of us have noticed that it has become increasingly difficult to persuade colleagues to sit on committees, evaluate articles for journals, turn up at seminars and so on. (For the record: I, too, politely say no thanks more often than I used to.)

If the academic gift economy – whereby we offer each other intangibles and are tied to each other through vague debts of gratitude – should be phased out entirely, the result would be a disaster for the development of knowledge

For knowledge to thrive, it must be shared, and the obligation goes both ways. Someone has to serve as head of department, someone has to go to the board meetings, someone has to fill in the Excel sheets for the professional association. (With a bit of luck, they get a bottle of wine or a bouquet of flowers at the Christmas party.) Some have to teach the unrewarding courses and mark the students’ papers. Some must get up at four thirty to mark MA dissertations in Tromsø. And some must keep the conversation going in the tea room. If nobody “has the time” to do any of these unglamorous but necessary tasks, one no longer has a professional environment; one is simply left with a collection of individuals following their own projects.

It is evident that quality, in all meanings of the word, suffers enormously if the best scholars withdraw and certain courses are taught exclusively by young teaching assistants, if no top researchers decide to spend half a day evaluating an article for a journal, if seminars with invited lecturers from abroad have an average attendance of less than a dozen, and if nobody has the time any more to chat about the latest theories in Darwinist kinship research over the percolator. You cannot publish in a refereed journal if no colleagues see fit to be the referees!

A critique of academia should take on informal networking and stupid arrogance, and recent debate [in Norway] has called attention to such phenomena. Nevertheless, the critique is incomplete unless it takes into account the profound disappointment experienced by many academics when they discover that the present regime does not encourage unmeasurable contributions to the knowledge community – not to mention the consequences for that coveted resource in academic newspeak, excellence.