Marina Warner, David Graeber and the perils of paperworkby Jonathan Derbyshire / March 13, 2015 / Leave a comment
I was an academic in a previous life, and occasionally people ask me why I left the university to work in a “dying industry” (print journalism, that is). Occasionally—very occasionally—I ask myself the same question. But a conversation with those of my contemporaries from graduate school who stuck it out—and there are a few, along with the man who jacked it in after doing a PhD on the early Heidegger and went on to make millions in the biotech industry—is usually sufficient cure for any lingering nostalgia I might have for the senior common room. Reading a powerful piece this week in the London Review of Books by the writer and critic Marina Warner had much the same effect.
Last year, Warner resigned a teaching post in creative writing at the University of Essex that she’d held for a decade. Having been encouraged by university managers to chair a literary prize and also to accept the offer of a fellowship at All Souls—all this, her superiors reasoned, being grist to the “research assessment” mill—she was subsequently informed that “policy had now changed” and she would be required to teach full-time. She wrote about the experience and was deluged by correspondence from academics and students “howling in sympathy and rage”. “I had thought that Essex was a monstrous manifestation,” she writes in her follow-up, “but it turns out that its rulers’ ideas are ‘the new normal’…” Warner quotes a letter from an anonymous professor “who resigned from a Russell Group university”: “Although the department was excellent, it was freighted to breaking point with imperious and ill-conceived demands from much higher up the food chain… Huge administrative duties were often announced with deadlines for completion only a few days later. We had to spend hours filling in time-and-motion forms to prove we weren’t bunking off when we were supposed to be doing our research and writing during the summer ‘vacation’… It was like working for a cross between IBM, with vertiginous hierarchies of command, and McDonald’s.”