Tag Archives: university

Authority and failure

2 Oct

I have come to realise the crucial role of authority. The point is not to have authority over others so as to dominate them, but rather authority over yourself, your decisions, your production, your thinking. Unless you assume a position of authority over your life, others will do it for you and use your time and effort for their own purposes, at your disadvantage and at the cost of your integrity and, possibly, your dignity. This happened to me and my work recently, and is particularly difficult to handle when the attack comes from people who have institutionalized power over my work and, by extension, over me. This is why, according to Mictlantecuhtli, “You have to have a resistance identity”. Failing an important stage of my academic work was a major blow. I’ve been reflecting on the experience over the last two weeks and, after talking to trustworthy friends and academics, I have come to the following conclusions:

1) The main cause of my failure is institutional. It is due to internal tensions and power games in my department, as well as to defective supervision.

2) The efforts I made with my work in order to patch things up, fulfill partly unspoken expectations, and obey impossible demands only made matters worse. I lost the authority I had over my work and omitted to give strong, clear direction to the project at large.

It is very difficult for me to believe in these conclusions. My immediate context is telling me that I have failed because my work was defective and I therefore deserved to fail. Failure is making me feel like an outsider, thereby further damaging my research identity and creating a pressing need for the development of a “resistance identity” to counter the process. Mictlantecuhtli writes that “Standard academic advice is designed to interdict the creation of such a thing. It says you have to work harder, work “smarter” and so on; it alleges that everything is under your control and anything that goes wrong, went wrong because you did not follow instructions.” The analysis is apt because it points out the covertly abusive nature of much of the advice we get, which only serves to reinforce the ideology of the institution. Basically, the system is right, and if you fail, you aren’t worthy of the system and must make amends (or the system may be wrong but it is what it is, so deal with it – which amounts to the same thing: subservience/compliance).

Authority must become my priority. It is not an authority that I will use to dominate others but an authority I will exercize over myself in order to become more assertive, protect my needs, and develop my project. Instead of trusting other authorities with the direction of my work, I will become self-reliant. I will no longer passively nurture the thoughts that:

– I do not have a strong enough sense of authority in the project AND I do not realize this
– I do not think of myself as the person in charge, but as a worker on the line
– I do not think of myself as the person with expertise, but as the implementer

I will make a conscious effort in order to determine why my work has value. Instead of following doubtful advice and attempting to work through distrust, I will use authority in order to define, shape and, when the time comes, defend my project against external attacks.

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Academic freedom?

6 Sep

When I was a student at university, I idealized academe in spite of all the inconsistencies I saw. I believed that it was possible to be a free spirit within that institution and pursue vital, personal interests in a stimulating context of exchange. The idea that such a freedom exists is part of academia’s founding myths. Although it may look like tenure professors have the liberty to think and act freely, they can only be critical as long as they do not apply their ideas to the workplace, as long as they do not directly threaten the dominance hierarchy that constitutes the university. Jeff Schmidt says that “Academic freedom is given to those who will be least likely to use it”. You have it “to the extent that you can express views that your employer would not otherwise allow you to express”. But According to this definition, the few who dare challenge the institution stand out: “That’s what activists do: things that they weren’t hired to do”. Which is why some of them get fired.

The idealism I used to nurture also made me believe that I could sublimate my need for action by investing it into theory or that “ideas can change the world”. Rancourt points out that “truth and research are not threatening to power in a culture of subservience and obedience. In such a culture, radical-in-thought academics only stabilize the system by neutralizing the more action-minded youth”. In short, it is not enough to be a radical intellectual, you also need to engage in radical praxis. All too often, universities (as well as other institutions in my experience – when you’re lucky) promote discourse as a safe substitute for action. I have learned that I can express ideas if I lay them out in the appropriate format, carefully back them up with established sources, and cut myself off from the practical implications of the theories I develop. It seems that my credibility as a scholar depends on it. Now I increasingly wonder: is there a space for free thinkers? The more I examine the institution, the less I believe that university provides such an environment. Is academic freedom only a façade?

The disciplined writer

6 Aug

This time I am going to argue in favour of discipline, but only insofar as it comes from yourself. Being well organized – ensuring, for instance, that you make regular progress on your project – makes you more independant. You define your own goals and stay in charge of where your work is leading you. Waiting for deadlines to draw near forces you to work under external pressure and procrastinating is sure to make you feel guilty for engaging in important activities that are not work-related. You may even work all day, accumulating hours that aren’t productive at all. I like to get up early, write for a relatively short time (one to three hours) and then move on to different activities. Being disciplined allows me to retain a sense of potency in other areas of my life and remain my own master. Although intellectual work is crucial to me I also believe in praxis, in creativity, in community, and I need to protect my time in order to stay engaged in the world.

As I wrote in my previous post, there are exceptions to this, times when I feel it is necessary to reflect on my writing from a certain distance. I sometimes wonder if I truly own my academic project since at least some of my achievement will be claimed by the institution in the end. By being organized and limiting the time I spend on it, I nevertheless make sure that academia doesn’t control my entire life. Working efficiently forces me to stay focused on the essential, a skill which also allows me to steal time from paid jobs for personal projects on occasion.

The undisciplined writer

3 Aug

I have been working on an academic project for some time, and it generates a lot of anxiety: am I good enough, is this what the supervisor is looking for, is my work adequate? Such questions create a context of insecurity which compells me to ask for reassurance. It forces me to be dependant on voices of authority and hinders me from building self-trust and confidence. In order to become a productive writer, I have trained myself to set up a schedule, get up early in the morning, and track the results. However, discipline means nothing in and of itself. There is no need to scare myself into looking for validation constantly because it takes energy away from my work and stifles all creativity. When I started my project I believed that pushing myself intellectually would be liberating but, now that I am further along the process and more critical towards the institution, I can see that liberation will derive from my approach to my work and whether or not I have to give up my own agency, whether or not the project becomes an exercise in self-delusion and self-indoctrination. There are times when I neglect my work for some time because I am following a different train of thought, reading books that have nothing to do with it, looking at another theoretical school, or being creative. This used to make me feel guilty and inadequate.

To be “undiscplined”, as I intend to reframe it now, is to be a complete human being who refuses the atomization of her life. Knowledge is so compartmentalized that it can easily prevent one from making links between subjects and interpreting theory in terms of one’s experience. Yet whenever I express my desire to look into other things, the response I receive is “finish your project first”. As if meaning could be postponed indefinitely; as if no future obligations were lurking behind the current project; as if new activities and ways of thinking did not have the capacity to transform the project under construction. Is it because we fear the true potential of thought that we confine it to strictly delineated contours (in terms of field, methodology, and politics)? Are we so afraid of freedom that we need the constant reassurance that authority is on our side?