Our goodwill counts for nothing on the list

December 17, 2004

A good old-fashioned favour means little in credit-scoring times, says Frank Furedi

Academics seem constantly to be making lists. I don't just mean designing reading lists. We are continually asked to provide lists of publications, lists of teaching commitments, lists of administrative duties, lists of grants. List-making has become an important by-product of the trend towards the formalisation of university life. Many observers have rightly complained that this tendency has the unfortunate effect of privileging the quantitative over the qualitative. The figures that universities produce often mystify rather than clarify. Worse still, list-making can result in the really vital part of everyday informal academic life - which is not quantified - becoming discounted.

Academics are frequently asked to perform duties that are in some sense "voluntary" or a response to gentle informal pressure.

Participating in an academic community involves relations of reciprocity, collaboration, cooperation and mutual support. It is astounding how much we take each other for granted. I sometimes get an email requesting me to comment on an article written by someone I do not know for a publication that I do not know much about. I cannot think of many professions where relative strangers feel that they are entitled to ask you to give up some of your time to undertake an unpaid and unrecognised assignment.

Yet it is these taken-for-granted informal arrangements that underpin the life of an academic community. We are constantly asked to review applications for research grants. Writing letters of references is part of our normal routine. You might also get an email or a phone call asking you to serve as an external examiner for a PhD student who is based at the other end of the country. This task can represent a significant claim on your time, but not nearly as much as a three-year stint as an external examiner. And just when you thought that you had the weekend to yourself, a publisher contacts you and asks for comments on a manuscript that it is considering for publication.

I am pleasantly surprised that, most of the time, academics can rely on colleagues for help. But how much longer can we rely on goodwill and a culture of academic cooperation? The tendency towards auditing university life has encouraged the formalisation of the academic's role and activities. The main consequence of this trend is to turn the informal give and take between academics into a transaction. Something very important changes when we manage our affairs according to formal procedures. For a start, we become less reliant on spontaneity, intuition and individual judgement. We become less generous with our time and less experimental in the way we interact.

As a new academic, I was asked to give the odd lecture by colleagues in philosophy, English, politics and history. It was assumed that I would find it fun and that students would gain something from hearing a different take on their subject. Colleagues are now far less likely to be asked to lecture across disciplines because such informal arrangements sit uneasily with the institution of auditing. Issues such as who is to get the credit make the pursuit of genuine interdisciplinarity a confusing and eccentric activity.

The auditing imperative not only encourages purposeless form-filling and list-making, it also prevents academics undertaking informal arrangements, acting on their intuition or just being good citizens and mates.

Formalising relations in academia erodes the incentive to collaborate with and support colleagues. It has an invidious and corrosive effect on morale and serves to undermine one of the best features of academic work. It is all a big drag since it is nice to do things because you want to and not because it will make its way onto a list.

Frank Furedi is professor of sociology, Kent University.

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