You need to know more than you think ...

October 24, 2003

Many academics see themselves as mavericks who have to go their own way. This outdated view is bad for everyone, says Bob Brecher

Are you thinking of ignoring your manager and ploughing your own furrow? Well, don't. Don't even think of doing either of these things. You need to know what managers are up to, and ignoring them won't help. Even more important, you need that furrow you want to plough to be one that you share with your colleagues, not something you do in splendid - and splendidly exposed - isolation. Get it wrong on either of these counts and your job really might become even less safe than it probably already is.

The odd genius apart, the days of the lonely furrow - perhaps better described as the days of the gentleman of leisure - are over. And we should not mourn their passing in a fit of introverted nostalgia. Quite the contrary; we should welcome their demise. In the first place, almost all intellectual work is fundamentally cooperative, whether on the large scale of the natural sciences or medicine, or in terms of the informal conversations of philosophers or art historians. So let's not pretend otherwise.

In the second place, our jobs are specifically academic ones, which is to say that, for better or worse, we are employees of specific institutions.

And that means, for nearly all of us, keeping our jobs; which in turn means getting and keeping students - and that requires teaching them decent courses, not some smorgasbord of more or less idiosyncratic modules, most of them carefully tailored to ensure either that they make no great demands on anyone (the "popularity" strategy) or that hardly anyone takes them (the "Dr Piercemüller" strategy, a rather high-risk one these days). Students, managers or both will, sooner or later, see through all that; and as no module is safer than the course of which it is a part, no one's job is safer than anyone else's in anything but the very short term. And that's just the pragmatic argument.

There's a principled argument, too, and one that deserves more of an airing than it usually gets. Isn't it better, in all sorts of ways, to work with your colleagues rather than to work against them? Collegiality might be an old-fashioned idea, but that's no reason to ditch it in favour of so-called market values.

Come to think of it, why not put the two arguments together to get a third: cooperation is more fun than competition. Extend the idea beyond academic colleagues to administrators, janitors, technicians and cleaners - and even to students - and who knows, the managerialist tide of commodified philistinism that is running over our universities might even be turned back.

And management will not go away if you ignore it, even from the apparent safety of the eyrie you happen, luckily, to find yourself in. It will just get its own way more easily because neither you nor your colleagues will be there to put up a fight. You won't even know what and when you need to fight - let alone how - unless you make it your business to find out all you possibly can about what they are up to. And then you might even find you can exploit the contradictions between what your management preaches and what it practises, whether it be with born-again fervour or genuine reluctance.

Either way, you can't fight management on your own: so if you're not already in a trade union, join one. And don't forget that collectively we can say "no". If more of us - whether lecturers or vice-chancellors - had done just that over the past 20 years, we wouldn't be in the state we're in today. We might not even have had to be asking these questions.

Bob Brecher is reader in moral philosophy at the University of Brighton.

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