When I go on the road – as I have just done – I always try to take with me a couple of slim volumes that I can dip in and out of. These are not the academic equivalent of airport novels. Rather, they are often books with quite serious philosophical intent. However, I look for books that aren’t a dense read. The ones I carry with me are those that I think I can read a bit and then stop and think about as I move around.
On this last trip I carried Gerald Raunig’s most recent book ”Factories of Knowledge: Industries of Creativity” (2013) in which he analyses contemporary global politics and sources of opposition to them. One section early in the book examines twenty-eight tendencies of the contemporary knowledge economy ‘edu-factory’, the university. Four of Raunig’s twenty-eight ‘tendencies’ concern academic writing, and they did give me quite some pause for thought. I quote them here in full – they’re not long – they do give a good indication of the overall critique he makes.
13. Wild and transversal writing is tamed and fed into the creativity-destroying apparatuses of disciplining institutions as early as possible. Here, students are instructed in the splendid art of how to write a scientific article, how, in other words, to squeeze the last vestiges of their powers of invention into the straitjacket of the essay industry.
14. In the norming of academic writing the requirement of methodological self-reflection is preeminent. Before the writers can proceed to any kind of content, let alone political positioning, they practice subjecting themselves to the fetish of method.
15. The chief means for taming wild writing is the academic journal, particularly in its peer-reviewed form. Originally introduced as a way of enhancing objectivity the peer review has long since become an instrument of (self) government, and as such bolsters existing structures and encourages their system of inclusion and exclusion.
16. The hegemony of English language journals has brought about a crass uniformity in the languages in which academics can publish. This tendency contributes to reducing modes of expression, forms of writing and styles.
(pp. 35- 36)
Each of these points of course could host an entire book, lecture or conversation, but I just want to talk now about one response.
For someone who thinks about how doctoral and early career researchers might understand the academic writing game – and play it – these four contentions are pretty challenging. The thought that I am simply part of a larger disciplinary machine – and an imperial one at that – which requires conformity, which produces not simply particular kinds of writing and thinking but also particular kinds of scholars, is not a new one. I actually worry about it a lot. How much to ‘teach’ how to play the game, and how much to support action against it?
Much the same dilemma faces school teachers who are critical of the examination system. When I was a school teacher I adopted a stance of with/against. That is,working both with a policy and/or practice and against it at the same time. Not an either/or politics. So as a teacher, I both taught people how to play the game of examinations, but also taught about the game, as well as trying to work in concert with others to change the game where possible.
It is this kind of with/against politics that seem to me to be most pertinent in relation to academic writing too. In other words, a defensible position might be work to both teach the conventions of academic writing, but also to teach about its politics and effects, and do what I can, where I can, to change them. Well, that’s of course what I hope I’m doing.
Raunig argues that universities are still sources of what he calls ‘creative disobedience’ and I am now thinking about how much, if at all, this notion might apply in a small and modest way, to the kinds of academic writing and thinking now available to us through and on social media.It seems to me that in a with/against politics of academic writing social media plays a particular role – or, it has particular affordances I might put it, speaking pedagogically.
For a start, at least some social media operates largely outside of the economies of journal publication (although of course, there are moves to include SM in the same metrics environment). Much of what is written on academic writing blogs and in social media #acwri chat would have, until recently, been behind pay walls, and confined to particular institutional contexts – classrooms, courses and mentoring systems. These kinds of institutional ‘black boxes’ are now fractured, and academic writing and ‘academic development’ more generally ranges over space and time, thanks to social media and those who use it.
Secondly, and as importantly, social media may play a very particular role in blurring the boundaries of what counts as academic research, writing and publishing. We can write tentatively in online contexts, exploring ideas in ways that are much more difficult within the essay/thesis industry or in conventional academic journals (e.g. such as this post). We can also experiment with different writing ‘voices’ and with different genres too, without too much fear of ridicule or punishment. While none of this social media activity is free from disciplines and disciplining, it is currently a less policed and more free ranging space/time.
I also wonder, of course, what we might need to do in order that the creative potential of social media is not victim to what Raunig sees as ‘the increasingly precarious nature of knowledge production’ (p.36). In the light of this, recent moves to police the academic use of social media take a particularly toxic political hue.