Confessions of an Accidental Academic

Personal confession time. Perhaps it’s the heat. Or maybe it’s the students, spilling out of exam halls, the “real world” (with all its unpaid internships) just weeks away. But I’m restless. It’s a regular occupational hazard for many, but as an academic, trying to justify your own relevance is hard. At least every six months I find myself asking: what’s the point?
Let me be clear. This isn’t self-doubt. I know I can have perceptive thoughts about citizenship, about refugees and migrants, about conflict and inequality. Nor is it loss of interest. I can become entirely absorbed, fascinated, by Nansen Passports or Uganda’s citizenship laws, and there’s at least a small group of people who also find this interesting enough to pay me for it. No, it’s my own summer-day riff on a much wider question. Not just where do I fit in academia, but what’s my academia for?
This is a question politicians, policy-makers and the public love debating, though the answer usually appears to be a messy variation on the theme of markete conomics and customer service. The professorial voices we hear raised in protest tend to be Heads of Department and other senior figures, often stressing the joy of academic research and the discovery of knowledge. They’re right, but in doing so I can’t help feeling they frequently create ivory scaffolding which aims to protect research by disentangling it from reality. Scholarship for scholarship’s sake: It’s a worthy cry, but I’m not sure that’s why I want to do this.
I’m an accidental academic you see. In fact, I still cringe a little at the word “academic”. Maybe it’s just playground reflex, but call me a researcher, a lecturer: words that don’t conjure up images (in my mind at least) of inert scholarly wisdom. I never intended to do a Ph.D., or a post-doc, or become a full-time lecturer. And yet somehow that’s what I’ve become. I have a job that – taken day by day – I love, in a department full of interesting, lively people. The day-to-day really is fulfilling, but when I pause, I realise I still haven’t worked out what this is for. Why do I do this?
Of course, I’m hardly the first to ask these questions. International Development is a field which often seeks to confront inequalities and change power structures. I don’t know many academics (though I suspect I do know some) who write about refugees without being motivated in some way to help them. So maybe this existential angst is normal.
Or maybe it’s heresy. Young academics are ten-a-penny. Jobs are few and far between, and I know many good – many outstanding – would-be academics who display dazzling professionalism in the pursuit of the prize of a permanent post, who are certain of why they want it and measure their progression in publications. But they’ve found themselves measured against similar over-achievers with multiple monographs, “REFable” peer-reviewed journal articles and starry teaching evaluations, and so are stuck on the post-doc ad-hoc teaching merry-go-round. This is Higher Education’s dirty little secret: the expansion of university education has been enabled by the exploitation of underpaid and overworked post-graduates desperate for their big break. There’s another blog post in that, but there’s also a certain amount of guilt knowing you’ve got something pretty close to someone else’s dream job, and not being sure how much you believe in it.
But where to? The grass isn’t always greener. Policymakers and NGOs are often dependent upon the whims of the powerful who make funding fall from the sky, constrained by diplomatic protocol and organisational politics. Used properly, academic freedom is far more radical than any consensus-building campaign. The trouble is, I’m not sure tenure-track academic, with its “publish or perish” culture leaves much room for rocking the boat. It often seems to prefer to suggest incremental technocratic change.
This latest round of introspection came to a close earlier today when I realised that I need to stop thinking of academia – whatever the pressures to do so – as a treadmill, a hierarchy. It’s only half-true and it’s a terrifying freedom, but academia ultimately has the capacity to become what you make of it.
For me, that comes down to the fact it’s not enough to interpret the world – the point is to change it. And – to borrow from Joseph Carens as well as Marx– fighting inequality and injustice requires us not only to see what is possible, but also to recognise what is right. Maybe I can make peace with my academic status by recognising what an enormous privilege it is to have the freedom to think. But with that freedom, I would argue, comes a responsibility to engage and persuade the wider public. Four-star journal articles aren’t enough of a reason why.
Ok. Therapy over. Now back to the funding application. Even accidental academics need to pay the rent…