How to survive in the era of academic overproduction


In The Communist Manifesto of 1848, Marx and Engels claimed that capitalism has got itself into an unlikely fix. It was in the midst of “an epidemic that, in all earlier epochs, would have seemed an absurdity – the epidemic of overproduction”. Nearly two centuries on, the affliction has spread all the way from the factory floor to the ivory tower.

Moreover, just like in the industrial economy of the mid-19th century, the epidemic of academic overproduction has generated what economists call externalities. Bad shit, in other words.

The most serious externality relates to the internal life of the academic. The recent publication by the UK’s Higher Education Policy Institute of Liz Morrish’s report on the modern university as an “anxiety machine” uncovered an epidemic of poor mental health among academics, driven by “the perpetual requirement to produce more, and faster”.

This is borne out by the figures. In 2018, 3 million English language academic articles were published in 33,100 journals. That compares with only 1.4 million articles in 23,000 scholarly journals as recently as 2010. Between 2006 and 2016, total world academic publication output grew at an average annual compound rate of 3.9 per cent.

Amid such a culture, the pressing issue is how to advance professionally while maintaining a sense of well-being that allows us to publish and flourish.

We could sense hope for a countercultural moment or even an “Academic Spring” in the numerous critical-professors-turned-superstars that exist in modern academia, who have apparent freedom to produce what they want, when they want. Yet, in reality, even they are dependent on producing for the sake of producing. Indeed, they helped create and sustain the overproduction epidemic in the first place.

For a better guide, we should look not to the successful insider but to the independent-minded outsider: to those who are in but not of academe. It is true that such outsiders are more likely to be found in the past, but they did not necessarily operate under a kinder, gentler university system.

Take the sociologist C. Wright Mills, the mid-20th-century “closet Marxist” from Waco, Texas. Mills was an intellectual outcast in the urbane Ivy League setting of Columbia University, refusing to be bound by academic or professional dogma. He preferred to exist, as he put it, “outside the whale”: a kind of spiritual condition in which he would take orders only from himself.

Mills’ approach has three aspects worth emulating. First, professional focus should be on mastering the skills of scholarship – not on impressing peers by outperforming or outproducing rivals. As the renowned sociologist Michael Billig argues, the mass publication culture of academia is driven by the psychological terror “that rivals are publishing more than us”: status anxiety, in other words.

Second, we should value depth of thinking and scholarship over instrumental performance measures – potentially entailing a slower than average rate of productivity. And, third, we should remember, as University of Tulsa media studies professor Joli Jensen reminds us, that academic writing requires the methodical practice of relevant skills, not the pursuit of rewards or goals. As she argues in her 2017 book, Write No Matter What: Advice for Academics, this will allow us to “give ourselves daily low-stress, high reward contact with our projects”.

Succeeding on your own terms in the age of overproduction also requires long-term planning. Here, we can learn from the “journeyman academic”, whose key strategic subterfuge, according to the critic Mark Grief, is to be embedded financially in the university while being spiritually distant from it.

The journeyman par excellence was Georg Simmel, the overlooked founding father of modern sociology. Simmel managed to flourish in the harsh, results-driven environs of Germany’s academic system in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Despite facing a conservative ethos, institutional antisemitism and a lowly status as an untenured teaching tutor, Simmel forged a highly influential and innovative body of work, by which many household names were influenced.

Simmel’s research career can best be described as one of gradual intellectual reinvention and simultaneous distancing from the academic publishing machine. Prior to 1900, 50 per cent of his writings ended up in scholarly journals, but subsequently, only 28 per cent did so. In pursuit of a non-academic audience, Simmel preferred to target liberal newspapers, arts magazines and literary monthlies.

Such an approach does not amount to another form of overproduction. Rather, it is an attempt to broaden academic appeal and challenge academia’s culture of narrow specialisation. To paraphrase the great thinker Max Weber, you should not have a field as you are not a donkey.

Academics inspired by Simmel would seek to live up to the expectations of the academy (becoming financially embedded in it) early in their careers, before gradually distancing themselves from the pressures of overproduction by cultivating a different audience or set of priorities, such as teaching. While still being mindful of what the academy requires from them, they would extricate themselves from their immediate peer groups and the toxic pressures of overproduction that come with dependence on such professional networks.

Obviously, there are costs to a Simmel-styled career trajectory. But what is lost in career progress is more than gained in well-being. While those who remain inside the whale are consumed by the pressure to feed the creature’s bottomless appetite for publications, those outside it are free to dive for pearls.

Author Bio: Michael Marinetto is a senior lecturer in management at Cardiff Business School.