Overproduction

This week I heard of a radical plan that would allow academics to publish only one paper every three years. I was shocked at first by such a drastic alteration to the research landscape. On reflection, it’s not too bad an idea. Just think of the stride forward in quality. If we could publish so infrequently, we would think very hard about our work and make sure it is absolutely our best possible effort. Journal editors and referees would have far fewer submissions to contend with so we could also expect a better decision process too.

Of course, the plan was purely speculative, in conversation with an academic friend. It won’t happen. But it did lead me to reflect on some of the self-defeating working practices we have adopted. Specifically, I am thinking of a system that rewards overproduction and with which we drone-scholars have complied.

One of my first proper jobs was as a low-grade civil servant in the Leeds North branch of the DHSS administering the benefits system in the early-80s. I was a member of a trade union called the CPSA. The branch had a legendary shop-steward called Derek Naden, who was famous throughout the whole Leeds Association. Management trembled in fear at the mention of his name. He could call a walk out at a moment’s notice if the thermometer fell one degree below the agreed minimum room temperature. Derek always warned us about the dangers of overwork. Consequently, many of us sat drinking tea for much of the day since management caved to union demands for generous rest periods. The job was so boring that at times I wanted to do more, just to pass the time, but union members always warned against setting too high a standard and introducing unsustainable working patterns. Then the 84-85 miners’ strike happened and that golden age was gone.

I left the civil service to take a degree but I was still never far from the world of work. I had a string of summer and part-time jobs to make ends meet. One summer I got a job working for a private contractor who had jobs from the local council to cut grass, clear vacated council houses, demolish dangerous buildings, and so on. Privatisation and outsourcing were now the trend, all in the name of efficiency. We were divided into two teams of three and I found that the team leaders had reached an informal agreement between themselves to never do more than nine jobs a day. Sometimes we had finished those nine jobs by lunchtime but we would still do no more. We would go back to one of our houses and drink tea while watching a VHS movie. Never more than nine jobs.

It may seem that we were lazy, that Derek Naden was a mischief-maker, and we were exploiting the power workers had at the time, but I think there was at least some wisdom there that has been lost. Many academics have accepted and even embraced wholeheartedly unsustainable practices. I know that, earlier in my career, I did too. I’ve been guilty of overproduction, working every weekend, answering emails at 11.00pm, walking off transatlantic flights straight into the lecture theatre, wanting better teaching scores than my peers, and the sin of foregoing tea breaks when I was up against a deadline. We are in a profession where we love our discipline and this lures us into more and more unpaid work. Quality of life, health and well-being, are put on hold. Fortunately, I can still recall Derek Naden’s voice warning us “It’s the thin end of the wedge”.  

I have future book plans, certainly. But I have also begun training to walk the Pennine Way next summer. I now have plans that are outside of work. Perhaps this means some other professor will get more papers published than me that year. So be it. I do love philosophy and I have things I want to say before I retire. Yet we all have a role to play in fostering a responsible working environment. Neither our research nor our students are best served if we are constantly frazzled, burnt out or indisposed.

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