The affective politics of academic labour

Posted on May 7, 2012 in Ordinary Madness of Academia

Last week I read Rosalind Gill’s “Breaking the silence: The hidden injuries of the neoliberal university” (pdf) and it continues to weigh heavily on my mind and spirit.

The chapter starts with a conversation between academic colleagues that “speaks of many things: exhaustion, stress, overload, insomnia, anxiety, shame, aggression, hurt, guilt and feelings of out-of-placeness, fraudulence and fear of exposure within the contemporary academy.”

I’m familiar with many of those feelings, and it has also been my experience that they remain silenced in professional or public situations as much as they proliferate in collegial and private contexts.

Contrary to what many non-academics think, I don’t work in “a rarefied haven of detached reasoning and refined culture.” Universities are workplaces, like so many others, with complex and often contradictory micropolitics that operate at interpersonal and institutional levels, where power and authority are too often at odds.

So I’m grateful that Gill dares to ask these questions, to put these issues on the table:

“What would it mean to turn our lens upon our own labour processes, organisational governance and conditions of production? What would we find if, instead of studying others, we focussed our gaze upon our own community, and took as our data not the polished publication or the beautifully crafted talk, but the unending flow of communications and practices in which we are all embedded and enmeshed, often reluctantly: the proliferating e-mails, the minutes of meetings, the job applications, the peer reviews, the promotion assessments, the drafts of the RAE narrative, the committee papers, the student feedback forms, even the after-seminar chats?”

But I’m distressed because I’ve tried to raise these issues as well, and I felt a profound sense of betrayal and defeat when my concerns were dismissed, just as Gill describes, as “a ‘moan’, as an expression of complaint or unhappiness, rather than…as an analysis or a (political) demand for change.”

We are, it seems, expected to sacrifice ourselves for our jobs:

“A punishing intensification of work has become an endemic feature of academic life. Again, serious discussion of this is hard to find either within or outside universities, yet it is impossible to spend any significant amount of time with academics without quickly gaining an impression of a profession overloaded to breaking point, as a consequence of the underfunded expansion of universities over the last two decades, combined with hyperinflation of what is demanded of academics, and an audit culture that, if it was once treated with scepticism, has now been almost perfectly internalized.


This is a collective, structural problem that is a direct result of workloads which leave many people with no ‘slack’ to take on anything beyond that which is directly required of them. Yet once again there is no discussion of this as an institutional or organisational issue. Instead universities ‘help’ staff to deal with these new intensified conditions with a barrage of ‘training courses’ (most of which we have no time to attend) which cover topics such as ‘time management’, ‘speed reading’, and ‘prioritising goals’, and require each individual to work on the self to better manage proliferating workloads, as if there were a technical fix (oh it’ll all be alright if I only check email once a day – why didn’t I think of that?! I’ll just pick all 115 of them up at 5 o’clock then I can stay up all night answering them!) while actively refusing any ‘reality check’ on the sustainability of contemporary academic workloads.”

Too true.

I’ve also noticed that this element of personal sacrifice is expected in some countries or cultures more than in others–which is even more problematic given how mobile the academic workforce has become in recent years. Failure to comply with this always already gendered and classed expectation can result in feelings of not only personal failure, but also of cultural discrimination.

Gill goes on to describe the “extensification” of academic work. In other words, it’s not just that we have to do more but we have to do it more of the time, in more ways, and in more places. Most commonly, current communication technologies not only allow us connect and share more, but have created the expectation in both colleagues and students that we will.

The final part of her chapter addresses the often negative experience of peer-reviewed publication and I agree that it’s crucial to acknowledge that rejection tends to be met with one of two possible responses:

“Some will have concluded that they really aren’t good enough, they can’t ‘hack it’. But others will have already devised ‘solutions’: I must try harder, read more widely, understand theory better, etc etc — the solution, then, for ‘us’ good neoliberal subjects, simply to work even harder.”


Why do we hold ourselves responsible instead of the system that encourages and normalises this, or the institutions and people who enforce and perpetuate it?

Have we really become nothing more or less than Foucault’s docile subjects constantly working under Agamben’s state of exception?

“Neoliberalism found fertile ground in academics whose predispositions to ‘work hard’ and ‘do well’ meshed perfectly with it’s demands for autonomous, self motivating, responsibilised subjects … The lack of resistance to the neoliberalisation of universities is partly a result of these divisive, individualizing practices, of the silences around them, of the fact also that people are too exhausted to resist and furthermore do not know what to resist or how to do so. But it is also understandable, I suggest, in terms of the inherent pleasures and fulfilment that many people derive from their work (when they find time to do it) or at least the promise of/idea of it, as well as to the seductions of relatively autonomous working lives — though this autonomy is eroding fast, as universities import business models which require for example that all e-mails be answered within 24 hours, or that academics are present in the office five days a week. In reality, the much vaunted autonomy often simply means that universities end up extracting even more labour from us for free, as we participate in working lives in which there is often no boundary between work and anything else (if indeed there is anything else).


The challenge is how we might begin to resist.”

Three years have passed since Gill wrote this piece, and Mel Gregg’s books and articles continue to touch on related subjects, but I honestly don’t see that these issues are being given much more explicit acknowledgement or attention.

So. What are we going to do about that?