Today, we laborers in the groves of academia are pitted against one another in a quest for increased productivity. Academic departments and units compete against one another for increasingly scarce goods, such as the right to hire faculty; individual scholars in the same department compete against one another for small pay increases, euphemistically termed “merit pay.” In my own university, Rutgers, the public flagship university of New Jersey, “austerity” is the new normal, justifying stagnant salaries and higher tuitions. As state funding provides a smaller and smaller percentage of annual operating budgets, university administrators try to introduce entrepreneurial initiatives into academic departments to generate revenue–with varying degrees of success.
Competition in academia, like competition elsewhere, can at times spur one on to produce great things. (Just think of the fierce mid-1960s rivalry between The Beatles and the Rolling Stones!) Too often, though, competition for scarce resources leads individuals –and I’m speaking of academics here– on a quest to distinguish ourselves from our peers merely to stand apart from the crowd. Today, market values and “fast capitalism” increasingly permeate academia, leading to ever higher expectations of output (read: publication), and higher productivity for productivity’s sake—accumulating more and more lines for one’s cv instead of contributing work that really makes a difference to oneself, and to others.
When we mistake quantity for quality, we create a situation in which alienation flourishes.“We lack the time to craft the elegant phrase as we churn out paper after paper,” observes British sociologist Michael Billig, writing recently in the Guardian. Publishing may stave off one kind of perishing, and at the same time lead to a more imperceptible but no less insidious kind of wasting: the production of routine work that fails to inspire oneself—or to inspire others.
Perhaps it’s time to dust off C. Wright Mill’s notion of “intellectual craftsmanship, discussed in the appendix to his 1959 book, The Sociological Imagination. We tend to think of a craftsman as a carpenter in his/her shop, surrounded by apprentices, but the craftsman can also be found in the laboratory, in the concert hall—in the classroom, and in the study. Craftsmen—and women– combine technical skill with imagination and pride in their work.[i] They are dedicated to good work for its own sake—to practical activity, but their labor is not simply a means “to another end”—such as career advancement. The craftsman, writes Richard Sennett, is “engaged” in the fullest way possible with his or her work. He or she does not split work from the rest of life.
Mills spoke about the benefits that accrue to those who approach writing as a craft rather than simply as a means to an end. The main reason, he said, “I am not ‘alienated” is because I write.” Writing can make us feel more connected to others, and allow us to make a contribution to the society in which we live, he believed. Mills saw writing as a skill that one can develop, as well as an art form, and a form of self-expression. A mixture of technique and inspiration, good writing requires an acquaintance with the methodologies of research needed for the task. There is, he believed, an unexpected quality about writing too—a “playfulness of mind, as well a truly fierce drive to make sense of the world, which the technician as such usually lacks.”
In Mills’ view of intellectual craftsmanship, writing is a form of self-expression that is as much about the process as the product. He described his relationship to his book White Collar. “I am trying to make it damn good all over,” he wrote. “Simple and clean cut in style, but with a lot of implications and subtleties woven into it. It is my little work of art: it will have to stand for the operations I will never do, not being a surgeon, and for the houses I never built, not being an architect. So you see it has to be a thing of craftsmanship and art as well as science.”
In other words, writing is not something that simply happens at the end of the research process. Writing is also an aesthetic practice that entails play – what Mills calls “sociological poetry.””[iii] Hegemonic notions of the social sciences suggest creativity is something that we study, and is not a element of our practice.
But thinking of what we do as a craft may be a first step in resisting tendencies within the academy (and beyond) to instrumentalize intellectual activity, defining success in quantifiable, ever narrower ways.