Becoming a quality scholar through deep work

How do we become scholars that produce quality thinking and research, and stay sane in an academic environment where bringing in salary recovery dollars and churning out publication ‘fluff’ sometimes seems more important than deep and rigorous research and writing? Many New Zealand academics would have faced their CVs with some angst this year as we produced our portfolios for review under the nation’s Performance Based Research Funding (PBRF) exercise. At times I found myself invigorated at seeing what I had been able to achieve in the last six years in terms of the progress in my thinking (I feel like I got a second PhD!). But just as often, I felt despondent: my citation scores are lower than my colleagues in other parts of the world, my favourite journals that my hero(ine)s write in and edit have mediocre impact factors, many of my most challenging and exciting projects remain unfinished.

As many of my readers here know, earlier this year I reviewed Cal Newport’s book Deep Work and went on to suggest some less individualist and more collective strategies for making deep work time. One of the things I didn’t discuss in these posts was something key in Newport’s book: that deep work produces quality ‘outputs’ ,yes, but only because it produces quality thinking. Often I assume that if only I make time for writing, then quality will emerge. I think in many cases this is true, but only if I also make time for reading, thinking, discussing ideas, presenting ideas, rethinking ideas, and getting and giving feedback. As I wrote in a previous post, slow scholarship begins with slow reading.

Yet more and more in the academy, I seem to come across people who are rewarded for shallow fluff, people who cannot seemingly read, think, or even write, but are adept at the so-called ‘game’. The Thesis Whisperer notes that this ‘game’ tends to reward ‘academic arseholes’, and while I cannot disagree with her there, there is also a large number of very nice but cynical people who just play the game for the incentives it provides them. Perhaps these people will advance quickly through the ranks, get some temporary applause from the powers-that-be that like their quick and dirty style, and pay off their mortgages a bit quicker than the rest of us. But in the end, this game does not help us in the long run, as individuals, as collectives, and as a society or indeed planetary mega society.

To me, the chasing of short-term, value-less incentives is indicative of an overall cultural environment where homo economicus or the ‘rational economic man’ is thought to be an actually existing thing, an imaginary subject on whom economists and university administrators base their theories, rules and incentives on. My current work is about trying to uncover, describe and proliferate what Joan Tronto (2017) aptly names homines curans, or the collective caring subject. This collective subject does the work of care, which is

…a species activity that includes everything that we do to maintain, continue, and repair our ‘world’ so that we can live in it as well as possible (Tronto 1993).

The collective subject is one Tronto assumes is already here, and indeed I mostly agree with her:

Suppose, instead, we were to introduce a different route to greater collective political concerns, one that begins with acknowledging that humans are essentially, in the plural, homines curans, ‘caring people’? (Tronto, 2017:28)

The point is, however, that this caring subject is one that is not sitting there ‘in essence’ as Tronto implies, just waiting to be let out to the work of care beyond the individualising incentives of the academy or the economy. This caring subject has to be cared for, brought into being by care practices and social and economic structures that enable this collective subject to emerge. What might these caring collectives looks like, that enable this subject to become more real? I think some of the practices mentioned previously help us get at this. One idea I hope to explore further is the role that being part of a community caring for commons helps this collective caring subject emerge.  Indeed, our project over at cultivating urban wellbeing examines some of the ways in which the organisation Cultivate is doing this with young people in Christchurch.

The question for today is, however, how do we do the same thing in the academy, and in research and funding cultures more generally? How do we become less individualised and attracted to those kinds of so-called rational incentives, and become more deeply connected to doing academic work and being academic subjects that value quality over and above incentives?

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