Power, Acceleration and Metrics in Academic Life
2nd-4th December 2015, Prague (Vila Lanna)

Organised by the Institute of Philosophy of the Czech Academy of Sciences and supported by the Strategy AV21.

There is little doubt that science and knowledge production are presently undergoing dramatic and multi-layered transformations accompanied by new imperatives reflecting broader socio-economic and technological developments. The unprecedented proliferation of audit cultures preoccupied with digitally mediated measurement, quantification of scholarship and the consolidation of business-driven managerialism and governance modes are commonplace in the contemporary academy. Concurently, the ever-increasing rate of institutional change, (the need for) intensification of scientific and scholarly production/communication and diverse academic processes seem to characterize the overall acceleration of academic life. Quantification and metrics have emerged not only as navigating instruments paradoxically exacerbating the general dynamization of academic life but also as barely questioned proxies for scientific quality, career progression and job prospects, and as parameters redrawing what it means to be/work as a scholar nowadays. Metrification now seems to be an important interface between labour and surveillance within academic life, with manifold affective implications.

This three-day conference investigates the techniques of auditing and their attendant practices and effects and will also probe into scholars’ complicity in reproduction of such practices. It will consider processes of social acceleration within the academy and their implications for the management of everyday activity by those working within it. This will include:

  •  empirical and theoretical engagements with the acceleration of higher education
  •  the origins of metrification of higher education
  •  metrification as a form of social control
  •  the challenges of self-management posed by metrification and/or acceleration
  •  common strategic responses to these challenges
  •  the relationship between metrification and acceleration
  •  how metrification and acceleration relate to a broader social crisis

Keynote Speakers

Roger Burrows (Goldsmiths, University of London) – Ancient Cultures of Conceit Reloaded

In 1990 the sociologist Ian Carter published Ancient Cultures of Conceit – a brilliant analysis of campus fiction. It provides a wonderful rendering of a world we have lost – a world where academic life was slower paced and where spreadsheets, metrics, business plans and impact agendas were largely unknown. This paper attempts to carry forward Carter’s analysis over the last 25 years examining more recent examples of the campus fiction genre but also including fictional representations of campus life to be found on social media.

Philip Moriarty (University of Nottingham) – The Power, Perils and Pitfalls of Peer Review in Public

There are major deficiencies in traditional peer review. Not only can clearly flawed papers easily  pass ‘scrutiny’ with flying colours,  but the idea that a study is accepted into the scientific literature on the basis of a handful – or, not infrequently, one – set of anonymous reviewer comments seems quaint and archaic in a Twitter-, blogoshere-, and BuzzFeed-enabled world. Post-publication peer review, enabled by sites such as PubPeer, is an exceptionally important tool for online critique, analysis, and scrutiny of published papers. For the next generation of researchers, PPPR will almost certainly be de rigueur. Before we get to that point, however, there are quite a number of teething problems that need to be addressed. These include, in particular, the key issue of the role of anonymity and moderation in online commentary.

Susan Robertson (University of Bristol) – Vertigo: Time and space in the contemporary university

One of Henri Lefebvre’s great intellectual contribution was not only how we think about the spatiality and temporality of social life but that lived/in spaces and their social relations are the outcome of ongoing cultural, political and economic projects and their dynamics. In this lecture I explore the changing nature of the contemporary university, and the ways in which recalibrations of time and space are also simultaneously the medium, object, and outcome of these projects and dynamics.  I invoke the idea of ‘vertigo’ – the sensation of the world moving, and profound anxieties about the potential for a loss of height – as a way of exploring the complex ways in which governing the university through temporal and spatial strategies mediates the ongoing experiences of living, learning, and working, in the university.

James Wilsdon (University of Sussex) – The Metric Tide: Reflections on the UK’s Independent Review of Metrics in Research Assessment and Management 

There are powerful currents whipping up the metric tide. These include growing pressures for audit and evaluation of public spending on higher education and research; demands by policymakers for more strategic intelligence on research quality and impact; the need for institutions to manage and develop their strategies for research; competition within and between institutions for prestige, students, staff and resources; and increases in the availability of real-time ‘big data’ on research uptake, and the capacity of tools for analysing it. Citations, journal impact factors, H-indices, even tweets and Facebook likes – there are no end of quantitative measures that can now be used to assess the quality and wider impacts of research. But how robust and reliable are such indicators, and what weight – if any – should we give them in the management of the UK’s research system? Over the past year, the UK’s Independent Review of the Role of Metrics in Research Assessment and Management has looked in detail at these questions. The review has explored the use of metrics across the full range of academic disciplines, and assessed their potential contribution to processes of research assessment like the Research Excellence Framework (REF). It has looked at how universities themselves use metrics, at the rise of league tables and rankings, at the relationship between metrics and issues of equality and diversity, and at the potential for ‘gaming’ that can arise from the use of particular indicators in the funding system. The review’s final report, The Metric Tide, was published on 9 July 2015. In his talk, James Wilsdon will reflect on the review process, outline its main findings, and consider the opportunities and obstacles to more responsible uses of metrics in the research system.

Oili-Helena Ylijoki (University of Tampere) – ‘Projectification’ and conflicting time orders in academic knowledge production

Under the current conditions of academic capitalism and market-driven managerialism, university research is increasingly conducted in large projects on external, competitive funding from various national and international sources. The project format offers a fixed-term, fast and flexible organizational mode which fits together with constantly changing needs of the turbulent university environment. This paper argues that the ‘projectification’ of science creates a special project time which stands in conflict with process time. Project time, embedded in standardized and abstract clock time, is decontextualized, linear, cumulative and predictable, entailing a strictly defined timeframe with a fixed beginning and end. This is in a sharp contrast with nonlinear, context-dependent and unpredictable process time involving unforeseen periods of standstill, deceleration and acceleration. Furthermore, project time includes      1) commodification of time by translating research process into money, 2) control of time by dividing research into beforehand determined phases in which accountability of the use of time is required, 3) compression of time by speeding up research productivity, and 4) colonization of time by subordinating alternative temporalities in research. The paper discusses how the intensification of project time reshapes and remoulds research practices and academic subjectivity, and what possibilities for alternative temporalities can be created and sustained at the accelerated academy. This is done by distinguishing temporal dilemmas and ways to live with them: long-term commitment vs. short-term funding; fast pace vs. slow thinking; time efficiency vs. wasting time; linear career time vs. circular project rat race; and work time vs. existential time.