Disenchantment & resumption on new ground
I had a great time as a university lecturer, though it was frequently also hard – getting into a new post is always quite a struggle, and I had to do it repeatedly. But it was rewarding, the teaching
and some of the research
especially. In other respects, however, it left me disenchanted.
I have to tread carefully here, and I won't name names, but there were also personal disappointments … misjudgements, people pushing me aside, false impressions, unfulfilled promises. I won't go into details, but some of these things still pique me quite a bit. But normally I don't think about it any more. I also had many really great colleagues and I'd rather cherish those positive memories.
Moreover, there were independent developments in both the whole system of higher education as well as in my field of linguistics which I disapprove(d) of.
In higher education in the UK it was primarily that increasing dominance of management and administration that I took/take issue with. Not only was the additional paperwork a bloody nuisance – it sometimes just got too ridiculous to keep a straight face. At Nottingham we were at one point ordered to take part in an exercise in what they called "Peer Review" or something (I can't be sure I remember that particular bit of imposed terminology right … I quite possibly don't, but I don't care). What it consisted of was this: every colleague was allocated another colleague across departments/languages to "review", that is: we had to sit in another colleague's classes and take notes, then fill out forms and send the assessment to that colleague, then arrange a meeting to go over the forms, and fill out another joint form, which had to be submitted to management. Now, the joke in it was that I had to sit in a French colleague's class, delivered in French (which I don't understand), while I had a Russian colleague sit in one of my German semantics classes. I let slip in an email to my boss that I found the whole exercise to be a "pretence" – big mistake. He was very annoyed and wrote back (in addition to admonishing me not to be so negative) that "it is not a pretence and we have to do it". Sounds like double pretence if you ask me. But I pulled myself together and conformed. The French colleague and I came up with some joint drivel that we thought was mutually agreeable and would sound highfalutin enough to keep management happy. We never heard anything back. The Russian colleague who had sat in my class never filled the forms in – and nothing was ever heard about that either. Want a prototypical example of management-imposed "pretence"? I think this is a perfect one.
I'm not saying all admin is bad and management should be sent home (well, maybe some of them …). It's just that it had taken over too much. Simply the amount of time it demanded was seriously distracting from the actual job … as long as you agree with me that the 'actual job' of an academic should be conducting meaningful research and providing quality teaching, as opposed to filling out forms and preparing spreadsheets. As far as I could tell, the development had become self-perpetuating and looked like it could only get worse. It's this aspect about university life that I miss the least.
But even in the field of linguistics there were things that annoyed me – the fragmentation of the field was getting worse, and specializations more exotic, fringe and sometimes just plain esoteric, to be frank.
There didn't seem to be a common core anymore. Everyone was just splashing about in this island-studded ocean without a course or sense of direction. And nobody seemed to care either – and it showed in the job market too. So it could happen that a mediaevalist could get a post that was supposed to be in 'modern linguistics' (and I can't think of a greater contrast than that between 'mediaeval' and 'modern' … sorry, but it's conceptually not even compatible!).
Furthermore, the fragmentation and the proliferation of ever new sub-fields and theories, at the expense of a common core, meant it was getting impossible to maintain an overview. And that in turn forced you to take part in the fragmentation. Obviously, a research subject as complex as language has to be too huge to grasp comprehensively and there have to be specialized sub-fields. Nothing wrong in principle with new theories, either. But it got the point where it appeared to be for the sake of it, just for creating new niches.
At the same time, other more mainstream streaks of linguistics, esp. generativism in the US looked more and more like they had lost touch with what it was originally all about: language. Now the theories were more about the theory, language played an ever diminishing role. On the other hand, those simply opposed to anything generative as a matter of principle often failed to grasp the very valid points generativism had originally made, and simply condemned it wholesale without knowing what they were talking about. That I found equally annoying.
And then there's the conference circuit (or circus). For many academics that's the highlight, the bit where being at the cutting edge of research meets the fun social element (the latter is something that academia is otherwise not particularly blessed with). Some people I met actually quite got into it. There are some real conference-hoppers, who just live for it. But for me, much of the time I spent at the conferences I attended over the years felt pretty tedious. I enjoyed giving papers and defending them in discussions and I also heard a number of good and stimulating papers. But by far the majority were anything but good nor stimulating. I can't count how often I found papers even by some big shot names totally disappointing: too often they a) lacked the delivery skills and b) often simply failed to make the point they were supposed to make. Not that anyone seemed to bother. I was left with the impression that it was all just a big game that was played for the sake of it, much less so for the advancement of the field. Naturally, in many cases I will simply have failed to understand the point being made – such is the complex nature of linguistics that this is totally unavoidable (some super-complex linguistics can make anyone's head spin!) But believe me, the number of unquestionably bad papers I have sat through is really quite depressing.
And the social elements of going to conferences? Well, these may be fine if you have your particular clique in place, but generally linguists are typically not exactly outgoing party animals (though, to be fair, I've also met two or three exceptions). Conversation is often just continued talking shop, the only difference being that it's done over coffees, meals and drinks instead of in lecture halls or seminar rooms. This 'social' aspect is, of course, called "networking". And the hierarchies are important. David Lodge really gave a fitting representation in his campus novel "Small World".
In general, smaller, specialized conference in the UK have been more enjoyable than bigger international ones. It's simply that in the UK the atmosphere tends to be more open. In general, though, I usually felt a bit at odds with the whole conference business for the majority of the time. But it's something you "have to do" if you want to be considered a 'research-active' academic.
It's the same with "publish or perish" – you have to keep publishing, lots and regularly, regardless of whether you have anything to say or not (this partly explains the number of poor conference papers too, of course). The times when you only published something if you thought it was so important that you couldn't keep it from the world are long gone. It's the opposite today. Not publishing whatever drivel is now considered "lazy", or a burden to the system, bad apples that need to be sorted out. There's no denying that lazy academics do exist, but the reverse, the assumption that only the sheer volume of output reflects academic relevance, is an unfair over-reaction … you have to wonder whether someone of occasional brilliance like Einstein (who didn't continuously publish – very far from it) would have a chance to make it these days.
And so thousands and thousands of papers and books are churned out all the time – to create the illusion of scientific progress. Only: quantity is being confused with quality here. Still, the system demands it – jobs depend on it (hence "publish or perish") or at least promotions. And as everybody in the same boat relies on the system to keep ticking over, everyone pretends all is well … and mediocre books are given good reviews, crap papers are applauded, and universities allocated funds basically guided by a simple measurement of more, more, more.
For the recipient of that output, i.e. the researcher trying to cut through the resultant ever growing thicket, this means getting through more and more tediously less relevant stuff in order to hopefully happen upon the bits that still do matter.
An exacerbating element of the more-is-better approach to publishing is that you come across the same content repeatedly, published in somewhat permuted form in various places. It's an effect of what is sometimes called "salami publishing" – meaning: instead of giving everything away in one publication, you split it up into "slices" and spread it over several smaller publications – and thus getting a higher "yield" out of the same amount of text: more titles = more publications = it looks better and more productive. But of course it is in actual fact the same old illusion. The extreme form of salami publishing is publishing the same slices of the same intellectual salami repeatedly in different places (you could call it "recycling publishing", perhaps). I'm no angel and have myself been guilty of the same thing on a couple of occasions. And I'm not proud of it. One justification I can adduce is that I felt the need to make certain points repeatedly, as they kept being either ignored or misunderstood (if you need to know: in particular it's the point about the non-lexicalizability of certain types of nonce-formations, which is of higher theoretical significance than is usually acknowledged – see research
). Eventually, however, I got a bit tired of drumming on about it without being heard by more than a handful amongst the target audience …
Maybe I could have got more into the conference circus, maybe I could have seen linguistics getting back to the point, maybe I should have kept on making my points and making a stand, maybe I could even have got more into admin, but it doesn't matter anyway, because I couldn't find any permanent foothold in the academic job market in any case. It was just one temporary contract after another. I've had my chances in the UK, but either narrowly missed them or was outmanoeuvred. Outside the UK, there were never really any realistic inroads – as I had lost my mentor (see education & degrees
) at the very start of my first career attempts on the continent, then went away to the UK, under the false illusion that some years abroad might enhance my chances later – it did the opposite. By the time I returned from the UK, I was considered too old, out of touch with the local system, and anyway wasn't part of any of the cliques you need be involved with to get anywhere. The main problem for me on the continent was: I was coming from the side – but the typical inroads are either from below (home-grown and mentor-guided) or from above (like international "stars" head-hunted and bought in from abroad) – but the side doors are firmly shut and locked.
So after a couple of years banging on those closed doors I felt it was time to reinvent myself. So here we are …
Meanwhile, however, I have tentatively resumed taking an active part in academic research and publishing again – but now in the field of 'dark tourism research', which has established itself quite recently as a field of study in its own right (see iDTR
). When a call for contributions came along for a proposed book on 'dark tourism and place identity', I gave it a shot, submitted an abstract and was accepted. It's about Rwanda
and the role its genocide memorials contribute to different levels of (place) identity. For details see under publications
, at the bottom of the list.
Meanwhile I have even contributed to a bit of linguistics again too, but only a book review I was asked to do. In a way it was nice to find that some poeple in the field had the confidence in my ability to do this, and it was also good to find that I could indeed still do it.
I may well continue submitting other pieces occasionally, be it more linguistics or about further aspects of dark tourism research, but at the moment it's not my No. 1 priority – for the time being this website remains my main focus.