Musings on contemporary academic culture

By Pratiksha Baxi [Guest Blogger] [Pratiksha Baxi is no stranger to us, having written her first provocative post recently for us on tabloidization of law. Today, she seeks to initiate another debate on the aberrations of academia in our universities through this guest post.]

The discourse on the right to information has affected university spaces in more than one ways. One of the foremost shifts has been in the realm of everyday discourse within the work space. Minimally, the spectre of a potential RTI application has re-structured the manner in which records are maintained and decisions taken. While the right to information is usually seen as increasing work load, a form of harassment or at best, bad manners, it has not really inaugurated a new culture of accountability. Take the instance of the process of hiring academics in Universities. Despite the growing number of opportunities for University jobs, many talented researchers struggle to make ends meet and fight failing confidence due to repeated injustices. Yet biographies of academic discrimination remain the gist of whispers and gossip. These do not translate into a constructive discussion of how we may make higher education accountable and hospitable.

A lifetime in University spaces in Delhi, across disciplines, amounts to cataloguing histories of humiliations and witnessing angst about the romance with an uncaring academia. Every other department acquires its own history through the years which constitutes its present. The divisions within each department over ideology, standards, schools of thought and personalities leave behind a wake of blameless victims in every other generation of young and then not so young researchers who aspire to teach. Not unlike kinship or caste groups, these departments classify individual academics and future generations of students [who may then aspire to teach] into set lobbies. Norms of sociality observed elsewhere in life are suspended when dealing with these outsiders – such that even everyday courtesies such as a greeting are withdrawn. It is not uncommon for academics to describe how deeply personal such hostilities are. Gossip about the deemed outsider determines the interpretation of merit. We realise again and again that the Curriculum Vitae needs the energy supplement, a real time Facebook.

The recluse or the renegade who resists the system of patronage by enacting a refusal of sycophancy, blind loyalty or obedience is habitually punished. S/he is punished for not belonging to the correct genealogy, for ideological differences, for lack of social capital or even for not being charming enough. Not unlike ragging, the temporal lag wherein inter departmental politics plays out to deny, exclude or humiliate the textual children of hated colleagues is routine in our Universities. Those who speak of principles and academic standards to ask difficult questions often face situations wherein everyday work life is made horrendously difficult.

Why are our professors not disturbed by the wide spread perceptions that they demand a following that must be submissive? Surely this is a poor reputation? Why do we not have a tradition of critique and care that co-exists? Instead, we are culturally disciplined by the values ascribed to the “guru-shishya” parampara, no matter how secular everyone is. This normalising discourse means control over students and aspirants to the profession from using the languages of rights and discrimination as a form of public critique. This disciplinary discourse prevents the spirit behind the people’s movement which wished to create the right to information as a route to accountability from actualisation.

Rather than create a restfully active environment conducive to the life of the mind, we witness severe unhappiness marked by insecurities, envy and politics of the most banal kind in the academia. Surely Universities must be spaces where we learn how to converse – confer – however, very often such spaces, especially staff council or faculty meetings, enact violent or mannerless forms of communication. Why is it that there is no discussion about why does higher education promote the ethic of competition and humiliation rather than care and hospitality?

The problem of sexism in universities is part of a larger culture of valourising patriarchal values of patronage and docility. Feminists cannot succeed in challenging the gross manifestations of gendered discriminations within the academia, unless a foundational cultural challenge is offered to how we wish to be, as academics, at our workplace. Rather than reproduce the canon, we ought to welcome newness, recognise transgression and autonomy as cherished values and promote an ethic of accountability. It is our responsibility to assuage hurt, correct past injustices and find a different voice. For every broken person who is unable write after encountering the inhumanity which abounds in our universities, each one of us is responsible for destruction rather than creation of the life of the mind. Is it not high time we find a different voice?

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  • Thank you, Pratiksha, for this extremely insightful, incisive and, for me, as a victim of all that you talk about, moving post. As someone who began to apply for permanent jobs in 2007 and have been successively humiliated, denied jobs, not even shortlisted or called for interviews for jobs I was/am clearly the most qualified candidate, faced incredible homophobia, kept out by illiterate, prejudiced and corrupt VCs, insecure and ignorant Directors and Heads of Department, offered positions which then never materialised in research centres ( I really could go on), every word of your post was searingly true. Thank you for caring and giving voice to what I have faced and what several less privileged academics than myself must face everyday (on the basis of caste, class, gender, region, sexual orientation) and I hope this opens a public dialogue on the issue.

    Ashley Tellis

  • dear pratiksha-

    i *much* like this post for actually opening up questions of social class, intellectual capital, and the social reproduction of entitlement.

    [in that context, i must say that one of the more refreshing things about the LASSNET conference in delhi was how little it appeared to reproduce those earlier paradigms of social interaction and engagement]

    you seem to attribute/correlate this current crisis of academic culture to passage of the RTI in your post but offer little directly by way of how that is the
    case. i am perfectly willing to believe that the RTI–like the newfound visibility of caste atrocity, or any other manner of social violence that becomes materially palpable through various forms of mediation, legal or otherwise–has drawn attention to certain forms of social and intellectual common-sense.

    however, the RTI's consequences appear to be more significant for things such as proving a history of, say caste and gender discrimination in hiring, or perhaps evidence of academic bias and/or curtailment of academic freedom. [pace the previous post]

    how a set of long-established social practices (in which almost all of us is complicit in some form or another, if for nothing through the entailments of history) is impacted or might be constructively re-aligned via RTI is less clear to me (perhaps because i am less familiar with its uses in everyday contexts of academic sociality)

    i think a longer-term sociology of the indian academy and an ethnography of its everyday life (which you very evocatively outline in your post) are
    together necessary for linking structural blindness with the intimacy of its experience

    thanks for suggesting RTI as a wedge into conversations that might not otherwise be possible.

    though i wonder if indeed this is possible, for new forms of visibility also produce accompanying (and perhaps more profound) because unexpected forms of secrecy and lack of accountability.

    [i think the 'other baxi' has suggested law as a insurrectionary tool in his more hopeful moments?!]