The Body of the (Humanities) Academic, or, “What is an Academic”

by Ruth Barcan

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“. . . one cannot avoid having to objectify the objectifying subject”
Bourdieu, Homo Academicus, xii

In this paper, I want to refuse the traditional caricature of the academic as a disembodied rationality — an egg-head in an ivory tower — and focus instead on the academic’s body. I want to consider the effects of various discursive constructions of “the” academic on academic practice and to speculate about the possible bodily effects of such constructions…

Contemporary academics are situated simultaneously within a number of different models of professional practice: scholarly, bureaucratic and managerial/corporate. These models can be thought of as discourses in the Foucauldian sense: that is, they are modes of knowledge that involve the operations of power, that are produced within institutions, and that produce a certain kind of social subject — in this case, different versions of “the academic.” Each of these discourses produces a paradigm of what is thinkable, sayable, or do-able as an academic… In the simultaneous, if contested and uneven, existence of a number of models for understanding academic work, and given the perennial competition for infrastructural support, the body of the individual academic seems to me to be one prime site where attempts to reconcile their multiple and often competing demands may be played out…

The paradigm of the university as a corporate service provider works alongside discourses of quality and accountability. Quality’s mysterious acquisition of an upper-case “Q” marks for me its shift from an adjective to a noun — from attribute to commodity. Attributes are hard to see and even harder to measure, so in order for the institution to reap the financial rewards associated with “Quality,” attributes must be rendered visible. The exigencies of the evaluation system soon begin to constitute the academic practices under scrutiny: if one’s teaching is to be judged by an externally determined set of criteria, and financial reward is to ensue from this, then it is not long before practices change in order to meet the evaluation criteria rather than emanating from independently determined (and pedagogically informed) aims and objectives.

In relation to teaching, the primary product is academic courses themselves, which are now routinely evaluated according to the business logic of “quality control.” Student evaluation is framed as an impersonal process, but it may produce personalised outcomes — both “positive” and “negative” — which, either way, belie the supposed neutrality of the academic as service provider. For academic courses are not commodities or services emanating from distant or unidentifiable sites of production, even though universities may increasingly function as corporations. At least in the Humanities, they are idiosyncratic and individual — designed, taught and implemented by identifiable individuals, increasingly so, as monolithic disciplines and course structures fragment into smaller and less generic units.

The inextricability of the academic’s life and work, on which the scholarly model reposes, sits uncomfortably with the service-provider model, which opens up the product to scrutiny. Moreover, the logic of product evaluation comes to exert an influence over the intellectual and pedagogical practices of the academic; intellectual paradigms, lecturing styles and content areas may become subject to the logic of market “appeal.” It is within such a discursive context that I sympathise with some of the staff anxieties associated with student evaluation.

The university course functions as both a corporate product and a product of the interests, labour and “personality” of an individual scholar; the site of intersection of these two framings is the personage of the academic. The lecturer’s “performance style” — inseparable from his/her embodied “personality” — becomes subjected to market scrutiny under the guise of neutral product evaluation. Evaluation places the academic under the gaze of the student, academic colleagues, university administration and promotions committees, and, ultimately, under the self-scrutinising gaze of the academic herself… Academics are also scrutinised as producers of teaching materials. Staff in-servicing is one mechanism of effecting the required corporatisation of product. The logic at work is that academics are preparing a quality commodity for their customers.

The monitoring of other kinds of “output” — especially research output– takes place across a wide spectrum of modes of visibility — from the writing of reports (every two months at my institution), to the construction of the academic persona via the curriculum vitae, to promotions committees, academic gossip, and even the joyous celebration of book launches.

Finally, in a classic Foucauldian formulation, such intense surveillance functions most powerfully as thoroughly internalised self-surveillance, overdetermined by such very different factors as the desire for promotion, the pleasure in creating an academic persona, a commitment to social change or the advancement of knowledge, a belief in the importance of the disciplinary framework in which one works, and the traditional scholarly inseparability of research work and personal pleasure…

I am not attempting to disentangle the complex knot of value associated with research output — the interweaving of pleasure, pain, choice, desire, social conscience, prestige, and coercion. The point is, of course, that no such separations are possible; neither in terms of values and affectivities, intellectual functions, nor even in terms of working hours, since the simultaneous invocation within universities of both scholarly and bureaucratic discourses means that weekends and evenings are not the automatic province of the private, the bureaucratic or the corporate intellectual.

It is, however, my contention that the gross mismatch between the pressure to “produce” and the time allocated for research work means that the individual body/person must attempt to deal with the resultant structural feelings of inadequacy, and the perceived systemic surveillance. Academics are structurally inadequate by dint of working in output-driven institutions and within intellectual paradigms organised around a logic that renders us always already not good enough: that is, the logic of “yes, but” that structures much academic interchange. Much of the critical enterprise is organised around the premise that knowledge is advanced through only temporary, provisional, contextual or partial acceptance of any truth claim, and quite often through outright rejection of such claims.

Thus the knowledge practices of Humanities disciplines are usually linear and forward looking, and often adversarial and contestatorial in their deep structures, even at their most collegial and friendly. They proceed from a subtle and delicate interplay between consensual and adversarial knowledges — between the underlying set of paradigms or assumptions that can be held to be true at any historical moment for a particular community of scholars, and the always-open-to-debate claims of any one scholar at any moment within those paradigms. As Bourdieu puts it, the academic field is “that site of permanent rivalry for the truth of the social world and of the academic world itself” (xiii).

The complex relations between the corporate body and the individual academic body are epitomised in this: an academic’s research output will affect the funding of his/her department, which will, in turn, affect staffing levels and therefore, ultimately, the availability of time for research…

In the face of the multiple and often competing demands of several paradigms of academic work, bodies can collapse… The difficulties of obtaining scarce infrastructural and financial resources, as well as the individualising logic of such tenacious notions as “coping” or “not coping” mean that it is all too often individual bodies that carry the weight of the overlay of and gaps between the various scholarly, bureaucratic and manergerial/corporate discourses.

It is a hazardous academic enterprise to speculate as to some of the symbolic bodily economies that might be called into play by academic life. If there is indeed a deeply symbolic dimension to the constitution of our bodies, then bodies must surely signify, above all, the singularities of the life they constitute. Can there really be an academic body, or even a range of academic bodies? What about the possible corporeal effects of academic temporal rhythms? The feast-or-famine rhythms of study leave, for example, where, typically, three years of gross overwork are followed by six months of paid relief; or the metaphors of input and output that govern corporate and bureaucratic understandings of research? Is the increased difficulty in balancing input of time and output of research a kind of bulimic or anorexic rhythm, where ingestion, digestion and evacuation are out of balance and where output can by definition never be sufficient? And might these rhythms be productive of actual bodies?

These are questions I cannot and dare not answer. But I will say that a tacit and insidious equation between stress or weariness and professionalism has begun to creep in to academic life. I have heard “jokes” already in which looking well, fit or happy is interpreted as a sign of underwork. I take this as an ultimately logical, if perverted, response to professional overload, and I find it highly alarming that such jocular observations are underpinned by an increasingly internalised mutual or self surveillance. Thus, in a very tight employment market, stress (or the visible markers thereof) functions increasingly and paradoxically as a signifier of both professionalism and weakness. The right amount of stress shows that you are working hard enough; too much stress signifies the body/person that “can’t cope,” and therefore has no place in the strangled employment market of academia. The tired body may signify professionalism, but the less-than-well body signifies corporate deficiency. Having tipped one over some finely drawn and invisible line, the sick body signifies unproductivity, inability to cope, moral, intellectual and professional “weakness.” Thus, by mutual surveillance and an increasingly internalised self surveillance, we come to know who “is” or “isn’t” up to the rigours of an increasingly demanding profession. To some extent, whilever the academic marketplace is so strained, employed academics are condemned to an almost daily performance of their right to a job, and the same principle, working differently, applies to unemployed academics…

I see a number of possible long-term consequences of such framings of the body. Many academics suffer from a chronic ability to “cope”; if illness is one of the few occasions for pause given legitimacy within workplace culture, bodily illness would seem to me a logical material solution for those driven by an over-enthusiastic work ethic and a strong sense of professional responsibility…

I am concerned that if the overworked and over-policed bodies of the Australian academic community are not given more institutional and bodily space, then they may not have the strength, energy or staying power to research those matters of more urgent social import that ought more properly to be their object of attention.


Ruth Barcan lectures in Cultural Studies at the University of Western Sydney. This is an extract from a paper to be published in a forthcoming issue of Southern Review.


Bourdieu, Pierre. Homo Academicus. Trans. Peter Collier. Cambridge: Polity, 1988.

Foucault, Michel. “What is an Author?” In Josu√© Harari (ed.) Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1979. 141-160.

Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan. Harmondsworth: Penguin-Peregrine, 1979.

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