The following is a written-up version of Professor Rob Cover’s keynote speech at the CSAA Prefix 2020, hosted by Edith Cowan University in December.
Academic careers in Cultural Studies have become even more difficult to forge in an era marked by the demise of Cultural Studies departments or disciplinary clusters and—in Australia—two decades of vitriolic attacks on the value of humanities and social sciences research and education from governments, some university executives and opinionated members of the public. Ongoing casualisation of the academic workforce and the perennial persistence of precarious labour in universities add to the issues that complexify the traditional trajectories for academic careers.
The present situation has exacerbated the longer-term problem: only a relatively small percentage of people who undertake a doctorate and who desire to work permanently in academia do so straight away. The situation, however, is not a simple binary as if some Cultural Studies graduates have a clear pathway into research while others are rejected and must find something else to do with life.
Common wisdom given regularly to postgraduates and recently-completed PhD candidates is that a continuing academic appointment results from publishing (a lot) and winning prestigious grants (especially DECRAs and internally-funded postdoctoral awards). While a good number of Q1 journal articles and a prestigious award that pays a salary are very helpful in the present climate, they are only one part of the picture and not an exclusive pathway.
Over the past decade I have spoken to people who, 2-3 years out from a PhD and working in industry or government, have felt their long-desired academic career is now out of reach. Some have imagined that two years without an academic post means a permanent barrier to academic employment. Not true.
At the same time, I have regularly heard postgraduates and early-career researchers state that in order to best positioned for continuing academic roles, they are concentrating exclusively on research and are not interest in any part-time teaching work. The view is that not only is research more desirable (as if teaching ought to be depicted as undesirable), but that unless the teaching is about their research it is a distraction that will reduce the chance of future academic success. Some have turned down teaching opportunities for that reason, while others have found work in alternative sectors and taken that as a sign to give up on academia altogether. In most of these cases, this absolutist thinking has been detrimental and meant good people with a great starting trajectory have been lost to academia and Cultural Studies.
An alternative is found in more fluid thinking about what an academic career should look like in the second decade of the twenty-first century, and the fluid, mutually-engaged relationship between research and other forms of work.
Professional job and university careers are not mutually-exclusive: Amorphous bounds and academic identities
My own trajectory is a little strange, but also instructive. After a PhD in Cultural Studies at Monash University, I found my first continuing academic role in Aotearoa New Zealand in the closely-related field of Media Studies. While an important learning experience, I left this role (and academia) after three years. Partly, my partner and I wanted to return to Australia where moving back would benefit his own career, even if it disrupted mine (equitable relationships have ethical obligations of mutuality, of course, and the geography of career trajectories is often one part of that). At the same time, however, I had become concerned that my university was recruiting students to study Media by advertising that our expert staff would shepherd them directly into professional media careers—while in fact very few of the teaching staff had held substantial roles ourselves in key media areas (and my few years of freelance journalism between Honours and PhD degrees didn’t quite cut it). How were we to make a legitimate link between the analysis of media cultures and its application in a genuine media setting? The possibility of adding an element of further frame of legitimacy to my academic work (and self-identity as an academic) was attractive.
My partner and I moved, then, to Brisbane with the view that I would work for a few years professionally and gain experience that might benefit my research, give me opportunities to engage, and help develop conceptual links between media theory and professional practice that could come back into the classroom.
It was by a combination of fate, fortune, stumbling backward into roles and a few false starts that I gained a few years’ experience as a communication strategist, a planning officer and a policy development lead with the Queensland Government. I was lucky to have been hired, on the basis of a PhD, for a role for which I was actually out of my depth and would need to learn to do very quickly through researching it and hurriedly connecting with others. Fortunately, some of departments I worked with were related to areas of my research interests (minorities, social welfare, youth, community advocacy) so I could draw on some existing knowledge, but on the whole this meant learning a new vocabulary and a couple of new dialects–public service speak and policy language.
The career benefits were, in retrospect, enormous and extremely valuable:
- gaining a sense of how academic research converts into policy and practice;
- understanding contemporary approaches to strategic communication;
- learning about how the public, policy-makers, politicians, key sector workers, etc., and what ways of framing cultural research were palatable to non-academics and meaningful for ‘end users’;
- understanding how a professional office environment and professional networks actually operate (rather than relying on stereotypes and myths I’d picked up from friends and, more often, from TV).
- having—at last—material that could help explain workplace realities, practices, frameworks and routines to eager media and communication students.
There were hard yards to be walked: trying to draw conceptual links and trying to maintain some semblance of academic activity. When people suggest that a full-time job is only about eight hours a day, leaving at least another eight hours free (and weekends) to be part-time academic they’re bullshitting. The reality is more like trying to find 2-3 hours on a Sunday (if it’s raining) and enough motivation to keep up with the field, write a little, and try to maintain a self-identity as an academic.
It would be a lie to claim that I comfortably imagined a return to university working life. Rather, the different temporalities of professional working life, the attraction of what I was doing, and the re-configured performativity of the ‘career co-ordinate’ of identity that comes with the fracturing of selfhood leaving the university sector was troubling and confusing, and there were daily doubts about whether I was truly still an academic (or what that even meant). When the time came to return to university work, applying for jobs was neither easy nor immediately successful. Indeed, success came when I presented a subjectivity marked by performing ‘professional with academic experience’ rather than ‘academic with professional knowledge’. And, even still, a non-normative trajectory obliges a very careful theatrics of self-presentation (in job interviews, at least).
There are a few helpful ways to think about a professional role if that is how one is earning a living while desiring to be a Cultural Studies researcher in continuing academic employment:
- Retaining connectivity with academia—while it’s not possible to be working full-time professionally and academically, there are a few ways to retain the kinds of connections that allow self-identity as an academic to persist. A few hours a week reading and writing is vital. Offer (widely) to take some later afternoon or evening tutes, or classes on days off. A half-day research assistant role. Request an honorary fellowship and library access (beg if you must). Give the occasional seminar and attend one conference a year (e.g., CSAA). Some or all of these activities are helpful for keeping one’s hand in academia, rather than seeing the world of Cultural Studies research and teaching as something from which one is temporarily ‘cut off’.
- Utilise the professional role—find ways to see it not as an alternative job but as a period of participatory fieldwork. It’s a long-term cultural investigation and critique of a workplace, its structure, mechanisms, socialities, practices of policy development, etc. Take notes and use those Cultural Studies and critical theory skills both to make sense of it and to analyse it. Let it shape research interests and make the learnings useful as things to pass on to future students.
- Keep teaching in mind—thinking daily about how professional routines work and what I wished I had learned beforehand, and how that might be communicated to future students.
While there are no guarantees about anything in the precarious university sector, the core to surviving as an academic is to embrace the fluid complexities of a subjectivity that allows one to say “yes, I am an academic” and “yes, I am a professional policy wonk” and “yes, I am a public servant” all in the same breath. While there are many fools who want to draw discrete insider-outsider boundaries around the university, the history of academia is that those bounds are amorphous—a careful, Cultural Studies attention to that amorphicity can help forge the kind of subjectivity that can successfully ride it.
The value of teaching to cultural research: Dynamic tensions
People who see the labour of teaching as diametrically opposed to—or a disruption of—research activity can fuck off. To start with, there is an ethical obligation for institutions that are funded to conduct research to also teach the next generation of scholars, professionals and interested community members. Taking up that ethic as a personal responsibility early in one’s career is helpful, although it does mean finding balance and finding ways to draw together the sometimes distinct activities of researching and teaching. It is almost impossible in the 2020s for a person to start out in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences and to expect a research-only trajectory made up of a DECRA, a Future Fellowship and a prestigious research-only role for life. Being prepared to teach and building up a profile of teaching is a valuable CV entry.
One of the problems with the discursive tension between research and teaching is how contemporary universities have framed a research-teaching nexus: that active research informs and enhances the delivery of teaching. This conceptualisation of the relationship, while very true, misses the opportunity to consider the reverse: that teaching can and should inform, lead, contribute to and shape research.
Teaching is always beneficial to the practice of research. One reason is that it allows us to rehearse key concepts in the field which are too easily forgotten when the act of researching becomes specific and specialised. Returning to Raymond Williams, EP Thompson, Richard Hoggart and Stuart Hall is not something we might do when writing an article (nor should we cite ‘founding fathers’ uncritically or without attention to the privilege that allows their historical selection as ‘founding fathers’), but teaching this work has enormous value in reminding us of core Cultural Studies principles (and how they are historically located) that can further help shape and deepen our critical thinking about the research topic at hand.
Secondly, the practice of explaining a difficult concept to an undergraduate audience—whether in writing, speech, a workshop or a handout—is always helpful in honing the ever-necessary skill of communicating and justifying our research to peers, communities, end-users, policy-makers and colleagues. In other words, it is never a distraction or disruption to something figured as the ‘real work’ of Cultural Studies as if that is only ever research.
What happens, then, when we can’t teaching Cultural Studies topics but are loaded down with teaching nevertheless? The fact that most of us rarely have an opportunity to choose the exact topics we wish to teach, or to ensure they are directly aligned to our current research interests is a reality for most academic staff. This is particularly marked in Cultural Studies, where either reduced courses, the minimisation of electives or the embedding of Cultural Studies within other Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences courses is increasingly the norm. Once again, it’s important not to perceive the act of teaching something other than our own research as some kind of interruption to the ‘real work’ of research but as a powerful opportunity to open new research activities, ways of thinking, topics and interests.
Attitude, which is a habitual mode of regard towards an object of thought, not only conditions the performativity of selfhood within the tensions between different aspects or ‘co-ordinates’ of identity (Cultural Studies researcher, teacher, citizen, gendered subject, etc.) but can either open up or shut down opportunities for the productive re-orientation of the self. Sustaining a ‘negative’ attitude towards teaching something one wishes not to (or teaching as a practice itself) because it does not ‘fit’ within one’s perception of subjectivity as a Cultural Studies researcher usually means losing the opportunity to critically engage with that teaching material in a way which draws it into our own work, and taking advantage of the reverse flow of the research-teaching nexus.
Some things we can do:
- Be a Cultural Studies researcher and accept that we teach other things. My work in strategic communication was unexpected and finding myself teaching it is perhaps not always fully desired (I’d rather teach queer cultural theory or digital humanities or critiques of popular culture). But carving a space in which one can be a critical researcher of strategic communication—even if only for a couple of side-line articles—finds success not only from a professional background in my case, but primarily from the benefits of intensively learning a scholarly field that is necessary for teaching a course in it. Nothing is ever wasted if we orient ourselves to see it as cultural research in the first instance.
- As with professional work outside the university, the labour of teaching and engagement with students on any topic can perhaps best be understood as also a form of participatory fieldwork; it is an opportunity to investigate a set of orientations towards the world, the practices that govern contemporary students’ perceptions and interpretations of a field, and the cultural frameworks that tie—rightly or wrongly—their sense of education to a sense of a post-educational career.
- One might incorporate small elements of Cultural Studies research into teaching a non-cognate topic. This does not mean taking the dreadful risk of teaching what we enjoy and neglecting the curriculum that is, at least partly, built on the demands of students and future employment—contemporary students are exceedingly savvy and recognise very well when this happens. Whether it is right or wrong that higher education be commodified and codified as a job-readiness investment, the argument that paying for something that was not as described or cannot justify its own value has an ethical element within our inescapable transactional frameworks. This does not, however, foreclose on utilising Cultural Studies to enhance the critical and reflective capabilities of students in any area of learning.
- Finally, it is possible to benefit from the dynamic tension of teaching one thing and researching something else—the stresses of one alleviate the stresses of the other, creating productive ‘breaks’ from one another that make us both better researchers and better teachers.
Much of the above is a question of temporality: how time is perceived in ways conditioned by attitude, and how that shapes a sense of identity.
Spending the majority of hours undertaking professional labour outside of a university, teaching in an unfamiliar or undesirable curriculum, or having time away from being a Cultural Studies researcher can reconfigure our sense of self as Cultural Studies researchers. There is always the risk that a narrowly-perceived sense of how time should be spent, or how we desire to spend it most, can undo an identity as a Cultural Studies person. Chrononormativities describe the role played by perceptions of time and temporality in producing conformities and truths. They are a particularly powerful node in the constitution of identities which not only draw on cultural norms but stabilise alongside the longevity of those norms which, themselves, become stereotypes over time and about the place of the self in time. Chrononormativies are powerful, and the mis-perceived idea that a true Cultural Studies researcher spends time as a leisurely, introspective, reflective nineteenth-century stereotype is a narrowing down that curtails all the opportunities to take advantage of the fact that nothing is ever quite that solid.
However, re-orienting our perception of those other kinds of labour away from being distractions and seeing them instead as doing Cultural Studies itself not only helps to keep up the performativity of being a Cultural Studies person, but presents enormous opportunities for both feeding our critical research and for finding new intersections between our own work and other topics. And with reflective, critical engagement, these can happen in ways which help us navigate the disrupted normativities of career trajectories in the twenty-first century
The trick is doing the hard work of finding not distinctions but relevance and bringing them together. That, in itself, is often undesirable labour, but remarkably fruitful once undertaken. Certainly, my own career, my research trajectory and my attempts to keep cultural and critical research responsive to changing social and political needs—as haphazard and accidental and unplanned as it has always been for me—has benefitted most in those instances.
Rob Cover is Professor of Digital Communication at RMIT University. Author of about one hundred journal articles and chapters, and seven books, his most recent is Population, Mobility and Belonging: Understanding Population Concepts in Media, Culture and Society (Routledge 2020).