alienated academic book review

Over at the new PostDigital Science and Education journal Joss Winn has a review of my monograph, The Alienated Academic: The Struggle for Autonomy Inside the University. Joss plays around with the review style, in order to highlight some of the alienating realities of academic (over)work and time. He makes several important points about the book that resonate for me as follows.

  • Categorical critique: “Where Hall’s book differs from much of the literature on the marketisation of higher education and threats to professional identity, is his thoroughgoing, relentless attempt to explain what is happening at a categorical level that cuts through (i.e. intersects) the differences in professional experience in order to find what is common among us.”
  • The hopelessness of labour: “The alienation that Hall identifies at work goes beyond estrangement and hopelessness and is rooted, he argues, in the critical category of labour. In fact, to see the problem as marketisation, metrics or managerialism is to mistake the manifestation for the cause of our problems. Such an approach tends towards an unreflexive resistance to our own objective conditions and an overwhelming sense of helplessness. That helplessness breeds hopelessness, a recurring theme throughout Hall’s book. What is required (and this is key to the whole book) is a categorical critique of academic labour; one which perceives labour in the university through the basic critical categories of wage labour.”
  • A productive synthesis: “The Alienated Academic is structured in three parts over nine densely written and heavily referenced chapters. It covers a lot of ground in 270 pages, drawing widely from contemporary Marxist theory as well as an extensive engagement with Marx’s original work. It provides a useful survey of the concept of alienation and argues for the continuing and contemporary relevance of Marxist theory and its basic categories of labour, value, the commodity, subsumption and so on. What is likely to make this sometimes difficult book both intriguing and more broadly appealing is that Hall extends his contemporary Marxism with the literature of feminism, (de)colonialism, identity politics and intersectionality. It is a productive synthesis that is set in the context of contemporary changes in English higher education, while recognising that the alienating features of English university life can be found across the world. For these reasons, this is a unique and ground-breaking monograph in the field of critical university studies.”

I think that it is only right to thank Joss for this very kind review, and to accept that it is densely written and heavily referenced, drawing upon a range of theoretical positions. A friend who has engaged with the book questioned whether it was to0 theoretical, although in the acknowledgements I do point to a range of primers and readers about Marxist theory, and the book is part of a Marxism and Education series. One of the reviewers also argued that it was perhaps over-referenced, whilst another wondered whether my voice got lost in my citation of others.

What interested me in the process of writing was my attempt to understand my own work and academic practice. I could not do this without accepting and drawing upon a range of positions. This is why the literature on feminism, critical race theory, identity politics and intersectionality were so important. It is nice to read that this is received by some as a productive synthesis when I feel that I am simply trying to find my way by listening to a range of alternative positions, and in so doing hopefully enabling others to do likewise. However, in order to find my way I had to read a lot of things, and it feels only right to cite those authors who shape my own position.

One of the critical issues for me now is to think through how a categorical critique of academic experience, practice and work, rooted in the estrangement of the person employed as an academic or fractured as an academic, from her academic self, her academic identity, her academic community, and her academic products, can enable us to overcome the hopelessness of labour. How can sitting with and processing a hopeless position enable us to develop useful alternatives? How can accepting the hopeless university enable us to reimagine and reignite our humanity in the name of another world?

I’ll be speaking about the book at Bath Spa on 23rd January, and also at a University of Sheffield Ed.D. residential on 15th February.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.