Tuesday, February 08, 2011

An introduction to Foucault. Where's Illich? And why our research is so safe these days

A friend on the outer edges of my ONPhD/OpenPhD network has recommended I look into Foucault, and gave me this audio recording as an introduction.

Interview with Professor Stephen Shapiro, Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies

The first question on listening that popped into my head was, what are the connections between Illich and Foucault, given they seem to talk to very similar themes, and were born in the same year. To my surprise, a quick search revealed very little connection, and I haven't yet found a reference by Illich to Foucault, nor Foucault to Illich.

In a forum archive there is this interesting response to someone asking the same question:

There are several common ideas between Foucault and Illich. Foucault would say: it doesn´t matter if I read or not the books of Illich; the important thing is to know why in the middle of this centuary some modern ideas related to education are being criticised.

So we have a little mystery to explore. Perhaps its just academic snobbery. Certainly Foucault is quoted and pretended to be known by just about every academic I've ever met, where as Illich remains the unknown and unread.

In the recording starting at 14.40, Stephen Shapiro makes an interesting observation on the mechanism of academic control in the UK presently. He refers to the research rating and reward scheme they have there called called PBRF (Performance Based Research Fund). New Zealand uses the same scheme and the Australian equivalent is called ERA - Excellence in Research Australia. Stephen says:
All scholars have to deliver their research to be evaluated on a system of one to five, right, or one to four, I mean it changes all the time. That's the other Foucaultian thing - the rules change so you can't put any logic to it or retrospective studies. The work is sent to a central committee to be evaluated on merit. The work is rated but, no one is ever told what rating that work got. The individual isn't told, the department isn't told, the university isn't told. So let's say I write a book, and I send it in to be evaluated and its going to be rated on a scale of one to five. I am never told what that book is actually rated as. So that means I have to spend my entire time wondering, was this a four book, or was it a five book!? This is the mechanism of control right. So in other words, every time I write something I'm wondering is this really good or is this maybe not so good... we start to police ourselves. One of the effects of this is that individuals would start to worry about taking risks, or about saying things that might cause them to be controversial, because maybe controversy isn't excellence. There's a very thin line between ground breaking work and terrible work. If there is this committee of people who are credentialised to make these evaluations, that never have to explain what those evaluations were to you, you're going to hang towards the middle. That is a tremendously powerful mechanism for controlling the academy, which was threatening - maybe not the most threatening thing under the Thatcher years, but definitely threatening, because Briton was known in the Western world for having a very bolshe left wing academy. I don't think you could say the same thing today. 

The self regulation that results from the anxiety of not knowing, based on general and non specific ratings from hidden research evaluation committees, encourages the individual academic to shy away from risk and away from radicalism.

Its sounded just as plausible to apply this same view onto Australian academia and its ERA, and New Zealand academia and its PBRF. Both are financially rewarded based on their evaluations, resulting in an all but silent subservience to the authority, and its quiet and distorting level of control over academic expression.

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