Artisanal Academia

In a recent post about the nature of academic work, Zen Faulkes described his research as “hand-crafted”. It was a term I’d never seen associated with academia before, but one that made instant sense.

As I thought about it, my brain started doing word association, generating a list of words that describe hand-crafted things. I scribbled them down as they came to me: organic; one-off; skilled; time-consuming; precious; valuable; lost art; expensive; beautiful. And as I wrote, I realised that good research is all these things. It is an organic process in which progress is sometimes fast, often slow, and the best ideas come from having time and space to think, explore, experiment, and discuss. Every piece is unique and makes a valuable contribution to humanity. It is time-consuming and the people who do it are highly skilled. It is expensive, but the outcomes are precious and beautiful. And I fear it is becoming a lost art.

In the current academic model (where universities are businesses first, and places of learning & understanding second), research and the people who do it have become commodities. The word association list would include terms like metrics, output, impact factor, H-index, benchmark. The focus is on quantity, not quality. Researchers are judged on how many papers they publish and how much money they bring in, not whether they’ve made a meaningful contribution to the world. They are seen (as Sharon McDonough has so beautifully described) as pieces of machinery; viewed as a disposable means of production rather than people.  In this model there is no time for ideas to develop, no interest in the process. This model does not produce research that is unique and valuable; it produces masses of papers that no-one has time to read or contemplate, let alone translate into action. In short, this model forces talented, skilled, and passionate people to sacrifice their craft in the name of productivity.

My home is full of things that are hand-crafted. A loaf of bread from my favourite artisanal bakery, a hand-woven blanket I bought while in the US, a hand-coloured lino print by Evelyn McGreen. I understand that the price ($8.50 for the bread; $300 for the blanket; don’t ask about the print) is a reflection of the time and skill involved in making them. I recognise that although it would reduce the cost, rushing the creative process and cutting corners with ingredients and materials would make for an inferior product. I also value the people who crafted these things and the journey each product has taken on its way from their home to mine – I can see the baker kneading bread out the back when I stand at the bakery counter; the blanket came with a hand-written thank-you note from the weaver and a picture of her sheep; and I have fond memories of the time I spent in McGreen’s home town.

My research is also hand-crafted. The studies of suicide risk in family carers of people with dementia, for example, were a world-first. No research had ever been conducted on this topic before and our work opened up an entirely new field of study and highlighted a host of additional issues that needed to be explored. It also required a unique combination of high-level scientific and interpersonal skills, and had significant and immediate implications for practice and policy. Despite this, I have spent the last 5 years on a series of short-term contracts and each time a contract ends I am made to wait until the 11th hour while the university decides whether I am worthy of their money. (While I wait I look around my home and wonder which hand-crafted beauty I’ll have to sell to make rent if they decide I’m not.) The pressure to produce is also constant. Most recently, for example, the university offered me an ‘interim contract’ of just 2 months’ duration which came with the condition that I had to have three papers submitted for publication in that time. (The fact that I had published double the expected number of papers during the previous contract was, apparently, immaterial.)

So when I walked into the artisanal bakery just before Christmas and saw the Help Wanted sign, I was definitely tempted. But I’m passionate about research and determined to be a force for good in academia, so I resisted the urge to fill in an application form. On Twitter, the #circleofniceness hashtag is used by academics seeking to bring a bit of humanity back to universities. But perhaps we need another hashtag – #artisanalacademia – for those times when we want to remind the world that research, just like good bread, woven blankets, and great art, is hand-crafted. And as with all hand-crafted things, the people who craft it must be valued, respected for the contribution they make, paid what they are worth, and never forced to rush the creative process or sacrifice quality for quantity.

7 thoughts on “Artisanal Academia

  1. This is a beautiful piece Siobhan! It’s so true – there is something that comes from deep inside you (heart, soul, spirit) in creating an artisanal piece of work. And I fear, as we live in increasingly quantified spaces, that this will be lost. We all need to be keep on keeping on, as best we can. and try not to lose faith in our work. I do understand being tempted to work in the lovely bakery though….

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  2. I love the idea of thinking about what is often called ‘knowledge work’ as a craft. I think that the slicing and dicing, the commoditisation of work often accompanies attempts to control it by management-by-technology, and to outsource it to ‘tech’ influenced companies. In UK we see this in health and education currently, and the failures do nothing to abate what I see as an ideological mission to reduce what has been created as public goods and systems. This ideology is present in party politics but is also reflected in the managerial approaches we see in universities and hospitals.
    As you said in your tweet, looking at the craft aspects might help us push back. You might be interested to see this page from #fedwiki http://frances.uk.fedwikihappening.net/view/welcome-visitors/view/recent-changes/view/samplers-and-apprentice-pieces that looks at the materiality in craft learning artefacts. I thought about what they might be for web makers – it’s interesting to think about what samplers and apprentice pieces might be in research, and also whether or not the apprentices are acknowledged as the creators.

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  3. Reblogged this on Microbe Stew and commented:
    To all of my academic friends. The work you do is equivalent to that of an artisan. Your research is unique, brilliant, handcrafted, and bloody hell you pour your heart, soul, blood, sweat and tears into it. #artisanalacademia

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