Deaf geographies, and other worlds.

Academic vs. Politics: Or, will someone please tie my fingers together?

Following the ‘Throwing it all away’ post, I’ve received a number of comments, some questions, and some requests for clarification.

There has also been some criticism – warranted, I think – which leads me to write this post, which I will enter by means of an anecdote (bear with me).

If you don’t know, I work in I.T. as one of the client support officers for Bristol Online Surveys.

In 2010, we were approached by another university who were using BOS to do an all staff survey. They wanted us to do the analysis, and then report back our findings.

I was asked to do the analysis and write the report. Thing is, I’d never written one like that before, so I did what I knew best – I approached it like an academic paper.

I was really proud of the result. Combining quantitative and qualitative, it was complete, careful, balanced, truthful and replete with evidence and quotes.  It explored the present situation of the university, outlined its history, traced the causality, identified particularly problematic areas, and presented ideas for how to resolve them. The conclusion applied the most up to date thinking in Organisational Development, and was a masterpiece of objective critique – setting out both positives and negatives, and suggesting a priority list of issues to address.

It was a perfect academic thesis – and utterly useless as a staff development document.

I finished it, had it printed, and sent it to the university’s HR director who, without reading it (or perhaps he did – we’d fallen out somewhere along the way) released it to the university’s staff.

The next thing I knew, I was in deeeeeeeeep trouble. The university’s Vice-Chancellor was spitting feathers, my manager was being called to account – and me and a more experienced colleague were in the car on the way to see the V.C.’s group and ‘explain ourselves’.

Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever faced a very angry Vice-Chancellor in full tirade – but it’s not something that I’d like to do again. Flanked by the glowering faces of his management team, for 30 minutes, he picked through the report page by page and line by line and shredded it… demanding justification for every conclusion, and every commentary and demanding “What do I do with this?”.

I did the only thing I knew how to do… As if I were in a viva, I carefully noted his objections and wrote out notes to answer them.

Finally, he stopped. I straightened my shoulders, lifted my head, readied my notes, and prepared myself to address each point in turn.

But, before I could speak, my colleague did something extraordinary.

He spoke only for a few minutes – one of (in my eyes) the most superficial, waffly, pointless, uncritical, misinformed and disingenuous speeches I’ve ever sat through (I nearly interrupted him, it was so off track at one point) – But in that short time he somehow succeeded not only in calming things, he got the V.C. onside and defused the entire situation, he even managed (and this was extraordinary) to secure an open ticket for further work to allow us to ‘re-write’ the report into a more useful form.

I was stunned.

We left the meeting, shaking the hands of those who had previously wanted our heads on spikes… me still clutching my unused rebuttal notes.

Back in the car – I asked him “What just happened?”

“Evidence is worthless in a situation like that Mike…” he said. “What you saw there was politics”.

I’m not a politician.

Actually, I’ll go further than that: More than ‘not being a politician’, I’m a kind of ‘anti-politician’. For me, there’s evidence… and then thoughts about that evidence – largely motivated by the evidence itself with a few clever theoretical frameworks to help along the way – and that’s about it. No agenda, no picking and choosing based on what you want to present… just a single, flat, level layer of ‘what you see is what you get’, and ‘what you see tells you what you’ve got’.

That’s why I’m an academic.

That’s why, when I do something that looks like politics, it sometimes goes wrong. I just don’t have the skills… empathy, sympathy, motivation, negotiation, compromise, selection, presentation… to make it clear that what I’m attempting to do is something more than just ‘fact’.

So, instead of something that’s appropriate, engaging, politically challenging… what most often spills out is half evidence, half interpretation, half emotion, and half baked.

And, so – to the ‘Throwing it all away’ post.

I stand by what I wrote – I really do think that Deaf Studies is world-changing, and that there are significant reasons to keep it at the heart of the academe – and that Bristol could benefit from that in ways that it may not have even begun to imagine.

Unfortunately, that’s not how everyone read the post… and my argument about the potential loss of something enormously valuable to the academe, and about how that ‘something’ might be preserved and encouraged, got submerged in a miasma of politics… which (reading back now) could easily have been read wrongly… so what I appeared to be suggesting was some kind of insider argument that the ‘University has it in for CDS’…

Since I’m not an ‘insider’, and since the university doesn’t have it in for CDS, and is – in fact pumping money into potential, alternative futures there – this is clearly not the case.

Sorry 😦


So, what do I do now? Well, I’m not going to pull down the original post… In many ways (again, perhaps this is the academic speaking), I’d feel like I were pretending that it never happened.

But I will preface it with a note to read this.

And I will post more, because there is more to explore.

Indeed, having had time to think about what he said in his comments, I think John Walker has hit the nail on the head in his challenge to me to rethink what the academe should be ‘doing’ with Deaf Studies  – I’ve never considered myself an old fashioned academic before, but in this, I am. I struggle with the idea that academic thought might be driven by anything other than a disinterested passion for knowledge… So, I need to go away and apply to myself the kind of creative thinking that I’ve called for before, to think about how the university could embrace a different kind of approach, and still embed the value of Deaf Studies into it.

So, I’m not going to back away from the subject.

But I will also say this… that despite feeling passionately about the field, and despite being committed to its survival and to its integrity, I think I’ve demonstrated that my best service to it is as an academic and not as a politician.

If I stray from that, then I run a very real risk of not only diluting my academic objectivity (something that I hold to dearly, and have trumpeted in the past)… but potentially also – paradoxically – damaging both the efforts of others who are working towards the future of CDS in their own way, and the chance of an informed, critical, academically significant debate about the nature of, and future of the field. 

I’m good at ideas… at evidence, at argument, and at reasoning – but only as an academic.

So, in the future (and perhaps this is my reflexive ‘lesson for the day’) I’ll try and stick to presenting academic argument in favour of, or against, other academic arguments – and leave the politics to those who are better qualified.

If I stray from that path, will someone please tie my fingers together and stop me typing?


One comment on “Academic vs. Politics: Or, will someone please tie my fingers together?

  1. Pingback: Throwing it all away « MIKE GULLIVER

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This entry was posted on September 11, 2012 by in Musings and tagged , , , .
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