A ‘proper’ academic

I’m aware that I’ve been very dilatory about posting new blogs here at CopyCats but I’ve haven’t been completely idle – most recently I’ve spent a spell of time in Glasgow and Edinburgh researching a book I am editing. This book is to be an academic reappraisal of a once famous, but now neglected, Scottish poet by the name of Sydney Goodsir Smith (1915-1975). There are over a dozen contributors and I’m trying to research as much as I can on Goodsir Smith’s life for my introduction. Most recently I’ve been in the National Library of Scotland, lurking upstairs in the Special Collections department, trying to decipher Goodsir Smith’s handwriting which I’ve now seen in a whole spectrum of shades from sobriety to insobriety. I even managed to find a small accession folder of letters to Goodsir Smith (Acc. 13155) that I myself donated to the NLS many moons ago, the fruits of my endless hunting in the second hand bookshops of Edinburgh.

Anyway, it’s quite an attractive lifestyle – that of the researcher. You steep yourself in your chosen subject all day and often make acquaintance with fellow toilers in the field, going for longer lunches than originally intended. There’s lots of stuff to sift through and decipher, but the breakthroughs and discoveries make it all worthwhile. But all of this has got me thinking what it is to be an academic. I’ve been in a number of social situations (phatic talk of the “Who are you and what do you do?” sort) where I’ve been made to feel like I am not allowed to identify as an academic because I am free-lance, and not attached to any university. Often when you publish an academic article in a peer-reviewed journal, that journal will ask you for your affiliation / institution. Only recently I was in a situation where I was asked if I too was an academic, like the rest of the people in a particular group, and when I said that I published academic work, had a PhD but did not work for a university I go the short-shrift reply, “Oh, so not a proper academic then”.

I recently submitted a paper to a well-known peer-reviewed academic journal. While the paper was conditionally accepted one of the peer-reviewers questioned whether or not my work amounted to ‘serious scholarship’. Of the work in question, I can assure you that I have read every piece of primary and secondary literature relating to it, and have my own take on it which differs radically from the safe and slightly non-committal academic line. Therefore the piece is labelled as ‘polemic’ and not ‘serious scholarship’, an accusation only bolstered by the fact I am freelance. I find this value-system very peculiar and there is certainly an element of snobbery to it. It almost amounts to institutionalised censorship. I remember once being reprimanded by a reviewer for writing about Hugh MacDiarmid and quoting from the only existing biography of MacDiarmid by Alan Bold – I was told this was now deemed ‘sub-academic’ – I could only laugh at such blatant, and misplaced, elitism. The reviewer in question clearly did not know how much work went into that biography. I wrote a piece for Versopolis not so long ago about how, as a poet, you are forever subjected to the crude pecuniary question: “Can you make money from that?” and I think a similar attitude lies behind the question of the ‘proper’ academic: capital.

As such, a ‘proper’ academic is one who is paid by an institution to teach, research and publish findings to the combined cachet of both the academic and institution in question. A freelance academic cannot be a ‘proper’ academic because there is no monetary exchange, no emolument for services rendered, no wage, no officialdom. The assumption is made that the freelance academic must in some way be a failed or second-rate academic, who could not find a position at a university. In my case this is certainly true, but it conveniently overlooks the main point – why would someone still choose to be an academic if there was no financial incentive? The answer, of course, is the love of the thing / subject. There is a purity to the freelance researcher and a mercenary tinge to the ‘proper’ institutionalised academic who often goes out looking for subjects with impact to please the REF people. Things are entered into not necessarily out of genuine interest, but perhaps at times for cynical reasons. I’ve heard of people talk about proposing projects on writers who they’ve never even read before, just because the possibility of funding is strong. That to me sounds like going about things in wholly the wrong way. People also seem to forget that you are granted a PhD on two primary grounds: for an original and sustained contribution to knowledge in your chosen field and for self-directed learning. Self-directed, heuristic learning – is that not the lot of the freelance academic?

I’m aware this runs the risk of sounding a bit like pulpiteering, so I’ll leave it there. Of course, I’ve also been trawling the bookshops, as is my wont, and in Stirling the other day I came across this gem. It’s a first edition of Sorley MacLean’s Spring tide and Neap tide, beautifully designed by the book-design magus Ruari McLean, and what’s more is my copy was once McLean’s, warmly inscribed to him by the great Gaelic bard himself. Mine for the odd price of £6.40, and I knew who Ruari McLean was because I love books and I research them in my own time:richie-win_20171105_151617

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