Letter: How to get an academic job: devise a thesis and make it ludicrous

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The Independent Online
Letter: How to get an academic job: devise a thesis and make it ludicrous

I write to support Noel Malcolm's argument about academic overproduction ("Sinking in a sea of words", 21 July) with evidence from the bottom of the system.The situation is, if anything, worse than he claims, and the problems cannot be entirely detached from issues of funding.

Many articles are not even "unoriginal interpretive rehashes of what is already known", instead they are fanatically original. I have reviewed a whole series of books that developed brilliantly original theses which suffered only from the minor shortcoming that they had no textual support whatsoever, and these, mark you, are at the classy end of the market.

I can, under cover of anonymity, confess an example of the ultimate extensio ad absurdum of the process. A conference in Boston is announced. I need more publications to stand any chance of getting a job after years at university. It is a big, high-profile affair. Sadly, the main themes are not quite "my subject" (and it is virtually mine alone), and I haven't the time to work up a proper paper, especially as one only gets 15 minutes to give it. So I borrow the English Poetry CD-rom and type in some keywords relating to the conference theme. It throws up a series of worthless items from the right period which none the less suggest a rather ludicrous "thesis". I send it as a proposal, and now am going to Boston. My guilt at having perpetrated this crime is only alleviated by the fact that a moderator whom I don't know selected mine over many others for acceptance, so the fraud has been officially ratified as the genuine article. Why? Because it is the genuine article. In a brilliant piece of real-life deconstruction, Research Assessment Exercises have managed to "reinscribe" the ersatz as the real, marginalising almost everything of actual worth and promise in the deluge of junk research described by Malcolm.

I started out wanting to teach in a university, and now I have had to stop being a tutor (on around pounds 2.90 an hour) because it won't get me a full-time job. Hence the pointless, wasteful, deceitful, confessedly silly and demeaning process detailed above, which, presumably, will.

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