Buying and selling the intellect

The image for this blog was taken at the first social learning workshop for members of the South African Water Caucus in October 2014.  The course  was designed for members to share ideas and learn from each other. 

I haven’t kept to my bi-monthly blog commitments. To catch up here is a quick, off the cuff reflection.

I knew that I would fall behind on my blog commitments before long. I have slipped due to a combination of getting sick, end of the year exhaustion and, of course, my continual battle with prioritising something that I love doing as opposed to producing work for various other reasons and for various other people. A Phd is a commitment to one’s own intellectual journey and passions. It can’t be anything but that because of the absolute challenge that it is. A facebook friend posted a cartoon with the caption, “questions often asked of PhD students’.The questions ranged from ‘What is your research on?” and “What’s the point of that?” to “What do you mean you’ve got no money?” and “Why do you look sad all the time?”.

If you ask any newly graduated PhD student for some advise on doing a PhD, the first bit of advise they will give you is “Don’t do it!”. Six months down the line when the pain has faded into the background and they have got over the novel experience of being called ‘Dr’ they will smile and reminisce the wonderful experience of the PhD. Those late nights, the time to read – to actually read – and the joy of having the time to work with such depth. Surprisingly they will have forgotten that they were holding down jobs (except for the lucky few that can do a PhD as a job) at the same time as trying to ‘do the depth work’. That reading another boringly long, complex text seemed tedious and a form of torture when the new Neil Gaiman book of short stories lies unread on the shelf. Or the latest series that everyone is talking about sits unwatched in the movie and series downloads folder on your hard drive. Yes, it takes passion and some form of insanity to engage in a PhD.

Doing a PhD also plonks you right back into the world of knowledge production. The wonderful world of the knowledge industry and the endless producing and consuming. Somewhere down the line knowledge was given a value. A value in terms of how a person is recognised by others, the value they place on their own contribution in the world and a straight forward monetary value. So many papers equals so much money in the bank. Suddenly knowledge is not only something you develop or acquire or co-create, it is something that you own or that is owned by another. Someone can steal knowledge. You can be contracted and paid for knowledge that then you no longer own as yours. When you sign a work contract you may be asked to sign away the rights to the knowledge that you produce. You can be made to sign agreements saying that you will not use any of the knowledge that you hear, co-produce or use while working in the organisation in any other context. How is all this possible if we understand knowledge production to be a process.. a process of collaborative meaning making in context? How can this be possible of we understand the sharing of knowledge to be key to engaging with many of the complex challenges we have in the world today? Where does, ‘this is mine, and that is yours’ come into the picture alongside desires to bring about change and emancipate. Can we really say, ‘this is my personally developed emancipatory process. You can’t use it! Well at least not until I get it published.’ All of this seems so ridiculous and yet I also feel the pull to own something even if it is just a diagramme that I thought up one late night with the lunatic notion that it was unique and life changing.

I want to abandon these delusions and embrace the FACT that whatever this PhD becomes it will be a collaborative effort and will draw on the ideas and processes of many, many people that are smarter, much smarter than me. I will put my name on the document in the end because it is a statement that whatever conclusions I have drawn and feel brave enough to share are conclusions that I’m willing to stand by and defend or be convinced of their fallibility. My authorship is not an ownership. Nor do I want to need some form of grand peer recognition for these ideas to have meaning. They have meaning to me. Surely that is enough. They forward my work a little more. Surely that is sufficient. The process has possibly made me a better researcher. Surely that is all the recognition I need. That is not to say I don’t get hot under the collar when I feel I am not recognised for some brainwave that I have laid claim to as mine that is then used by someone else. It is hard to see something that I have worked on for years being written about by another because I just haven’t had time to write about it myself. I get it. I really do. I feel it.

But I want to work at changing this. It feels important. It feels that just as our habits of consumption need to change if we are to avoid the looming environmental warnings of extinction so I need to change my view of what can be owned from all this research work. Whatever we manage to achieve in this lifetime it is simply a small addition to a much bigger, generations-long intellectual project. The small addition would not be possible without the thousands of previously small editions so how can it be claimed, owned, fought over, signed away and branded. It seems like a small concern of mine but is it? What if when someone adopts and develops ideas I see as mine I celebrate that someone else had the time to do the work that I didn’t have. What if I celebrate that a conversation or a passing telephone call helped another person enough to forward their ideas. I also hope that I start to understand that the author is simply the writer, not the inventor of ideas and knowledge. Writing is a form of research and a form of knowledge creating but it is done in collaboration with all other writers and with every single word that has ever been written by any pen or typed by any keyboard. I hope I can change my perception of these things as I engage in this massive body of work so that the passion that drives it doesn’t get lost in feelings of inadequacy and jealousy. Rather, when I feel these feelings I will have the same courage as my colleague, Victor, and simply notice them and walk away. I need to be careful and be vigilant watching both my own responses and steering clear of places where these fights and battles may brew in other people’s minds or, as the playwrite, Marc Blitzstein says, “Capitalism will make prostitutes of us all.”

Last year I joked with my friend, Dr Ingrid Schudel, who was feeling that University ‘publish or perish’ stress, that I should put her name on any paper that I write and she do the same. Her stress of writing X amount of papers would be reduced and I’d be able to claim half her intellectual brilliance. A joke, yes but maybe in the joke lies a little idea of forming an intellectual groups committed to an intelluctual project. That this group publishes under the name of the group rather than as individuals. I wonder whether that would reduce the pressure, break the personal ownership of knowledge and go a little way to building communities of learning rather than buyers and sellers packaging the intellect.

3 thoughts on “Buying and selling the intellect

  1. Ingrid

    This post is owned by Jane Burt and Ingrid Schudel (and Ingrid’s dog Zephyr for his insights on sharing his bed with the new ‘dog-on-the-block’ – Lyra)

  2. Lindie Botha

    OK – I’m a bit late with this comment, but here goes!
    Maybe everything went awry with the Western intellectual tradition of seeing knowledge as an ‘object’ (Observe for instance, companies with ‘knowledge management’ departments and the notion of ‘knowledge workers’). We’ve made it into something that can be examined, owned, shared, applied, appropriated…Universities legitimise it and perpetuate exclusive ownership through incentives and sanctions that control academic life. Silo’s aren’t just an accidental by-product, but a function of the rules of the game of knowledge production and dissemination. Then Google came along. Liberating knowledge from the shackles of library access, student registration fees and nutty professors. If only it wasn’t for Capitalism and the rewards the system gives us for ‘owning’ stuff’… Everyone wants a piece of the knowledge action (and PHD students more brazenly than most!) Academics hoard it, Google manipulates it. And capitalism makes bargain-hunters of all of us. Aren’t universities and the internet just large, bustling market-places for knowledge, where logos matter, quality differ and something is always ‘on sale’?

    1. Jane Burt Post author

      Great comment Lindie… right next to a desire to own becomes the possibility of stealing. I wonder if a ‘real’ socialist intellectual movement would give up the capitalist market place of knowledge production and whether this would stop the need to protect and own knowledge as a commodity. Maybe we would be less distracted by the pretty logos and the bargain deals. I wonder if there could actually be an intellectual commons : ).


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