Research assessment in the university without condition

Cross-posted on the Dariah Open blog as part of their series on research assessment in the humanities and social sciences

In his lecture entitled ‘The future of the profession or the university without condition’, Jacques Derrida makes the case for a university dedicated to the ‘principle right to say everything, whether it be under the heading of fiction and the experimentation of knowledge, and the right to say it publicly, to publish it.’ (Derrida 2001). Beyond mere academic freedom, Derrida is arguing for the importance not just of the right to say and publish, but to question the very institutions and practices upon which such freedom is based – those performative structures, repertoires and boundaries that make up what we call (and do not call) ‘the humanities’.

One such structure – implicit in much of what Derrida writes – relates to the material conditions of the university, or the relationship between ‘professing’ and being ‘a professor’ tasked with the creation of singular works representing their thought (‘oeuvres’). Derrida identifies a gulf between the unconditional university he is arguing for and the material conditions that work against the realisation of such a university. Academics are conditioned to publish work in certain ways, not in the service of this unconditional university but in order to simply earn a living. Integral to this situation are the ways in which humanities research and researchers are assessed and valued by universities and funders. We publish in prestigious books and journals so that we might continue to ‘profess’ in the university for a while longer.

For the most part, research assessment reform promises to tinker with these structures and propose new ‘fairer’ ways to evaluate research. For example, the recent European agreement on reforming research assessment seeks to eradicate journal markers and inappropriate quantitative measures, while promoting qualitative measures that reward a plurality of roles and ways that academics can contribute to research. These recommendations are made in the service of recognising those ‘diverse outputs, practices and activities that maximise the quality and impact of research’ (p. 2). The implication is that good research is being done, but it is not possible to learn this from current approaches to research assessment. Assessment is conceived primarily as an epistemological issue that more accurately rewards those doing the best work.

Absent from these reforms is a thoroughgoing consideration of the fact that research assessment is, more than anything else, a labour issue. It is about the material conditions that allow participation and progression with higher education institutions. The mere fact that researchers chase prestige at every turn is because this is the path to being rewarded in such a brutally competitive academic job market. Without a greater push to end precarity and ease workloads, changing evaluative criteria will have no impact on the labour conditions within the contemporary university. This is why such reforms need to be coupled with a real commitment to improving labour conditions that will in turn have their own epistemological benefits in the form of less pressure to publish and a greater freedom to experiment.  

I’m not here to propose alternatives to the European reforms. Instead, I want to us to consider whether Derrida’s university without condition – though no more than a theoretical construct – also requires us to refuse the conditions of external research and especially researcher assessment. Abandoning assessment could be undertaken in favour of careful and collectivising appreciation by the communities that create and sustain research. We should therefore take as our starting point that the assessment of research for the distribution of scarce resources is not strictly necessary to the pursuit of research. Clearly, financial resources have to be distributed, but a more equitable alternative would be to offer greater democratic governance by all members of the university over how resources are distributed: randomly, communally, through basic income or however else. This is the more urgent work of research assessment reform, not tinkering at the margins.

These more experimental approaches, although gaining traction, presuppose that the university should not be beholden to liberal ideas of meritocracy or individual excellence. Assessment reform should instead lower barriers to participation and facilitate experimental, diverse and collective approaches to knowledge production for their own sake. But it is this connection to the material conditions of labour that is most important to recognise and support: the university without condition requires it.

Work cited

Derrida, Jacques. 2001. ‘The Future of the Profession or the Unconditional University (Thanks to the Humanities That Could Take Place Tomorrow)’. In Jacques Derrida and the Humanities: A Critical Reader, edited by Tom Cohen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.