Academics and Olympians

Over the past week the world, or at the very least my home, has been swept up in olympic fever. After Danny Boyles incredible opening ceremony, that gave us an eccentric vision of British history that included Voldemort, the Industrial Revolution (I am not going to enter into a historiographical debate on wether or not it even happened here) the NHS, and Dizzee Rascal; everyone has been caught up in Olympic mania. This fever has not been helped by the fact that Team GB are doing phenomenally well (Well at least very well for a small island) – at the last check we had 15 gold medals in a total of 30 something medals earned. The temperature of the extent that we have been caught up in the euphoria of olympics can be seen by the incredible noise from the completely filled stadiums from start to the very end. A rower described the feeling of hitting a wall of noise as they entered the final two hundred metres. As I have been watching the Olympics it has struck me at the sheer level of commitment that the athletes have committed to reaching this climatic moments, such as Karina Bryant’s efforts to gain a bronze medal in Judo. Bryant had spent fourteen years working hard and preparing for this performance of athletic supremacy. In all of the moments in which we have won medals the athletes all participated in a dramatic performance, a performance that was witnessed by hundreds of thousands of people across the world.


Surrounded by a climate of Olympic fever it meant that this morning when I picked up Erving Goffman‘s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life  to read over breakfast I couldn’t help but think of the presentation of self in terms of Olympians. One of the things that struck me about Goffman’s work was that it didn’t seem to be that original, the idea of the world being a stage and everyone of us actors who perform certain roles is one that anyone familiar with Shakespeare and the Early Modern period should be familiar. The trope of the world as a stage was found everywhere in Early Modern England. The most famous expression of it found in the following quotes:

“All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players:

They have their exits and entrances;

And one man in his time plays many parts.”

(As you Like It, Act II Scene VII)

Or as Macbeth phrased it in his memorable passage:

“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more; it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” (Macbeth, Act V Scene I)

Perhaps Shakespeare was speaking about a universal part of humanity. That it is a truth for everyone to accept social roles and play out these parts certainly the sociologist Robert Ezra Park thought so when he said:

‘Everyone is always and everywhere, more or less consciously, playing a role… It is in these roles that we know each other; it is in these roles that we know ourselves.’ (Race and Culture, 1950, p249)

Goffman’s findings as a result of this exposure to social roles and the performative nature of reality where hardly groundbreaking when I read them. One thing that did stick out to me however was his idea of dramatic realisation. As Goffman describes it:

“the individual typically infuses his activity with signs which dramatically highlight and portray confirmatory facts that might otherwise remain unapparent or obscure.” (Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Every-day Life, p37)

The olympics are a great example of something that dramatically highlighted the work that athletes put into preparing for the games. NBC in their editing also helped to increase the dramatic realisation of American achievement by manipulating the facts to increase the tension in one of their victories. They omitted the fact that the competitor had made a flaw which essentially put them out of the competition essentially giving America the medal, a fact omitted in the TV report. The olympics in its very nature is a dramatic realisation of the activity and preparation of the athletes. The commentators throughout are constantly reminding us of the huge sacrifices that the athletes go through to get to this point in their life. Further, the constant gaze of the television crews on the athletes are a constant reminder that this is a drama in which they are performing to a wider audience. The athletes as a result are very visibly dramatising their work and making visible the invisible work that has preceded it in their self expression. As a result they are given a special place in the commercially organised fantasies and ceremonies of the nation.

The dramatisation of work is not always so easy for those in less vivid occupations such as academics, teachers, and the invisible workers in society. Goffman points this out in a study of hospital nurses. Post-surgery nurses are seen to have a recognisable significance, they take of the bandages, check temperatures and are seen to have discrete purposeful activity. Medical nurses on the other hand have a less visible role and as a result are seen as less impressive and significant. As Edith Lentz concludes in her study:

‘The nurses are wasting time unless they are darting about doing some visible thing such as administering hypodermics.’ (Edith Lentz, ‘A comparison of Medical and surgery Floors, Cornell University, 1954, p2-3)

The problem for medical nurses was that there was nothing dramatic about the work that they were doing no highly visible signifier that indicated that they were performing a crucial role in the diagnostic process. In reading this I couldn’t help but think of the fact that academic work is one which is highly invisible. The production of research is almost invisible consisting of many long hours of lonely tedious work, checking references, editing, or in my case constructing an infernal database of dialogues. This work is invisible and unseen. The only real performance of our work is found in publications and giving papers at conferences. In both cases this performance of our work is limited to a handful of colleagues and other researchers. The vast majority of our work is hidden. In achieving a Phd, for instance, it is the product of 15 years of academic training, it requires just as much effort, dedication, and work as obtaining a gold medal. But when the accumulation of this work is achieved in the dramatic moment of realisation ie. in the production of a thesis it is relegated to the university archives only to be read by your supervisor and examiners, and if you are lucky a few other researchers in the same field. The viva in which your thesis is defended occurs in a room with only a few people in. The result is that not only is the vast majority of work involved in the research process rendered invisible but the expression of that research is practically invisible. Scholarly articles are less about sharing research today, then about establishing a CV and performing the role of an academic researcher.

The tragedy to all of this is that it is a performance that has a limited audience of like-minded people. It is the choir singing to itself. As the writer of this unemployed Phd holder says:

One of the unfortunate things about creative achievements within academia is that they cannot always be expressed in a way that is meaningful to the ‘outside world’. Floating free of the university, I encounter few people in my daily life who care about my talents as a writer and researcher.

Perhaps we are increasingly being told to use twitter and blog as part of our academic research because the traditional role of the academic is invisible. Twitter is a means by which we can perform our role in a higher visibility – we can increase the dramatic realisation under the illusion that we are speaking to a wider public. Even if twitter and blogs still have a relatively limited audience, as I have remarked before it is a performance that most often happens on a island of our own, it at least feels as if our performance is to a wider audience. Whilst I certainly think that both are important tools for academics to utilise in performing their work and research I can’t help but think that when compared to the ways in which other work, such as the Olympics is dramatised that we are underselling and hiding the work we do.

The reason for this could be that academia is increasingly becoming less dramatic. We are fairly happy to reside in an ivory tower performing our work amongst ourselves and we are becoming very good at being polite to each other in our performances. No matter how bad, boring, or wrong the work is we all politely applause and say how interesting the paper was. At times this makes me feel a bit insane as I question if everyone was listening to the same paper I was when they all praise what I thought was a tedious and dull paper.

In giving papers at conferences we are performing our research but our performances lack any dramatic element because we have very little challenges to it. In the past academics had to carve out their place in the academic world through contesting, refuting and disproving a previous generation of scholarship along with other scholars from their generation. The drama was played out in the battle between thinkers who through verbal debates, and hotly contested arguments across books and journals played out the drama in a literary stage. The days of such contests are over at least in all the journals, books and conferences I have attended. I have yet to see anyone voice disagreement at the end of a paper in a conference, it is usually a polite applause with fairly trivial questions such as ‘can you tell me more about X?’ rather then a substantial debate. Instead of refuting scholarship and challenging each other it seems that instead we form sub-disciplines and specialise in rarified areas of study. If everyone establishes their own speciality then it removes the need for competition.

In contrast olympians establish themselves through competition and contesting each other for supremacy. Academics have no contestation or competition in our roles.  Instead of contesting each other we are content to get along nicely with each other with everyone in their own separate specialisation the result is a rather dull environment with little or no drama. I am not saying that everyone should be at each others throats, but friendly debate and disagreement never does any harm. After all the more opinions that are voiced on a matter and the more questioned and debated an area is the more refined our views and ideas about it will be. Maybe academic researchers need to remember that we are all actors playing a role in the stage of the world. Like any play if our performance lacks any drama then it will not be an interesting watch and can we really be surprised when our work is undervalued by society when we provide such a boring expression of our work? Maybe as academics we can learn something from Olympians. Olympians are very good at dramatising the work that they do and maybe we need to dramatise our work more effectively and more publicly. Admittedly watching someone race 200 metres is more exciting then watching someone do academic research, but, nevertheless I think that it is possible for academics to dramatically realise the fruits of our work so that others can see what we do and more importantly in the process of dramatic realisation see the value in what we do.

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