Sunday, 6 December 2015

“Whatever docents” – disrespecting specialists and knowledge

Photo linked from the site of the Finnish Broadcasting company

It is the Finnish Independence Day today, so 'Hyvää itsenäisyyspäivää' all! In order to mark this day, I discuss a parallel development in my two homelands, Finland and UK. As my husband says, a reflection of neoliberal ideology that worries many in Academia.

First, I have an admission to make – I am a docent, i.e., a honorary adjunct professor assessed by a Finnish University to show independent research equivalent to the amount required for a doctorate and teaching skills. My specialism is very narrow, protohistoric central Italian archaeology, but that is what I currently do and that was what the University of Oulu was happy with at the time (now they have become ‘an Arctic university – but that is another story). This week after returning from Volterra, I have actually managed to spend half a day in the library, even if mostly I have had to deal with more practical matters, such as doing accounts, receiving data files from the GPR crew and paying my assistant his stipendium. These practical acts need to be done before spelling out the results of different collaborations. And ultimately study such unimportant topics as identity and multiculturality, for example.

This week the prime minister of Finland made an angrily toned comment in live TV about ‘whatever docents’ who counteract government’s policies. His comment, word by word directly translated as ‘whatever docents of this world’ suggests that he feels contempt towards those who have pointed out how many of the governments initiatives have been poorly prepared and in places against the law. He seems to consider different specialists the opposition of progress for which his government has the righteous vision. It is a right-wing government whose ministers have been caught generously speaking ‘giving wrong information’ and in plain speak ‘lying’. It is very difficult to see how stating that 90% of civil servants support a scheme that is in its core a tax avoiding scheme can be seen just ‘giving wrong information’ when the true situation was exactly the opposite. No wonder the support figures of certain Finnish ministers are plummeting rapidly.

This government has also started a harsh programme of cutting funding from the universities. The National Board of Antiquities is about to lose c. 20 % of its permanent staff and the University of Helsinki is starting to look to drop 12% of its employers. The government wants to shut small departments and create single units – at the same time as it dreams of innovation. Monoculture has rarely fostered innovative thinking. Well, I should not worry, since my kind of innovation is not wanted, but useful engineering or Nokia kind of variety. Respect for Humanities seems to be a rare species and the verbalised suggestions from ministers, such as that ‘professors have three reasons to stay in their jobs, namely June, July and August’ and the summertime – the only time the teaching staff can do research – will be taken up for an extra term, show lack of understanding universities and their work. This interestingly shows that the ministers do not know that their funding formulas for Finnish universities are based heavily on research output. How and when do the staff produce this research their salaries are dependent on is anybody’s guess. Academics are probably not supposed to have life.

The result is that the academia in Finland has begun to have enough and the members of the union of the researchers plus that of professors are contemplating strike action. The social media is rife with comments with hash tag #kaikenmaailmandosentit and the academics are guessing which university is the first to hand out an honorary docentship, specified as being in the field of ‘whatever’. One respected senior professor already packed his bags and moved to Edinburgh (but I am not sure how much greener the pastures and research funding really are in UK). I am not expecting any kind of return in any time soon. More like it, I am very likely to try to make sure that my own actions will aim at strengthening humanistic research and wide collaborations. I may be working in Sweden for the next three years, but these uneducated opinions travel very easily.

Similar kind of superficial statements are apparent in my current home country UK. The parliament made a decision to bomb Syria. For my kind of old peace movement member this kind of action seems foolish, when it is almost impossible to separate between a fiend and a friend from the flying altitudes. Our understanding in the west of the Middle Eastern situation leaves wanting the best of the times, but the random figures of 70 000 moderate fighters do not improve any case for war. I for one forwarded Tony Benn’s statement against the Iraq war. That war did not take Iraq anywhere and the bombing alone does not get world rid of Daesh. It is easy to bomb when there is no apparent solution to be offered to a difficult and multilayered situation.

The current government in UK does not probably held archaeologists or any British academic equivalent to ‘whatever docents’ to high views. We are probably ‘nimbies’ who stand in the way of the progress while the nation should cover the green land in new residential estates. Yes, we need more housing, but we also need good planning and better visions. Not knowing the past or understanding other cultures or complex political situations does not lead to innovation, economic growth and sustainable visions. It leads only to short-sighted, hasty decisions and kind of lose-lose situation that turned out to be the Iraq War.

Thus, as the researcher association of my alma mater, the University of Turku, suggested on Friday: “Keep calm and love your dosentti [=docent]”. Knowledge and education are more certain ways to guarantee good governance and progress than easy loose remarks and ignorance, no matter if it is planning procedures, new policies or strategies in order to deal with difficult political situations and international aggression.

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