June 18. I recently had a discussion with a Dean at a university I am reviewing, about intrinsic versus extrinsic reward.
She was arguing that in her faculty, staff found such satsifaction in their teaching and research that external validation was not important.
There is a truth in this view. One of the great privileges of a career in higher education is that it is full of people who found a passion in life, and a form of employment that enabled them to pursue it. Most academic staff pay little attention to the exact length of a working week, or indeed very often to their maximum holiday entitlement. They work long hours because of their commitment to the progress of their students, and their desire to push back the boundaries of knowledge in their chosen field. A smart or lucky institution will align the enthusiasm of staff with the interests of the organisation without imposing a formal regime of mission statements and coercive strategies.
And yet, from a PhD onwards, every move is subject to peer review. Projects are initiated and completed as part of a conversation with fellow researchers, and their response will range from the supportive to the terminally destructive. And however much an academic’s labour is driven by personal enthusiasm, mortgages have to be paid. Everyone in the trade has either experienced or witnessed the colossal demotivation a failed or delayed promotion can cause.
There is a contrast with the passions that get you out of bed in this lockdown world. Where there is no remunerative labour to undertake, what is the purpose of the day’s activities?
Take for instance gardening. My village takes part in a national open gardens scheme, where on a given summer Sunday, people can visit private gardens for a small fee which this year is donated to a nursing charity. We have always refused absolutely to take part, however worthy the cause. This is partly because in normal years we lack the time to arrive at a point of weedless perfection, but more fundamentally because what we grow is no-one else’s business. We are happy to show it to visiting family and friends, but our pleasure in our achievement is, in management speak, entirely intrinsic. Even between the two of us, each has their own programme of work, and we choose whether to tell the other what we are doing and how well it is going.
There are, of course, those who treat gardening, or some other recreation, as a form of work or competition. Targets are set, outcomes are measured. A brother-in-law runs every Sunday, recording his performance on an app that allows him to compare his times with runners of the same age around the world. Gardeners have been forming themselves into societies and awarding prizes for fruit and vegetables for more than two centuries in Britain. This was not just the practice of the well-heeled. A survey of working-class gardeners in the industrial north in 1826, identified fifty auricular and polyanthus shows annually, together with twenty-seven tulip, nine ranunculus, nineteen pink and forty-eight carnation competitions. The committee of the society would meet for a leisurely, alcohol-fuelled judging dinner, and then award prizes.
It is, nonetheless, one of the reasons why the pandemic lockdown has been bearable for those lucky enough not to be struggling with working and child-teaching at home. We have always pursued our recreations for our own satisfaction, and it is a minor matter that, in my case, the best of my garden will be over this year before anyone else gets to see it.
That said, were I to win a prize for my sweet peas at the Shrewsbury Flower Show, all my promotions and all my books would be set at nought.