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Microcosmographia Academica 2.0: a guide for the ambitious academic

By Steven Schwartz - posted Wednesday, 12 June 2024

Microcosmographia Academica is a short pamphlet on university politics written by F. M. Cornford and published in 1908. The Latin title translates to "A Study of a Tiny Academic World." Cornford, a Cambridge academic, dissected the intricacies of academic politics, offering a pessimistic view in a humorous style. Notably, the pamphlet discusses" principles" such as "The Dangerous Precedent," which suggests that any non-customary action is either wrong or sets a dangerous precedent. Herewith is my humble attempt to provide today's academics with an updated guide to negotiating the labyrinth of modern academic politics.

Dear aspiring academic, welcome to the labyrinthine halls of modern academia. As you tiptoe through the minefield of tenure committees, grant applications, and faculty meetings, remember this: intellectual brilliance is the golden ticket. If you're one of those rare geniuses who can decipher quantum entanglement while brewing a perfect cup of chai, just carry on. You have no need for this guide.

But for the 50,000 Australian academics whose claim to brilliance is not universally recognised, this guide is essential. It's a survival manual for navigating the ivory tower with the grace of a ballerina and the cunning of a Machiavellian politician. So, let's shed our illusions of scholarly purity and embrace the dark arts of flattery, strategic conformity, and subtle manipulation.


Master strategic ambiguity

To navigate treacherous terrain, you must master the art of strategic ambiguity. If you must speak about controversial topics, couch your comments in layers of nuance and complexity. Use phrases like "the multifaceted nature of the issue" and "the delicate balance of interests" to create an impression of profound insight while saying remarkably little. To avoid taking a definitive stance on anything, pepper your speech with questions that reflect the issue's complexity without revealing your own position. For example, ask, "How can we address this issue while considering the current political realities?" Questions such as this will make you seem thoughtful and well-informed without committing you to any particular viewpoint.

Be sure to acknowledge the perspectives of all parties involved in an issue, no matter how bonkers they may seem. This not only displays your diplomatic finesse but also shields you from accusations of bias. Emphasise the importance of dialogue, understanding, and mutual respect while carefully avoiding any concrete suggestions that might be controversial. If you cannot avoid taking a side, then it's crucial to align yourself with the prevailing winds of ideological fashion. Keep an ear to the ground for shifts in the intellectual climate and adjust your rhetoric accordingly. Should the winds change, be prepared to deftly pivot your position while maintaining the same air of authoritative ambiguity.

Embrace the art of the opaque, twirl in the fog of uncertainty, and you'll navigate the academic minefield with grace and cunning. It's not about what you say-it's about how you say it.

Stay afloat in a sea of alphabet soup

Ah, the alphabet soup of academia! It's not just about ABCs anymore; it's about LGBTQIA+ and whatever letter comes after that. Memorise them all, dear aspirant, for each is a political minefield that could blow up your career. You must forget biology; put it out of your mind. Instead, think "non-binary," "genderqueer," and "genderfluid." If you come across a new pronoun, treat it like a rare Pokémon: capture it, nurture it, and use it in your next faculty meeting.


If you really want your star to rise in the academy, consider inventing a whole new gender of your own. It's not difficult. Tired of being pigeonholed by the morning grind? Transcend the traditional beverage binaries by embracing your true self as "Caffeine Neutral." Or you may be an Astrological Binary whose identity shifts with the planets. Personally, I am troubled by the need to choose between pie or cake. Why can't I have both or neither at the same time? Accepting that I am a Quantum Cakegender has allowed me to defy classical dessert dichotomies.

Make green your favourite colour

Sustainability is your holy grail. Proclaim your allegiance to the cause louder than a medieval knight swearing fealty to the king. Snap selfies while planting trees, protesting fossil fuels, and frowning at plastic straws. Your social media feed should scream "eco-warrior," even if your carbon footprint resembles Bigfoot's. Sprinkle conversations with terms like "circular economy," "upcycling," and "carbon neutrality." And when someone questions your single-use coffee cup, reply, "It's not plastic; it's biodegradable unicorn horn." Remember, it's not what you do-it's what you say you do. So, cycle to campus on sunny days (while secretly driving your car on rainy ones) and champion paperless offices (except when printing your magnum opus).

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This article was first published on Wiser Every Day.

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About the Author

Emeritus Professor Steven Schwartz AM is the former vice-chancellor of Macquarie University (Sydney), Murdoch University (Perth), and Brunel University (London).

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