What is an Institute of Advanced Study for?

Christiaan De Beukelaer
University of Melbourne & Durham University

On Friday the 18th of November 2022, I attended a seminar on the research legacies of Ash Amin, at the University of Durham. Amin, who recently retired from the University of Cambridge, was the founding director of Durham’s own Institute of Advanced Study, where I am currently a fellow.

The event reminded me of an unfulfilled promise I made to Martin Cloonan – who is currently the director of the Turku Institute of Advanced Study. Earlier this year, when joining the Beyond Advanced Studies conference on finding and articulating what might constitute a “Nordic Approach” to interdisciplinary research in general and to institutes of advanced study in particular, I promised Martin to write a reflection on the conference from the perspective of a (non-Nordic) outsider with an interest in both interdisciplinary academic work and the function and role of IAS’s in nurturing and supporting it.

I have put off writing this ever since making that promise. Not because I did not want to, but simply because I did not quite sure what to write. The oral Festschrift celebrating and reflection on Ash Amin’s rich career helped me to come back to my promise by tackling the seemingly easy, but ultimately challenging, question: what purpose does an Institute of Advanced Study serve?

Bearing in mind the labour disputes over pay, pensions, and workload in the 21st century academy, the answer to that question may seem self-evident: an IAS provides unfragmented time to work on research, a commodity that is increasingly hard to come by in universities today. On reflection, however, this answer is far too simplistic and mundane. I believe it misconstrues the problem of time in academia today: time is indeed of the essence, but we don’t simply need more of it, we need to be able to alter our relationship with it.

In his response to the intellectually engaging reflections on his career, Ash Amin flagged how “the world has become hideously opaque and difficult to grasp.” This reflects the unease many of us feel when trying to address the combined and conflating challenges – or poly-crises – such as climate, finance, truth, and justice have shaken the foundations of societies the world over.

A critical function of an IAS is indeed to provide unencumbered time. But that is neither easy to provide nor to embrace.

First, getting away from email and the perpetual call of Zoom meetings and seminars makes it all but impossible to get away from ongoing commitments. It makes the ideal of an IAS fellowship increasingly hard to attain.

Second, academia has grown in numbers, complexity, and diversity (albeit not enough), which is a boon for humanity. Though the inevitable downside of the enormous scale of academia today is precisely that there is so much of it. This makes it both difficult to navigate and keep up. With speaking and writing comes the assumption that others will listen and read. So, our productivity is in fact as much a struggle to articulate our thoughts as to grab others’ attention. Indeed, we may need to spend more time reading and listening, rather than writing and speaking. Particularly if we want to engage in genuine exchange, we ought to limit how much we speak, to ensure we have time to listen, too.

Third, the expansion of academia has fuelled specialisation. It makes speaking across epistemic registers difficult. Overcoming that challenge requires aimless wandering, getting lost, embracing misunderstanding, and letting each other speak. Simply increasing one’s productivity by being disciplined rarely helps. If anything, it could render the challenging task of speaking across neat disciplinary conventions more difficult. It is, rather, by wandering and aimlessly probing each other’s ideas and arguments, that it becomes possible to think about the complex puzzles we face across the straitjacket of academic silos.

The first two points affect all academics. This doesn’t make them any less important, but it does make them difficult to address through short or longer IAS stays. The third point is, I believe, the crucial one in the context of Institutes of Advanced Study, which meant to hold up a mirror, challenge us when we’re not pushing or questioning our assumptions hard enough. An IAS is meant to help us learn and re-learn to reframe and reclaim time from our own discipline in every sense of the word.

The world has indeed become hideously opaque and confronting. The wicked problems we collectively face requires both courage and critical friends with whom to wander – both intellectually and by getting our actual boots muddy.

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