bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

#Receptiogate and gate-keeping

Posted in Academic Practices by bonaelitterae on 23 January, 2023

As I said in my previous post, the first topic I want to consider in reflecting on the so-called Receptio affair is what it tells us about the limits of the scholarly community. We can begin by noting what has been perhaps the most eye-catching feature of the controversy: the unravelling of the identity of the Research Centre for European Philological Tradition, of which Prof. Carla Rossi is Director. The Centre, which takes Receptio as an acronym for its full title, has an elegant website. On that was listed an impressive number of employees and associates. What became clear was that the photos used for some of those people were stock head-and-shoulders images that already had multiple outings elsewhere on the internet. It also became apparent that some of those mentioned were members of Prof. Rossi’s family. For others, it has proven difficult to verify their existence, including that of Prof. Rossi’s secretary. Meanwhile, other online searches focussed on the two addresses given on the site, with that for ‘in person’ visits being in London, and the ‘operative headquarters’ being in Lugano; in the UK case, there were doubts about how far this was an active office, and in the case of the Lugano address, about whether it was a private address.

None of these findings constitute evidence of an act of corruption. The stock photos could be explained by the Centre’s statement that its website is out of date; that is, for sure, an understandable problem, though it does raise the question of why some individuals agreed to be represented, even temporarily, by others’ faces. Engaging family members in an enterprise —however often it is taken in northern Europe as evidence of unacceptable nepotism — is not universally considered malpractice: after all, in the States, spousal appointments happen at universities without, it seems, any moral outrage. What it does suggest is that some involved were not appointed through open competition, as one would expect with a research centre. Likewise, there is nothing shady about working from one’s home, but it undermines the presentation of the Centre as an autonomous institution, with a life which is not dependent on its director.

Cumulatively, these details give the impression that Receptio is — in the sense that Peter Burke uses the term when discussing Louis XIV — a fabrication, or — to shift to Genette’s terminology — a hypertext. I use these terms not as a criticism but as tools of neutral analysis. Carla Rossi has made it clear that her designation as professor is merely titular, and she is in no way ‘un potente barone universitario’. In attempting to carve out a place for her scholarship, she has taken the concept of the research centre and moulded one of her own, complete with the various accoutrements one might expect. Arguably, the performance went too far —that a professor would have their own private secretary is, at least in the cash-strapped UK context, nearly unthinkable. In its pretensions to being an established scholarly entity, Receptio made itself into a parody.

There is a legitimate question of whether the fabrication had an intent to mislead, to convince others that it had some sort of official status. As I have said before, it is not my purpose to untangle that issue, beyond saying that the controversy amply demonstrates how a modicum of internet checking could thwart any attempt by Rossi to fool: this was no elaborate scam worthy of the protagonists of Ocean’s Eleven. What I want to concentrate on instead is the allure of the ‘official’. There is a danger that the reaction in some quarters will be to assume we should only trust ‘real’ research centres, established by universities which, for their part, give due oversight and ‘quality control’. What might save us from taking that route is realising that Receptio’s fabrication is a parody of a system of higher education which is itself beyond parody. That academic system rather takes on the character of a set of distorting mirrors looking in on each other, the concatenation of which mis-shapes its intention over and over again.

Here my critique chimes with that of Charlotte Gauthier. This is a system in which universities — bodies whose charitable status mean they cannot make a profit — ache to ape the habits of commercial businesses, with the result that its students are demoted to the status of ‘customers’. It is a system that lives by the Research Excellence Framework (REF), where its ranking by stars is a sort of TripAdvisor for academe, but with the added demerit of misdirecting hundreds of thousands of pounds (not to mention human time) which could be better spent in supporting research. It is also a system that places high value on ‘grant capture’ — terminology that conjures images of funding as roaming the land ripe to be snatched by highwaymen-lecturers — and so requires substantial energy to be spent not on research but on hunting in search of the rainbow’s end. It is a system which has become a pastiche.

I am very aware that these comments will strike some as parochial. The structure of universities as charities is a particular British feature, contrasting to both the French republican tradition of their position as part of the apparatus of the state, and the American model where many are private institutions focussed on their endowment.  I have talked to fellow academics in countries without a REF who wish they had one to tackle the problem of colleagues who spend more time building empires than engaging in research. I have also heard British colleagues say the REF is better than any alternative. It is certainly easier to diagnose ills than to offer solutions, and there is some comfort in hiding behind the mantra ‘I am not that sort of doctor’.

The comments are parochial in another way, one which reaches the heart of this controversy: they have intentionally concentrated on universities. Yet, all of us in established academic posts have a duty to remember that we are the lucky ones, however much at times we do not feel it. Lecturers and professors are not the scholarly community, they are one part of it. That community is enriched by the presence of librarians, archivists and curators, by ‘para-academics’, by those in short-term or part-time university employment, and by independent scholars — including the likes of both Peter Kidd and Carla Rossi.

Indeed, if there is a lesson in all this it is surely that those who do not have to follow the structures of universities should not feel the need to squeeze themselves into the painful strait-jacket. One interpretation of the Rossi affair (a generous one, I accept) is that Rossi felt she needed to don that strait-jacket, on the assumption that she would not be accepted otherwise. This is the most fundamental problem: to pretend that those in full-time permanent university roles are the only true scholars or even that they are inevitably the best ones. That assumption can create pressure for others to claim bona fides by appearing to be part of the university eco-system, and that is liable to create dubious practices. Perhaps, then, the hashtag Receptiogate, for all its unoriginality, has a use. If we read its last syllable anew, it can act as a reminder of the basic truth: beware of gate-keeping.

This is not to say that scholarship is a come-as-you-are, free-for-all party: it has its standards, and upholding standards is quite a different attitude from gate-keeping. One judges on the merits of what is written, the other uses proxies like employment status. Of course, there is an extra complexity: we each believe in our standards which we are determined should be upheld but, in truth, those norms of acceptable behaviour differ between and within disciplines; they are often defined by local tradition, or by generation, rather than by some translucent universal set of shared rules. There is no single habitus. If you doubt this, consider the range of practices used for citations with some willing to accept endnotes or even in-text author-date systems as ‘scholarly’. Perhaps, indeed, one of the attractions to some of the Rossi Affair was the belief that there had been uncovered a case of infraction of what (they assumed) was one of the few shared precepts of scholarship: you do not steal another’s work. Quite what constitutes plagiarism is a matter I want to discuss another day.

For now, my point is that the republic of letters has no generally agreed boundaries, just as it cannot have any centralised structure of authority, or border guards to police sanctioned crossing points. Gate-keeping is a problem because there are no gates through which to pass when entering this cluster of neighbouring — but often not neighbourly — communities. This lack of certainty is not a demerit; it is for many of us an attraction of this republic. It is also one which prides itself on not touching its forelock to status. There is admittedly much self-deception here as well as some continuing questionable practices: connoisseurship is out of favour, but the wider world still wants us to be able to express conclusive opinions ex cathedra. Whatever those continuing problems, it does mean that asserting status is not a route to acceptance as a scholar; on the contrary, it is symptomatic of the unscholarly — according to my standards, at least.


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  1. […] A final warning: the posts that follow are merely first attempts to step back and reflect on what has been going on in this affair. There may not yet be the distance to do that with perspective, and the issues may need a fuller analysis than I can provide here. In an attempt to gain some space to reflect, I will not be posting them in quick succession but over a set of weeks. It is time, though, to provide the first instalment. […]

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