In conversation with Simon Clews on The New Academic and weathering the winds of change

On the academic epidemic.

Academia was appealing to me because, above all else, I wanted to learn. I dreamed of wooden-floored libraries, of stacks upon stacks of books with bookmarks towards the end, notepads full of scribbles and glass windows dotted with jewels of rain. But this image is not representative of reality, and often the lives of academics have little to do with the picturesque.

Simon Clews never intended to be an academic. “I have a chequered history with academia,” he told me, as he sat with a cappuccino clutched between his hands. “I think I started it four times before it eventually stuck.” Clews began by studying French and Russian at the University of Leeds in England, but he was absolutely horrified at the amount of work a university degree required, and claimed to be extremely lazy. 

“The Melbourne Writers’ Festival was, eventually, what lead me to get a formal qualification,” he said fondly. “My arm was twisted and twisted until I acquired a degree in Arts and Entertainment Management at Deakin University.” Even still, he lamented that academia was never for him. 

The New Academic was a particularly difficult book for Clews to write. He started writing it more times than he could count, but eventually persevered because he wanted to practice what he preached and was quite fond of the concept itself. One of the first roadblocks was the book’s intended audience. “I was never sure who the book would be for,” he said. “I firmly believe that you never write a book for yourself — that’s what a diary is for — for a book, you need an audience.” The New Academic is everything Clews learned in his fifteen years in academia, and believes it would count as an informal qualification for vocational education.  

Clews spoke affectionately about his background in the performing arts, and how theatre has informed his teaching and outlook on life. “Earlier in my life, I studied theatre and dance for a year — it was meant to be longer, but I was lured away by a theatre company,” he said. Triple Action Theatre, where Clews performed thereafter, was primarily dedicated to being English representatives of a Polish theatre director and theorist Jerzy Grotowski. 

“When I started my own theatre, which was semi-successful and toured a little around England and some of Europe, I wanted to mix comedy with the serious stuff; think traditional British pantomime about Economics,” Clews recalled. That was the first time he truly appreciated the need to be flexible in the modern world. “When I came to Australia with my theatre company, I had a plan.” He was going to go to the Victorian College of Art (which he eventually did, for four days) and he was going to tour just as he had done back home in England. But he soon learned that the market was indeed different, that audiences were harder to reach — literally. “England is littered with little towns and villages, every half an hour on the road there is a new audience to perform for. But in Australia you have Melbourne, and then you have a grand expanse of nothing before you find Sydney.”

The theatre heavily impacted how Clews presented as a lecturer. “Most academics aren’t brilliant public speakers, but that isn’t really their job. They’re supposed to dig deep into the archives of the land and find the facts, whereas my theatrics is owed to my background,” he said. A lecture is a piece of theatre in itself, with PowerPoint slides acting as the backdrop of a solo performance. “I like to describe my lectures as dynamic and interactive, and you can regularly find me prowling the aisles for engagement. There will be no mindless social-media scrolling when I’m speaking.”

When I asked Clews about the most important thing an aspiring academic would need to understand, he said: “A plan is a nice thing to have in a way that it is meaningless.” He emphasised the significant role luck and circumstance have in life, and how the people who are agile and flexible will be the ones who go the furthest. 

“I am always having a conversation about learning languages with my children,” he said, “because it is a great way to learn how to learn. Society and the world is not static — and budding academics need to weather the winds of change.” 

Clews has a folder of started books on his laptop, all of them abandoned somewhere along the way. But The New Academic is different in the sense that it is a necessary book, considering the state of academia at the moment. Clews spoke about the extraordinary lengths one needs to go to in order to keep a job: “There’s no tenure, all of the contracts are short-term, and staffing levels are dropping like flies. I always believed for any given position, I was up against ninety-nine other people who were just as qualified and well-connected, but now I feel like that number has increased to nine-hundred-and-ninety-nine. Almost a thousand people up for the same tiny contract job that’s underpaying to begin with.” An essential change in how academics approach the industry has to do with how they must present themselves. “You can be brilliant, but unless you can sell yourself, you’re completely fucked.” 

The week before we spoke, Clews taught his first in-person class in fifteen months. He said he was good at standing in rooms full of people and talking, and expressed concerns about the students who have been resigned to a degree tainted by Zoom. “I hope it is temporary, because it will change the way people teach and learn. Academia was never meant for boxes on a screen.”