Review: Academic Irregularities: Language and Neo-liberalism in Higher Education(Routledge,2020)

i) Introduction

The 5th of June this year (2021) saw Liz Morrish publish the 100th post on her website, Academic Irregularities. Started in response to her decision to leave Nottingham Trent University in the UK due to a campaign of intimidation against her from the management of that institution, the website consistently and expertly calls out the ill effects of a Higher Education structured in terms of marketisation. Indeed, I know of no better guide to the baleful situation those of us within UK universities find ourselves at present: Morrish is supremely knowledgeable about a host of issues: ‘research and teaching evaluation, metrics, performance management, casualisation and precarity in academic careers, academic freedom, academic capitalism, stress and mental health, culture wars, the Covid pandemic and the future of universities’, and displays an enviable ability to place these within wider economic and pedagogical contexts (note 1).

All this must be kept in mind when reading what follows, as I aim in this short review to question some aspects of Morrish’s approach in her recent publication, co-authored with Helen Sauntson, Academic Irregularities: Language and Neoliberalism in Higher Education. My criticism of what, in so many senses, is an admirable work, might be viewed as nit-picking, or in some other sense peripheral, but my contention is that a critical understanding of Morrish’s arguments is essential if one is to engage the limits of an academic critique of neo-liberal Higher Education policy in the UK, that is, with what has become known as Critical University Studies. My interest in what follows is with the uncanny reading effects to which this emerging field can be subject.

In Academic Irregularities, Morrish sets out her mission: to call out the marketisation of universities in the UK through a linguistics approach:

The original contribution of the research presented in this book is to bring the tools offered by applied linguistics to the analysis of the discourses emerging from the marketised, managerial academy where the nature of academic identities and the role of the university in society are being contested (Morrish and Saunston 2020, 1).

This task is further justified in so far as ‘the existing body of research on critical university studies has not drawn on the tools of applied linguistics despite its concern with “discourses”’(ibid..). Calling upon multimodal critical discourse analysis, corpus linguistics, critical metaphor analysis, and APPRAISAL Frameworks, Morrish aims to ‘uncover the power relations and contradictions experienced by those working and studying in UK universities’ (2). In this, Academic Irregularities is tasked with countering ‘the tyranny of transparency’, the managerial recourse to ‘audit’ as a disciplinary measure: the move is to clearly establish how university management micromanaged and silences a potentially resistant workforce, recasting them in the process as compliant employees/ entrepreneurs (125).

In what follows, it is my suggestion that ‘transparency’ returns also to Academic Irregularities, disrupting the clear divisions its arguments require. Indeed, if one were to follow Morrish’s approach, and analyse her book through ‘key words’ and ‘key metaphors’, my bet is that ‘reveal‘ and ‘uncover’ (2, 3, 4, 5, 7 etc) would fall within the scope of analysis. For Morrish, the point of critical discourse analysis and the analysis of ‘key words’ or ‘key metaphors’ is to make apparent an ideology that is otherwise obscure. It follows that, despite the claim to be working within a critical tradition exemplified by Bill Readings, I do not read Academic Irregularities to join him in arguing that the managerial ' University of Excellence' shares the 'logic' of the 'majority of left-wing critics’' that 'the egalitarian assumption at the heart of communicational transparency should be fully realized and that domination is an effect of failed communication' (Reading, 1997).

Morrish claims that literary theory and linguistics have ‘much in common’ and both can be taken up in political critique (31), choosing the latter only because it is her area of expertise. I would contend, however, that the choice does not leave the former untouched. Morrish offers a theory of reading that many literary theorists would find problematic, especially in so far as it touches upon ideology, metaphor, affect, intention, and structure. I will briefly address each of these in turn, not to offer a sustained working through of Morrish’s claims, but, instead, a sense of where such a working through might begin…

ii) Ideology

For Academic Irregularities, the ideology of the managerial university is embedded in its language, a language that, through the repetition of certain ‘key metaphors’ and ‘key words’ leads those engaging with it to replicate this ideology. I would like to pick up two ideas here: ideology as sustained through ignorance; language as materialisation and communication of ideology. In terms of the former, I am not convinced that most university staff are duped by – say – institutional ‘mission statements’ in any straightforward sense. Indeed, from my experience, university management tend to share in the wider cynicism towards such texts. It might be argued that, rather than subtly converting free-thinking academics into corporate true believers, the ideology of the university is sustained by just such cynicism. Here I am, of course, thinking of Slavoj Žižek’s celebrated formulation: ‘The stepping out of (what we experience as) ideology is the very form of our enslavement to it’ (Žižek, 1994). When my university rebranded itself as ‘Limitless’, for example, the various managers who regularly came to our department to explain the latest restructuring programme never failed to have a dig at the decision, happy to admit that ‘knowledge can never free itself from limitations’. Only the then VC thought the rebranding was a good idea, we were told: he visited another institution that claimed it was ‘Limitless’ , and wanted it for his own. No one, including myself, however, went so far as to openly demand a more appropriate brand, or the rejection of branding altogether. In other words, we all knew the branding was stupid, but we went along with it anyway. In this way, the ideology of the university can be understood often to be perpetuated through an ironic detachment. The difficulty in this understanding – which, it should be noted, relates to only one instance of how marketisation can be understood to be performed at present – is that it is not easily placed within the kind of narrative of revelation favoured by Academic Irregularities: 'The starting point of the critique of ideology has to be full acknowledgement of the fact that it is easily possible to lie in the guise of truth' (Žižek, 1994). (note 2)

In terms of the appeal to ideological communication, the notion in Academic Irregularities is that, for example: ‘The language of mission statement […] uses […] instantations of evaluative language in order to subtly convey the values and ideologies of the institutions that produce them’ (15). Language, in this understanding, does not problematise direct address. Instead, language ‘conveys’: it moves meaning from one place to another, and when working at peak efficiency – that is, when not called out by applied linguistics - little or nothing is lost in the process. Here, if we were again to follow Morrish in a ‘key word’ analysis, we might turn to the language of ‘efficiency’ or ‘systemisation’ to be read in her text: ideology is a matter of ‘function’, ‘means’, ‘effects’, ‘device’ (4, 9, 11, 12, etc ). But this, as I will also argue below in the penultimate section of this review, would indeed repeat what I take to be a problematic faith in an efficient knowledge of the danger of efficiency, one that can overcome the disruptive excesses of language, to hone in what seemingly really matters: the workings of an ideological machine that can be exposed.

iii) Metaphor

The understanding of ideology introduced above can also be read in the critical metaphor analysis that forms one of the text’s central methodologies. Academic Irregularities argues that a study of metaphor is essential for understanding managerial strategies:

A primary aim of [critical discourse analysis] is to make explicit ideological motivations and socio-political values that would otherwise be implicit or obscured […] Chateris-Black proposed that critical metaphor analysis is useful for exploring how metaphors function as linguistic evidence of particular ideologies being embedded in texts: ‘Critical explanation of a metaphor involves working out exactly what the metaphor brings to our attention and what it obscures’ (11 - 12).

It is an approach that strikes me as a rather too tidy: there is little sense of the disruptions of metaphor that are of such interest to literary theory. (note 3) Instead , metaphor is understood in terms of a relationship between two ‘domains’. Again, to repeat, however problematically, Morrish’s method, we might ask: what does that metaphor of ‘domain’ allow? The answer, perhaps, is a separation that has geographic, spatial, and political certainty. Despite both domains repeating each other - in so far as they are framed in the same way, as ‘domains’ – the idea is that the one can always be taken entirely on its own terms. Here is Morrish initiating a theoretical justification for this understanding:

In Lakoff and Johnson’s conceptual theory of metaphor, they propose that we use the understanding of one familiar concept (source domain) in order to understand another less familiar and more abstract concept (target domain). The sources domains are often physical and experiential whereas the target domains are more abstract and cerebral. (9)

In order to further explain, what Morrish terms the ‘LIFE IS A JOURNEY’ metaphor is introduced. (Ibid..) In the first instance of this metaphor, the word in the ‘source domain’ is ‘Traveller’, and this, it is argued, can be used to understand the less familiar, abstract ‘Person leading a life’. (Ibid..) There are a number problematic assumptions here, I would claim. For a start, why is it specifically ‘Person leading a life’ that is the less familiar ‘concept’ in the ‘target domain’ that the ‘source domain’ illuminates and shapes? This is, as I read it, a precise linguistic formulation, not an ideal or generalised ‘concept’. If one is to follow Lakoff and Johnson here, it is the’ target domain’ that introduces ‘Person’, not the more ‘familiar’ ‘source domain’ . ‘Person’ is thus surely taken to be constructed as ‘cerebral’ in a way the apparently ‘experiential’ ‘Traveller’ is not. Is this really a notion to which Morrish wishes to commit? It could be further claimed, moreover, that ‘Person’ is not understood to frame ‘Traveller’ within this schema. The ‘familiar’ ‘Traveller’ is thus constructed as something other than a i) ‘Person’ ii) ‘leading a life’. What is ‘Traveller’, then? What assumption, or framing, or familiarity is to be read here? (note 4) Here is one further example of a ‘source domain’ and ‘target domain’, again from the ‘LIFE IS A JOURNEY’ metaphor:

Source Target


Distance covered Progress made

--------------------------------------------------------------- (9)

Again, the idea is that the first is familiar, physical, and experiential, the second unfamiliar and cerebral, but is not one side of this metaphorical opposition already caught up in metaphor? If we are thinking even in terms of derivation, then progress is to grow old, certainly, but also to advance, to go forward. The task, for Morrish, is that of stilling metaphor, locating that moment, seemingly pre-pharmakon, where ‘Progress’ is untouched by ‘Distance’.

My argument here is not that opposition or difference has no place in metaphor, but rather that when the difference necessary to difference is avoided, the result is a structural certainty that is enabled through a certain linguistic repression. As Shoshana Felman argues in her celebrated reading of the uncanny problematic of reading, ‘Turning the Screw of Interpretation’, where oppositions cannot be worked through, metaphor is a matter of diagnosis: one thing is the answer to another. (Felman, 1977) Counter to this, Felman contends, metaphor can be read to introduce a division in meaning; an impossibility, a splitting, with what a thing means always something other than what it is at any given stage. In this understanding, how is meaning ever wholly to come to light? What is required, I would argue, is reading - ongoing, deferred, never wholly other than what it reads, never wholly other to whatever structure it is subject– as opposed to what I would take to be Morrish’s programme of identification.

iv ) affect and intention

For Morrish, those in charge of the university know exactly what they are doing, and metaphors must therefore be understood as deliberately chosen to create certain, cognitive effects:

Metaphors have a rhetorical function of arousing certain emotions in the reader/hearer […] Metaphors evoke concepts and feelings that arise from cognitive schemas that are activated by the use of particular source domains. War, for instance, can be a cognitive trigger for fear. So, for text-producers, the mapping of source domain elements onto a target domain is deliberate, and not arbitrary. The use of specific metaphors in discourse is strategic (12).

I am not unsympathetic to this argument: I think there is a danger in ‘structural’ readings of exploitative managerial environments, in so far as they can forward a model of management in which no planning takes place, and no workers are targeted. That said, I read in Morrish’s formulation above an understanding of ideological effects that are predictable, simple, and experienced as they originated, with all of this knowable from a position that is seemingly itself untouched by any ideological frame. Language is functional in this account - it (can) activate a ‘cognitive schema’ - and these generalised ‘schemas’ are taken to give rise to ‘feelings’. The appeal to what ‘can’ be the effects of language is carrying considerable weight here: is it not possible that ‘war’ ‘can’ also activate a ‘cognitive schema’ of boredom or excitement, say? Or that ‘horses’ might be understood to activate the same ‘schema’ as War? (note 5) Crucially, I would argue, there is no place for the unconscious in this narrative: feelings arise from something that does not require a reading, an externalised, complete, and knowable ‘schema’, whilst language has no other, as it is active, triggering, and achieves nothing else, goes nowhere else, and keeps nothing back (note 6). That said, as Academic Irregularities sets out its theory of the ideological effects of metaphor, a notion of the unconscious is introduced:

Because we are not aware of metaphors (because they mainly function as part of our unconscious conceptual system), this makes them very difficult to identify, and difficult to ignore. Charteris-Black extends the work of Lakoff and Johnson by arguing that conceptual metaphors are not just a function of the semantic system. Rather they are matters of ‘speakers choice’ and, thus, related to the pragmatic dimension of metaphor. Charteris-Black argues that metaphor is always evaluative because it is about speaker/writer involves an imposition of a set of values. (12)

We are not aware of metaphors, yet, in an extended understanding, ‘speakers’ ‘chose’ them as a way to impose values. It is Morrish’s contention that metaphors are ‘strategic’: managers deliberately use language to create ill effects. It is this intention that applied linguistics is claimed to ‘reveal’. This result of the extension is thus a dilemma: is it that speakers are unaware of what they chose? Or are ‘speakers’ not ‘us’? That is, in terms of the latter formulation, that ‘speakers’ know the metaphors ‘we’ do not, and thus what speakers know, and what applied linguistics will enable us to know, is the functioning of part of our unconscious conceptual system. There are numerous issues here, but allow me to address just two for now.

Firstly, what I am reading here is a certain othering of managers. In one sense, I’m not wholly adverse to this: as indicated above, identifying a certain class antagonism can help in the work of reading the managerial university. There is, however, a danger I read in Academic Irregularities – yes, it seeks to identify how university workers end up buying in to the system that oppresses them, but these workers are very much seen as victims, against a wholly deliberative and exploitative management. We can begin to question this, and work to engage the danger of ‘the beautiful soul’ being summoned at any stage of the process of critique, I would argue, by working through the opposition ‘speakers’/’us’.

Secondly, in claiming that the unconscious, as a system, can be known, there is a concession to an ideology that is resistant to the unconscious. Here I am reminded of the arguments of cultural theorist Jan De Vos, especially those forwarded in his recent The Digital Death Drive: the justified fear that unaccountable others, in having access to our data, have access to our intimate private selves is on the side of those others, in so far as it forwards an understanding of ourselves as coinciding precisely with our data (De Vos, 2019). The threat to workers in UK Higher Education, and the defence against this, both rest on a model of an entirely knowable self. Academic Irregularities consistently opposes the managerial university - the one is by no means the other – yet in this, I would argue, their absolute separation is not guaranteed.

vi) Structure

Morrish’s approach to metaphor can be read across Academic Irregularities: a text or range of texts are chosen, and individual words are identified as significant, whether through a corpus linguistics approach that looks for rare high frequency words, or an APRRASIAL method that calculates predominant evaluative language. (note 7) These methodologies are understood to ground potentially ‘biased’ critical discourse analysis in ‘objective’ research:

A main advantage of using corpus linguistics is that it enables us to make observations about language use which go beyond intuition, and, because it is computer-based, it allows the exploration of patterns of language use which are not observable to the human eye (5).

Again, as I intend here to write only a brief review, I find I can only offer a limited reading of an argument that requires, in truth, a much more sustained and detailed commentary, but here are some initial thoughts. Firstly, I am personally struck by the ‘familiarity’ of this comment: we must not be biased, and to understand a thing properly, we are required to transcend the eye and intuition, this through recourse to the ‘computer-based’. This base will allow an exploration of patterns that would otherwise elude us, patterns that, therefore, would seem to be intrinsic. Who, working in HE with boots on the ground has not been confronted by managers with the ‘truth’ of their practice? ‘You may think the student’s are progressing, but look at the pattern of their attendance; you think you are recruiting well, but see how your performance stacks up compared to other departments; you have your opinion, but now check out the stats.‘ Isn’t this something of the logic of ‘audit’, as read with such precision by Morrish herself? Indeed, what I read in this defence of corpus linguistics is a faith in the algorithm. There is not, it would seem, a problem in reading the digital: reading is outsourced to the computer, and we are then left with the straightforward tasks of observation and exploration. The danger here, I would argue, is the claim that what seemingly has the touch of no human hand is exempt from ideology: as Jan De Vos has it, when discussing the supplementary theories that shape the professed neutrality of algorithms: ‘only the cat that has been put in the sack can come out of the sack’ (De Vos, 2020).

My interest here is with a naturalisation of structure, and, I would argue, rather than being structured through a biased/objective opposition, such a naturalisation is what is shared by critical discourse analysis and corpus linguistics; a naturalisation, through disappearance, that I would argue is also brought about through a general ‘key word’ approach. Although Morrish is not always concerned with words in isolation, in so far as high frequency words are discussed in both terms of collocations and words that are in proximity to them, analysis is not at the level of the sentence. Thus, there is no sense of the perspective that is constitutive of the ‘discourse’. This is at least part of the reason why the precise terms of a text is often taken not to be necessary in an analysis, that idea, introduced above, that a metaphor can be understood in general terms (‘Person leading a life’), rather than through a particular textual formulation. As the individual word is what matters, it falls out of a precise linguistic context at certain stages, with what is written finally subservient to whatever structure is revealed by an algorithm.

The result of such key word analysis is, I would contend, a reading that fails to interrogate the challenge of theme (Sollors, 1993). Thus, for example:

The discursive effect of war and competition is further enhanced through references to winning:

‘Adopt a managed approach to winning responsive mode funding [..] ‘

Even more sinister are the references to capture – a word which arguably evokes the domain of war rather than sport […] (131)

Once more, the appeal is to ‘domain’, and this is ‘evoked’ by certain isolated words: ‘winning’, ‘capture’. But why should ‘capture’ evoke war in this way ? Why fix the connection there? What about, say, ‘capture’ in relation to photography, or to screen shots? Are these caught up with war specifically? Crucially, ‘[t]here is missing here an elaboration of the problem of the frame, the signature, and the parergon. This lack permits the scene of the signifier to be reconstructed into a signified […] the text into discourse’ (Derrida [1988], 180). Without the frame, without the iteration and difference of the reading effect, we are left with data. To counter a reductive, metrically inclined university, the claim is that such data will allow us to see what the eye cannot, and liberate us from the data driven ‘tyranny of transparency’. To approach this from a slightly different angle, we might simply state that a quantifying approach is essential to Morrish’s dismantling of ‘quantification’ (120).

V) Conclusion

My concern with Academic Irregularities has, I think, nothing to do with the authors themselves: in her writing and her actions, for example, Morrish comes across as particularly principled and accomplished academic, and she knows more about the contemporary HE scene than I ever will. My concern is, instead, with what I will now loosely term the ‘cognitivist’ school of anti-managerialism within HE. Imagine: the management have at last been exposed, their sins now so clear that none stand with, or feel cowed by, them. What next? Well, as a practitioner of open ended close analysis, committed to psychoanalysis, and the questioning of both narratives of ‘revelation’ and the naturalisation of any ‘structure’ or frame, however minimal or benign, let’s just say I’m nervous….


Cocks, N. (2021) The flight if (the) concord: Joan Copjec and Slavic Zizek read ‘Irma’s Injection’. International Journal of Zizek Studies, 15/2.

De Man, Paul (1978) The epistemology of metaphor. Critical Inquiry. 5/1.

Derrida, Jacques [1988] The purveyor of truth. In: The Purloined Poe, ed. Muller and Richardson. John Hopkins University Press.

De Vos, Jan (2020) The digitalisation of (inter)subjectivity: A spy-critique of the digital death drive. Routledge

Felman, Shoshona (1977) Turning the screw of interpretation. Yale French Studies. 55/56.

Morrish, Liz and Helen Saunston (2020) Academic irregularities: Language and neoliberalism in higher education. Routledge.

Readings, Bill (19970 The university in ruins. Harvard University Press.

Sollors, Werner (ed.) (1993). The return of thematic criticism. Havard English Studies.

Žižek, Slavoj (ed.) (1994) Mapping ideology. Verso.

This review originated in discussions with Kate Rhodes and Karin Lesnik-Oberstein


  1. Academic Irregularities blog,, accessed 18/8/2021.

  2. I am not a Žižekian, I should add. See, for example, Cocks (2021). Morrish calls upon Žižek’s work elsewhere in her text, however (145).

  3. See, for example Paul de Man (1976) or Shoshana Felman (1977).

  4. Traveller is capitalised, but so are all other words at the start of sentences, of course. Are we to read this as ‘Traveller’ or ‘traveller’? Which word is taken to be most ‘familiar’? For whom is ‘Traveller’ less familiar than ‘traveller’? Not Travellers, I would contend. What are the limits of ideology, then? Are such limits perhaps ideological? I should add here that if I were to take this reading of the two domains further – and it would be relatively simple to so do - I would begin with ‘leading’ a life, to think through its particular constructions of activity and passivity, and how these might reverse direction, so to speak, in a construction of ‘Traveller’.

  5. Ah, but are not horses also to be associated with war?... And is not Morrish’s approach, as I read it here, associable with free association?

  6. Or if this is not the case, it doesn’t really matter. As with all the readings offered in this review, this is provisional indeed. A more thorough working through could address, for example the appeal to ‘trigger’ : has this word come to be… triggering? Isn’t it now a war word? How to keep one’s language clear of the unwanted effects of its other, in other words? The answer, presumably, is that such a one-off term will not register in a ‘key word’ analysis, because this is all apparently a numbers game. Here we can turn to my concluding remarks from the penultimate section of this review: how can such a numeric frame ensure it remains untouched by the metrics that are the target of Morrish’s exacting criticism?

  7. It is worth noting here that although I have not really engaged APPRAISAL, the discussion of it on pp. 14 – 20 reads to me almost like a pastiche of systematising, managerial language, that framing that does not really work through its own framing effects: ‘APPRAISAL consists of the systems of ATTITUDE, GRADUATION and ENGAGEMENT. It is the system of ATTITUDE which is of most interest to this book. Martin identifies three broad subsystems of attitudinal positioning within the APPRAISAL system […].

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