Universities are knotty organisations.
On the one hand, they are what Lutz (1982) calls “organized anarchies”. Collegial governance and distributed leadership are valued, as are autonomy and academic freedom. Academic freedom is a contested notion, but I like Schreker’s (2010) matter-of-fact definition in The Lost Soul of Higher Education of a “system of procedures and protections that allow learning and scholarship to take place” and enable academics to entertain risky cultural or political viewpoints. On the other hand, universities are increasingly managerial, marked by output-driven, highly regulated, optimised audit practices.
This 5 minute Petty animation on the education contraption neatly captures some of the contradictions of our education system. Unfortunately, I have been unable to find a version that can be embedded in this post, but it is worth clicking through. It asks: When it comes to the education system, have accounting and information replaced wonder and imagination?
There is a lot of scholarly writing on the complex organisational culture of contemporary universities, but recently I have enjoyed reading Does academic work make Australian academics happy? (Spoiler: the answer is no) and re-reading Sparkes’ (2007) Embodiment, academics and the audit culture: A story seeking consideration. The latter is a fascinating paper – a fictionalised autoethnography recording Jim’s burnout that ends with the reviewers comments and written responses from seven colleagues. Sparkes’ (2007) describes Jim’s work like this:
But here, in this arena, he feels obliged to play a game in which the curriculum vitae as a central feature of academic life and an autobiographical practice becomes a call to account for the self that one is. When the panel members read the CV and the publications as performance outcomes, they are reading the self-story of the person … The self is then judged accordingly and consequences follow.
The article reports an individual academic who is suffering, but also shows a struggling system, especially in the area of teaching. My colleague Rebecca Ritchie shared this great post on teaching burnout with me recently:
Teachers can reach a place where teaching does nothing for them or their students. They don’t just wake up one morning and find themselves burned out; they’ve moved there gradually, and it’s a journey that often starts with tired teaching … With multiple courses to teach, we do get tired, but I think we regularly confuse physical fatigue with the more serious emotional tiredness that comes from a heavy workload of always being there, always giving, and always juggling multiple balls in the air.
The suggested responses – as in Duncan, Tilbrook and Krivokapic-Skoko’s (2015) happiness article – are thoughtful and can be implemented by individuals. Celebrate small successes. Take breaks. Collaborate with others. But, as Duncan et al (2015) point out, systemic changes are also required. (Although I don’t agree with their view that more uninterrupted time for research would necessarily make academics happier – Sparkes’ paper tolls a warning bell on this).
I can see lots of possible (if utopian) organisational benefits for slow academia – quality teaching and research, satisfied students, sustainable workloads, active mentoring and well functioning university committees – but one of the greatest impacts would be the benefit to the psychological contract (the relationship, values and obligations between employer and employee). I like the work of Dabos & Rousseau (2013) on the importance of informal networks in shaping the psychological contract and the “social contagion” that means people in the same work area tend to hold similar beliefs about their organisation. (I have previously posted on the contagion of anxiety in universities).
Slow academia is often promoted as a resistance movement, but what might it look like as a collective action across a university? Here’s how my reflective colleague Marina Harvey imagined a ‘slow’ organisation in a comment left on an earlier post:
Imagine a campus where learning is reflective and creative, inspiring innovative thought and action. An organisation where reflection for learning is embedded across curricula, practice, planning and operations – supporting a mindful and focused approach to deep learning, teaching and knowing for our scholarly community (students, academics, professional staff and community partners). An academic environment designed to stimulate active and contemplative approaches to learning and cater to diverse learning needs.
I love it and I want to work there!