Yesterday morning I received the gift of time—a cancelled meeting due to systemic technical problems which also meant tasks on my to do list could not be completed. How to spend this time? Drinking tea and reading. Thanks to a birthday present from my children, and books received as payment for a proposal review, I can now enjoy colour-coded reading and sipping.
I put aside the books until next time, and picked up Tseen Khoo’s (2018) chapter ‘The Right Kind of Ambition’, recently published in Mindfulness in the Academy. (I would love to own this book but—ouch—the price; over $160 Australian dollars is the cheapest I have seen). Tseen, also known as The Research Whisperer (with Jonathan O’Donnell), sent a copy of the chapter to colleagues whose work she cited, with a note: “Thank you for doing the research that you do. Your writing was very useful to me, and helped me think about and create this chapter.”
I have happily adopted the practice of sharing published chapters in this way. It offers an opportunity to thank influential authors, share a piece of writing, and to make citation practices more meaningful than a google scholar alert. It is a great example of the generous scholarship that Sally Knowles and Barbara Grant spoke about in Hiroshima.
I’ve been reading around the topic of generous scholarship, including Ruth Barcan’s (2013), Academic Life and Labour in the New University: Hope and Other Choices, which is cited by Knowles (2017) in a book chapter on writing retreats entitled ‘Communities practising generous scholarship’. Barcan is a Cultural Studies academic who has turned her critical gaze to academia. In the final chapter “Feeling Like a Fraud: Or, the Upside of Knowing You , she discusses the connection between the private affect of fraudulence (imposter syndrome), and the “structural features of the contemporary university that can contribute to the feeling of not being good enough” (p 195). These features include the “productivist imperative” of academia which is marked by:
… increasingly instrumental relations to thought, to writing and to time itself; a reduction in the types of intellectual endeavour recognized as ‘counting’; a concomitant disincentive to participate in unrecognized or undervalued university, community or scholarly activities, like writing book reviews or socializing with students; the slipping out of sight of non-instrumental or non-monetized ‘outcomes’; and pressure to take low-risk teaching and research options (p 199)
The hope in Barcan’s book is a bit hard to find. In the conclusion, she describes it as “a depressing book about universities with hope in the title”, but she argues that hope emerges from worry, doubt, melancholy or despair. She concludes by urging academics to “contest the ideal of ceaseless productivity”:
What … theory of creativity, economics, let alone embodiment could be supported by an ideal of ceaseless productivity? There are no bodies that can do output without sufficient input; no outbreath without the pause after inspiration. I
don’t want to live in a work world in which people become prompts for jobs—a world in which you bump into a colleague and they don’t say ‘Hello’, they say, ‘Oh sorry, I haven’t replied to your email’ … (p 218).
That hits a tender spot. I must stop seeing people as prompts for jobs, and apologising for all the tasks I’ve yet to do.
Finally, to my reading over a cup of mauve tea—Khoo’s chapter, ‘The Right Kind of Ambition’, which offers a reflection on research productivity and work/life balance. This is a lovely counterpoint to Barcan’s descriptions of feeling like a fraud whose work is always in deficit. Khoo writes about the trajectory-changing impact of having children, shifting between professional (administrative) and academic roles, and not applying for promotion.
Khoo is satisfied with her work/life balance, as a full-time teaching and research academic with two primary school age children, an ageing parent living with her and a 3 hour daily commute. She details her practical strategies to cultivate reasonable work hours (auto-declining work events outside standard hours, not attending international conferences). The chapter is refreshingly clear-sighted about the consequences of maintaining strict work boundaries:
I have achieved my goal of ‘doing’ academic on my terms with minimal after-hours and weekend work … This quality of life comes at a price, and that price will be the rate of career progression (in the sense of academic promotion). I do not think of my career as only successful if I am moving from level to level, but I recognise all too well that an academic woman’s ability to enact change and influence larger activities requires the signalling authority of a higher academic rank (p 243).
This is an important point. Khoo mentions activism in the opening sentences of her chapter (as in balancing work, family and activism) so I read her desire to enact change in relation to academic activism. Now my teacup is empty, but Khoo’s ideas about the costs and benefits of career progression, and the choices she has made, will linger.