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Once again, Karina Luzia (aka @acahacker) puts in a tweet something that takes me a few more words.

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As careers progress, many academics find themselves in the middle.

I’ve mentioned Winter’s work Academic manager or managed academic? in a previous post. Winter (2009) contends that managerialist attempts to align academics to corporate values lead to a schism between the “identities of ‘academic manager’ (values congruent with the managerial discourse) and ‘managed academic’ (values incongruent with the managerial discourse)” (p 121).

Academic managers have internalised values and constructed goals and working patterns that reflect the imperatives of a corporate management system, such as strong hierarchical management, budgetary control, income maximisation, commercialisation and performance management indicators … Managed academics have defended and promoted distinctive accounts of their own professional identity and that of the institution by invoking values of self-regulation, collegial practice and educational standards.

What about those whose identities straddle both? Or who move between these positions?

Last year, Times Higher Education posted an article on academics who accept senior leadership roles in universities. These voices resonated:

  • I gained 11kg in my first year as a VC, and wasn’t able to lose it until after I finished.
  • I began … to study the university itself. My administrative work always seemed like fieldwork of a kind.
  • I have gained a more nuanced understanding of the wider complexities within and beyond my university.
  • It was an unusual opportunity for a woman and a non-scientist to have a voice.
  • It was painful to find myself on the wrong side of a “bosses versus workers”.
  • You have the chance to influence change directly.
  • One question insistently echoed in my brain: What am I doing here?

In navigating life in the middle, this is what helps me. Learning to listen. Aligning my work to my personal values: nurturance, openness, cooperation, challenge and humour. And remembering that the university and its work is far more complex and variable than a list of two (or even three) kinds of people.

Thinking with neoliberalism

I have several books on my wish list at the moment (even as my to-be-read pile grows ever higher): Time and Space in the Neoliberal University, Resisiting Neoliberalism in Higher Education Volume 1 and Volume 2, and Qualitative Inquiry in Neoliberal Times.

Time and Space in the Neoliberal University Qualitative Inquiry in Neoliberal Times Resisting Neoliberalism in Higher Education Volume I Resisting Neoliberalism in Higher Education Volume II

The term neoliberalism appears more or less everywhere in university circles, but is often ill-defined or contradictory. It is a theoretical concept that seems good to think with, even if we are not sure what we are thinking about. It would have tripped me up as a doctoral candidate and early career academic. I remember attending my first conferences, and not knowing what people were talking about, especially when they named theorists or ‘isms’. My early notebooks are full of misspellings with ‘Read this!!!’ or ‘???’ or  ‘Important!’ noted with increasing urgency.

This article in The Guardian (Neoliberalism: the idea that swallowed the world) is a useful starting point for neoliberal neophytes:

It is a name for a premise that, quietly, has come to regulate all we practise and believe: that competition is the only legitimate organising principle for human activity … What if we reconceive all of society as a kind of market?

This gives an insight into how the economic ideals of neoliberalism have meshed so well with higher education, which in the last three decades has been dominated by globalisation, massification and marketisation. Here’s how my colleague Cathy Rytmeister and I break this down in The Politics of Australian Higher Education teaching module:

Massification refers to the global phenomenon of increasing participation in higher education. Australian higher education is now a mass participation system (30-50 per cent of the school-leaver age cohort enrolled in higher education), and may move into high participation status (>50 per cent enrolled) in the near future (Marginson, 2015).

On its own, massification should lead to greater demand for academic staff and opportunities for continuing employment. But at the same time, governments have systematically withdrawn per-student public funding from universities, substituting secure base funding with contestable funding reliant on market-like competitive mechanisms. This marketisation reorients higher education towards competitive markets on local, national, regional and global scales. It is largely the result of public policy underpinned by an assumption that market or quasi-market mechanisms are effective tools for the efficient regulation of higher education (Meek, 2000).

Simultaneously, the increased global mobility of information, finance and people, and the formalisation of regional trading blocs, removal of trade barriers and establishment of a range of free trade agreements have impacted higher education. These aspects of globalisation have enabled the establishment of global, national and local markets in higher education, and provided an opportunity to supplement domestic funding with full-fee-paying international students (Marginson, 2004).

The work of universities both upholds and questions the values of neoliberalism. I am interested in reading more about this simultaneous complicity and resistance, and the ideas these books have in common: academic activism, changes to scholarly work, the quantification of academia, entrenched inequalities in universities, and uncertain educational futures.

Now back to work in my role as handmaiden to neoliberalism so that I can save up to buy these books…

Staying optimistic

When I mentioned to my kids last Friday morning that it was board game night, they both cheered. This response kept me happy all day. Playing together has been enjoyable for all of us. There have been other benefits: I am finding it easier not to win, something I have enjoyed most of my life. I emphasise that I am not letting go of winning (merely biding my time).

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I am playing Junior Scrabble and Junior Monopoly with a different primary goal in mind: how to help the youngest player (6) compete against a determined-to-win older sister (13). (Hint to other players: order of play and seating arrangements are key, but two players working cooperatively can undermine a single player whose strategies include hoarding the ‘good’ letters. Note that once I shared this insight with the teen player, she combined strategic cooperation with a determination to win, an unbeatable combination).

Is this an analogy for academia? Isn’t everything? To name just a few on social media: broken chairs, lego, vending machines, and Game of Thrones.

The spark of joy that lasted all day (my cheering kids) matters this week. My usual joie de vivre has been fleeting and delicate. Hence this post: I have needed to work at optimism. Call it what you will—optimism (not the cruel sort), resilience, durability, perseverance, grit (as it is named on the Australian Qualifications Framework review discussion paper). I mean the thing that keeps me feeling, on the whole, more positive than negative about my work, myself and my university.

For a more academic version of this, with lots of references, here is how colleagues and I describe engagement with work in a recent paper on early career academics:

Engagement is a state characterised by vigour, dedication and absorption (Schaufeli,Bakker, & Salanova, 2006), opposite to burnout, which is characterised by reductions in motivation and productivity, as well as cynicism and exhaustion (González-Romá, Schau-feli, Bakker, & Lloret, 2006). The extent to which workers perceive their organisation cares about their wellbeing and values their contribution, both now and in the future, influences engagement in workplaces (Kurtessis et al., 2017; Panaccio & Vandenberghe, 2009). Support can be demonstrated through a range of rewards, benefits and flexible work arrangements, along with a supportive culture with clear and reasonable expectations for workers (Castelló, McAlpine, & Pyhältö, 2017; Kurtessis et al., 2017; Panaccio & Van-denberghe, 2009; Saks, 2006). In addition to increased engagement, job satisfaction and wellbeing, perceived organisational support also increases workers’ affective commitment to their organisation along with objective performance (Kurtessis et al., 2017).

Universities are not always caring institutions. So what did I do to re-engage myself, to renew my ‘vigour, dedication and absorption’ in work and my ‘affective commitment’ to my university? First, I disengaged. I took a day off work. Mid-week, I spent a day alone doing things I like. I loved it, and would like to do it more often.

On my return to work, with colleagues commenting on how relaxed I looked, I arranged future coffee and lunch meetings to catch up with people whose company revives me. I focused on tasks I enjoy. I looked for the positive and I read Humans of Macquarie on Instagram. Here are brief excerpts. You can read the full posts, and see photos on Instagram.

I have always wanted to be a teacher. I never knew why; I felt really bright in primary school but it kind of faded into dullness when I hit high school and I just kind of drifted for a few years. I struggled a lot with mental health and identity issues. I was finally able to open up, and I started developing into my own person when I found real, meaningful relationships with other people (Sam, Psych & Education)

 I suppose my biggest fear was just being a filler person. You know, that kind of person that although in every practical sense lives a decent life, untimely ends up as just another tally on the population counter. University I feel has been able to subside that fear by exposing me to opportunities and incredible people, giving me some direction in my otherwise messy life. (Alysha, Anthropology)

My mother was barely in adulthood when she decided to go to New Zealand from Fiji and pursue further studies, against the wishes of her conservative Hindu family. She’s now one of the most high-ranked Registered Nurses at her hospital. Here’s where I come along: a cheeky brown kid in year 6, about to conclude my ‘About Me’ speech. I told my class that I WILL become a Barrister. The teacher chuckled, for according to her I had many imperfections. Like my mother, I refuse to accept the perceptions of others. (Krishna, History, English & Law).

These stories are nourishing.

Postscript: My teenager told me to write this: she is growing into a strong, determined-to-win, brave and courageous hero. Her greatest strength is her ability to creatively ‘ship’ Harry Potter characters. (Here’s Urban Dictionary on shipping for the uninitiated).