Against all advice

I read a lot of advice for early career academics. Much of it is similar: focus on your research, publish a lot (with an eye to metrics), be prepared to move universities and countries to further your career (or even get a foot in the door), align yourself with institutional values and priorities, develop your personal brand. Several of my previous posts detail the ways in which I haven’t followed this advice—for example, committing career suicide multiple times and living by the pirate’s code. And there are some excellent resources out there with more nuanced advice: Surviving and succeeding as an early career academic is one of my favourites, ImaginePhD is another.

Last week, at an university networking event (I think I was invited to encourage small talk), I spoke with someone who is about to move from a small community-driven workplace into higher education. He’d found the institutional induction alienating, which had increased his nervousness, and he wanted to know if I had any advice on making the transition to working in a large organisation.

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If you work in a university, you don’t need me to tell you they are complex places. They can have mechanistic, organic and bureaucratic elements operating simultaneously, with competing expectations and priorities. In a thought-provoking paper about university management and the traditions of collegial governance, institutional autonomy and academic freedom, Winter (2009) refers to universities as hybrid identities that “attempt to sustain traditional academic cultures while simultaneously promoting and developing corporate ideologies and structures” (p 124). For someone who is used to working in a smaller or more tightly structured organisation, this can feel chaotic.

Winter (2009) distinguishes between the “identities of ‘academic manager’ (values congruent with the managerial discourse) and ‘managed academic’ (values incongruent with the managerial discourse)” (p 121). An academic manager is defined as a professorial position, middle or line manager, who aligns themselves with institutional norms and values (examples of which might include economic rationalism and marketisation). On the other hand, a managed academic is described as being disengaged with the institution and holding a greater commitment to their discipline and professional identity (which might be determined by scholarship, intellectual curiosity, a community of practice, or student learning). This binary thinking is reductionist—I would argue most academics move between these positions—but serves to illustrate the competing aspects of being an individual within a complex workplace.

My suggestions over canapés were an attempt to understand and manage these tensions:

1. Join some committees

This is a risky strategy—academic housekeeping can be thankless, time consuming and a distraction from more highly valued work (especially for women). I have nonetheless found working on committees, particularly when new to a role, a valuable way to meet people and learn a lot in a short time. Before you go in: know the committees available to you, have an understanding what they do and where they fit in the structures of academic governance and give your tenure on the committee a sunset date (two years is common in my neck of the woods).

2. Chat with people over a cuppa

You will never again have as few emails or meetings as you do in your first few weeks in a new role. The people I spoke with at last week’s event had very different orientation and induction experiences. Some were not even introduced to colleagues! If you find yourself in this position, have a couple of cups of tea a day and introduce yourself to everyone who comes along. If you are unlucky enough to be working somewhere without a tearoom, spend time in corridors, lobbies or doorways. Some awkward and confused lurking may be forgiven in a newbie, and these thoroughfares offer opportunities to meet people, introduce yourself and move on (or linger, depending on how well the conversation goes).

You can also request a chat, ideally over coffee and a walk around campus, with people you will be working for, with or alongside. Introduce yourself, conversationally share some of your past work and your ideas for your new role, and have a mental list of what you want to ask them: what are they working on? What are their expectations of your role? Is there anyone in particular they think you should talk to?

This advice will not make you an academic superhero, but it may help you orient yourself in a large organisation and find some like-minded souls.

Why slow (for organisations)

I have posted a lot on the benefits of slow academia for individuals and their families, especially for mental and physical health. But how do institutions benefit from slow academia?

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?

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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!

Stars = slow, tiny acts of resistance


I have mentioned last year’s Academic Identities conference in a couple of previous posts – here (on calendars) and here (on anxiety) – so it has certainly had an impact. (It is also on my mind as I start work with an international research group on a social history of the Academic Identities conferences).

One of the great and simple ideas to come out of this conference was from the wonderful Barbara Grant. At the risk of fangirling – always awkward for academics – it’s impossible not to love her work. She writes beautifully and thoughtfully about supervision, writing, and academic development. In a recently co-authored paper on the experiences of academic women under research audit, Grant and Elizabeth (2015) write:

Collective political resistance to [research audit regimes] has not been a feature of the academic landscape … In [our] interviews, there was largely an absence of the emotions of anger, fear and frustration usually associated with collective resistance … Unlike fear, anxiety seems a weak basis for political action …

Yet other forms of resistance were present … individually and collectively. Individuals were deliberately maintaining their research interests in defiance of perceived [audit]-rewarded tends; departments were actively pursuing collegial rather than competitive practices …

On the Activism in the Academy panel I chaired last year, Barbara mentioned  STARS (slow tiny acts of resistance, which I mis-remembered as small, targeted acts of resistance) such as those described in the paragraph above. Talking with a senior academic later, he said he hated this! He works with enough difficult people and doesn’t need more resistance. I get it. It can extremely challenging to enact change in universities. It is easy to blame cynical, obstructive, uncooperative academics – and there are some out there – but there are systemic issues at play that provoke reactions like this.

And we need some difficult people. (A salute to the women resisting Donald Trump).

STARS offers a way of promoting values such as slow academia, academic freedom and collegiality with minimal risk. Interpreting research targets as a pirate code might be one example, speaking up in a meeting and asking difficult questions might be another. This is a complex issue. Worth reading is this excellent recent article by Liz Morrish: Why the audit culture made me quit. She writes:

Sara Ahmed and I are by no means the only feminist academics over the past couple of years to have resigned, after decades of claiming space for collaborative, interdisciplinary and slow scholarship, as well as personal development transformation and reflexive practice. These notions recognise the value of research in contributing to a conversation about power and privilege … Feminist scholarship has advanced the argument that there should be no one-size-fits-all performance expectations in the academy.

I found this a difficult read because universities have so much to gain from critical university studies and from colleagues such as Liz. The Academic Identities conference ended with a keynote from Ruth Barcan on experiences of leaving academia. Many in the audience found the research dispiriting and shocking. One academic Ruth spoke to described fantasising about setting herself on fire so people would pay attention to her struggles. But it ended with a positive: everyone who left academia was happier and healthier.

I wish Liz and those of her ilk pursuing independent scholarship the best of luck. For those of us working on critical university studies within universities, best of luck also. Look to the stars.