Whose good university?

Last week I attended The Future of Academic Work: A deliberative conference at the University of Technology, Sydney. Its focus was a research project examining specific teaching-focussed, entry-level, continuing or fixed term (rather than sessional or casual) academic positions at Australian universities:

The new Scholarly Teaching Fellow (STF) role was introduced into Australian universities in 2013. The positions were aimed at creating a more stable teaching workforce, while also addressing growing concerns about the injustices of academic casualisation. The STF positions aim to offer a career path for casual academics, and have had an important impact on the sector-wide debate about the relationship between teaching, scholarship and research.

You can read the draft discussion report from the research team led by James Goodman, based on interviews with 100 scholarly teaching fellows and their managers. Here are some quotes from the participants:

In my first semester of teaching, I realized I couldn’t physically do the work required without working weekends and stupidly long days. The pathway to secure employment via an STF means ongoing exploitation. (Female STF, Sandstone)

I was exhausted. Absolutely exhausted and it doesn’t help with people in your corridor say, “oh you look tired today. Are you okay?” You just stop replying. (Female STF, Sandstone)

“If [teaching] continues to be hack work passed on to casuals, teaching scholars, whatever we call them, people who are kind of overworked and underpaid and unrecognized, then we are constantly sending the message and reinforcing the message that research is what matters and not teaching.” (Female Senior Manager, New University)

It wasn’t all negative:

Certainly having a full-time position has been invaluable. Having a sense of being part of a faculty and part of a group of academics … that’s been really good. (Male STF, Unitech)

The conference was an openly activist one, with the National Tertiary Education Union highly visible, and overall it did a good job of balancing despair and hope about the future of academic work.

The opening keynote was presented by Professor Raewyn Connell, well known for her work on education, gender and sexuality. The keynote introduced her forthcoming book The Good University, on universities as a social good. I’m keen to read this, and enjoyed the keynote for an international view on the turbulence of higher education and history of student and academic activism (including Poland’s underground flying university).

The remainder of the day consisted of workshop discussions on changing academic careers, some of which was tweeted with the hashtag #academicfutures

In the discussions, there was limited visibility of scholarly work on academic careers, the scholarship of teaching, and the politics of higher education. With universities not requiring teaching qualifications for teachers, this knowledge gap is not surprising. I started teaching armed only with disciplinary knowledge and enthusiasm. Thankfully, I was fortunate enough to have generous colleagues who guided my learning.

For those new to thinking about the future of academic work, I recommend the following as a starting point:

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Shock to thought

This is a continuation of the previous post, reflecting on the 6th International Academic Identities Conference at the University of Hiroshima. The four papers I discuss here were among the highlights of the (too few) sessions I attended. (I plan to email several participants whose intriguing-sounding presentations I missed, in the hope they share slides or notes). Here is a brief wrap up of some of the ideas.

  • Pushing Academic Identity Development Further: imagination, creativity and ensoulment (Susan Carter, University of Auckland)

The abstract read:

I draw on imagination theory for an approach based upon how as individuals we make and have worlds (Johnson, 1987). How firmly can we each acknowledge the strengths of our individual experience and resulting imagination in order to have compassion without despair and to model generosity in an age of often mean-spirited accounting? The paper folds theory around academic development for the purpose of scaffolding inner growth a s a deliberate resistance strategy.

Carter structured her presentation around a series of questions, which prompted one of the most enjoyable discussions I had at the conference. For example: Think about your own childhood learning: what troubled, bothered or eluded you, and what did you like about learning in your early years at school? Our discussion spanned childhood games, the spaces we occupied, the games we created, and the rules we followed and refused to follow.

  • (Un)becoming academics: stripping down and laying bare, to story spaces of hope (Ali Black & Gail Crimmins, University of the Sunshine Coast; Linda Henderson, Monash University & Janice Jones, University of Southern Queensland)

This was a pre-recorded video presentation, which I think is a difficult thing to get right. In this case, it was very successful. From the abstract:

We are four women from three Australian universities in various phases of (un)becoming academics. One of us has moved from casual to “permanent” in the last year only, one is awaiting a probation review to secure permanency, one has been in academia for more than twenty years with “very little to show for it”, and one has recently walked away choosing voluntary retirement.

Their video, which included drama and visual/poetic representations, as well as oral vignettes of experiences in academia, was described by the audience as delicate, vulnerable, beautiful, trusting, bold, strong. The autobiographical accounts were heartbreaking: 11 years on probation, applying for lower level positions, devastating inequalities, redundancy, emotional collapse.

  • Academics ageing (dis)gracefully: pleasures and pains (Claire Aitchison, University of South Australia; Cally Guerin, University of Adelaide; Anthony Paré, University of British Columbia & Helen Benzie, University of South Australia)

This was an excellent companion to the above video. The authors described it as follows:

In this round table a group of academics share end-of-career stories, rich in passion, disappointment and new beginnings. The stories are both hope-filled and hope-less, tinged with disappointment and loss, desire and inspirational reimagining of selves.
End-of-careerers, with their lengthy contribution and deep disciplinary knowledge, should, potentially, be amongst the most influential and valued members of an institution/discipline – but are they?

Short answer: no. The session ended with hope. Anthony Paré reflected on his career in academic activism (a subject which is close to my heart) through service and governance (“breathing life into otherwise lifeless forms”). He challenged the ‘us’ and ‘them’ often heard when talking about university management. “We are on the committees that ramp up requirements for academics and their work. We can change this. I became an activist … We are the university … I have loved the activist part of my academic career. Of all that I do, it is probably the thing I will miss the most.”

  • The Art of Generous Scholarship and the Japanese Tea Ceremony (Sally Knowles, Edith Cowan University & Barbara Grant, The University of Auckland)

This presentation was a joy to listen to, with a long-standing academic friendship on display. Knowles and Grant contrasted the imperfect work in progress presented at writing retreats with the imperfection of wabi-sabi:

When exposing one’s unfinished texts, showing the technical flaws and imperfection of our authorial selves, there is potential for harm and/or shame. The care-full structure of the work-in-progress process supports both writer and responders by appreciating the potential of the flawed quality of each other’s unfinished work …
Likewise, the tea ceremony ritual demonstrates participation and enjoyment through awakened sensibilities. It is based in the principles of wabi-sabi which include transience, imperfection, impermanence and incompleteness

Allowing imperfection requires “generous scholarship” which can be seen at writing retreats: gentleness of spirit, an inward feeling of soft-heartedness, tender-mindedness. Cecile Badenhorst and colleagues described a similar philosophy at work in their writing group (“soft eyes turned to wonder”) in their presentation On Being Reviewed: From ghosts that haunt in isolation toward connection and unexpected agency.

You may be curious about the title of this post. It is taken from the work of Deleuze and Guittari on the “shock to thought” of affective experience. I was thinking of two things: the conference presentations I attended and the ways they stretched my thinking, and the experience of travelling to Japan with my family. A different country full of new experiences—the shock to thought, the challenge to everyday-ness, is what we came for and enjoyed in abundance.

Hacking academia

Hack is an interesting word. Both verb and noun, it contains multiple (seemingly contradictory) meanings:

  • to cut, notch, slice, chop, or sever
  • to damage or injure by crude, harsh, or insensitive treatment; mutilate; mangle
  • to deal or cope with; handle
  • to circumvent security and break into (a network, computer, file, etc.)
  • to make use of a tip, trick, or efficient method for doing or managing (something)
  • to cough harshly
  • a writer or journalist producing dull unoriginal work
  • a person who does routine work
  • a worn out horse

If you have been catching public transport or driving around Sydney lately,  you may have seen a government sponsored advertising campaign aimed at reducing peak hour congestion on public transport and traffic on the roads. Presented as a series of “travel hacks” (presumably the tip or trick meaning) they include:

These suggestions have raised my ire. While waiting in the traffic, I thought about alternative hacks for a government intent on diminishing congestion and improving quality of life for commuters: create walk-able communities; minimise over-development; ensure employment opportunities close to affordable housing. I could go on.

These travel hacks made me think about advice for becoming a more productive, output-focussed, metrics-driven, impactful academic (an academic superhero, perhaps). The focus is entirely on the individual. Systemic change and collective action are rendered invisible. The same is  true for the academic superhero’s downfall: burnout. The cure is individual: mental health and resilience training, work/life balance strategies, mindfulness.  I am not saying these things aren’t good, I’m saying they are not enough.

I discussed systemic rather than individual change at a panel on Slow Academia this week, alongside inspiring colleagues Demelza Marlin, Andrew Dunstall and Michelle Jamieson (whose thoughts on sitting with failure I have previously shared on this blog). (Note that the links from their names were carefully selected to avoid the institutional profile that prominently displays H-index and a graph of citations). I hope to share a recording of this session and a summary of discussion points in a future post.

Thankfully my colleague, the pseudonymous acahacker, redeemed the notion of hacking academia for me with this definition:

How to be a scholar working in a university, regardless of your employment status or job title.

How to reshape the academy around you for you, despite the sometimes subterranean morale of colleagues, the audit cultures, the overwork, the overthinking, the desperate need for time and proper resourcing, the medieval hierarchy trying its hardest to be corporate …

Resisting and persisting.

How to be an academic when you’re not actually employed as an academic.

How to hack what academia has become, what being an academic has become.

A final thought (for now): I am currently reading Erin Gough’s novel Amelia Westlake for my young adult (for adults only) book club. A story of two lesbian teenagers fighting sexual harassment by a teacher at their private school, the front cover reads: Play the power, not the game. I am thinking about this phrase alongside ideas about the university as infinite game. But that’s a future post.

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