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:

Image result for the uses of a university Image result for Boyer scholarship reconsidered Image result for good university connell

 

 

Slow academia: a panel discussion

This week I listened to the recording of a Slow Academia panel I participated in earlier this year. It was organised by Demelza Marlin for higher degree research students and early career academics, and I was on a panel alongside Andrew Dunstall, an academic from Philosophy “who surfs casual contracts from semester to semester and tries to write research articles in his spare time”, and sociologist Michelle Jamieson, who is currently HDR Learning Advisor in Arts.

Our talking points included the following challenging questions:

What does slow academia offer beyond a darn good critique of the corporate logic of the modern university? Does the vocabulary of slowness offer us a way to re-value forms of academic labour that are currently under-valued (spending time with students, cultivating scholarly communities, spending time in thought)? What is at stake for HDRs, ECRs and casual staff in going against the grain and opting to produce less? Is that what slowness is ultimately about? How do you incorporate it into your working routines?

Here is a link to the 90 minute recording and Demelza’s slides are available separately: An introduction to slow academia.

Listening to an audio recording isn’t my favourite way to experience something I’ve missed (in this recording questions from the audience are especially difficult to hear, and there are some quiet gaps), so here are some of the highlights.

From Demelza Marlin:

  • Demelza described “time sickness” or “time poverty” in academia, a culture of speed, quantified academia, productivity and time management, anxiety, and fragmented time
  • Because the audience was predominantly higher degree research students, Demelza spent some time talking about the push towards “fast PhDs”. At its extreme, there is an organisation that promises to “support” you to complete a PhD in 3 months!
  • Demelza describes time management strategies in relation to Max Weber’s work: “idleness is a sin, leisure is important only in that it restores you for the working day”. “We are invited to think in utilitarian terms about our leisure as well as our work”
  • She shared this gem of university marketing “Never stand still” and, tongue in cheek, encouraged us to try never standing still and see what that experience feels like

From Michelle Jamieson:

  • As an academic learning advisor for research candidates in Arts, Michelle sees students under pressure to complete a PhD in three years: distracted, pulled in multiple directions, loss of wellbeing, less pleasure in research
  • Tries to achieve time at work that does not feel pressured or measured by not focusing on productivity, but on enjoying what she is doing
  • Michelle is running a workshop series on mindfulness for researchers, including regular meditations (I am keen to attend some of these sessions, so I hope they continue next year).

From Andrew Dunstall:

  • No allegiance to any slow movement, “I am just slow”
  • Asks: What has to change in institutions to ensure a future generation of researchers and to ensure high quality research and teaching?
  • Maintain your body if you want to be an effective researcher: be active, eat well
  • Identify your own expectations and beliefs that put pressure on (e.g. as a PhD candidate thinking “I want my articles to become classics that are read in 100 years” is too ambitious).

From me:

  • Being a slow academic is a consequence of my experiences as a PhD candidate with a sick baby; that  was my pressure cooker
  • Slow academia should not be individual, it requires collective institutional and sectoral focus on the politics and cultures of higher education
  • I recommended ImaginePhD, an online career planning tool for humanities and social sciences

From 50 minutes on, we had questions from the audience, which covered:

  • daydreaming, reflexive freedom and timeless time
  • the need for students to have time to make mistakes and experience failure
  • writing and research practices and the motivation of stress and deadlines (I recommended Helen Sword’s Air and Light and Time and Space)
  • academic activism, the importance of union membership, and leadership roles
  • the opportunities and limitations of working part-time
  • non-linear conceptions of time (e.g. I Aboriginal experiences of time circles, eternity now).

Lots of food for thought! For the time being, here’s Demelza’s summing up of slow academia using Seeber and Berg’s The Slow Professor:

Slowness is not just a critique, it also offers an alternative, a different model for academia … The slow movement advocates a shift in our practice and our public discourse and our relationship to work. This gives meaning to thinking about scholarship as community (not competition), to periods of rest, and understanding that research [has] rhythms that include pauses and periods that may seem unproductive. It allows us to shift from worrying about the annual report to thinking about what is sustainable in the long haul.

Valuing teaching

Image result for herdsa 2018

I spent last week in Adelaide for the Higher Education Research and Development Association of Australasia (HERDSA) conference. As far as Australian higher education conferences go, it is the largest, with a choice of seven parallel sessions. I was deep in decision fatigue, so stuck closely to the ‘academic work’ stream rather than move between sessions. This post is heavily condensed, patchy and subjective. Full program and abstracts from the conference are available. (This post includes embedded tweets so is best read on the website rather than through blog readers).

The conditions of casual academic staff and teaching-focussed academics were front and centre of discussions at HERDSA. Listening to findings on working conditions, the numbers of staff in insecure work, and the perceptions and experiences of teaching staff was heavy emotional work.

  • Scholarly Teaching Fellows: Drivers and (Early) Outcomes (Brown)
  • Scholarly Teaching: The Changing Composition of Work and Identity in Higher
    Education (Dados)
  • How much is this number worth? Representations of academic casualisation in
    Australian universities (Yasukawa)

Scholarly Teaching Fellows (STFs) are continuing Level A academics with a teaching focus (80% – 90% teaching workload). Based on data from interviews with 80 STFs and their managers, this project team are asking: Is STF likely to be a genuine career path for new academics? Are appointments reducing casualisation? How sustainable is STF workload and classification?

So far, despite some silver linings, the findings seem pretty grim:

I have registered for their one-day conference in December in Sydney: The Future of Academic Work: a Deliberative Conference, and am looking forward to more in depth discussion of these findings

  • Undervalued teaching and its impact on academics who prioritise teaching
    (McCormack)

The theme of valuing teaching continued in Cathryn McCormack’s longitudinal ethnographic study of nine academics dedicated to teaching:

This led to an amusing exchange on Twitter:

  • Casual Teaching Staff – Identity Crisis and the uberification of academic work (Kelder)

The ‘uberification’ of academic work is widespread and encultured in universities. There is hope.

There was affirmation of the value of care, optimism and hope in higher education – on the student panel, in keynotes and sessions and in conversations.

  • If we care about the quality of students’ learning then we must care about quality of teachers’ teaching (Chalmers)
  • Responding with optimism: developing academic leaders in times of change (Readman)
  • (Re-)Valuing on ‘Otherness’ and ‘Caring’ in Universities (Orrell)

This was one of my favourite moments:

The keynotes affirmed the importance optimism. In a presentation on the crisis of climate change, Tim Flannery asked: how can we give our students a sense of optimism and a feeling of hope? He suggested that the university should be a model for how we want the world to be.

Barbara Grant encouraged hope for the future which is now. In a separate post I will reflect on her brilliant keynote A Thousand Tiny Universities, which rewards slow thinking. While I am mulling, here are some images from a chilly grey early morning walk along the River Torrens. Adelaide is half an hour behind Sydney time which gave me an early start to each day.

“Career suicide”

https://i0.wp.com/blasst.edu.au/images/cartoons/Career_Flatline_hires.jpg

(Image from BLASST cartoons)

When I accepted my first academic position on completion of my PhD, I was pretty happy about it. My PhD was in Cultural Studies examining corporeal feminist philosophy and motherhood. (At the risk of understating it, this topic is not generally considered a canny choice for any career, but it was what I loved and lived). I changed discipline and built on research assistant work in education that I had completed during my PhD candidature. My new role was a part-time, fixed term, teaching-focussed position in the University’s central learning and teaching development unit.

I was warned by a well-meaning colleague that I was “committing career suicide” by accepting it.

It seemed to me that the only alternative was to continue sessional or casual teaching for the indefinite future. At that point, I had already been tutoring and lecturing casually for almost a decade. It was an example of Hobson’s choice, a free choice in which only one thing is offered. (I was also advised to move overseas for a post-doc, but I had a sick baby at the time).

I am not alone in facing limited (and limiting) choices, as early career academics in my research with colleagues stated:

Quite frankly it is impossible to make plans. I should have been hired as a full time academic … years ago … The best I can get is casual positions. These have been at several universities across a wide variety of departments over many years. I have become some kind of Universal Academic that can be called in at short notice to teach: Mathematics, Statistics, Finance, Business, Marketing, Engineering, Media Studies, and lately even Music Theory. This situation is clearly absurd…

Another described the risk of being ‘stuck’:

In order to progress in my career I need to continue researching and publishing, as that has been shown to be the area where academics get rewarded. Although I am teaching focused, if I am not research active I don’t think I will be able to progress at the same speed as other academics and will be stuck in a role for a longer time.

Teaching-focussed academic work — which includes sessional teaching and ‘teaching only’ or ‘80% teaching’ roles (as opposed to ‘traditional’ or ‘balanced’ 40% research, 40% teaching and 20% service roles) — was the focus of a recent post on The Conversation with the grim headline Teaching only roles could mark the end of your academic career. The research by Bennet et al (2017) supports the view of career suicide:

The TA role emerged as a negative career move for academics that transition from teaching-research roles and a career-limiting move for academics new to the sector … Teaching academic roles are attractive to new graduates as a pathway to an academic career. However, with no research provision and a directive not to engage in discipline-related research, it is doubtful that new entrants will develop the research or supervision profile required to transition into traditional teaching-research roles. Ironically, heavy teaching and administrative loads also limit access to professional learning, such that TAs are arguably less likely than their peers to develop and evidence excellence in teaching. Similarly, promotion to leadership roles is an unlikely outcome for TAs, despite them developing a nuanced understanding of teaching and learning within their areas. In our study, TAs had little confidence that they would one day achieve a professorial position.

By my colleague’s measure, I may have committed career suicide multiple times: doing a PhD part-time, having a baby mid-PhD,  taking a lot of carer’s leave, becoming a professional (general or administrative) staff member, accepting the aforementioned teaching-focussed role, changing discipline, staying at one university, being part-time, being sick, having another baby …

Right now, at this moment in time, I feel both confident and challenged by my career for a number of reasons (many of which were precarious last year): my career choices have been rewarded thus far, I am in the sweet spot of part-time work (the secret to happiness for working mothers, according to this article), and my institution’s new promotions policy aims to recognise and reward teaching-focussed academics.

In ten minutes, I will be hosting morning tea for a group of teaching-focussed academics. This month, we will be discussing the Teaching Perspectives Inventory. I have found this a useful starting point to articulate my philosophy of teaching which formed part of my application for Higher Education Academy Senior Fellowship and will contribute to a future promotion application.

Despite the weight of gloomy research evidence, I remain an optimist at heart.