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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When a presentation bombs

I gave a short presentation last week that was not as awesome as I had intended. In fact,  it would be fair to say it bombed. I have (mostly) recovered, but have been reflecting on the experience of not presenting well. More often than not, my presentations go well enough, but sometimes they (I) go wrong. I am thinking mostly about live presentations of one sort or another—a talk, a lecture, a pitch, a viva, an interview—the type of thing that gives you no second chance to revisit the unfinished business of stuffing up.

The title for this post came from the comment of a participant in the Academic Identities Conference cultural history research project, who described the experience of giving a paper that did not feel successful (“a bit of a bomb I thought”) and said: “I didn’t really know how to meet the audience.” Jeanette Fyffe and I are thinking through this wonderful idea of ‘meeting the audience’ for a symposium paper at this year’s conference in Japan.

I still flush with shame at the memories of some poor presentations I have given during my academic career—an early conference paper where I read from my carefully prepared script but had minimal interaction with the audience, a more recent conference presentation that I rushed through, an interview where I spoke for too long—this list could go on.

While writing this post, I popped down to the kitchen and encountered some inspirational posters on success and preparation (which always seem to read as non sequiturs) alongside hazard notifications:

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As with failure or rejection, much of the discussion about presenting poorly is framed around how to do better next time. There seem to be a finite number of reasons given for a failed presentation—lack of preparation, anxiety, lack of confidence—that can be ameliorated for next time.

I am more interested in the reasons why a seasoned presenter, who has presented well in the past, does not do well. Here’s the list of risk factors I came up with from my own experiences:

  • presenting in a new context
  • more formal or less formal than anticipated
  • time pressure (particularly shorter or longer than usual or expected)
  • a new mode of presentation
  • an unknown audience
  • not caring enough or caring too much
  • being distracted by external stressors
  • trying to do too much other stuff in the lead up to the presentation

I reread Michelle Jamieson’s article Sitting with Failure (which I linked to in a previous post on failure) and this resonated:

Rather than thinking in terms of success and failure, I encourage you to relate to your work as a practice…  In this sense, there is no point of arrival or ultimate goal outside the experience you are currently presented with, and present to. From here, it easier to accept mistakes as something to be with, rather than something to overcome.

I have another presentation to give this afternoon, and can certainly tick some of the risks on the list above—school have just called to say my daughter is in sick bay (shout out to my parents who are picking her up). But I am more practiced than last week, and will aim to sit with this experience, come what may.

Bad feelings

This post returns to an idea from Rosalind Gill’s review of Les Back’s Academic Diary. She asks about bad affects:

Academic Diary is … overwhelmingly positive … Where are the other, less palatable, affects and behaviours? Where is the envy, the rage, the nastiness, the bullying, the bad behaviour, the competitiveness, the mean-spiritedness, the colleagues who dump on others, the people who just do not reply? It is not just that the pain and hurt of academic life seems absent, then, but also that much of the difficulty and messiness of academia is missing too.

Unsurprisingly, with the amount of work I have been missing and leaving undone or half-done while my daughter is sick, I haven’t had a lot of good feelings lately. There has been a great deal of difficulty and messiness for all of us. I was once described by a former manager as “relentlessly cheerful”—I even won an award for it—so this a big admission for me. I am drafting this post from hospital, where my brave daughter is undergoing another round of tests over the next few days.

So James Burford’s paper What might bad feelings be good for? Some queer-feminist thoughts on academic activism has been a timely publication and offered a welcome opportunity for reflection. It appears in the current special issue of Australian Universities’ Review on Activism and the Academy which I co-edited with Kate Bowles and Karina Luzia.

The bad feelings Burford writes about—numbness, shame, exhaustion, depression and anxiety—resonate for me right now. And, as always, the line between work and life is permeable, so bad feelings in either space contaminate feelings in the other. Here’s a taster of Burford’s argument:

I am concerned that some affects like cynicism, fear, hostility and depression are frequently written-off without due consideration of their agentive capacities. While I understand desires to move academics on from ‘dirges of despair’ (Kenway, Boden & Fahey, 2014, p. 259), I am suggesting that it may be politically profitable to think about what happens when academics feel bad, and the kinds of transformations these negative felt experiences might generate.

Here are some of the things that are making me feel bad: I am not at work, and have let people down by not honouring prior commitments. I am relying on others to do work for me. I am not answering emails promptly. I am not carefully checking work that has my name on it. I am feeling impatient with the ‘petty’ concerns of the workplace. I have little energy for the emotional labour of relationships with colleagues. If I am at work, I am distracted and working more slowly than usual.

So, challenged by Burford’s question, and now I have all that misery off my chest, what might these feelings be good for? I won’t be using them to make a wall of failures, but that is one example of bad feelings doing good.

There is much to be thankful for in the midst of these bad feelings. I must acknowledge the immense privilege of being able to ‘care less’ about work during this time and still have a paying job. That cannot be understated. I am grateful for the generosity of colleagues; for grandparents who have taken on childcare; for excellent healthcare; and for hospital volunteers who knit bears, visit with therapy dogs, make us laugh and give parents coffee breaks.

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Most importantly, bad feelings can be politicising. They offer further impetus to change higher education for the better. There are many who are at greater risk than I am of long-term ill-effects from bad feelings. This matters. For now, my daughter’s suffering has turned us inward, but as she slowly recovers I look forward to helping others, both individually and systematically, who are grappling with bad feelings in academia.

Back and forth

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I love ongoing scholarly conversations that take place in the public sphere. I recently read Les Back’s (2016) delightful Academic Diary: Or why higher education still matters which chronicles the seasonal temporalities of thirty years of academic life (with thanks to Tai Peseta for the recommendation). No doubt I will have more posts inspired by the ideas in the book — generosity as a strategy for survival, what it means to live a good academic life, the value of notebooks, the vulnerabilities of doctoral supervision — but for now an excerpt that sums up what the book offered:

More than any other measure the value of what writers do, even academic ones, is to provide companionship for further thought. Writing here is less an achievement that is measured extrinsically than an invitation to imagine beyond its own terms of reference. Books and essays here befriend and encourage thinking .. This value cannot be audited or cheapened through the mechanisms that aim to judge, measure and distribute repute and ultimately money.

I subsequently read Rosalind Gill’s review What would Les Back do? If generosity could save us (and I highly recommend reading her chapter — all the way to the post-script — on the hidden injuries of neoliberal academia). Gill’s review of Academic Diary covers quantified academia, slowness, listening, and I was heartened that these are all things I have been thinking about on this blog. Describing herself as a party pooper, she asks an important question:

But where, I wondered, amidst this elegiac portrait, is the pain of contemporary academic life? No one, and last of all me, wants to exaggerate this suffering or to engage in some narcissistic project of self-indulgence when there is true agony in the world …  But nevertheless there is significant suffering in academia … people … pushed to breaking point by impossible workloads; people perpetually on the edge of total collapse: people whose existence is defined by an excoriating anxiety, who dread every new research assessment or teaching feedback, who feel themselves to be hanging by a thread or clinging on by their fingernails.

Not afraid of tricky questions or bad affects (more on this in a future post), Les Back responded to Gill’s review thoughtfully and emotively. His responses resonate this week in Australia, which saw the publication of the damning National Report on Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment at Australian Universities. Here, I want to highlight Back’s list of what he tries to do:

I talk to students honestly about the challenges we face and how the pressures and institutional changes are a feature of what we do together. Support the union even when I disagree with it. Hold onto my enthusiasm for learning and books in teaching and the capacity to be surprised by ideas. Listen to the complaints of colleagues even if I do not agree with them. Notice a colleague who is struggling. Do not look away from abuses of academic privilege and have the courage to report them. Acknowledge the people who support the university and make it work from the front desk to the department administrator. Take time to report things that go wrong—like technological failures in teaching rooms—but also remember to praise them when they go right. Only make criticisms I am willing to put my name to or say to the face of the person concerned. If I cannot judge without prejudice a piece of writing or a grant application for funding I send it back. Participate in fostering the creation of a community of scholars and thinkers. Do not leave it to someone else carry my workload. Offer to give a colleague a break from her/his teaching if I can. Take time off. Have a life outside of the university and encourage others to. Get out as much as possible and talk to audiences who are interested in ideas wherever they are. Take and give hope.

Individually, these are small acts. They could be described as examples of Barbara Grant’s STARS or what Thwaites and Pressland (2017) call ‘micro-activisms’ that work alongside greater acts of resistance and change. Collectively, these kindnesses have the potential to change academia from a place marked by undercare to one that nurtures us when we are not stable, functional, powerful and unimpaired. More on this next week.

In the meantime, before I rush to my next meeting, I take a moment to enjoy the view from my office window:

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