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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Good enough

I moved office today, which makes it the perfect time to consider what I want to display on the walls. Nick Hopwood’s recent blog post on his wall of rejections (complete with thumbs up photo) has been popular. He writes:

There is a pedagogy here – not only normalising rejection, but also potentially modelling ways to deal with it. I’m no masochist. I don’t find rejection fun. I fear rejection. Of course I do. Everything I’ve had rejected has mattered to me, reflected hours of work and emotional input. But I don’t let fear of rejection stop me from trying in the first place. And I don’t let the experience of rejection prevent me from keeping going.

Academics are high achievers and academia celebrates achievement on a daily basis. I can see why Nick’s wall of rejections, his shadow CV, and the CV of failures I blogged about previously have been shared so much. There’s something wonderfully affirming about knowing that successful people fail a lot.

But I won’t be creating a rejection wall any time soon.

A few reasons: I don’t need a reminder that my work is not (I am not) good enough. Success already feels precarious to me. I don’t display my successes in my office either. Some of my achievements feel uncomfortable. I wasn’t particularly proud of my PhD as a product, for example. I was proud of the process — it felt hard-won — but the thesis itself was just good enough.

For pathos, I took this photo of a wall of forgotten PhDs in a room up the corridor that I found when exploring my new digs.

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A wall of rejection doesn’t affirm the decision I have made to work part-time and to value slow academia. That entails not only the stalled progress of rejections, but a lot of work that is never-submitted, half-done but put aside, and nice-ideas-for-sometime-later.

A few things have helped clarify my thinking about rejection and failure. I read this excellent article by Michelle Jamieson on Sitting with Failure:

As I see it, there are two important lessons that we can learn from failure: how to fix the mistake or problem (which is the one people typically focus on), and how to sit with or attend the experience of failure itself and our aversion to it.

I also read the How I Fail interview series and the blog Tenure Denied: A story of failure. I love that work like this is attending to the experience of failure in academia. But I’m not ready for rejection wallpaper. Here is how I have chosen to decorate my office – with a Doctor of Thinkology sign and a Rosie the Riveter action figure. We can do it!

“Career suicide”

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(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.