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

 

 

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.

Slow privilege

Gosh, the beginning of semester is a busy time, even for a slow academic. This post comes to you late, and feels a bit rough, but ‘done is better than perfect’.

There have been some great tweets about the privilege of slow academia in the last couple of weeks:

In case you missed it, the entire thread on Twitter (and responses) is worth a read. Dr Lucia Lorenzi makes important points, including:

A warning in advance: my thoughts on these points may read like a series of non-sequiters. (I think they are contagious. My almost-4 year old son loves them. He frequently interrupts family conversations with pronouncements like “I sleep in trees”, or questions such as “Do you like juicy plums?”)

Many tenured and tenure-track academics have been casuals themselves, and I think they are keenly aware of their privilege. This is one of the reasons that luck has become a dominant way of talking about academic careers. (The ResearchWhisperer had an excellent recent post on research careers and serendipity which suggests that the value in planning is dreaming). Saying, ‘I got lucky’ is a defensive – and not particularly helpful – way of acknowledging the privilege of a secure academic career.

Acknowledging privilege can be important. I co-taught with a colleague – the wonderful and fiery Cathy Rytmeister – last week. She gave a powerful acknowledgement of country in which she said it is important to realise that we are able to be here – in this room, learning at university – because of the displacement of the traditional owners of this land.

Acknowledging privilege comes with an imperative to act.

https://i2.wp.com/blasst.edu.au/images/cartoons/Climbing_Ladder_hires.jpg

I want to reiterate some points I have already made in separate posts: slow academia is harder for casuals than those with job security, but I would argue that casual academics need it more. Addressing slow privilege, among other problems in higher education, is not an individual problem. In a previous post I wrote: the acceleration of academic work … is a systemic problem that requires collective work to change to the structure and organisation of higher education.

One of my suggested strategies for slow academia was to find like-minded souls. This is what it looks like for me:

  1. Join a union
  2. Join (or start) a network/ community of practice/ writing group
  3. Find mentors. And mentees
  4. Talk with people, ideally over food or coffee
  5. Interact on social media
  6. Share resources, celebrations, vulnerabilities, kindnesses, nourishment

When academics feel the pressure of scheduled time and contracted time, these are among the first things to go. But when I think back on the highlights of my career/ year/ week/ day, it is precisely these things: conversations, moments of connection and intimacy, the pleasure of thinking with others and creating something together.

Use your privilege. This is what I really liked about Australian children’s author Mem Fox’s recent article on being detained at Los Angeles airport. She writes:

They made me feel like such a crushed, mashed, hopeless old lady and I am a feisty, strong, articulate English speaker. I kept thinking that if this were happening to me, a person who is white, articulate, educated and fluent in English, what on earth is happening to people who don’t have my power?

That’s the heartbreak of it. Remember, I wasn’t pulled out because I’m some kind of revolutionary activist, but my God, I am now. I am on the frontline. If we don’t stand up and shout, good sense and good will not prevail, and my voice will be one of the loudest.

That’s what it has taught me. I thought I was an activist before, but this has turned me into a revolutionary. I’m not letting it happen here. Instead of crying and being sad and sitting on a couch, I am going to write to politicians. I am going to call. I am going to write to newspapers. I am going to get on the radio. I will not be quiet. No more passive behaviour. Hear me roar.

Contagious anxiety

You may have seen the I Am Anxiety advertisements from beyondblue on television or in print. Watch with caution as it induces anxiety very effectively:

Stills from this video were on posters at bus stops near my university last year. Every time I saw one – “I am the tightening of your chest” – I felt anxious.

At the time, I was surrounded by anxious people. Colleagues and I were in midst of a “change management” process and stress was rampant and contagious (I alluded to this in a previous post). My daughter was participating in the fantastic Cool Kids program – I can’t recommend this highly enough if you have a child struggling with anxiety. A colleague shared her challenges with anxiety as a doctoral candidate in a book chapter we co-authored:

I experienced anxiety while writing my dissertation … It was a very new and scary experience how debilitating the condition can be. I found that former fears like my fear of heights were exacerbated to a point where I felt that I could no longer catch a flight, drive up or down steep hills, take lifts in tall buildings and stay in apartments that were a few floors above ground level.

Mid last year, my colleague Cathy Rytmeister and I presented a paper at Academic Life in the Measured University on the transmission of academic anxiety from institutions to individuals. We published an excerpt from the paper in Uni Casual and have plans to develop it into a journal article. In the relative quiet of the academic year here in Australia, I wanted to revisit some of these ideas. We start with the anxious conversations of early career academics:

I’m so flat out coordinating three courses – teaching, admin, marking, online stuff… I really don’t even have time to have this coffee…

We’re so vulnerable as casuals, so much of the work is unpaid but you can’t make a fuss – they’ll just say they don’t need you anymore. I’m just sick with anxiety over the uncertainty of it all.

I’m really swamped right now, by the weekend I feel shattered but then I need to write. I don’t know whether this is all worth it. 

We argue that early career academics’ lives are fraught with  anxiety and stress, pressure to perform, income insecurity and uncertainty about the future because of the transmission of institutional anxieties about essentially the same concerns. Our universities are anxious about income and performance and an uncertain future.

You can read the short piece here. We also offer suggestions for those struggling with precarious employment. And this article from The Conversation has some useful strategies for managing uncertainty. These ideas are similar to those I have mentioned before: find like-minded souls, have a voice in your institution(s) and nourish yourself. Posts on how to put these into action coming soon.

Right now, having rewatched the I am Anxiety video, I am going to clear my head with a short walk across campus. What are you going to do?