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Once again, Karina Luzia (aka @acahacker) puts in a tweet something that takes me a few more words.


As careers progress, many academics find themselves in the middle.

I’ve mentioned Winter’s work Academic manager or managed academic? in a previous post. Winter (2009) contends that managerialist attempts to align academics to corporate values lead to a schism between the “identities of ‘academic manager’ (values congruent with the managerial discourse) and ‘managed academic’ (values incongruent with the managerial discourse)” (p 121).

Academic managers have internalised values and constructed goals and working patterns that reflect the imperatives of a corporate management system, such as strong hierarchical management, budgetary control, income maximisation, commercialisation and performance management indicators … Managed academics have defended and promoted distinctive accounts of their own professional identity and that of the institution by invoking values of self-regulation, collegial practice and educational standards.

What about those whose identities straddle both? Or who move between these positions?

Last year, Times Higher Education posted an article on academics who accept senior leadership roles in universities. These voices resonated:

  • I gained 11kg in my first year as a VC, and wasn’t able to lose it until after I finished.
  • I began … to study the university itself. My administrative work always seemed like fieldwork of a kind.
  • I have gained a more nuanced understanding of the wider complexities within and beyond my university.
  • It was an unusual opportunity for a woman and a non-scientist to have a voice.
  • It was painful to find myself on the wrong side of a “bosses versus workers”.
  • You have the chance to influence change directly.
  • One question insistently echoed in my brain: What am I doing here?

In navigating life in the middle, this is what helps me. Learning to listen. Aligning my work to my personal values: nurturance, openness, cooperation, challenge and humour. And remembering that the university and its work is far more complex and variable than a list of two (or even three) kinds of people.

Thinking and forgetting

I have had a few forgetting incidents in the last couple of weeks: a word (artifact, thanks to Kylie who reminded me twice), names (sorry Adwar!) and scheduling mistakes. Perhaps it is the heat (it’s scorching in Sydney right now, with a forecast of 38ºC in my suburb today), age (the oldest I’ve ever been), holiday mode or cognitive overload.

In a discussion about superpowers on a family bushwalk, although tempted by flight and shape-shifting, I picked ‘remembering everything I’ve ever learned’. (We were then allowed a bonus superpower: I can also turn into a bird!)

So much forgetting! In the interests of remembering, here are some ideas previously blogged that I want to revisit. For the theory buffs, this is an example of Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizomatic thinking: non-hierarchical, random, multiple, interconnected, breaking apart and reforming in different places and directions.

Tseen Khoo’s reflections on not going for promotion and Barbara Grant’s keynote at HERDSA last year (in which she described stepping back from positional leadership)  have been rattling around my mind. When is it worth taking on leadership roles? Are gendered factors at work here? Can a drive to effect change be sustained? What are the interconnections between leadership and activism—both affordances and limitations?

In my co-authored paper with Cathy Rytmeister on academic activists, our eponymous Rosie exhorted her colleagues to be brave. It is worth re-quoting her words, which continue to give pause:

Be brave. Be brave Sometimes speaking out is your best defence. Passivity allows you to be pushed around … Get as involved as you can and don’t give up hope. Spend time with people who you feel believe the same things as you do, because that’s affirming and strengthening, but balance that with spending time talking to people who don’t, because that grounds you in reality … Keep people around you who will challenge you. If you move into a position of power, if you have any power, own that power …

In a recent discussion, colleagues and I talked about the importance of being constructively disagreeable (something like virtuous naughtiness, I think). One of the problems of leadership (and this, perhaps especially, includes good leadership) is that those in charge are rarely interrupted. Musing out loud, thought bubbles, flights of fancy, anecdotes—take note of who is allowed to do these things in meetings you attend.

Take particular note if that person is you! I am reminded of Maggie Nelson’s comments in The Argonauts:

Sometimes, when I’m teaching, when I interject a comment without anyone calling on me, without caring that I just spoke a moment before, or when I interrupt someone to redirect the conversation away from an eddy I personally find fruitless, I feel high on the knowledge that I can talk as much as I want to, as quickly as I want to, in any direction that I want to, without anyone overtly rolling her eyes at me or suggesting I go to speech therapy. I’m not saying this is good pedagogy. I am saying that its pleasures are deep.

A rhizome: How can leaders resist the high of talking in any direction they want? How can they let go of that deep pleasure and listen more? How is constructive disagreement made possible?

Another rhizome: Keep people around you who will challenge you. I often wish I could hire a heckler to make challenging comments and ask difficult questions at events and meetings.  Less often, I want to be that heckler.

Still more: Be brave, especially when you are a ‘woman who makes a fuss’ (as Niki Harré, Barbara M. Grant, Kirsten Locke and Sean Sturm describe in The university as infinite game). To read: Women Who Make a Fuss (2014). The blurb reads:

Virginia Woolf, to whom university admittance had been forbidden, watched the universities open their doors. Though she was happy that her sisters could study in university libraries, she cautioned women against joining the procession of educated men and being co-opted into protecting a “civilization” with values alien to women. Now, as Woolf’s disloyal (unfaithful) daughters, who have professional positions in Belgian universities, Isabelle Stengers and Vinciane Despret, along with a collective of women scholars in Belgium and France, question their academic careers and reexamine the place of women and their role in thinking, both inside and outside the university. They urge women to heed Woolf’s cry—Think We Must—and to always make a fuss about injustice, cruelty, and arrogance.

These rhizomes are ideas I am looking forward to hearing discussed at Making ShiFt Happen next week, a 36-hour virtual conference for academic women. (Note that the conference follows AdaCamp and Geek Feminism in seeing women as an inclusive term, and  trans-women, genderqueer women, and non-binary people are welcome). My session, with Catherine Manathunga and Janet Hope, focusses on slow tiny acts of resistance (STARS).

I’m certain that at the beginning of this post there were other ideas I wanted to remember, other rhizomes whose trajectories I wished to follow; but for now, I will sit with partial remembering. I will enjoy a few days leave, and from next week, will discover what it feels like when a slow academic starts working full-time.

ETA: Jamie Burford has recommended the following reading

Sounds good: “Judith Halberstam proposes “low theory” as a mode of thinking and writing that operates at many different levels at once. Low theory is derived from eccentric archives. It runs the risk of not being taken seriously. It entails a willingness to fail and to lose one’s way, to pursue difficult questions about complicity, and to find counterintuitive forms of resistance.” The sample now on my Kindle.

Less-than-perfect capabilities

I have a love/ hate relationship with university graduate capabilities statements. You know, those ubiquitous institutional claims about the attributes of their graduates, and the skills, knowledge, values and dispositions their degrees impart. For example:

Our students will enter a globalising world of major environmental change and resource constraints, of scientific and technological advance and ethical challenge, of continuing political instability and possible international conflicts, of unlimited creativity and increasing social surveillance … We considered the capabilities the University’s graduates would need to develop to address the challenges, and to be effective, engaged participants in their world.

What I love about them (other than their dystopian vision): they have been a fruitful source of research with colleagues as we have gathered statements from forty Australian universities from the 1980s to now. We have written about graduate attributes in relation to social inclusion, student engagement, and global citizenship. We have some further analysis in progress, focused on employability and international comparisons. I have enjoyed this research more than expected, not only because it was an excellent collaborative experience, but because it enabled us to consider questions about the purposes of higher education. (For those interested in a philosophical approach to this topic, I recommend a new blog by my colleague Mitch Parsell The Conflict of the Faculties).

What I hate about graduate capabilities: their uniformity across institutions, compliance for the purposes of constructive alignment, and proliferation across all levels of education. Like universities, my daughter’s primary school promises to develop lifelong learning and global citizenship. Even my son’s preschool promises to develop lifelong learning and global citizenship. I don’t think that captures the best of learning and teaching at any of those organisations.

I have been reflecting on a recent conversation with a self-described perfectionist. This colleague has nailed the planning our university performance review system asks of people: a 5 year plan, a 3 year plan, a 1 year plan. She knows what she needs to achieve this month, this week and today in order to meet her long-term goals. Being a less-than-precise planner (as I have previously posted, I am better at dreaming than planning), my heart started palpitating as she described listing three daily goals that align with her plans.

I started thinking about what my daily goals might look like, and I have realised they would be the same every day of the week: have an interesting conversation, spend some time outside, enjoy eating and reading.

So far today, I’m achieving my goals.  I listened to an unkindness of Australian ravens from my balcony:

I read the introduction to No Friend But the Mountains over a delicious breakfast of strawberries, yogurt and muesli. More interesting conversations to come, but in the corridor this morning  we have already ranged across reading to children, insects, death, memories and cleverness. (Put all of these together and you get Du Iz Tak? by Carson Ellis, which I read to a group of 3-5 year olds to celebrate Book Week yesterday).

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If I were forced to align my daily goals with a long-term plan—and here you see I haven’t stopped talking about capabilities—I would use this list of competencies for performing life roles (adapted from Knowles, 1975):

Roles Competencies
Learner Reading, writing, computing, perceiving, conceptualizing, imagining, inquiring, aspiring, diagnosing, planning, finding help, evaluating
Being a Self (with a unique self-identity) Self-analyzing, sensing, goal-building, objectivising, value-clarifying, expressing, accepting, being authentic
Friend Loving, empathizing, listening, collaborating, sharing, helping, giving of constructive feedback, supporting
Citizen Caring, participating, leading, decision-making, acting, being sensitive to one’s conscience, discussing, having perspective (historical and cultural), being a global citizen
Family Member Maintaining health, planning, managing, helping, sharing, efficient and effective buying, saving, loving, taking responsibility
Worker Career planning, using technical skills, accepting supervision, giving supervision, getting along with people, cooperating, planning, delegating, managing
Leisure User Knowing resources, appreciating the arts and humanities, performing, playing, relaxing, reflecting, planning, risking

I like the integration of life roles here, especially the inclusion of family, friends and leisure and difficult-to-measure competencies such as imagining, getting along with people, being sensitive to one’s conscience, and loving.