Research targets: the pirate code for academics

Today I had a short conversation with an early career academic that made me thankful that I decided to start this blog. I enjoyed talking with her – it was our first meeting, and she came across as smart, ambitious and engaging. She is also working at a punishing rate. She told me that six days a week she starts work at 5am and keeps going for 12 hours. She is currently teaching three subjects, has seven funded research projects, and has joined several committees. She has a young son. Her refrain was: It will get better, I just need to make it through this semester. 

Image result for just my mind

Source: Dirk’s Big Bunny Blog

I didn’t ask her about her hobbies. I mentioned that I’d started this blog and work three days a week. I talked a bit about why: because my wellbeing and that of my family comes first, because work has to accommodate the shitty things that sometimes happen, because my academic work  is not the only thing I love, and because work has to feel like something that I can keep doing well.

Like many, she questioned whether I am paid for three days but actually work a lot more. In the past, I would have answered something like ‘Of course I work more but so do all the full-time academics I know.’ But having worked as a 0.6 academic for almost seven years, I am getting better at it, and I have a lot of strategies to contain my work hours (and still get promoted). I will share these over time as I articulate them to myself, but one emerged clearly as a result of our conversation. I live by the pirate’s code for academics.

This ECA mentioned the high expectations of academics. I agreed. Take, for instance, the research strategy here which sets the following annual goals for a Level B or C academic: publishing 4-5 journal articles in high impact factor journals, having publications cited 5+ times per year, receiving $80-100k in external research funding, supervising 5 PhD completions. Note that for most academics research accounts for 40% of their workload, so there is also teaching and service to add to this list. Exhausting and unsustainable if not impossible.

It turns out she was seeing these targets as minimum requirements to achieve success. I think of them as a Pirate Code (more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules):

This is a conversation to have with your colleagues (senior and junior): do they follow the pirate code?

Decelerating scheduled time

One of my highlights in 2016 was attending and presenting at the conference Academic Life in the Measured University:

In one sense, the ‘measured university’ implies a state of caution, a sense of restraint, blandness, even automation. In another, it establishes a new rationality, offering something of a certainty that academic life and decision-making proceeds on the basis of ‘evidence’ … What can be done to act both with, and against, the drift, scale, and reach of the measured university? Is it possible (or even desirable) to redirect the measured university to different ends? If so, what might those ends be and how shall we go about it?

Here is a Storify version of tweets sent during the conference. [View the story “Academic Life in the Measured University” on Storify]

Some of the presentations will be the subject of future posts, particularly as papers from the conference are published, but today I want to explore a presentation on the academic calendar, which is similar to the to-do list, but represents time-in-action or scheduled time. In her paper An auto-ethnographic reflection of teaching intensive work through a lens of the sociology of emotions, Harriet Westcott shared an image of her overwhelming 7-day electronic calendar:

Harriet included thinking time in the above version of her calendar to show the invasive nature of teaching-intensive work, and made herself vulnerable by sharing times she felt like she was failing. Her dilemma:

How to achieve a coherent professional identity and emotional balance (professionally and personally) whilst striving to teach to a high standard, and to achieve the best possible learning outcomes for my students?

This is challenge for many academics, even without accounting for intensifiers such as sessional employment, single parenthood, grief or illness.

Scheduled time is vitally important to me as a 0.6 academic, and I want to improve how I manage it. As Ylijoki and Mäntylä (2003) point out:

What is also crucial in scheduled time is its accelerating pace. According to the academics interviewed, there are more and more externally imposed obligations, which have to be met on a shorter and shorter time span. As a consequence, working days become very long and fragmented. Furthermore, a lack of time and living constantly under time pressure characterizes the everyday reality in academic work.

Worth stating: like anxiety, I don’t believe the acceleration of academic work is an individual problem that can be managed with a more efficient calendar or to-do list. It is a systemic problem that requires collective work to change to the structure and organisation of higher education. Many of us are working on it in different ways, and I hope you are too.

Meanwhile, while my calendar for the year has some unfilled spaces, I am going to make space for slowness by:

  • scheduling time to: answer emails, do a 5 minute meditation, have lunch away from my desk
  • booking in things I consider important and find pleasurable: reading, writing, connecting with colleagues without an agenda
  • making space for thinking
  • leaving some time unscheduled.

What does your calendar look like?

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.

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?