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.

When things aren’t slow

This post was prompted by my agreeing to take on a new leadership role with an estimated workload of one day a week. It was also triggered by a feeling of trepidation when a colleague asked what I was up to at the moment. I made a list of the things I am doing in July and August and collected the multiple notepads I had been working from (at work, in my handbag, and at home):

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I am excited about a lot of things on my to-do list. To name a few: the forthcoming issue of Australian Universities’ Review on activism and the academy; a peer review action research project; directing a growing undergraduate degree program; facilitating teaching inductions and workshops; conducting interviews for a history of the Academic Identities Conference; co-authoring papers on topics and with colleagues I care about; facilitating communities of practice for early career and teaching-focussed academics; and planning future research projects.

My challenge is to manage this busy period within part-time paid work hours.

Note I said ‘busy period’ — these strategies will not work if there is no end in sight. If your workload is unhealthy, unsustainable and unsupported, don’t struggle on alone. (I have made suggestions for finding like-minded souls before. Join a union. Also check if your university has a staff wellbeing program or counselling service).

Workloads in academia are not an individual problem. This recent Times Higher Ed article by Ruth Barcan makes the case for institutional responsibility for the “almost 40%” of academics who want to quit the sector. This figure is from a Times Higher Education’s 2016 University Workplace Survey. In my research with colleagues on aspiring and early career academics’ experiences at three Australian universities, the numbers were less alarming:

At the extreme, ECAs consider leaving academia. Of the participants, 16 (3%) stated this explicitly: ‘I want to get out of higher education and research as soon as possible’ and ‘I plan to leave academic at the end of my post-doc [because of] limited opportunities.’ Another 46 (9%) refer to moving into private or community sectors as an option: ‘I do not know whether I will stay in academia long term or move into industry.’ Others stated that they did not have career plans, with 57 (11%) respondents undecided about the future: ‘My career plans are fairly vague’ or ‘I will re-evaluate whether academic life is for me’ or ‘No fixed plan, but I would like to spend some time in academia at some stage.’ There were 89 (17%) blank responses to the question about career plans; by contrast, all 522 participants answered the questions about their ideal academic job.

This is a more telling result when the responses of women with caring responsibility for children are isolated. Of the 128 respondents in this category, 16 (12.5%) stated that they were considering leaving academia. That means everyone in our study who said ‘I want to leave, get out, or quit’ was a mother. (Ruth Barcan may not be surprised by this: 80% of the people who contacted her to discuss leaving academia were women). (Note we did not ask about leaving academia explicitly).

High workloads will be a familiar story for most of you. With thanks to colleagues who allowed me to think aloud (or vent) and offered solutions, I am using a range of strategies (and there is slow privilege at work here):

  • I am working an extra day a week from home. This is taking pressure off the feeling that I was volunteering my own time for work activities. I am spreading this load over a few days so it feels manageable and, for the short term, being flexible with my self-imposed rules about not working nights and weekends (I recommend Tseen Khoo’s post about working weekends);
  • I talked through my current projects and activities list with my manager and was supported to stop, delegate and defer some things. This is extremely helpful if you have a supportive manager, supervisor or mentor;
  • I revisited strategies for prioritising work: what three things do I need to achieve today? What is the relative importance and value of these tasks?;
  • I scheduled everything into my calendar (which looks a little crazy with multiple things listed simultaneously, but keeps tasks in one place);
  • I let people know they might have to wait, and I asked for extensions where possible (if you haven’t heard from me yet, my apologies);
  • I put a pause on agreeing to new commitments. Or at least I told myself I would do this. To be honest, it hasn’t gone well and I agreed to a speaking gig today — but if anyone asks, then tomorrow I am saying no!;
  • I am allocating time to task (not task to time) because time is finite but tasks are infinite (this advice from here). Sometimes I have to remind myself that near enough is good enough, done is better then perfect, and aiming for 80% is ok;
  • I am continuing to practice self-care — exercising every morning, eating good food, sleeping enough. And for wakeful nights, I find reading on the Kindle is a good distraction from thinking about work, and soon sends me back to sleep.
  • I will give myself a reward at the end of this busy period. I am taking a week off in September. It looks like this might clash with my university’s Staff Wellbeing week. I think this is a great initiative, but I might not be participating this year. I have to consider my wellbeing.

What strategies do you use to manage intense times at work? And how can you ensure there are less busy times ahead?

Planning and dreaming

I don’t consider myself a great planner. I often enjoy unintended outcomes more than the predetermined. I love the happy discoveries of serendipity (even the word is a joy). Here’s to creativity sparked by reading, unexpected calls for papers, conferences and conversations with colleagues!

A ResearchWhisperer post by Tseen Khoo earlier this year made me rethink planning:

The value in planning your research career isn’t in the actual plan. It doesn’t lie only – or even mainly – in achieving the amazing goals you’ve set for yourself. It’s in the process of research planning itself …

The research dream plan is the one that you’d talk about with your career mentor…

It can be extremely difficult to keep research dreams alive and on the radar when beset by the metrics-obsessed nature of contemporary academia. But to not have these research dreams is in itself a tragedy. As renowned author Diana Wynne Jones says, “it is better to aim for the moon and get halfway there than just to aim for the roof and get halfway upstairs.”

Linking planning to dreaming? I can do that. French philosopher Gaston Bachelard (1987) suggested that we can accomplish nothing against our dreams. He went so far as to say that neglecting dreams can result in annihilation. His example is an artisan working with clay who interweaves dreams and dexterity:

Take away the dreams and you stultify the worker.  Leave out the oneiric forces of work and you diminish, you annihilate the artisan.  Each labour has its oneirism, each material worked on contributes its inner reveries.

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Hold that thought: the importance of inner reveries, and the risk to the self if these are ignored.

Two things prompted this post.

First, today I gave a welcome address to undergraduate students thinking about career options beyond their discipline. This allowed me to share my first career plan (become a mermaid), my side hustle (operating rides and dressing as a hunchback at Luna Park) and my love of dressing up, travelling the world, reading and writing.

Second, last week I facilitated a planning session with early career academics, the first of a series of monthly meetings where we will do some planning (rather than just talking about it). I’ve been thinking about planning (as opposed to doing it) for a long time. I’ve read lots of resources on planning in this time: The balanced researcher, How (not) to get ahead in academia, and Time for research. These are all practical guides, full of tips and templates, but, while useful, they didn’t really tell me anything I didn’t already know.

Surviving and succeeding as an early career academic takes a different approach. It focusses on capabilities that are equally valuable in and beyond academia and at any career stage: resourcefulness, relational agency, resilience, respectfulness, rest and recreation. Its creator Kathryn Sutherland also has an impressive collection of other resources freely available. The questions it asks are an excellent tool for reflection:

Who are your academic kindred spirits – people who think similarly or are doing similar work – and how much contact do you have with them? How could you find more such people?

Who are your mentors, and in what areas of your work (research, teaching, social, cultural, etc)? How do you nurture these relationships?

How do you demonstrate care for your students? For your colleagues?

Against whose criteria do you measure your success, and how does this make you feel at work and at home?

Great ideas for future posts here! These questions make space for dreaming as a part of planning. As Tseen says in the ResearchWhisperer post above, keeping dreams alive in academia can be difficult. How do you avoid stultification and nourish your inner reveries?

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.

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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.