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

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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.

Lost in thought

I love those moments while reading when the mind drifts, when the reader’s thoughts flow towards other ideas and become untethered from the text.

In The Pleasure of the Text (1975), French literary theorist Roland Barthes writes of the experience of reading: “[A text] produces, in me, the best pleasure if it manages to make itself heard indirectly; if, reading it, I am led to look up often, to listen to something else.” He refers to drifting, when the reader is “driven about by language’s illusions, seductions, and intimidations, like a cork on the waves” but chooses to “remain motionless, pivoting on the intractable bliss that binds me to the text (to the world)” (1975, p 18).

These inner reveries of drifting and returning to the text reveal something of the self. In this post, the drift of thoughts I had while reading Raewyn Connell’s The Good University are also revealing of what Barbara Grant calls my ‘tiny university’, one of a thousand possible versions of the university held individually and collectively.

In The Good University, Connell writes about the lies universities tell themselves. At least, that was how I remembered a section of the book. That’s the direction the drift had taken me. On rereading, the text was different. Recollecting the renowned 88 year old jacaranda tree in the quadrangle of the University of Sydney (a tree with its own wikipedia entry), Connell writes:

Around 2013 [the university’s corporate advertising] featured a tutorial or discussion group of students, sitting in a semi-circle on the grass in front to the jacaranda tree in full bloom, talking earnestly together in the bright Sydney sunshine. Marvellous image!

But the picture was lying to us. No class or discussion group is allowed to convene on the quadrangle lawn. It is therefore redundant to observe that jacarandas in Sydney bloom mainly in November, after tutorials are over. The tree died in 2016.

This is a small example, which I noticed because I was fond of that tree. The point is, this kind of falsification has become routine. Every managerial university now puts out a cloud of imagery, text and sound intended to misrepresent the way the way things really are.

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Image source.

I  considered the lies universities tell in advertisements to be one version of a thousand tiny universities (some admittedly less tiny than others). I connected these marketised visions of the university with artists’ representations of buildings under construction, the utopian visions that occupy an imaginary landscape of a university and the people within it:

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Image source.

For Connell, the marketing reads as falsehood or deception. I was thinking imaginary. In my tiny university, I was holding the utopian image alongside a counter-image. The jacaranda tree is simultaneously alive and dead. The campus hub will be better than before, after it is worse than before:

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Image source.

Image source.

I started thinking about our complicity with the stories universities tell. And I think Connell captures that with her comment ‘Marvellous image!’ In the final chapter, Connell offers the following criteria for a good university: democratic, engaged, truthful, creative, and sustainable. Interestingly, these values are espoused by institutions around the world: social justice, academic integrity, innovation, shared governance, equity, student engagement, scholarship, and building better futures.

There is a tangle of thoughts here: where is the truth? Who is telling lies? Can goodness be used for bad? Or vice versa?

My son has recently watched the three original Star Wars movies, and is very taken with Darth Vader’s redemption. We are having lengthy conversations about Darth Vader’s goodness.  He’s for, I’m against. Before I can think too long about what my stance on Darth Vader suggests for universities, the drift has taken me into different waters.

If you keep reading Roland Barthes, he writes this about drift: “Drifting occurs whenever social language, the sociolect, fails me … Thus another name for drifting would be the Intractable—or perhaps, even: Stupidity” (1975, p 19).

Slow academia: a panel discussion

This week I listened to the recording of a Slow Academia panel I participated in earlier this year. It was organised by Demelza Marlin for higher degree research students and early career academics, and I was on a panel alongside Andrew Dunstall, an academic from Philosophy “who surfs casual contracts from semester to semester and tries to write research articles in his spare time”, and sociologist Michelle Jamieson, who is currently HDR Learning Advisor in Arts.

Our talking points included the following challenging questions:

What does slow academia offer beyond a darn good critique of the corporate logic of the modern university? Does the vocabulary of slowness offer us a way to re-value forms of academic labour that are currently under-valued (spending time with students, cultivating scholarly communities, spending time in thought)? What is at stake for HDRs, ECRs and casual staff in going against the grain and opting to produce less? Is that what slowness is ultimately about? How do you incorporate it into your working routines?

Here is a link to the 90 minute recording and Demelza’s slides are available separately: An introduction to slow academia.

Listening to an audio recording isn’t my favourite way to experience something I’ve missed (in this recording questions from the audience are especially difficult to hear, and there are some quiet gaps), so here are some of the highlights.

From Demelza Marlin:

  • Demelza described “time sickness” or “time poverty” in academia, a culture of speed, quantified academia, productivity and time management, anxiety, and fragmented time
  • Because the audience was predominantly higher degree research students, Demelza spent some time talking about the push towards “fast PhDs”. At its extreme, there is an organisation that promises to “support” you to complete a PhD in 3 months!
  • Demelza describes time management strategies in relation to Max Weber’s work: “idleness is a sin, leisure is important only in that it restores you for the working day”. “We are invited to think in utilitarian terms about our leisure as well as our work”
  • She shared this gem of university marketing “Never stand still” and, tongue in cheek, encouraged us to try never standing still and see what that experience feels like

From Michelle Jamieson:

  • As an academic learning advisor for research candidates in Arts, Michelle sees students under pressure to complete a PhD in three years: distracted, pulled in multiple directions, loss of wellbeing, less pleasure in research
  • Tries to achieve time at work that does not feel pressured or measured by not focusing on productivity, but on enjoying what she is doing
  • Michelle is running a workshop series on mindfulness for researchers, including regular meditations (I am keen to attend some of these sessions, so I hope they continue next year).

From Andrew Dunstall:

  • No allegiance to any slow movement, “I am just slow”
  • Asks: What has to change in institutions to ensure a future generation of researchers and to ensure high quality research and teaching?
  • Maintain your body if you want to be an effective researcher: be active, eat well
  • Identify your own expectations and beliefs that put pressure on (e.g. as a PhD candidate thinking “I want my articles to become classics that are read in 100 years” is too ambitious).

From me:

  • Being a slow academic is a consequence of my experiences as a PhD candidate with a sick baby; that  was my pressure cooker
  • Slow academia should not be individual, it requires collective institutional and sectoral focus on the politics and cultures of higher education
  • I recommended ImaginePhD, an online career planning tool for humanities and social sciences

From 50 minutes on, we had questions from the audience, which covered:

  • daydreaming, reflexive freedom and timeless time
  • the need for students to have time to make mistakes and experience failure
  • writing and research practices and the motivation of stress and deadlines (I recommended Helen Sword’s Air and Light and Time and Space)
  • academic activism, the importance of union membership, and leadership roles
  • the opportunities and limitations of working part-time
  • non-linear conceptions of time (e.g. Aboriginal experiences of time circles, eternity now).

Lots of food for thought! For the time being, here’s Demelza’s summing up of slow academia using Seeber and Berg’s The Slow Professor:

Slowness is not just a critique, it also offers an alternative, a different model for academia … The slow movement advocates a shift in our practice and our public discourse and our relationship to work. This gives meaning to thinking about scholarship as community (not competition), to periods of rest, and understanding that research [has] rhythms that include pauses and periods that may seem unproductive. It allows us to shift from worrying about the annual report to thinking about what is sustainable in the long haul.