Circus skills

What gets you into it is a love of books and idealising wisdom. What keeps you there is exhaustion and rank fear. … The academy has become the circus.

“annamac”, comment,  There Are No Academic Jobs and Getting a PhD Will Make You Into a Horrible Person, Slate magazine

I’ve been thinking about what it feels like to be working in a university at the moment, particularly one that’s focused on change. Change is an easy project to pursue, and it always feels good to be proposing to achieve it.

But there’s another conversation about change within universities, that has everything to do with Rebecca Schuman’s sad, important, strategically naive article in Slate on the US job market in the humanities. This is where I found “annamac”, generously sharing the journey she took from believing in university work as “a life devoted to finding the truth” to “the reality – petty rivalries, forced writing about nothing, unreasonable expectations, and the disregard of you as a thinker.”

How well do we support people to weather the changes that are occurring in universities, as well as the changes in their own hopes and expectations? Universities are filled with people who have good ideas about achieving small-scale change to their everyday work practices, that together really would make a difference, but who have no confidence that their ideas will be appreciated or encouraged. This leaves them with few options for changing the situation that they’re in, other than by leaving, and for this reason it discourages even self-reflection as a form of waste. Why reflect, when you aren’t entitled or empowered to act?

I’ve been thinking about this because I’m off to a professional development opportunity that has come at an awkward time, given my own ambivalence. Professional development is an expensive exercise for which the return on investment is an employee who has been developed to become a more useful part of the system in which they work, rather than someone who is more unconvinced.

Step one in this case has been to answer a survey on the values that I practice when I’m leading a team, which has generated a fancy visualisation. I’m happy to answer these generic psychometric questions, and I’m sure they’re based on compelling research, but they’re not the questions I’m asking myself. These have much more to do with the way my job fits into my overall values as a person, the way I live in my family and my community, and in particular the way that the irregular and unregulated nature of academic work means continually failing to be present with my children, who will be leaving home by the time I get to inbox zero.

There’s no other way to say it: just keeping up with an academic job means that I habitually shortchange the people that I really love, and I’ve made very little contribution to the community where I live, even on things that are important to me. Half a kilometre from my house is a community garden; right under my nose is a mountain of email, grading, a wildly overdue book contract and administration. Take a guess.

I’m not an exception in this. Looking around me I see colleagues figuring out how much work they can secretly do while their kids are watching TV, how many emails they can answer or papers they can grade at the soccer game, how many family occasions they can miss or somehow multitask, whether or not they really have time to go to the gym. Then there are quieter conversations about alcohol, fatigue, shame and depression.

I also hear colleagues celebrating the way that technology has made it easier for them to work “when it suits”, arranging with each other to “do this over the weekend on email”, without looking at the personal, health or community impact of “when it suits” meaning “all the time”. And community impact is one of the most insidious: how many university workers, trained at public cost, make good neighbours to the elderly, or give up whole weekends to volunteering?

It’s not just academic staff. The sense that something really needs to change about the way we work is increasingly shared by many administrative and professional colleagues who are getting stuck in rigidly defined career silos, hemmed in by performance planning, reporting obligations and timekeeping systems that actively prohibit their capacity to create change, except for the changes that were proposed as actions in the last strategic plan.

Students are also trudging through their enrolment without hope of being able to ask for change, other than by filling out the zillionth survey or feedback form. A while back I ran a workshop for first year students to reflect on the choice they had made to come to university, and the choice they were continuing to make by staying. As I expected, most had thought about quitting. What surprised me was that so many had actively prepared to leave, but had then stalled because they were more afraid of not graduating than they were of boredom, for which high school had prepared them exceptionally well. So instead of figuring out either how to change their lives by leaving, or change the university by staying, they were readying themselves to buckle down, converting curiosity and optimism into minimum-effort pragmatism.

These students were facing a dilemma I recognise. There’s a sustainable familiar situation that will persist if you do nothing, and there’s the potential to take risks and strike out for some kind of unknown. The familiarity of the sustainable situation weighs heavily, especially if others depend on you, but the devil-you-know calculation includes a hidden risk that the gradient you’re on will continue its subtle decline: the unhappy relationship becomes unbearable; the job that bores you starts to make you sick; disappointment hardens into bitterness and anger.

So where there was a simple problem that was external, now you’ve entered into a contractual relationship with the problem, and your decisions—even decisions to do nothing but plod on—are feeding it.

Universities that are serious about creating change and not just reacting to it could listen with a more open mind to the stories and experiences of their own employees and students who have ideas for changing the way we work. We so love to measure things; let’s measure how effectively we support those who come up with ideas for working differently—rather than just filtering them through preset beliefs about successful types and failures, or generic assumptions about the right remedies, offsets, or incentives to improve their performance.

(for C.B.)

And the best piece I’ve read on the original Slate article:

10 thoughts on “Circus skills

  1. First blog post of all that I subscribed to, that I have read through thoroughly, wholly, reflectively and connectedly. Why? Because I am the busy you describe, the multitasker you painted, and the family neglecter whose song you just sung…. (the student evaluation comment made me laugh cause I posted a GIF about this on my tumbler not long ago :http://phemieology.tumblr.com/post/44753918799/what-i-think-about-having-to-complete-course )
    And I read this from beginning to end, feeling like I actually have no words to share, simply that I lie on my stomach, in the grass and sun, head in hands, listen to you with my eyes close, and nodding along as you speak to my heart.

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  2. Thanks so much, this affirmative thought means a lot. I think there are many of us trying to reach across the kinds of divisions set up by traditional practices of measuring and sorting individuals through various kinds of incentive packages, so that we can speak up for the costs paid by our children, our families and our exhausted partners.

    What saddens me is how often we go along with the logic that competitive behaviour itself is virtuous, and sustains and justifies our sense of what makes our work valuable. Competitive grants, competitive grades, competitive applications for rewards and prizes. “The quality of applications this year was very competitive, and unfortunately … ”

    Ultimately I think this means we create a workplace that values very conservative measures of success and then we pass these values on to students through our grading systems that say, over and over, that the sacrifice is worth it if you win.

    But someone also, always, loses.

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  3. I’d been combing through the current spate of discontent-with-of-academia posts and articles, wondering when the MfD post would show up. Here’s a “leaving academia” interview with Sarah Kendizor, in case you missed it, http://fromphdtolife.com/2013/04/05/transition-q-a-sarah-kendzior/

    Also of note, the assorted machine grading laments are of a piece with discontent g. No seems to have noticed that TOEFL has been machine grading essays for years or that Pearson taking over the GED signal the same there. I also suspect that online adjuncts computer-enhance essay grading on the down-low ~ and probably have been for a while.

    The season of discontent is not just for adjuncts, grad students, unemployed graduates… it’s for everyone involved, the Willy Lomanization of higher. If not the Iceman, then who cometh? Robo-ed? Wondering, I still read academics happily posting about conferences and presentations, incidentally the least clicked through items on our FB page.

    Sidelined and watching from a front row seat, I feel relief at no longer being in either thick or thrall. I do overload but of my own choice and doing. Disentanglement is less complicated. I also got into it late, eyes open and few illusions.

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  4. I’m so interested in the connection you make between robo-grading and this issue—I also think they’re connected. And yes, it does often seem as though people are newly indignant about not-new issues.

    For me, trying to weather the season of discontent is complex. How to speak up about unbalanced ways of being, toxic practices, and the everyday evidence of harm to good people who really are at the end of their tether, while respecting that there are others who want to work in this profession, who have a kind of vocation to do it, and for whom the academy is still more cathedral than circus.

    I think I’ve been on the sidelines while trying to figure out what on earth we’re aiming to protect, and from what, and for whom. But I’m starting to get a sense that whatever universities do in the future, at the very least we can ask for working conditions that enable the people who work in them also to contribute to their communities, look after their elders, and get their washing done.

    Lovely to see you here, Vanessa.

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    1. I do come by regularly as well as getting new posts by email but do not always have time to comment or something to say.  On the subject od convergences and connections, have a look at this robo-writing project:  https://sites.google.com/site/mycourseraportfolio/

      ________________________________

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  5. It seems to me that one of the factors contributing to the status quo being maintained, is the fact that those most affected by the dysfunctional system, those most likely to speak out against it and advocate for positive change, are already spread so thinly that it is difficult for a campaign to gather momentum. So thanks for taking the time to reflect upon the issues and write this thoughtful piece. May the seeds you have sewn spring forth!

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  6. Thanks for posting this honest piece. It resonates with me, on the other side of the planet, if that’s any comfort. Naming the demons is a good start – knowing that a decision is being made to, say, grade, rather than go to the park – rather than just letting it happen, time and time again…

    On this topic, I really enjoyed Gawande, A. (2007). Better: a surgeon’s notes on performance, Profile, which is also quoted in Watson, D. (2009). The Question of Morale: Managing Happiness and Unhappiness in University Life. Both are good for reminding one about values and why some of that seemingly tedious work IS important and CAN BE life-changing for students.

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    1. Hello, sorry I’ve been slow to come back and thank you for the Gawande link. I’m also a fan — I really think his work on medical procedures (and “failure to rescue” in particular) has helped me think through some of the emotional complexity of being stuck. I think this is a moment for higher education to learn quickly from other similar sized enterprises, which is why Victoria Sweet’s book on working in end-of-the-line health care in the US has also been important (that’s in the following post, with a link.)

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