“Wider lessons”

There’s weeping. And then there’s anger.*

For a year, Richard Hall and I have been tracking the ways in which higher education has become an anxiety machine, fumbling our way through this together using the metaphors of cycling, hamster wheels, technologies of pressure, instruments of shame.

We’re not alone in thinking any of this. (See especially Melonie Fullick’s sustained critique of productivity from the perspective of mental health, the worm at the heart of academia’s vanity culture.) The rankings instruments that drive institutional competitiveness have harmonised with the individual will to compete and celebrate the results of winning, without ever calculating the human cost of not winning, and the entire structure is now doing this:

Put more simply: throw together a crowd of smart, driven individuals who’ve been rewarded throughout their entire lives for being ranked well, for being top of the class, and through a mixture of threat and reward you can coerce self-harming behaviour out of them to the extent that you can run a knowledge economy on the fumes of their freely given labour.

They will give you their health, their family time, the time they intended to spend on things that were ethically important to them, their creativity, their sleep. They will volunteer to give you all of this so that you can run your business on a shoestring, relative to what you intend to produce, so that you can be better than the business up the road. They will blame themselves if they can’t find enough of this borrowed time—other people’s borrowed time—to hand over to you.

Just wait while I send this email. Start without me. I’ll be along in a bit. Do you mind if I don’t come? 

They will do this at all levels of the career, even if you pay them by the hour at a real rate that disintegrates to something approaching casual retail work once you factor in all the things they’ll have to do on their own time to get the job done well. They will do this especially if they’re also trying to run alongside the speeding train that might represent their future career hopes.

Some days they will also drive each other for you. They will whisper about each other, and turn a blind eye to each other,  and not quite find the time to act on their own secret critical thinking about any of it. They will also surreptitiously maintain each other through care and coping practices and shrugs in the corridor and exchanged glances and raised eyebrows in meetings and Friday drinks that become chronic, secretive drinking problems so that they can get some rest without writing emails in their heads at 3am.

In fact, if you get the scarcity, intermittency and celebratory settings for occasional reward just right, then the toxic alchemy of hope and shame will diminish their capacity for solidarity, and they will keep the whole thing going for you, in the name of commitment, professional standards, the value of scholarship, academic freedom, the public good of educational equity.

But I love teaching. I love my students. I love my research. I love that I get to work from home on Fridays. And Saturdays. And Sundays.

Until they don’t. Until they can’t.

This week, an email is circulating that seems to have been organised to go out with a degree of aforethought, by a senior UK academic who has died after being put on performance management for not meeting extraordinarily demanding grant funding expectations. He was 51.

The university concerned are reviewing their procedures. They’re even having a think about “wider lessons” to be drawn from this unfortunate turn of events.

Is it about one bad manager, at one particularly bad university? Is it about the culture of one place, all by itself, some unique sinkhole of shame into which one life has fallen? Can that one university review its procedures and its management training, and encourage the rest of us to move on to the next bit of news?

As you were. Nothing to see here.

Here’s my thought. This is only how it will turn out if we all agree that this is an OK way for rankings impact to be seen as good.

An alternative is for us at a broad level of professional solidarity to perform some version of putting our bats out.

So what I will do is this. It’s a little personal pledge and I’m putting it here to remind me.

Whenever I hear the senior management of our university talk about rankings, competitiveness or performance I will tell someone about this case.

Whenever I hear our government say that Australia needs a more competitive university system, I promise to think about this person instead.

Whenever a colleague is being talked about in my hearing as unproductive, I will stop what I’m doing and remember that this person who worked in the same profession as me took the action that he did.

Whenever someone uses the word “deadwood” to describe something other than actually dead wood, I will ask them if they heard about what happened here.

That’s all we have. But if we agree to mind about this together, it really is not nothing.

Some days hope is really very difficult to sustain.

Update

UK blogger The Plashing Vole, a beautiful writer, also has now written about this.

Chris Parr has written about this for the Times Higher Education, and quotes in full the emails that were sent to and from the professor in this case. Nominally this finesses the situation to explain that the process was at the informal review stage prior to full performance management. But the full tragedy of university processes, their self-regarding justifications, and the practice of individual compliance with them is on the starkest display in this correspondence. There are no words.

* Update 2

Richard Hall has raised a question with me that I think is really important, that I’ve been thinking about all day too. It speaks to the issues also raised by public reaction to the deaths that have recently attracted so much attention in Ferguson, and in Australian cricket.

At the heart of these complicated moments, there are people much more directly and profoundly dealing with loss than any of us sitting on the bleachers with our heads in our hands.

There’s a strong case for appreciative restraint at these times. How would I want the feelings of my own family or friends to be taken into account if something like this happened to me? Because what academics all over the shop are saying is that we recognise these conditions and demands to be very widespread, and we recognise our own vulnerabilities in the face of them. So it could be me, because it could be any of us. (And in fact, for me this piece is also about colleagues I know and care about, whose careers have similarly been derailed in higher education’s currently brutalising audit culture.)

This is why for me it isn’t about only one place, one terrible loss, but it’s really about the institutional thinking and the individual going along with that together create the conditions under which productivity is narrowed to particular kinds of outputs, particular kinds of fundraising success only. This is thinking that I’ve been doing all year, about the kinds of harm that are experienced every day, by so many people in university culture as it is presently set up.

But there are people for whom this loss is personal, and I am not one of them. So all day what has worried me is that if this was my loved one’s name repeatedly being handled by strangers—however respectfully, with whatever level of concern or admiration—I might find that in itself very painful to live with. What happens to those who lost you in a private sense, when your name suddenly becomes talismanic to a much wider public?

Thinking this through I have for the moment redacted quite a bit what was written here. I have taken out the name of the person concerned because on reflection I think there’s something to be said for letting a person’s name belong first and foremost to the people closest to them. I have also corrected the too-hasty characterisation of the problem as research insufficiency when it’s more accurate to say that the issue involved unbelievably high threshold expectations for grant funding.

This bit of redacting relates to something non-Indigenous Australians like me have had the privilege of learning about from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, who have very strong cultural protocols against general use (especially by the media) of the name of someone who has passed. I’m not claiming kin with Aboriginal culture at all, or the same reasons for doing it. I’m just aware that this has always seemed to me like a gesture that could be made in other circumstances.

So I’ve rarely edited anything much on this blog after it’s gone out but I’ve substantially edited this one. And yet I am grateful actually to know the name of this person because I really am going to continue to mind.

— KB

39 thoughts on ““Wider lessons”

  1. Thanks Kate. Great piece. And after all the pressure it doesn’t even produce the best research in my view. In the Arts at least it doesn’t give people time to think, to mull, the space to make mistakes etc and so we get another rushed paper about something that has been said before and few people read.And prfessor Grimm.Loose ; loose.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think this is really important, Chris, that the effort to intensify university work has such predictable perverse outcomes: we overproduce content relative to the time capacity that we then have to take it in, reflect on it, make new stuff with it.

      The Australian film industry got itself into a similar situation back in in the early 80s. An idea to stimulate productivity so that the industry would become competitive (particularly with the United States) was rushed into existence. It used the taxation system as a source of revenue. The problem was that it depended on films finishing within the financial year, and created a perverse incentive to overproduce films of poor quality that no one went to see. So by acting as it should (driving up the rate of productivity) it actually drove down the capacity of the film industry as a whole to develop a reputation based on well-made things.

      As far as I can tell from my very amateurish reading of economic theory, this is what we mean by perverse incentive rather than perverse outcome. I suspect in higher education we may be dealing with both.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pondering the icthyus (sp?) in this

    I often wondered given the modern symbolic age of what role a badge or symbol played in this. Sussex University had all manner of student protests, and they chose yellow as their protest colour – which was clever as anyone with a post it note could show support – and post it notes did appear in windows all over campus.

    But then I wonder who wants to run the campaign, even if it is a campaign, or a cultural shift?

    Like

    1. This distinction between campaign and cultural shift is also really important I suspect. Many campaigns do end up with a ribbon or a commemorative day. Cricket really has gone all out, and I think that’s partly because cricket itself is a mesh of tiny superstitious and rituals. Theatre has them too. And sailors. And oh, hey, the whole of organised religion now we think about it.

      Rituals and symbols bind communities to a sense of their own strangeness. And up until now universities have contented themselves with the weird rituals of rank, title and the fantastic and often quite comical Harry Potterish nature of graduation itself: gowns and maces and mortar boards and all of it.

      But within the everyday practice of academic work I think we don’t know how to have rituals that sustain who we are because we’re not keen to understand ourselves as workers at all, so we displace the rituals that might give us a common sense of solidarity with gestures (citations, downloads, reputation coinage, impact factors, etc) that are really divisive because they’re based on (and are the basis of) everyday practice in a profession deliberately structured around the promise that competition is the magic tide that enables all boats to rise.

      Except the ones that sink.

      This is a great question Pat. You know you have such a knack of showing up with the question that dislodges the next thought from the heap. Thank you.

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      1. My other trait is I answer my own question.

        It is a request for a convention.

        Sometimes we do, because we did

        Cricket has enough of them – clapping centuries, Glenn McGrath’s 10 for, 87 and out etc. Most sports do – like the common law I guess we agree on morals and so on and the law changes on without much change until the law becomes absurd and then we ante up and move on.

        So the situation is absurd. Now what?

        I’d protest, but I am one of those pesky types

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    1. Hi Lily, welcome

      Two thoughts here. First, I think the spectre of the thousands and thousands with PhD and no secure employment is now one of the instruments of fear used to drive on those who have work. This is one of the most intractable breaches of solidarity: that we have taken so long to find the ground of common cause between those who have secure employment that has become so harmful to their health, and those who can’t secure employment at all.

      But much more important is the issue you raise: what about the real and significant impact on those people who did everything asked of them as PhD students and now discover that the academic labour market is so broken that they have little or no prospect of getting beyond a casual or zero-hours relationship to the sector in which they were encouraged to think there would be a career future?

      The other blog I work on, with a group really committed to this issue specifically, is actualcasuals.wordpress.com—please come join us.

      Kate

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Kate, I put the link to your blog on our university listserv, and the response has been very moving.
    thanks for your heartfelt entry. Thanks for your kind words too.

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  4. Will the event be livestreamed or recorded at all? You have such a great (and wide) range of speakers there.

    Also thank you for letting me know about what’s going on with the blog. I think the way that so many people are sharing around both this and the other things that have been written about the loss of this colleague of ours (all of ours, in the widest sense) is really a sign of our capacity as a global profession to address this coherently and collectively. There is very evidently a will to engage in protesting against audit culture in simple compassionate terms.

    Sometimes it’s just a relief to know that we really don’t find the idea of a line having been crossed all that difficult to figure out together.

    Part of the reason for hope I’m finding today is that there has been so little commentary or pushback of the “suck it up, privileged ones” kind that is so often directed at people who work in universities. There’s been a bit, but not much. So I think we’re even getting ourselves to think beyond the tired stereotypes of the lazy self-regarding tenured few.

    That seems like a big step forward.

    Lovely to meet you here Marc.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Yes, the plan is to both do a You Tube Live event as well as to record the presentations. I very much appreciated your meaning-making of the sad turn of event surrounding Stefan. Very lovely to meet you too. I see you follow my friend and colleague Dr. Alec Couros even!

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  6. Alec Couros is a model of an engaged scholar who has done amazing things for us who are up-and-comers.

    Kate – thanks for this. I just can’t fathom what happened to Stefan Grimm. Academia failed him, the UK higher education system failed him, and by extension, we all did. We need to move past the “publish so many articles, get so much money in grants”. But how? A structural change that needs to come, but how to achieve it?

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  7. Welcome Raul, so lovely to see you on this blog. Your presence on Twitter and your constancy in advocating for appreciation are so important.

    I think this is a complicated culture to change, but first we have to imagine that it’s possible. And to be honest, we’re being asked to imagine much bigger and more extraordinary transformations every day by Silicon Valley. So let’s advocate together for the changes we actually want to see.

    First I think we need to recover a sense of our capacity for collective action. Solidarity feels like an old-fashioned term, but it has such an important history in relation to justice, and maybe we need to sit with that a bit. We can’t deploy these terms naively, in the face of the immense contradictions of privilege that each of us embody differently. But we can make more spaces than we have done to discuss the interactions between privilege and solidarity, and recover a sense of education as activist in itself.

    Then I think we probably need to be more sustained and effective in our critique of output as a measure of work. To me, this is where Marc’s conference comes in. We can’t make much change so long as the whole thing is calculated only in such a ridiculous way. But we can keep speaking about this, and in a sense, we can have as an activist project the simple task of making it more visibly ridiculous. You do what now? You audit what?

    Finally, and this one might be tough, we need to catch ourselves in the everyday act of going along with it — just as we have as a profession tended to get better over time at trying to be less crudely racist, homophobic, sexist, ageist in our talk. Sometimes we fail at all of these things, sometimes all at once.

    But the one we let by without demur, typically, is hard to name but is perhaps “performatist”. Do we unconsciously accept that a measurably productive person is a better, smarter, more valuable kind of person than someone whose contribution is less visible to us?

    Perhaps this is the big thing we could do for colleagues who have been treated so poorly in the name of productivity: to take a more critical and reflective approach in our everyday talk, and instead to speak quietly against the practices that try to make productive and good mean the same thing.

    That’s going to require some courage. And significant political patience, things as they are.

    These are just my thoughts as they sit at the moment. I’d really like to know what others think.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much Kate. I have been trying to process this dreadful news for the last few days and your delicate post has really helped and no doubt countless others. There is so much I want to say about this but feel constrained by the wish to let this professor’s elegant and poignant email lead the charge amongst his peers. Let’s see what the response is from other ‘A-listed’ researchers.

      I did want to pick up on your point about solidarity though. I worked as an academic and conducted modest research though not in the stratosphere inhabited by the professor in this case. I worked in HE for 25 years (in a polytechnic that became a ‘new’ university, then in a college that merged with a non-Russell Group university). Over that period, I taught at all levels from HND through to PhD, managing Masters programmes.I came late to research but loved it, gaining modest EU and other grant funding, contributing to a highly rated RAE 2008 submission in my subject area – and writing, reviewing, editing – how I love that.

      In that mixed portfolio of activities, in a changing economic and HE context, I had plenty of opportunity to observe how institutions respond in their striving to attract students, research funding, good National Student Surveys ratings, research assessment rankings, university league tables. As you say, the new managerial response is more performatism. But the performatism and ‘counting’ is not restricted to professors – it’s applied to all areas of academic work: research, teaching, project and dissertation supervision, student support, course management and the raft of activities that try to attract students, sponsors and communities in the complex.

      The reality of this in the work of keeping the HE ship afloat can pit colleagues against each other as overall workloads increase, full-time positions are lost and work is outsourced to casualised staff, to partner colleges and even commercial providers. It’s middle-ranking academics not senior managers who have to work on a daily basis with people on hourly-paid contracts, trying to juggle expectations of these staff and the students they teach, conscious of full-time privilege vs part-time insecurity. I would love to see increased solidarity manifest itself within institutions as well as between them. How would it be if this tragic death resulted in an increase in union membership, and more importantly solidarity and activism, across all academic roles?

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      1. I forgot to say that the performatism inflicted on staff reflects what is done to students and we should extend the solidarity to include them too.

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      2. Frances, so good to read your words. What stands for me is about what other “A list professors” now say and do.

        The blunt question: if you’re one of the ones selected for survival and especially approval by these metrics, how on earth can you now accept that as a good thing?

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  8. Yes, YES, and YES, KATE! I could not agree more with you. Thanks for your pithy articulation of the issue and the collective response required by us all.

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  9. Utterly grim (pun intended) and easy to see a system that is diabolically ingenious in its perpetuating design. I’m thinking of those times when you ask someone about work, project, etc and they sigh “It’s killing me.” For Grimm, literally.

    Reading his last email I find the inhumanity of his (scare quotes) “colleagues” beyond appalling.

    A faint glimmer is that this mode of behavior is not as easy to disguise, because it can be shared in this way I learned here of Professor Grimm’s tragedy. I had a small giddy moment because here in this blog, I see Kate, someone I know through writing/tweets (and hope to meet one day) talking to Marc Spooner, who I got to meet via Alec Couros on a road trip through Regina. It tickles me when I see people I know from different contexts in conversation.

    I would not have known of what happened to Stefan Grimm, and now it is part of me, and like Kate, I need to tell others.

    Thank you once again.

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    1. As far as I’m concerned you’re welcome to report on anything said here, but perhaps you could take into account the comment at the bottom of the post about the updates and changes that I’ve made, in respect of care of family and friends.

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  10. Dear Kate, and Frances and all

    A friend sent me the link to this and I read it earlier this morning. I am left feeling … not quite sure how to untangle the different bits of what I’m feeling. But it has prompted me to return to some thoughts and work being done by a group called the Participatory Geographies Research Group in the UK, with which I’ve been involved for some years. It includes academics and non-academics, anyone who wishes to be involved, and largely operates through a listserv (so can be international, though meetings largely limited to UK for the usual time/cost reasons).

    In 2012, PyGyRG had a meeting where issues of the increasingly neoliberal university were discussed. Out of it, we wrote, circulated and rewrote as collaboratively as we could manage a ‘communifesto’ to remind ourselves how we may resist, subvert, challenge exactly those pressures you outline and detail so well. We were invited to post this onto a site linked to a journal called Antipode, and received a series of invited critical responses, to which we then further developed our thinking. I wanted to forward you the links as part of any resistance is surely strengthened by building solidarities, as Frances mentions above: I know that I feel supported, more hopeful and positive in my academic position by being part of PyGyRG:

    ‘communifesto’ can be found at

    http://radicalantipode.files.wordpress.com/2012/10/communifesto-for-fuller-geographies.pdf

    And our response to responses (?!) at

    http://radicalantipode.files.wordpress.com/2012/12/pygyrg-reply.pdf

    NB the research group’s webpage has changed since these docs, if you’re interested it’s now http://www.pygyrg.co.uk .

    I’ve not come across your blog before, but will be checking back in. Sending very warmest wishes to all

    Kye

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    1. Well done you PyGyRG! Your reply lifted my day. I am retired now and not even in a union any more but I do feel that unions and other forms of solidarity are very important. I love the thought that people can align on issues without necessarily agreeing about the details of theory, methodology, blah blah
      If I thought I could help colleagues in work I might even rejoin the union.

      Like

    2. Kye, I’m sorry I’m late to respond, but I’m just so glad to have all these good resources collected here — thank you for sharing them.

      I’m particularly interested in your statement about feeling “supported, more hopeful and positive” as a result of building something different. This is a thought I took away from listening to Richard Hall’s professorial inaugural lecture earlier this year: that as scholars we have the capacity to do all of this on stilts, and to make something of all of this together.

      But to release ourselves to do this week we need really sustained and mutually supportive commitments to retrieving time from the academy as it currently constitutes itself. That’s an act of political courage, but also of political organisation.

      So models for political organisation among scholars who share ideas and ideals are really of practical use. Thank you.

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  11. I agree with Kate on redacting and letting the family and loved ones of the Professor be the ones owning his name. I do hope that we never forget, however, that he was a human being with a name, with scholarship many people respected, and whom the system at IC treated like a quantifiable, quantified commodity. I am lucky to work for an institution where they couldn’t really care less about whether I get grant money or not (obviously, if I want to hire RAs or pay Masters or PhDs, that’s something that I would need to get grant money for). But I want to reemphasize that in no way his contract had a particular level of grant money set. That metric came directly from the managerial bosses at IC. Let’s not ever forget that. THEY set informal rules that led directly to someone’s loss of life. That’s really, really scary.

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  12. Thanks for this thought provoking post Kate.
    I reference to it on FaceBook and started several conversation amongst academics from a friend at QUT in Brisbane. It seems this is also a similar issue in Australia.

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    1. Hi Ian

      Australia and the UK are in lockstep at the moment. The interesting thing is that we’re doing this out of shared envy of the relative philanthropic wealth and status of the elite US institutions that essentially buys their dominance of the ranking schemes, as well as some weird fear of the rise of competitor systems across Asia. It’s hard to know which is the more disturbing.

      But having subordinated ourselves for now to the values driven by global rankings (with very few exceptions), it seems we’ve really lost the capacity even to hold a conversation about collaboration in service of global public good.

      I’m writing this while watching climate negotiations floundering again. This is such a practical demonstration of the failure of nationally competitive productivity/growth strategies to take care of the planet we share. That for me is reason enough to be really sceptical of the targets universities are currently cleaving to.

      Thanks for coming by.

      Kate

      Like

  13. Hi Kate. I wanted to get in touch, just wasn’t sure how, or which platform. Your beautiful piece moved me so much, and it has stayed with me over the months since Stefan’s death. Each day at work, I find another comment to challenge, or even, the caution to resist the impulse to join in the mobbing of some managers. What I’m working towards is a co-authored book on managerial discourse, audit culture, marketization etc in HE. I hope we dedicate it to Stefan. Yes, putting the bats out, so poignant, so appropriate. So please keep blogging, tweeting, challenging. You rock, you really do.

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  14. Goodness, thanks. And I’m really so glad you’re writing the book. A couple of us had a similar idea, to write something more formally and dedicated to Stefan Grimm. He is on my mind so much of the time. You’re always welcome to get in touch on email — the address is on the About page. Twitter also works.

    Like

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