Calling it out

Many academics in their 50s might feel that they’re not ready to retire yet – but should they be forced out early? Well, of course, not all of them should.

Anonymous, ‘Should Older Academics Be Forced To Retire?‘,  The Thesis Whisperer

Bullshit. Is this really the world we choose to live in? Is this a system that works?

John Warner, ‘Calling BS … BS‘, Inside Higher Education

I’m a fan of The Thesis Whisperer (“just like the horse whisperer—but with more pages”), Inger Mewburn’s pathmaking PhD student support blog. It has a deservedly wide and international following, and it’s a model for other Australian group blogs, including the excellent Research Whisperer (“just like the Thesis Whisperer—but with more money”). For all these reasons TW hosts a serious critical conversation about Australian higher education, while also offering practical, encouraging advice for those who believe it’s not time to call bullshit on higher education.

So it says something about the state of things that TW’s anonymous contributor today dug up higher education’s zombie question: are unproductive older academics refusing to make way for the next generation? Unfortunately, couching this in sweeping generational terms scooped up those who are at least 15 years from retirement age, and ended up with this:

I can’t understand those over 50’s who hang on when they are clearly hating the way academia has changed.

They were lucky to live through an age when it was possible to have aspirations for an academic career and have a reasonable chance of fulfilling their dreams. And now they get a second bite at the cherry! They have great pension arrangements which means they have the opportunity to spend the next 20-30 years in relative comfort.

Early retirement might give some of these world weary academics a chance to discover who they are, apart from their academic identity. Imagine all that time, just enjoy being alive, healthy and prosperous? So few people in the world have that opportunity.

Touching as this is, it completely ignores weary academics with dependent families, or a backstory of contract employment and patchy superannuation contributions, or who just took out their first mortgage in their 50s. Is this really too hard to imagine? And the problem is that if you start like this, you end up with this kind of comment:

And we all know successful senior academics (again of any age, but let’s face it predominantly older than 40) who do nothing except the bare minimum they can get away with and resent any thing new and even seem to take pride in being techno-phobic.

Yikes.

Despite the fact that I should be reaching for my secateurs, I’m a specialist online educator, surrounded by academics of all ages who embrace, object to, experiment with and loathe technology—sometimes all on the same day. From close reading of global higher education literature, policy, reports, statistics and the endless blither coming at us from the tech sector, I don’t think it helps to reduce higher education’s problems to “we all know” and “let’s face it”.  It’s just not that simple.

The problems we are facing are structural, entrenched and worsening, and not the consequence of anyone’s underwork. So even if you know a senior academic sauntering to retirement, they’re not the reason there aren’t enough jobs to go around, and they’re not holding back anyone’s promotion. Resenting academics who have better superannuation or were hired at a different time is like resenting someone who bought a beach house before prices went up.

The twin problems corroding university work—for those that have it and those that want it—are underemployment and overwork. Just as in the northern hemisphere, Australian universities have discovered that the risk of market volatility can be moderated by the use of flexible, short-term seasonal hiring, and they’re using it to keep the business open. The only question that concerns them is how much casualisation an institution can bear before there’s some pushback on student satisfaction or quality assurance metrics.

So the rapid expansion of academic casualisation isn’t some kind of stalled wait line for the career escalator, that will resume its normal function once the bodies blocking it have been removed. It signals a more profound and unfixable market failure: like the US, Australia has failed to deliver on promises made to PhD students when they were enrolling. So anyone who’s pitching intergenerational change as a lure to PhD recruitment is selling a part-share in a unicorn. Academics in their early fifties are still picking up their kids from primary school.

This leaves the question of unproductive academics. Shouldn’t they be forced to give up their seat for someone who would appreciate it? This seems more reasonable, and even the defenders of the zimmer frame generation pause at this point. Why yes, productivity.

What if we had 360 degree feedback with academics – getting input from their students as to their performance? What if all academics had performance metrics and were accountable to their students to retain their positions? I think you would find that those academics who felt the pressure to actually perform, keep up with technology and be accountable would leave on their own accord.

Now we really have both feet in the quicksand.

First of all, academics are already measured, surveyed, evaluated and reported on. Research support and leave is already being withheld from anyone not measuring up. Institutions already have productivity management processes, and they are already being used. We don’t have tenure in Australia; academic jobs can be lost through performance management, and without fault through restructure and redundancy. If you don’t think your institution is moving fast enough to use these measures against your senior colleagues, go for it. But as John Warner asks in his terrific essay, is this really the workplace we choose to build? And do we trust that its instruments are true?

Productivity is a weak measure of contribution to the overall work of an academic institution because it focuses so narrowly on one part of the institutional portfolio, and measures by outputs. So it excludes all the collegial processes essential to the institution’s survival, including governance activities, professional service, mentoring, participating in networks, and professional development; and it overlooks the impact of structural change requiring more inputs for the same outcome. If you’re suddenly leading larger teaching teams, preparing more website content,  filling out more forms to meet internal and external QA requirements, keeping more complex records to meet separate audit requirements, and taking longer to drain your email sump, none of this will amount to an increase in your productivity–just a decrease in your available time.

But it gets worse. Productivity as a faith system is inseparable from the operations of the paywalled academic journal publishing industry and its enclosure of publicly funded research inside a privileged domain. So it’s one of the most corrupting pressures placed on the public mission of universities and the values of those who choose to work in them. Should it be the means by which we measure each other as well? In May this year, Melonie Fullick wrote a critical analysis of productivity in higher education that’s worth reading in full.

The concern about time and “production” can be internalized to the point where we strive to find ways of making our progress visible. But for much of what we do, this may not be possible.

If academic work is about knowledge, and we come to apply the concept of “productivity” to this work without questioning the implications, then what are we saying about how knowledge happens – and the nature of knowledge itself? The epistemological question flows from the question of governance. If we govern universities on the same terms that we manage factories, we change our relationship to knowledge and also the nature of what we “know”.

Parallel to this, Richard Hall has been writing all year about the increasingly fraught relationship between the managerialist ideal of the quantified academic self and the operation of the university as an anxiety machine. He looks closely as an expert educational technologist at what lies behind the recruitment of technology to help capitalism come to terms with the diminishing productivity (in other words, profitability) of human labour. It’s a grim picture, painted by a pathologically successful senior academic, of the consequences of our complete capitulation to the logic of overwork.

We won’t address these deep and damaging structural inequities within higher education work by using its most broken instruments to surveil and rebuke each other—this is complicity with bullshit, and it won’t change a thing.

For G.M. and R.C.

 

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Because work

At this time of year, many of us are dreaming of lying on a quiet beach under a palm tree … . Instead, we are more likely to be watching the sun shine down from behind the office window, while staring obsessively at our computer screens and becoming consumed by our overflowing inboxes.

It seems that Australia isn’t the laidback nation it’s perceived to be.

Aussies: reluctant to take annual leave, Big Fish Global Consulting Group, back in 2012

Summertime in Australia, and the sharks are tweeting.

When I first came here in the mid 1990s, Australian universities still operated like the television industry in the expectation that everyone went on holiday for the whole of January. Academics didn’t need to book leave; under the terms of a “deeming provision” in the employment agreement, it could be taken for granted that we were all at the beach because that’s what January means in Australian culture. So the legal fiction of annual leave could be maintained without much admin overhead, while the actual practice of leaving work and doing something else with your time was gradually being washed out to sea by sector-wide changes to the way universities operated in the summer period.

Realistically academics have always used January to write, setting up exactly the conditions for other kinds of work bleeding into their personal time. But now there are more and more administrative deadlines, including those related to grant-getting and grant-acquitting, that require a more routine kind of work through January. It’s also peak hunting season for potential undergraduates who have better or worse than expected high school results.  And the ferris wheels of shared governance all started to turn at the beginning of the month, even if some academics might still be choosing to protect themselves from knowing how any of these work.

So Australian universities now recognise that if they need to stay open for business all year, then the deeming provision that writes everyone’s leave off in January is fraudulent to the point of risk. Even though some of the cultural expectations about January still apply, the practical change is that academics now get to apply for annual leave, which means that someone has to approve it, and then the whole system spends the rest of the year auditing, worrying and auto-generating emails about the fact that what we have here is a burned-out profession sitting on a huge stockpile of untaken time away from work.

To this extent, despite the popular caricature that we barely show up at all, academics turn out to be pretty much the same as any other salaried workers in a churning economy, with Australia coming fifth in 2012 in a global survey on “holiday deprivation in developed nations“:

According to the survey, we are only taking fifteen of our twenty entitled annual leave days. Therefore we’re waving goodbye to a whole working weeks’ worth of holidays. As a nation, this leaves us with over 118 million days of annual leave stockpiled; or in other words: 350,000 years of holidays and $33.3 billion in wages.

Although 70% of annual leave stockpilers acknowledge that taking time off to recharge does wonders for your work/life balance, many also say that personal or work-related barriers are holding them back. Concerns regarding money, failure to plan, deliberately saving for emergencies or not being able to coordinate leave with a partner’s availability were cited as major reasons for not taking leave. A further 57% of stockpilers blame work-related barriers for their inability to take holidays, including; separation anxiety from work, lack of cover, negative reactions from employers and difficulties of being granted leave in the first place.

So there’s that. But let’s look at this another way.

Paid leave is the privilege of a minority of those who actually teach in universities. It’s part of the package of privileges that come with salaried, permanent academic employment, including sick leave, carers leave, bereavement leave, sabbaticals, paid leave for long service, superannuation, access to retention and attraction bonuses, access to research grant funding etc. But wait, there’s more: a permanent salary also underwrites your credit standing in relation to other middle-class institutions (banks, real estate), gives you a professional identity, and sustains a general ability to plan for your future. So even where it doesn’t come with healthcare, a salaried job is the golden ticket in an economy characterised by precarity, underemployment, unemployment, and the vast shadow economy of informal work.

In Australia, the compensation for being excluded from the privilege of security is a loading that nominally treats casual academics as self-managed contractors who fund their own entitlements. On paper, this looks OK. But while we still systematically underestimate how long the institution’s teaching work actually takes to get done—because the same calculations feed into the very, very sensitive matter of staff-student ratios—then we not only reduce their hourly rate, but also drag down with it the significance and real value of their compensatory loading.

There are two problems here. One is that we still base most measures of teaching work not on outputs but on the fiction of the contact hour, which is recognised as not quite belonging to the temporality of corporeal life but to some weird metonymic calculation where the hour in front of a class implies the other hours required to enable that contact hour to happen. Only the contact hour is measured in the tick of a regular clock and the others are calculated according to a piecework formula which amounts to however long a piece of string happens to be. It’s a mess, because it’s a gross effort to discipline 21st century university work, which is asynchronous, virtual, global and multitasked, in the name of 14th century scholarly practices.

The second problem is that the variables in how long teaching actually takes are among the most politically sensitive in higher education. Topicality and currency of teaching materials, building and equipment maintenance, variability in student preparedness, professional development for teachers, health and accessibility considerations—these are all topics that make higher education institutions wince because they’re in the cost planning side of the strategy. This is the bit the institution uses to try to manage the risk of volatility on the revenue side as students and families weigh up the prospect of college debt v. college premium. So institutions underinvest a little bit in all these things, and try to calculate how much they can save without introducing reputational risk, which is of course risk to revenue. That’s how both salaried and hourly paid academics end up having to contribute their own time to the enterprise, whether they’re supposed to be off the clock or off on leave, to cover this gap.

So thinking about the complexity of all this, here’s a New Year message to our colleagues in edtech.  As you’re making your 2014 to-do list, please make sure that you’re really well informed about the labour market conditions in the sector you’re promising to disrupt. We’ve had two years of listening to you about the democratisation of student access to education, and the efficacy of student management; now let’s hear your thoughts on improving the human experience of work in higher education—and not just for the handful of mostly male tenured celebrities at top-tier US institutions you’re using to promote your brand.

Because until you really understand the rapid, serious deterioration of work in higher education, your chances of achieving sustainable change, the change that you want to be part of, are nil.

 

Health update: Thanks so much to everyone who’s written and asked, brought meals for us, and hung out our washing. Recovery was quite tough this time because of a second general anaesthetic quickly following the first, but I’m up and about, and waiting for results from the second surgery at the end of this week, before moving to the next stage of this thing. I heard Shane Warne say yesterday that the Australian cricket team is essential to the idea of Australian culture, and I can see why he thinks that, but for me it’s Medicare. Australian public hospitals and the people who work in them are facing the same underfunding and casualisation as us, the same mad search for efficiency, but as Mary-Helen Ward pointed out to me this week, what they deal with is beyond comparison.

Visions always belong to someone

The awkwardly titled Bill of Rights and Principles for Learning in a Digital Age that was released this week has generated a ton of coverage, which is interesting given its niche provenance. An apostolic group of North American educational stakeholders, including some very high profile names, got together and co-authored a fairly wordy document about the values and entitlements that we might protect in the name of online learners.

What I’ve found useful is that most of the people involved in it have been very open about how it happened. Here’s Sean Michael Morris, for example, quoting the email from Sebastian Thrun that got the group together:

Just had a crazy idea. What if we got the 8-10 most interesting people
together for – say – 3 days, to dive into online pedagogy. The goal
would be to brainstorm about this, and exchange experiences. Perhaps
develop a master plan? No NDAs, no proprietary information – just for
the goods of humanity.

I think for me this crystallises the discomfort I feel when I read the document (and I’ve read it over and over). International online pedagogy is neither radical, disruptive, nor new. Neither is learner-centred pedagogy.  We do this all day long, where I’m from.  Sometimes we fail, and when we do, students let us know. So we don’t need a master plan for all this because we didn’t just invent it.  When we work online from an institutional base, we’re already accountable to a whole library of strategic plans, standards, instruments for measuring standards.

Over the past 8 years I have been closely involved in writing both elearning strategic plans, and strategic plans for teaching and learning in general, and I can report with grim conviction that all of these are focused on ensuring the quality of the learner experience. They’re typically a bit less exciting than this document because they’re also institutionally obliged to be structured in terms of goals, targets, actions and measures. The main difference is that while institutional strategic planning tends to kick off with motherhood statements, most get written out again, because planning is inseparable from accountable reporting.

There’s a great deal to be critiqued about the fetish for accountability in higher education, and Rustichello’s post on this is the best thing I’ve ever read on the ruse of it all. But without some nod in the direction of accountability, all you have is vision, and no plan at all — let alone a master plan.

And in higher education, vision without a plan is exactly what you think it is: brand personality.

So it would be easy to walk past this moment, muttering.  It’s really too obvious to point out the cultural provenance of the plan, and Audrey Watters (who was in the room) has done a great job mapping out what and who was missing. Richard Hall has provided a powerful critique of the failure to acknowledge the power in play here. Everyone’s noticed the lack of a student voice. Advocates for adjuncts have questioned the lack of presence from feet-on-the-ground educators; and Jonathan Rees has pointed out the huge risk of advocating for disruption while losing sight of academic labour issues.

For me, there are two gaps. The first is a failure to understand or include what it takes for public education institutions to operate within the legislative constraints that are the ultimate protection for student rights, including student diversity. These can’t just be upturned because we want to, and to be honest, I don’t want to. There’s a whole lot wrong with higher education, but at some point we have to say that the work of making it possible is serious, complicated and driven by people who really mind about equity. (OK, I reserve judgment on marketing, but having sat in the room for hours and hours and hours with higher education policy makers, and listened to the way that they champion learners’ rights, I think we have to be very careful arguing that their diligence is entirely wrong-headed.)

The second is a failure to recognise that it’s going to take a whole lot more than a motherhood statement to deal with the emerging problem of missionary zeal in North American higher education circles. I am really so tired of hearing that MOOCs will parachute in global superstar professors to save the world’s unserved populations.

Here for example is Coursera’s Andrew Ng explaining to the Times Higher Ed how it will still be possible for the unserved to get access to paid certification that in the very same interview he is selling on the basis of its second rate status (because Coursera also have to protect the degree-awarding reputation of their elite partners):

“So if you’re a poor kid in Africa, and don’t have a credit card, we want you in the signature track anyway.

“This is about education, it is not about making money, and so if you can’t afford it we still want you to benefit from it. This is not the sort of decision that a normal company would make. But we are here to educate everyone.”

This is just so awful it makes my head spin.

So a master plan to save us from this, that didn’t include voices from Africa, China, India, Brazil from the outset, let alone from the indigenous cultures or speakers of the world’s fragile languages who are presently being crushed by the clear-felling juggernaut of digital English, can’t be what it claims on the tin.

It’s a small symposium of really interesting North American-based educators with relevant experience, values I mostly share, and good ideas. I’d have been entirely happy to read their account of how we might develop some modest, achievable pledges that online educators could make, just as many academics are quietly signing up to make their scholarly work open access on principle. But I wish they’d left it at that, because the idea that they’re planning for the rest of us isn’t just hubris, it’s exactly what’s currently causing cultural harm around the world.

Reading the coverage that this has been given, here’s what I keep coming back to: the inestimable Henry Giroux (just to show that I don’t have a problem with Americans), in his Border Crossings: Cultural Workers and The Politics of Education:

Visions always belong to someone, and to the degree that they translate into curricula and pedagogical practices, they not only denote a struggle over forms of political authority and orders of representation, but also weigh heavily in regulating the moral identities, collective voices and the futures of others.

And that’s why I can’t join a cheer squad for the idea that the fragile relationship between online educational opportunity and global cultural diversity is best served by a master plan from California.

Update: an earlier version of this post attributed entirely the wrong Henry. Apologies to both, and warm thanks to Tim McCormick for pointing this out so nicely.

With friends like these

Here’s a little grenade-with-the-pin-out that was rolled towards Australia’s university lecturers today by the Minister for Communications, Broadband, and the Digital Economy, Stephen Conroy.  Under the alarmist heading that Australian Universities Must Adapt, Senator Conroy popped this question:

“What is a lecture worth if the best lecturer in the world at MIT is online for free for all to access?”

Really—that’s it? After all we’ve heard about MOOCs revolutionising higher education, it comes down to this crude bit of cost-benefit analysis: why pay for the inferior local product when we can have the best in the world for nothing?  And why wouldn’t the best lecturer in the world be at MIT? Why would you think of slumming here in Australia, if you were the best lecturer in the world?

OK, call me a crank, but I have some questions. First of all, what’s the practical cost of a lecture to the consumer? Universities don’t just make this stuff up. Whether students pay up front or simply rack up loan debt, university teaching is funded and audited on measures that have installed seat time as the key unit in the value for money proposition. The credit value of a unit of study correlates directly and accountably to the amount of time we allocate to “contact”.

So the normal measure of a lecture’s worth isn’t the content or the teaching, but the simple tick of the clock. Typically a lecture is worth about an hour of contact, and it counts exactly the same for students who sit up the back on Facebook or listen to a lecture recording or are in the front row taking notes and asking questions at the end. It also costs the same whether the student earns an A or a C in the class: there are no cheap seats.

To this extent, lectures are like movies. Their ticket price is the same, but their production values vary in proportion to the budgets invested in them. Give your local lecturer an hour between meetings, grading, and administration to prepare a lecture, and you’re quite likely to get last year’s slides reheated. Give the same person time, resources and encouragement, and you’ll get a different outcome. (I really can’t believe we still have to explain this. I can’t think of any other industry that has such a magical sense of how stuff actually gets made, in real time, by real people.)

But give the MIT lecturer a serious production budget, lead-in time, a technical team, and even a specialist MOOC production designer, and you’ll get a high concept lecture that would make anyone look like the best in the world.

The thing is, though, that the “best lecturers in the world” don’t get that way by chance, talent or even personal charisma. They lecture well because they’re working in institutions that invest systematically in teaching. They’re using theatre technology that works, and they’re not running a simultaneous out-of-body conversation with themselves about the ninety two other things they have to get done that day. The work of preparing and giving lectures is treated as serious intellectual labour by their colleagues and their managers, and if they want to put aside time to read recent journal articles on the topic to make sure that their material is right up to date, this isn’t a practice that’s treated as a drain on their career progress.

So now they can make the world’s lectures, and we’ll download them and get our students to watch them because they’re at MIT, and we’re … not.

This isn’t the future at all, it’s absolutely business as usual in Australia. We accept at face value the proposition that the best is likely to be from somewhere else, and we adopt our typical strategy of content import and remixing. Visiting American students are often shocked to discover that Australians aren’t just adept at media piracy, but we’re pretty blithe about it. And it makes sense when you look at it: Australians downloading TV and movies from global torrents really are just creatively reworking the cultural logic of our entire television and cinema market, and now apparently our education system.

(In case anyone wonders how the story turns out, the next step is that we come to believe that we can’t produce anything as good as the imported material, ever, and so we stop funding it properly because we can’t fund it competitively, and after a while when Australians do insist on trying to make their own, we sidle away from them awkwardly.)

But wait, there’s more.  Stephen Conroy thinks giving away lecturing to MIT will free us up to do much more engaging things like “facilitating collaborative learning and discussion amongst students”. That does sound like tremendous fun, and I’m so glad someone’s thought to suggest it again, but before we all start chanting “Flip it! Flip it!”, let’s not forget that there’s a second brute calculation holding us back. We can’t easily convert the lecturing effort into tutorial time, which is where collaborative learning and discussion actually happens, because most of our tutorials are taught by casual academics, who are paid by the hour.  Freeing up a salaried lecturer who would otherwise be lecturing to 300 students for an hour typically creates the capacity to run a single tutorial, at best, for 20-30 of them. What happens to the rest?

So it’s not that we don’t want to facilitate collaborative learning and discussion, it’s just that we’re continually banging up against constraints imposed by the architecture of lecture theatres, the iron limits of casual teaching budgets, and workload management policies that will immediately and directly penalise anyone who develops content to be used by students as preparation for their collaborative learning opportunity (which doesn’t count as seat time), rather than given as a lecture (which does).

And yet Australian universities have plenty of the best lecturers in the world, who achieve miracles of lecturing grace every day. Because there are times that the best lecturer in the world is the one standing in front of you, who knows your name and asks how you’re doing, who listened to the same radio news as you on the way to work, who also got rained on walking in from the car park, who stays back to talk with you afterwards, and whose lecture helps you to see a bit more clearly how the world’s ideas and questions make sense in the context of where you are.

I’m not yet sure that MOOCs can do this for us.

All those in favour

It’s beginning to annoy me that every time I enter a committee room, I see the same faces, just as they see me.

Two things about this bother me.  First, as as proportion of the total workforce, there’s a really small number of academics who are willing to do this sort of backstage work. This is work that’s vital for a university to tick along, and in principle academics like the idea of sharing the governance, just to make sure our interests are represented.  But it’s quite a step from principle to practice, it seems.

And this is where the second thing comes in.  These are not the same faces on the university website, lauding our stellar reputation for this and that. We don’t applaud their breakthroughs, their excellence, their impact, their innovation, or even their tireless commitment to quality. Given our love of heroics generally, we seem pretty indifferent to the year round work they do to ensure we stay in step with our legislation, our budget, the goals we set for ourselves, and the whole blither of our strategic vision.

Here’s how this uneven bargain works out: for someone to enjoy the bling of a teaching award, presented at an occasion that has a string quartet, potted plants, waiters serving canapes, and the Vice Chancellor’s firm handshake, there has to be a teaching award committee. These people have to be sufficiently experienced, competent, credible and open-minded to judge teaching quality across the whole fruitbasket of the disciplines. But above all, each of them has to have made the decision that it’s meaningful and important in the context of their own careers that they contribute this time away from their research to develop and maintain good process for these awards. They’ll spend the year reflecting on feedback, making changes, updating policy, so that next year’s champions can make their sprint for the line in a timely fashion.  At which point it will be down to these unsung domestiques again, to find time to read, rank, and re-read the whole pile of applications.

Likewise human research ethics committees, without which a ton of research just wouldn’t happen.  Not to mention hiring committees, without which none of us would have jobs in the first place, or at least, we’d go back to hiring practices that look more like buying a round of drinks for your mates in the pub.

And while we’re at it, what about the committees that read and rank internal research grants that help new projects start up?  Or the student grievance committee?  Or the committee that confirms the award of higher degrees, without which there would be no PhDs crossing the stage on graduation day?  Or the committee whose job it is to keep track of the government’s whirling cloud of new ideas for sector-wide quality management? Or the committee that sits deep in the engine room ensuring that new courses conform to course rules in exactly the right way?  Or the committee who worries about trailing wires in the classroom? Or the committee who keeps the policy paintwork perpetually refreshed, which is up there with maintaining the paintwork on the Sydney Harbour Bridge for repetitive, unfinishable commitment to detail?

All of this work has the good effect of supporting individual academics either to progress in their careers or at least to avoid coming to grief.  So you might not know who your committee colleagues are, but here’s what I’ve observed about the ones where I work.  (Hint: they’re the ones trudging across the campus shouldering agenda papers the thickness of phone books.)

They’re practical, well-organised, and sympathetic. They’re very effective at raising critical issues, and keeping these on the agenda until some measurable action occurs. They’re talented researchers, and they produce careful, evidence-based arguments. They understand how the matter under consideration is framed by the other policy stuff because they looked it up before the meeting, so they don’t waste your time. They know the difference between targets, objectives, strategies, and goals.  They’re not strangers to Foucault’s critique of governmentality, but they can still get on with governance. They can amend a resolution and pass it in its amended form. They write beautifully. They’re funny, in a sort of dry, trench-humorous way.  They’re naturally curious, and they like working across the disciplines.  They know people outside the Faculty where they work. And they don’t roll their eyes at the mention of administration.

But above all, and this is the revolutionary bit in the current higher education context, they don’t do any of this because they think it looks good for them. Almost all of them have at some point been told that this is not how the career game is played, and they’ve kept doing it anyway.

So, two practical suggestions for adjusting the simple unfairness of the bargain.  First, we need to watch our language. Liz Bare at the Centre for the Study of Higher Education, at the University of Melbourne suggests that when we describe all tasks necessary to the survival of universities except research in the language of drudgery (in other words, when we talk about teaching “load” and administrative “burden”), we make it hard to develop an appreciation of why these opportunities might attract stellar thinkers.  Committee service needs some really simple PR, and university marketing departments—who love something new to spruik—need to get on the case.

Second, universities need to take committee work very seriously as a form of real, measurable and meaningful productivity at the enterprise level, and they need to take practical action  to reward and retain those who specialise in it.

Startling change of this nature needs broad consensus, for which there needs to be an enterprise-level incentive.  So how about this one?  Liz Bare thinks that sorting this out might have the additional benefit of addressing one of our other institutional problems, which is the weird one that the general public seem to think that universities are staffed by sad dreamers unreasonably shielded from the rigours of professional life.  Fixing this couldn’t be more urgent. Here’s her closing resolution:

Perhaps the time has come for a better articulation of what it means to be a professional academic, recognising that nowadays academic staff are required to do more than teach, research and undertake public service. … This may allow academic staff and the broader community to see their jobs as a totality, rather than a series of burdens that must be endured.

All those in favour?  Aye.

Birds in our sleeves

Underline everything, I’m a professional in my beloved white shirt
(The National, ‘Squalor Victoria’)

One of the troublespots of shared governance in higher education institutions is the tone to strike in corporate communication with students. Is there a business unit that can stalk them on Facebook without seeming creepy? Who should follow their tweets? What happens to the brand if they’re dissing us to their friends? We don’t even know how to communicate with them officially, given that we’re institutionally hooked on email and they’re … not. But the critical issue is that there’s no coherent corporate “we”, and if there’s one thing that really messes up the social marketing strategy, it’s that academics are also out there on Twitter, Facebook and the rest, and we’re not all so easy to keep on message.

Some of this is oddly like the confusion over dress codes in universities, that do as much as anything to show up that a university campus is really several different workplaces struggling to find a coherent sense of style. Staff at help desks dress and behave like any other bit of public sector bureaucracy, somewhere between the post office and the dole office: neat casual workwear.  More relaxed than the campus bank, say, but a step up from the bar staff.  Then there are workers in uniforms, maintaining the buildings and the grounds and serving food and blowing whistles in the sports centre. The IT staff wear shirts, but not ties. Way backstage are the policy people and administrative staff in on-the-up corporate wear, and somewhere above it all are executives in suits.

But out in the Faculties, things get a little wild.  Every day is mufti day, and the messages are breathtakingly mixed, from “This time last year I was still a grad student myself” to all of the efforts to dress up for intermittent dashes to the executive suite.  The beards and elbow patches have mostly gone, but outside the business Faculties, suits are still not common. Students pay close attention to this, and indeed have quite a bit to say about the way we dress, because most of them are working in environments with strong workplace dress codes, including uniforms. So they’re fascinated by what looks like an ad hoc approach to dressing for work across the organisation, and they’re not always sure how to read our particular professionalism, which is the basis of our credibility when talking to them about theirs.

For many academics, on the other hand, the opportunity to go year round without ironing is one of the remaining creative freedoms of the job, like political cartoons on the office door or working at home once in a while. For these modest gains, we continue to overlook the other fairly ordinary aspects of the job, including that most of us use all our holidays to do our research, and that even though we all work evenings and weekends, we’d be genuinely astonished if anyone thought this entitled us to time that might be repaid one day.

(From time to time we do hear of threats to put academics onto the software systems that monitor administrative staff time at work so that their overtime can be tracked and either paid or returned as flexi-time.  The assumption is that we’ll all be revealed lounging by the pool, as everyone knows that we’re not doing a full day’s work anyway, what with our scant face to face teaching hours and all.  Most academics in turn are horrified and imagine this imposition as something like Julian Assange’s electronic detention bracelet.  Isn’t this why we became academics—to avoid the whole 9 to 5 thing?  But I think it’s time to look more carefully at this option, as the laugh might well be on our side.)

Anyhow, it’s Ferdinand von Prondzynski who has prompted this thinking about whether what we wear is a student communications issue, as he’s been asking about dress codes in university settings. This was also on my mind, as two of us are off to a conference next week on social media in Australasian higher education which has “business attire” as its dress code. This seems to me symptomatic of the ways in which universities are struggling to figure out the “social” in social media. Are social media just another tool in the ongoing blither of marketing communications? Is business attire a sign of the creeping corporatisation of university life (and for more on this corporatisation plus a bit of Rage Against the Machine, read Richard Hall here)? Or are both part of what’s genuinely, awkwardly, contagiously social in our work, and precisely the way in which we exploit higher education as a platform to advocate for inclusion, diversity and justice?

Cormac O’Raifeartaigh, who has the rather striking job of explaining the “universe and its puzzles”, and seems on this basis to be as entitled as anyone to show up to work in whatever he likes, says this:

I’m always struck by how scruffy I look in those group photos at conferences. Perhaps scruffy is the wrong word – too casual is probably better. Simply put, the guy in T-shirt and creased jeans looks junior to everyone else, it just doesn’t look authoritative.

I wish I had developed the ironed shirt-and-tie wardrobe early in my career, it’s hard to change now. … I think I might have been taken a little more seriously, especially in Cambridge and Harvard, instead of being continually mistaken for a student!

At one level, I admit he’s right: plenty of our administrative colleagues do see our casual dressing at work as a sign that there’s something not quite right about us. It’s probably also true that this plays a part sustaining some of the stupider media stereotypes of university academics as out of touch with the real world.

But maybe there’s also something that we shouldn’t give up so easily about those birds in our sleeves that come with academic work—something about the values of creativity, contradiction, uncertainty and risk, that we’re also trying to pass on to students before they land with a thud on the baggage carousel of their future professional lives.

Way, way down in the weeds

A colleague sent me a link to the coverage of a “senior US intelligence official” describing Osama bin Laden as a micromanager, a news story that’s probably clogging up inboxes all around global higher ed at the moment. This was the bit that caught my eye:

“He was down in the weeds as far as best operatives, best targets, best timing.”

“Down in the weeds” is a phrase we don’t hear much in Australia. Language Log has put together a lovely inventory of its uses (in the related form “deep in the weeds” and the short version “weeded”), from politics to management to short-order restaurants, where it’s the language of the entirely overwhelmed. Continue reading