Seriously, Mister Jones

The good or bad faith with which power is exercised is irrelevant; raising the question on these terms will not be effective. Power cannot be shamed into limiting itself in this way. It seeks to limit us.

Jason Wilson,  “Moderation, speech and the strategy of silence”, Detritus

You know something’s happening/and it’s happening without you/yes it is/Mister Jones

Bob Dylan, “Ballad of a Thin Man”, this beautiful live version

I’ve been thinking a bit more about Steve Wheeler’s invitation to discuss whether jokes are a good way to promote discussion of serious topics, and I’m going to take him seriously for precisely one minute and add something to what I wrote yesterday.

Three reasons, all personal, why I wouldn’t make those jokes myself. First, since I’ve been writing about the relationship between illness and overwork, I’ve been contacted by people working in education from all over the map, all saying that they recognise in themselves or their colleagues some aspect of the neglect of self that this involves: the sense of panic, despair and exhaustion; the relationships stretched to snapping point; and sometimes full blown illness. They really do have their heads in their hands, like the photo Steve used of himself in his prank. And I have to say that those of us whose illness is physical, especially of the kind that scares the underpants off everyone around us, fare much better in terms of other people’s cheap jokes than those who are wrestling (often in secret) with mental health. Because mental health still fuels the metaphors of everyday life. It’s ground right into the language of joking around, and I really can’t imagine how it feels to have to navigate this.

Secondly, at the end of last year, when I was still flapping about like a bird that has flown into a plate glass window with “cancer” etched on it, I came across Francesca Milliken, who was just at that moment starting her own blog about her daily experience of living with clinical depression in its most depleting extreme.  I’ve followed her writing ever since, and I’m really a huge fan, because of the clarity and courage with which she lays out what she’s here to say. And that’s why jokes about clinical depression can’t sit well with me, because when you say it, I see this person. And this one. And this one.  And this one.

Thirdly, I’ve followed Audrey Watters since I first started writing online, for her frankly indispensable service to education blogging. Through her and many other women tech writers or activists, I’ve learned that joking about online threats to bloggers truly doesn’t work for me either. Because:

So for these three reasons, it just doesn’t seem to me that there’s a serious issue on the planet that’s worth trivialising what other people have to live with, when we have instead an opportunity to care for each other, and to speak without clutter about the fact that the things in Steve Wheeler’s post are serious.

Should this cramp Steve Wheeler’s style?  No, of course not. I’m not his mother.

But I now realise that what troubled me about his prank goes a bit deeper; it connects to the very odd political culture in Australia at the moment. So I’ve been thinking back to Jason Wilson’s beautiful essay on the proposed repeal of the 18C provisions in Australia’s Racial Discrimination Act. These provisions set out that we have a high standard in Australia that makes it an offence to offend, insult or humiliate others on the basis of race. And now, with the considerable hubris of its thumping political majority, our new conservative Government is proposing that these amount to a sanction against “hurt feelings”—even though this suggestion has been robustly tested in law and found to be as daft as it sounds.

When I first read Jason’s essay last year, the bit that really stayed with me was this simple advice: power cannot be shamed into limiting itself.

It came back to me yesterday because it’s such a solid and intelligent caution against letting frustration be the compass to your reactions when dealing with conservative thought.  That’s one compass that will always be spinning, because it is in the very nature of privilege to be able to maintain a dizzying range of positions all at once.

And that’s exactly why privilege also cannot be shamed into recognising itself.

This is the painful lesson played out again and again in coordinated Twitter activism, for example. #notyourAsiansidekick, #CancelColbert, #destroythejoint: these campaigns build solidarity among the exhausted and frustrated, but rarely achieve reflection or change in the expression of privilege itself. In fact, mostly the opposite: they trigger a doubling down on the original whatever, often in the form of a patronising explanation of what was intended and how life woks, in case the sophisticated nature of privilege has somehow slipped by those who criticise its operation.

None of this is new, or personal. It’s the well established set of routines that continuously polish the dance floors on which privilege performs. When I read yesterday that Steve Wheeler, oddly enough choosing Bon Stewart’s own words from her comment on this blog, is prepared to “own the post and be accountable for it”, I found myself humming Bob Dylan.  And then suddenly I remembered a very old article by film theorist Laura Mulvey. In “You Don’t Know What You’re Doing, Do You, Mr Jones?” (1973), Mulvey riffed on the lyrics of “Ballad of a Thin Man” to rebuke a complicated pop art joke based on making the bodies of women into furniture — a joke that as it happens was recently reprised as some kind of racial satire, and then defended all over again. Because, you know, joke.

So none of this is new. It’s the platform from which conservative thought launches its banal, recurrent manifesto: the double-back-flip vision of privilege as victim. It’s how people for whom the dice of privilege have been loaded to win every game get to advise others to stay hopeful that this is not actually how things are. And this is how privilege continually serves up to others, as Tressie McMillan Cottom puts it in her outstanding essay on hope as the ruse of progressive thought, “the cornbread that turns to shit in your mouth.”

So this is how privilege gets to feel responsible, heroic, misunderstood, and sorry for itself, all at once.

And at the moment, for some quite weird reasons, we’re seeing this dredged up conservative woundedness all over the place—in politics, in corporate leadership, in entertainment, and online.

To me, both Jason Wilson and Tressie McMillan Cottom are right about the practical mechanics of it. Jason Wilson talks about the strengthening of power through “pantomimes of accountability”, in a way that matches up to Tressie McMillan Cottom’s description of the “solicitors of hopefulness” policing the same agenda. Never having to say you’re sorry means that the privileged continually get to define just how much they’re willing to share, how much accountability is just enough, how much hope will do.

But even though Mister Jones is all around us, in recurring multiples like Agent Smith, there are signs of change happening without him. There are people everywhere writing back, stepping up, and giving their own human time to indicate that they care for each other, and will risk their own convenience to make a stand. (Looking at you, Bill Ryan.) And of course, these include all the people who wrote in good faith to express concern about Steve Wheeler’s apparent disclosures of trouble, those who missed his joke, to whom I just want to say: don’t change a thing because you really are part of something good, and we’re all here with you.

So there’s every reason this morning for optimism because there are so many of us ready to say: enough, we’re done with this. The serious fault lines of privilege aren’t between one online writer and another, one educated blogger and another. They’re the daylight between all of us and the people whose lives are being trashed by the global economy, by environmental damage, by incarceration, by the staggering cruelty of refugee camps, by preventable disease, by both underemployment and overwork, and by the sense that there is nothing the powerful are prepared to do about this beyond snarking at each other for the win.

And the repeal of our Racial Discrimination Act is now actively in the public consultation phase. Australian readers, you can write in and say what you think.

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Walking and learning

A meandering reply of sorts to Mike Caulfield, after walking with eight year olds

In becoming a patient—being colonised as medical territory and becoming a spectator to your own drama—you lose yourself. First you may find that the lab results rather than your body’s responses are determining how you feel. Then, in the rush to treatment, you may lose your capacity to make choices, to decide how you want your body to be used. Finally, in the blandness of the medical setting, in its routines and their discipline, you may forget your tastes and preferences. Life turns to beige.

Arthur Frank, At the Will of the Body: reflections on illness

So I’m still thinking about why the experience of university work has made the transition to diagnostic evaluation quite a natural one for me.  Being an academic and being ill have a tremendous amount in common, it turns out.

The first time I was shown the software that calculates my life expectancy on the basis of the cancer markers I have—that’s driven by big data from the US because Australian data is touchingly too small a sample—among the whirl of WTF thoughts, I caught myself with this one: that looks exactly like the Moodle progress tracker bar chart.  The graphic representation of something like getting better matches the graphic representation of tasks completed in an online course for good reason: because we’re all trained to respond to incentivisation of our personal productivity, and we’re especially triggered into this by representation of deficit.  Look how badly you’re doing!  Do you need to talk to someone?

And of course, this then meshes in a particularly painful way with the culture of incentivisation in universities, so that someone looking at a fairly negative impression of her chances of living to retirement might find herself thinking: well, that’s not the first time I’ve appeared on the underperforming side of the chart.

My companion through all this is the very level headed Arthur Frank, Canadian sociologist and scholar of illness narrative. (His work was recommended to me by Richard Hall, to whom the hugest thanks for his continued activism on illness, productivity, technology and labour in universities.) Arthur Frank writes from the experience of heart attack followed by cancer and treatment, and he has helped me see how people who enter the discursive labyrinth of medical and diagnostic processing have a great deal in common with people whose labour is continuously subjected to output measurement.

Put simply, as a medical patient, you take a lot of tests.  Some of those tests show you to be failing.  Some earn you a little clap. Performance management of disease-as-failure is abrupt, brutal and often leaves very little room for you to make choices about how you would like to live and learn from the experience of being catapulted from the hamster wheel of work, social participation: just plain being a person.

And this isn’t only a metaphor. Universities themselves have so internalised the virtues of productivity that they can’t seem to help themselves with the cruelty of its application. Frank writes of his return to work after surgery and chemotherapy:

While I was in active treatment, the university where I work was most solicitous. … But as soon as treatment ended, the other institutional face appeared. Some of the same people now asked for the work I was supposed to have been doing. It didn’t count that I had been ill; in the annual assessment written about each faculty member, the time of my illness was described as showing a “lack of scholarly productivity.”

OK, if you’re an experienced university worker, did you really find this a surprising story?  I was talking about it yesterday to a colleague who came back from cancer surgery to find a “Dear Jane” email letting her know that due to her lack of scholarly productivity she had been deleted from a research group, presumably because she represented some kind of embarrassment to its illustriousness, or she might illegitimately consider herself the kind of person who could apply for a tiny crumb of funding.

This is how too many universities are working now, without a moment of self-reflection, because the rules of productivity are pervasive, and driven by the most powerful higher education decision-makers in our economy: government and business. And it’s not because people who are ill are treated this way that we have a problem, but because this is how everyone is treated: as a resource whose measure is its contribution to the institution’s competitive standing.

So, on this stony ground, what hope is there? This morning I read an extraordinary post by Mike Caulfield on the nature and scope of learning, and right in the middle of it he says: learning is not a thing, it’s a process of transition from one state to another, “like healing”.

But ultimately the only thing that truly holds  together ”learning to change a tire”, “learning how to think like a geographer”, “learning how to do long division”, “learning the importance of imaginary numbers”, and “learning to love again” is that all concern a change in capacity and behavior.

I haven’t come to quite the same conclusion that this means that teaching is like medicine, for obvious reasons, but I was thinking about this as I walked kids to school this morning. If you’ve ever watched 8 year olds walk a school route, you’ll know that their progress is circular, wandering, attentive and distracted all at the same time. They stop to pick things up. They run about in circles for a bit. They dawdle and notice things you miss. Adults and older children nag at them to do it properly, to pick up the pace and make orderly, timely, productive progress. There’s an implicit schedule which we think they should follow, so that everyone achieves the walking-to-school outcomes on time.

But suddenly I realised that what they’re doing is learning: they’re learning about their community by making tracks through it, remembering that yesterday there was a lizard here or a dropped bit of trash there. And this is exactly the point smart people like Patrick Masson and Mark Smithers have been quietly making about online learning and MOOCs: what really threatens the privilege of universities as regulators of approved learning is the internet itself, because this is where we all go to learn, to “make the path by walking”. (Update: I remembered Bon Stewart talking about this, and she has now helpfully reminded me where. It’s in a beautiful post on her blog, and she’s taking up a point from Horton and Friere.)

What MOOCs represent is a brand-driven effort to corral this massive, extraordinary, networked practice of wild, collaborative learning back from the open internet, and to return it to a stable, disciplined marketable state. That’s why MOOCs are disrupting precisely nothing about universities, nothing at all.  It’s why the rhetoric about MOOCs introducing unparalleled learning opportunities to out of the way places is such rubbish: learning isn’t something you deliver like a pizza. And it’s why the corporate brands (including your own university) have been so keen to silence the earlier history of rhizomatic learning that tossed up the MOOC acronym in the first place, so that now MOOC can mean anything you like so long as it advances your institutional brand in the international race for status.

But Mike Caulfield is absolutely right: learning isn’t a thing, and this is a very considerable source of hope for us all. Universities neither own it, nor have the capacity to manage its value in the market any more, except through the crudest and most destructive instruments. Their future is being changed, and the measure of a really good university in the future won’t be its standing in rankings, but its capacity to support and react to learning as an energising, self-directed practice, driven by curiosity and sustained by real, human time.

Just like healing.

Tangents: a learning conversation

Bon Stewart said it back in 2012: MOOCs are not disruptive in learning terms. Back then also Melonie Fullick was writing about education as something that couldn’t be bought and sold. In 2014 Jonathan Rees is walking the line on what’s coming in efficiency terms.  And if a manager near you is waving the Kool Aid flagon labelled “Drink Me for Flipped Classroom”, just have them read Jared Stein’s “Flipping Isn’t a Thing Apart“.  See, the internet: it’s a conversation among learners, with a memory. Crazy, isn’t it?

On impact

I know that there are people who actually enjoy sports but I never thought that there would be such a thing as a dodgeball enthusiast. Well, there isn’t really. There are just highly competitive people who use dodgeball to satisfy that need to win.

Dodgeball, an autobiography

When life is understood as a career, the resume becomes an extension of the body. Gaps in the resume are institutional stigmas. Since most of us have to work, it is hard for ill persons to resist accepting “productivity” as the measure of our worth.

Arthur Frank, At the Will of the Body: reflections on illness

Prayer flags
all the time in the world
(photo credit: Kate Bowles 2014)

Last week a colleague came to visit and asked, pretty forthrightly, “When this is over, and you know what you give a shit about, what will that be?”

It was the right time to ask the question. I’ve reached a point in this process that I think many people experiencing illness go through. After the truck-crash of diagnosis and surgery fades in intensity, and the long slog of treatment begins, recuperation involves moments where you stop and think, over and over: wait, what happened to my life?  It’s the first week of the Australian teaching year.  I’m reading emails about car parking and welcoming students and new colleagues. My friends are back at work.  And I am here at home, taking stock of surgery, chemotherapy and the long road up ahead.

Having cancer is like repeatedly walking into the middle of the room and forgetting why you came there. You can remember, more or less, what you were just doing moments before, but now you’re standing here: this is real. Only this has not yet explained itself, it doesn’t yet make sense. So you go back over what you were doing just before (“Remember we said we would, you know, before …”) and you try to rebuild some kind of hindsight identity working backwards from the moment of diagnosis, to what didn’t begin at that point, which is of course a way of not thinking about how it will end.

When did it start? How much of this challenging treatment is the consequence of that work-delayed diagnosis?  What future for me and those I love was decided in that year that I didn’t get checked out? These are the questions I’m trying not to ask physicians, because I truly don’t want to know the answers. I’m worried that knowing might compel me to send a career-limiting email about the very irritating tone of our university’s workplace wellness programs, that do absolutely nothing to address to the culture of academic overwork that cause people to miss health checks in the first place. (Global Corporate Challenge, I’m looking at you.  Your emails this week reminding me that it’s not too late for a fantastic burst of energy have been fantastically mistimed.)

But if there’s one thing I do now know, the question of “when this is over” can only refer to treatment, because cancer won’t be over. That’s not to dramatise my situation, but simply to say that a cancer diagnosis is a status change like becoming a parent. Even when your child moves out of home, even if your child dies, you are still a parent. That part never gets unmade.

So I’m returning to the question of how being a person with cancer might work, especially in the context of a fairly long time being a person who works in a university.  Conversations this week—including with Philip Nel who has a beautiful piece in Inside Higher Ed on why academics overwork—have made me think hard about what academic work and illness have in common, and why this matters. It’s not that academics are unique in overworking in the current economy, but that there are structural incentives to our overwork that are fairly peculiar, and they’re matched by our coping practices that on most days amount to a weird co-dependency with a system that can no longer afford to run itself. Nel’s covered most of them, in my view, but I just want to add one that I think is becoming very important.

We overwork because the current culture in universities is brutally and deliberately invested in shaming those who don’t compete effectively; as a correlative to this we are starting to value and promote to leadership roles people who really do believe in the dodgeball triumphalism of university rankings as a way of nurturing educational values and critical inquiry.

The cruelty of this shaming is that it passes itself off as supportive collegial celebration of the heroic few; it’s hard to call out precisely because it looks like a good thing. It’s rampant in internal messaging (newsletters, all staff emails) that continuously reinforce the institution’s strategic mission by high-fiving those who win the prizes. It’s the self-justifying logic of casualisation, creating a vast second-tier of precarious and under supported university work for those who don’t get the real jobs. And it’s the immense project of research quantification, that crowds out practices of thinking, collaborating, listening and sharing in the name of picking winners and hothousing them because ultimately they pay off.

Being shamed isn’t the result of failing or refusing to participate in this system; it’s the result of being willing to supply your labour to enable competitiveness to work at all. Because there have to be losers, for there to be people who win.  (As Cate Blanchett put it so beautifully, “the world is round, people.”) For the 20% of ARC Discovery successes to have career valency, there have to be a very large number of people who calculate that it’s still worth their time falling into the 80% who fail.  To understand why we go along with this, and trash our physical and mental health in the process, you really need to read the literature on why people buy lottery tickets, and how they understand their participation in something with such a tiny prospect of success.

So I was thinking about how this deficit-driven measurement of value at work prepared me so well for being the subject of medical diagnosis, when I read yesterday a thoughtful discussion of the current culture of rankings-driven professorial recruitment in Australia, and the way that universities recognise whether their staff have value or not. And this is how it started: “An academic once told Third Degree that a failed academic was one who retired as a senior lecturer. A successful lecturer would have at least made it to associate professor.”

I’m a senior lecturer. You do the math. The tenor of this comment, and presumably the discussions at the university executive strategic retreat described in the article, imply that if I had any kind of professional integrity at all, any scrap of loyalty to the stated goals of my institution, I’d be offering to step outside the tent and take some time coming back.

But actually, I find this very liberating. Whatever it is I’m going to find I care about, I do so with the considerable freedom of being marginal to the university’s sense of itself.

So on that note, here’s a thing I care about. This week we opened CASA, an online home for those affected by casualisation in Australian universities. My colleague in this is a cultural geographer, and we both care very much about practices of belonging and hospitality in higher education. So we made a home for people to come together, and think, and share ideas for how this situation could be made less scarring for all concerned. I care about giving my time to this, and from the response and support we’ve had, so do lots of other people. We haven’t won a competitive grant; we haven’t published in a top-ranked journal. But we care about impact, and in this case, the human impact of our dodgeball culture is something we’re ready to call out.

All are welcome to join.

A few good things

Philip Nel’s essay “In Search of Lost Time” in Inside Higher Ed is accompanied by further reading and links to the pieces he cites, on his own blog, including a piece that deserves to be read over and over: Miya Tokumitsu’s “In the name of love“, originally published in Jacobin Magazine in January.

His piece has been covered, from opposite ends of the academic work spectrum, by Overworked TA (“The underbelly of putting yourself last“) and Ferdinand von Prondzynski (“Recognizing hard work in higher education“).

Richard Hall has provided considerable extension to all of this today, in “On academic labour and plutonomy“.

Beyond a boundary

In baseball or football, the league lends stability to each team. Pro cycling, on the other hand, follows a more Darwinian model: teams are sponsored by big companies, and compete to get into big races. There are no assurances; sponsors can leave, races can refuse to allow teams. The result is a chain of perpetual nervousness: sponsors are nervous because they need results. Team directors are nervous because they need results. And riders are nervous because they need results to get a contract.

Tyler Hamilton and Daniel Coyle, The Secret Race, (2012 p 35)

For obvious reasons, I’ve been wondering why academics overwork. Most of us in Australia are governed by an enterprise agreement setting out what we can expect in return for a very humane 37.5 hours a week.  The minutiae of what we get in each round of bargaining is scrutinized, haggled over and voted on; the fantastical proposition that what we give — even in average — is a regular full time week is waved through.

Let’s stop and think about this for a moment.  Imagine that the university offered to pay salary X, but in any given pay week, multipliers applied to X on the basis of worker need in the moment. Imagine that your employer could hike up your rate of pay on demand like this, without any need for forward planning or budgetary calculations.  Oh, you need more cash this week?  Sure. How much more? 

Because this is exactly what university workers offer in return.  It’s Thursday and you need this report by Monday but I’m already in meetings or teaching all day Friday and grading on Saturday?  Sure, I can offer Sunday, would that do?  And of course, I’ll spend most of Saturday night thinking about it because I’ll be at a Christmas concert for my kids so I’ll have some mental calculation time and could check an updated version if you email it to me, provided I’m sitting up the back. So yes, we can meet on Monday and you’ll have your report, because I ride for the team. Obviously, if I wasn’t doing your report I’d be trying to meet a publication deadline, so I’ve already more or less paid my weekend up front anyway, as a downpayment on something or other. Don’t worry about the publication though, I’ll make that up next weekend.

The question of why we do this is important to me because I’m wondering how come I spent 12 months not finding time for a health check that would have significantly changed the situation I’m now in. It’s three weeks since I discovered I have breast cancer, that is not entirely not-advanced. I’ve had surgery which has shown that the cancer has got away from its starting point, and now I’m waiting to see whether the next move is more surgery, before beginning chemotherapy early in the New Year.

Friends and colleagues have filled our house with flowers and fruit. In the days after surgery when we were bewildered and disoriented, people quietly delivered meals and left without a word, which was exactly the thing we most needed. Beyond this I’ve had astonishing, thoughtful support from people I’ll never meet from all around the world. My immediate teaching responsibilities have been taken up by a casual academic who is willing and available to work at an hourly rate through the summer, and who has gone out of her way to manage this handover, well beyond what she’s being underpaid to do. I’ve also had calm, practical assistance in relation to sick leave. I’m immensely grateful: nothing has been made harder than it needs to be.

But this doesn’t diminish the way this diagnosis has left my children angry and scared, when they have already given so much to the university that is so careful with its money and so reckless with our time. My three daughters are 8, 12 and 14. They have all grown up with a full-time academic parent. Every weekend of their whole lives has been framed by “yes, but we’ll have to be quick because I need to get some work done this afternoon”. Even with the generous maternity leave provisions available to academics, as a full-time breadwinner I was back in my office when each of them was under 6 months. I have stockpiled sick leave, not because I’ve never been sick, but because like all academics, when I’ve been sick, I’ve just sat up in bed with the laptop and carried on from home.

We all do it.*

And here’s the big thing: I’m not especially ambitious. If I was I would have made a different decision about becoming a parent. I would have found more time at evenings and weekends to focus on publications, and I would have spent less time engaging with students and colleagues, or pursuing curiosity about committee work and governance.  I certainly wouldn’t have written this blog, or explored the gypsy world of Twitter.

All of these activities have been really enriching: university workers are genuinely nice people by and large, and committee work is one of the remnant collaborative activities routinely undertaken by people who aren’t in it for their h-index.  The students who come to our university are straight-talking and funny.  My colleagues give the lie to the idea that high quality academics are only to be found in high-ranking institutions. And writing it all out in public has enabled me to think, listen and learn in a way that’s more congruent with things that are important to me than the messy practice of citation-farming.

So there’s an instrinsic reward factor that causes academics to work beyond the hours that we’re paid. In the NTEU Annual Lecture last week, Professor Marian Baird put it like this:

To return to my question about workload: apart from the difficulty in apportioning our workload hours to their various categories, there is the difficulty of limiting our workload. If we did actually work our hours, or ‘work to rule’, the university would come to a shuddering halt.  Not only that, there is the problem of imposing limits on ourselves. For those interested and invested in public debate and the social good, there is no doubt that we spend more than 37.5 hours a week on work. Our academic roles are two-edged swords – it is both a problem that our working time tends to be boundaryless, but also positive, in that we have considerable time and personal autonomy and can therefore spend time on issues at work and that go beyond work.

This is the story academics tell ourselves as we flip open the laptop on Sunday mornings: we tell ourselves that the boundarylessness of our time and service is a privilege and even a practice of freedom. Over and over I have heard academics say that they couldn’t bear to punch the electronic time clock as our professional colleagues do. But the alternative is the culture of deemed time: by flattering us with what looks like trust in the disposal of our modest obligations, the university displaces all responsibility onto us for the decisions we make about how much to give. There is the problem of imposing limits on ourselves.

This is why I’m finding Daniel Coyle’s book (co-written with pro cyclist whistleblower Tyler Hamilton) about the culture of doping such a thoughtful companion to this difficult time. In the past 24 months, armchair fans like me have asked why so many elite athletes took up performance enhancement, at such personal risk and cost.  The answer’s pretty simple, it turns out. In the Darwinian world of pro-cycling at the end of the 1990s, racing teams learned that the only way to level out competitive opportunity was to meet the standards set by the most committed. To ride within the limits of your own ability became naive, disloyal to the team, and uncompetitive. Young riders waited to be invited to join the inner circle who were doping, and accepted pills handed to them on the basis that it would make them healthier; team management understood and allowed this to happen, because results had become the currency for economic survival, not just for individual riders, but for vast whirling enterprises of sponsorship, employment and profit.

This book has made me think differently about the question of why academics overwork. I now think we don’t yet understand this as behaviour that is harmful to others, not just to ourselves. We overwork like cyclists dope: because everyone does it, because it’s what you do to get by, because in the moment we argue to ourselves that it feels like health and freedom.

But it isn’t.

*Update: it’s not just academics who work sick: all of our senior professional colleagues do it too, and even higher education workers on the electronic timeclock still check emails when they’re not at work, especially those working in service teams.

Irreplaceable time

Part one: the hamster wheel

The majority of Australians working extra hours or hours outside of normal work hours do so in order to meet the expectations of their job. Almost 60 per cent of respondents report this, with 45 per cent saying that this extra work is necessary often or sometimes. This represents 5.2 million Australian workers who are working extra hours to keep their workload under control and on target.

Prue Cameron and Richard Denniss, “Hard to Get a Break“, for the Australia Institute, November 2013

It’s the crazy time in Australian universities. Research grants are announced, thousands of student grades are being shovelled into student management systems, next year’s business plans are being drafted, graduation ceremony planning is at its fraughtest, and northern hemisphere visitors are showing up to give talks because they’re bundling the southern hemisphere conference season with side trips here and there to make it all more tax deductible.

Last week, the fifth annual Go Home On Time Day campaign pointed out quietly that if their survey extrapolates over the whole population, then half the Australian workforce are unhappy with the hours they work.  Both the overworked and the underemployed are becoming frantic in this economy of the hamster wheel.  2.8 million Australians may need more working hours than they can piece together from casual, seasonal employment, just to make ends meet; and both casual and permanent employees are now suffering from the culture of unpaid overtime:

More than half (54 per cent) of survey respondents report that working extra hours without pay is expected or not expected but not discouraged in their workplace. More than one in five (22 per cent) respondents say that it is expected and more than one in three respondents (32 per cent) say their workplace does not expect but does not discourage it. In other words, the practice and culture of the workplace make this the norm. This normative pressure is felt more by women .

Cameron and Denniss,  p 11

I’ve been thinking about this because on Go Home on Time Day this year, I was sitting in a surgeon’s office. It turns out that I have breast cancer, and I found out that very day.  And here’s the thing: I first thought about getting something checked out exactly 12 months ago. I found time at the end of 2012 to take a day off work, got a referral from my GP, and then the vague unease passed. So I didn’t chase it up.

Over a busy year being both a full-time worker and a parent to three school-age children, I noticed now and then that the unease came back, and I fought with it in the middle of the night, along with to-do lists and unsent emails and ideas for projects and the anxieties of my co-workers and all of my misgivings about working for an institution whose driving mission is to be in the top 1% of world universities, which seems to me as shallow and demoralising an idea as any I’ve heard since I started working in higher education.

And now here we are.

Part two: irreplaceable time

I have breast cancer. A week ago, I had breast cancer, and the week before that, and the week before that. Maybe five, eight, even ten years ago, the first bad cell split inside me, secretly. But I didn’t know. This is how I arrived at knowing.

Xeni Jardin, Diagnosis

It’s been just over a week since the Moment. A routine visit, friendly chit chat about Christmas shopping, and then suddenly a quiet chill in the room, professionals looking at each other but not at me, an emergency biopsy, a result. I’ve had a thyroid scan, a chest X-ray, a CT scan, and tomorrow I’m having a bone scan.

And through all of this I’ve been thinking back to a planning day that I recently sat through, that for all sorts of banal reasons left me feeling completely exasperated with the corporate culture of team-building that is so reckless with people’s time and trust. I followed the instructions, more or less, while thinking about how much I’d like to quit my job, and the thing that went round and round in my head as we were hustled through a series of exercises designed to show how perfectly team building is created from the will to win, was this:  you don’t have my consent to use my remaining time in this way.

Afterwards I puzzled about this a bit: why had it come to me so strongly that it was important to speak back to this kind of dispiriting and divisive activity, however well-intentioned it might be?

I’ve come to this conclusion: I really have a problem with the culture of work in higher education. Having this diagnosis doesn’t make me special, because it doesn’t make me differently mortal than anyone else.  We are neither vampires nor zombies, whatever the craze for playing with these ideas: we are humans, and we are all here together for a very short time, historically speaking. And so that being the case, the question facing us all is this: what do we do about work?

What do we do about the way in which overwork is the price that is now demanded for participating at all? What do we do about the thousands of higher education workers consigned to underwork that prevents them from making their irreplaceably good contribution to the mission of universities or the communities that they care about? Do we really believe that our colleagues in the precarity are there because they deserve it? Do we really think sustainable and healthy workplaces will result from us giving up all of our evenings and weekends just to keep up with the standards set by the most driven, or those with the fewest external ties or interests?

If we have created a culture in which only those who are most single-minded about work are applauded, promoted and respected, we have made something whose capacity for harm is pervasive and long-term. A couple of weeks ago I listened to a senior executive colleague talk in public about how our children value and respect the things we women achieve at work. I don’t disagree that our children recognise that we pour their time into the institutions we work for, but my three daughters are telling me clearly that they experience this as harmful to them and harmful to me. And for those of us who work as educators, this is the at-all-costs behaviour we’re modelling to students who will graduate into an economy that is fuelled on the empty-tank fumes of unpaid labour.

I’ve been thinking for several weeks about a comment Richard Hall made on Twitter, about the need for courage in higher education, not hope. After debating this with him a bit, and taking a while to reflect on my own situation, I’ve come to think he’s right. Hope is the alibi for inaction: what we need is the courage to put work itself at risk.

So this is the choice I’m making, in this irreplaceable time.

These have been part of my thinking this week:

Thanks to Pat Lockley who is far more sentimental than you might think, this lovely video has been as good a metaphor as any for how things feel:

And finally, personal thanks to Agent Zed, a stranger I know only from Twitter, who answered all of my frantic questions about cancer diagnosis while I was sitting in the surgeon’s waiting room and then checked in afterwards to see how things went.
Note: This is a longer than usual post, that was once much shorter. For the first time since I began blogging two years ago, I published something entirely accidentally before it was written. So if you came by this through an email subscription, I’m so sorry — that was only half the story, and as a result it’s been rapidly edited since then.  I guess this is one of the odd symptoms of trying to process the whole situation.  It’s finished now.  KB