“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

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