A Plea To Established Academics: Please Keep Your Promises

crossed-fingers-363478__340The university sector in the UK is in a shaky state at present. Several universities across England, Wales and Scotland have each announced over 100 redundancies, sometimes with the closure of a school or campus, and it seems likely that others will follow suit. Brexit is the reason most people give, though there may be other reasons too. The uncertainty is unsettling for mid- to late career academics, and very worrying indeed for early career researchers and doctoral researchers with academic ambitions. It’s also worrying for independent researchers, like myself, who work with academia.

There is a four-panel comic strip at PhD Comics called Things You Can Do In Academia That Would Get You Fired In The Real World. The ‘things’ listed are:

  • Abandon personal grooming
  • Be a jerk at other people’s presentations
  • Not reply to emails
  • Sit around and do nothing all day (quote: “it’s called writing”).

I would add a fifth ‘thing’:

  • Continually make promises you don’t keep.

The income of independent researchers depends on established academics keeping their promises. Given the number of imminent redundancies forecast in the UK higher education sector, there are going to be more independent researchers looking for work in the months and years to come. This post is a plea to established academics not to make promises, to colleagues in more precarious positions, that you can’t or won’t keep.

I have had many, many promises made to me by established academics, and I would estimate that over half are not kept. These kinds of promises have come through social media, at conferences, during my workshops, even at one-to-one face-to-face meetings specifically set up to explore how we can work together. I’ve never been an academic, so I don’t know for sure, but I would guess this is common, perhaps normal, within academia. When both of you have a secure salary, it probably doesn’t matter so much; perhaps it’s just a small irritation or disappointment when plans don’t come to fruition – or maybe sometimes it’s a relief. However, it’s a whole different deal when one of you depends on the other to follow through.

Unkept promises that come to mind include:

  1. “You must come and teach my students. Send me your CV and we’ll fix a date.” I send my CV, and never hear from the Professor again.
  2. “I’d love to write with you. Let’s do a journal article.” This is someone I would love to write with, too, so I say yes – then nothing happens.
  3. “I want to allocate some time in this funding bid for you to work with us on the project, is that OK with you?” Yes, I say, and agree to give input on the draft bid – then nothing happens.
  4. “I want you to come and speak at my event, and I have a budget to pay for your time and your expenses.” Great! Yes please! Then, guess what? Nothing happens.
  5. “Thanks so much for your workshop/seminar/class. The feedback was great. We’ll have to get you back next year.” Sometimes this does happen; mostly it doesn’t.
  6. “I’d be happy to give feedback on your draft article.” That promise is kept, and then, “I think you need to include a section on X,” which is the specialism of the academic in question. I agree. The academic offers to write the section and become second author; I accept with pleasure. I never hear anything further AND I ALREADY WORKED ON THAT ARTICLE FOR A WHOLE YEAR.
  7. “I’d like to give you an honorary position as Visiting Professor, which will mean I’ll be able to pay you to work with our students.” Sounds great, yes please. Only, er, it doesn’t happen.

What’s worse is that, while numbers 6 and 7 were one-offs, numbers 1-5 in the list above have each happened several times. I spent a couple of decades working as an employee in the private, statutory, and voluntary sectors, and I can tell you this doesn’t happen there. It didn’t happen in my independent research work, either, in the 2000s, when my clients were local and central government departments and charitable organisations. I’m not saying every professional promise made outside of academia is kept, but unkept promises are usually acknowledged, and the promisee kept up to date with reasons for the change of plan. At times I’ve had to chase by email asking for an update; I have always received a full reply outside academia, while within academia I have rarely received a reply at all. To be fair, some academics do communicate about their unkept promises, just as some manage to write, answer their emails, be courteous at presentations, and maintain a good level of personal hygiene. But too many do not.

Established academics, with a steadily increasing number of your colleagues in ever more precarious positions, you really need to be aware of this. Each of the promises above made my day and raised hope and excitement in my heart. Then, as the days, weeks, months went by with no further communication, the creeping feelings of disappointment, frustration, and disillusionment were sometimes hard to bear. And I’m an old hand at this. I think it’s going to be much more difficult for younger people who are desperately working so very hard to try to make a career in, or with, academia. So I beg you, established academics, please think carefully about the promises you make, and stop making promises you can’t or won’t keep.

How Independent is an Indie Researcher?

independent womanI have always loved being independent. My parents like to tell the story of the time when, soon after I learned to walk, they took me for a picnic in a local park. My father put me down on the grass, and I got to my feet and toddled away. My mother looked anxious, and my father said, reassuringly, ‘She won’t go far.’ But his confidence was misplaced, because I headed determinedly off into the wide green yonder, and he had to do a quick sprint to bring me back before I came to grief.

When I began researching, I called myself a freelance researcher, or a consultant researcher. I didn’t start calling myself an independent researcher until Immy Holloway told me I should, at a terrific research methods conference in Bournemouth in 2006. (The same conference where I met the incomparable Ken and Mary Gergen, as a result of which they kindly wrote the foreword for my creative research methods book.) As soon as Immy suggested the phrase, I took to it immediately. It seemed to suit.

I love working independently. Particularly at the moment, when I’m mostly home-office-based and writing – though after a few weeks I’ll be pleased to have the meetings and teaching that are scheduled then. But for now, I’m really happy sitting alone at my desk, looking out at the garden growing into spring, listening to the birdsong and the squeals of next door’s children on their trampoline, and writing this blog post.

You know, though, I’ve been thinking recently that despite being officially an independent researcher, I’m actually very dependent. For example, I am completely dependent on others for my income. If nobody chooses me, or not enough people choose me, to do available work, I will go under – particularly as there is so little research funding for which indies can apply. Also, I often need to ask for favours, from small (please can I put your name down as a referee for this research tender?) to large (please will you write a foreword for my book?). As an independent writer, I am dependent on readers for reviews, whether official written ones on websites or in journals, or unofficial verbal ones – the coveted ‘word of mouth’ (at least, it’s coveted if the words are complimentary). More worryingly, I am also dependent on readers to help get my books translated into other languages. My publisher tells me that this usually happens when a bilingual academic makes a proposal to a non-English publisher and offers to support the translation. I am only fluent in English, and although I have good international networks, they’re mostly in English-speaking countries. Unlike institution-based scholars, I have never been able to afford to go to a conference outside the UK where I might make contacts with bilingual academics who could help with translations, perhaps in return for other favours. As a result, I know very few people who I can ask to help with translations. (If you know anyone in the social sciences, arts, or humanities who might help, do tell me please!)

I remember when my supervisor and I were planning my viva. I knew who I wanted for my external examiner, but my supervisor over-ruled me, because she didn’t know the person I wanted, and she did know someone else who she thought would be good (and was). She said she was sure he would do it because he owed her a favour. I have learned since then that a lot of academia seems to work through giving and calling in favours. In such an environment it feels odd to call myself ‘independent’.

The book I’m writing is on research ethics. In the Indigenous research paradigm, reciprocity between researchers and participants is a key ethical principle. However, in the Euro-Western paradigm, researchers have found that attempting such reciprocity where there is an imbalance of power is difficult and can even have dangerous consequences (Israel 2015:137-8). I can’t find much work on reciprocity between academics, and what I can find addresses reciprocity between countries or disciplines and doesn’t say much about power imbalances. I haven’t found anything about reciprocity across the walls of the academy, where there is undoubtedly a power imbalance. I’m glad to say that, in my own experience at least, academics have mostly been courteous and often generous with their help and support for my work, even though, as an indie, I can’t reciprocate in all the same ways that I could if I was based in an institution. This potentially makes me even more dependent, because I have less to offer than salaried mid-career academics. As I progress in my work, will this power imbalance grow? Will it adversely affect the reciprocity on which my entire career depends? Or am I needlessly worrying about something because it feels insecure, when in fact it doesn’t really matter?

How To Become An Indie Ally

cat-and-dogCalling academics! Do you want to be a useful ally to independent researchers? Then here’s how you can. No, wait, let’s start with why it’s a good idea. Independent researchers can add considerable value to academic research and teaching projects. We bring a fresh perspective, which can be useful to help disentangle problems that seem entrenched, or simply to provide a new view of a situation. We have time to think, because we don’t have to tangle with time-consuming internal meetings and university bureaucracy. And we are not limited in what we work on by managerial directives or departmental policy. Also, we are flexible and can sometimes help out at short notice, such as when a colleague has an unexpected leave of absence at a crucial stage in a project. One potential downside is that an indie researcher is unlikely to have the depth of knowledge in any one subject of a professor who has spent decades studying a single area. On the other other hand, indie researchers often bring a breadth of knowledge across several related areas, and are skilled in bringing themselves up-to-date fast in any area they haven’t worked on for a while.

Another reason it might be a good idea to support independent researchers is that, as the options for tenure in academia decrease, the likelihood of any academic ending up as an indie increases. So supporting indie researchers and scholars may prove to be an investment in your own future. An academic of my acquaintance told me recently that she wonders why staff at her post-92 university are regularly asked to give free support to universities in the much richer Russell Group (another structural faultline of academic inequality). She has decided to stop offering free training to other universities, whatever their grouping, because it affects the market for independent workers. Be like her!

So those are some reasons why it’s a good idea to use indie researchers; now let’s look at how they can be used. The three main ways academic departments use indie researchers are: as part of a team on a funded research project; to augment a teaching programme; or to fill gaps in capacity. Of course there are many other ways, from delivering a single class or seminar to providing years of doctoral supervision.

Here’s how to help make that happen.

  1. Get to know your local indie researchers and/or the indie researchers who work in your field. This way, when you need some help in a hurry, you’ll have an existing relationship as a springboard.
  1. Be mindful that indie researchers don’t receive a salary; nobody is paying for their time. Any decent indie researcher should be willing to come to an exploratory meeting without expecting to be paid. However, it will be helpful if you can acknowledge the imbalance: you are drawing a salary for your time at that meeting; they are not. It will be even more helpful if you can at least reimburse their travel expenses, and maybe give them lunch. Please do not expect an indie researcher to come to more than one meeting without recompense. Some academics still think it’s OK to ask an indie to run a workshop, speak at a conference, and write a chapter for an edited collection. A salaried academic could say ‘yes’ to all of those without pausing for breath, even though the tasks probably require 2-3 weeks of full-time work to complete. If you’re not paying an indie, you’re asking them to do that in their own time. That’s equivalent to asking a salaried academic to work on a dozen consecutive Sundays. If the latter would give you pause, so should the former.
  1. Understand how independent researchers’ day rates work. These day rates look high, but at times we go for weeks or months with no paid work, and we have none of the benefits of employment such as holiday pay or sick pay or conference budgets. For example, I charge universities £800 per day and in 2015-16 I was able to pay myself £17,000 – around one-third of what I would be taking home if I’d spent the last 17 years in academia. In the last five years, I’ve had two good years and three lean years. There are other compensations to the indie lifestyle so this is not intended as a sob story. But it’s surprising how many intelligent people still think ‘high day rate’ equals ‘rich person’.
  1. If you really can’t pay an independent researcher, but you want them to work with you, think about what you can offer them in exchange for their skills and labour. They might be glad to have use of your library, an honorary position with access to paywalled journals, or a free place on a professional training course. Most indie researchers are open to barter as long as you can offer something that is of value to them. What won’t be of value is ‘exposure’, because in these days of social media we can all expose ourselves.
  1. Where appropriate, allocate time and costs in your funding bids for input from one or more independent researchers. This sends a positive message to funders: it shows that you are thinking beyond the walls of the academy and taking a creative approach to your bid and your project design. Any credible independent researcher who you plan to include should be willing to put in some unpaid desk work up front, perhaps to write a section of the bid or to give feedback on a draft.
  1. Raise awareness among your colleagues of the value, and support needs, of independent researchers. If you have the contacts, and want to earn serious brownie points from the indies in your networks and beyond, lobby for indie researchers to have access to research funding.

One caveat: it is important to perform due diligence. Ask for a CV, with references; follow up the references, and spot-check a couple of items from the CV. If the independent researcher hasn’t been independent for long, it would be worth quizzing them about their intentions. Due to the economic climate and the casualisation of academic work, some people are setting up as independent researchers in the hope of earning a few quid while they’re searching for salaried employment. It won’t help your research plan if, by the time you secure funding for your three-year project, your nominated indie researcher is now a full-time lecturer at the other end of the country.

I hosted a lively Twitterchat about independent research for #ecrchat on 24 February, and was hoping to link to the resulting Storify from this post but technical problems have intervened. If we are able to storify the chat in future I’ll include the link here. I was also hoping to refer to the Storify for any points I may have missed, as I’m not at all sure the above list is exhaustive, so if you have any points to add, please include them in the comments below.

Getting Creative with your Thesis or Dissertation #2

treasure-1357460__340I wrote the first post in this series last summer, not knowing then that there would be another. In that post I highlighted work by doctoral students who have presented their theses or dissertations in various creative ways such as graphic novels or a combination of video and text. I’m grateful to MzOpera for commenting on that post and pointing me to the work of Rebecca Zak from America, who created the first ever entirely web-based PhD dissertation, made up of YouTube videos and blog posts.

Rebecca Zak had a close predecessor in Saliha Bava, whose web-based dissertation was produced as long ago as 2001. She describes it, in her dissertation abstract, as ‘a montage of a postmodern inquiry… within the discourses of postmodern, dissertation, academia, experimental and cyberspace innovations among others.’ Sadly, a lot of the links in Bava’s online dissertation are no longer functioning, but there are still pdfs to download and read, and videos to view. I wanted to check whether Zak had referenced Bava, and thought of searching Zak’s blog, but the site where her blog lives, at http://www.davezak.com/questioneducation/, has been reported as an attack page and blocked by my anti-virus software. These demonstrate some of the downsides of web-based dissertations or theses: they are only publicly available, to those with internet access, for as long as the technology permits.

MzOpera, via Rebecca Zak, also led me to Spencer Harrison from Canada. He is an artist and gay rights activist who painted his PhD on the outside of a circus tent; it seems almost redundant to add that he was the first Canadian academic to do so. I also discovered the work of Daria Loi, who did her PhD in Melbourne, Australia, and presented her thesis as a suitcase containing written text and a variety of interactive artefacts.

Rebecca Zak makes the point that to present your thesis or dissertation in such a creative way, your university needs to have (or develop) an ‘alternative format’ policy. I’ve had a look at several of these and they are very varied. Some only allow for the inclusion of published or publishable written material, such as a book chapter or journal article. Others are much more flexible. For example, the University of Exeter, in the UK, has a particularly comprehensive policy which says:

  • Regardless of whether they are on a named programme, which has specific submission requirements, which may differ from the norm, students are permitted to make representations to submit a thesis/dissertation in an alternative format, requests to do so must normally be made at the application stage.
  • An alternative format may include either:
    a) the presentation of part or all of the thesis in an alternative format e.g. it may be a multimedia document (e.g. an element or the thesis in its entirety, which is presented in a format appropriate perhaps for presentation at a conference);
    b) A constructed text such as a piece of art, or a record of professional practice in the form of a series of case-studies, which must be accompanied by a commentary.
  • The formats listed here are not exclusive and candidates should first discuss the matter with their supervisor should they consider there to be potential to present their thesis/dissertation differently, who will be able to offer advice on the appropriateness of different formats within the context of that discipline, and with regard specifically to how they relate to the candidate’s research project.
  • Permission to do so may be given provided that by virtue of the subject:
    a) the intellectual quality of the thesis/dissertation would be enhanced;
    b) that a qualified supervisor and appropriate examiners can be appointed;
    c) the format is appropriate to the thesis/dissertation;
    d) that the format will allow the student to demonstrate their ability to meet the award criteria;
    e) or, that the alternative format is an appropriate specific arrangement to make to ensure the consistent equitable assessment of a student with disabilities.

The commentary referred to has to be 30-40,000 words long. This differs from the experience of Daria Loi, who had to write the same amount of words as for a conventional thesis to put into her suitcase with the other artefacts she prepared.

We’ll end with a supervisor’s view. This is recorded on p. 46 of Playing with Purpose: Adventures in Performative Social Science by American psychologists Kenneth and Mary Gergen. They describe ‘…one of the most audacious performance pieces we know: Zoë Fitzgerald Pool’s PhD dissertation (in 2008) from the University of Bournemouth. The dissertation arrived for Mary’s review in a wooden box inscribed with a brass nameplate. In the box were placed two books, each page illustrated in colorful graphics, describing the outcomes of interviews conducted during the research. Also included were DVDs with visual and auditory expositions of this material. As appreciative gifts to the reader, there were an assortment of treasures: music, a mermaid doll, a large doll representing a stuffy old-fashioned professor, chocolates, and hundreds of tiny scrolls, each with a quote from the interviewees written in elegant calligraphy. Included as well was a map to describe how to “read” the ensemble, which was secreted into various sections of the box. There was no single way to “read” the dissertation. It was a cornucopia of possible experiences, rich and exciting.’

So there are some positive voices in academia – but not yet enough. Getting creative with your thesis or dissertation may take even longer than the conventional method because, as Daria Loi points out, you may need time for making as well as writing. Yet these creative approaches offer new ways to articulate, communicate, and understand research. All universities need to get to grips with facilitating these kinds of creative approaches within doctoral research to allow some doctoral students to reach their full potential.

University bureaucracy needs to sort itself out

bureaucracy

Photo credit: Alexas_Fotos on Pixabay

Now and again, I come across an academic bureaucrat who wants to help people find ways to solve problems. More often, sad to say, I encounter jobsworths for whom ‘the system’ seems to be all-important. I know my colleagues in academia expend a lot of time, effort, and frustration on their interactions with academic bureaucracy. This can often get in the way of what should be simple, straightforward transactions, such as paying people for work that a university department needs – or paying people for work they have already done.

 

I was recently asked, by a Professor of my acquaintance, to teach a research methods module for his doctoral students. The Prof explained that this would involve one day of teaching per month for six months. I agreed to do this, and to accept the university’s sessional teaching rate rather than charging my usual, considerably higher, day rate, because his budget was limited. I figured the work would be interesting, something new on my CV, and I knew he really needed my help. But then, when we’d already had a planning meeting, the bureaucrats said I had to join the payroll, to become a part-time employee of the university, rather than invoicing for my work in the usual way. One day per month is nowhere near even a 0.1 post, and the work this would have caused my accountant – and the resulting costs to me – made it completely uneconomic to take the job. The really bizarre part is that I had worked for this university before; I was set up on their system as a supplier; and I had done tasks of longer duration for which I had invoiced and they had paid quite happily. There seemed no sense in their refusal, and I know the Professor pleaded – it made his life particularly difficult as the refusal came so late in the day. But they were obdurate. So he had a more demanding and stressful semester, and his students didn’t get the benefit of a different teacher.

Some months ago, an academic I had never heard of contacted me out of the blue to ask me to take up a Fellowship at her department. This was a comparatively new department, set up with millions of pounds of funding from a research council, at a university that is in excellent financial health. They are doing interesting work, but I said a polite ‘no, thank you’ because they were looking for a significant time commitment and I don’t do unpaid work for wealthy organisations. She had a chat with the head of department, and emailed to say they could pay me: not my usual day rate, but an amount worth getting out of bed for. If I was still interested, she said, I should seek a sponsor from among the department’s staff, all of whom were aware of the sponsorship scheme for the department’s Fellowships and would understand that their primary role was to help with the bureaucracy. The first person I approached said they had never heard of the sponsorship scheme, which was embarrassing, and – when he realised about the bureaucratic requirements – decided he didn’t want to sponsor me. The second person didn’t reply to my email; the third replied enthusiastically saying ‘yes of course, carry on’, so I emailed again explaining about the bureaucracy, and heard no more. With the fourth person – someone I knew slightly from other arenas – I struck lucky: being fairly senior in the department, they actually did know about the sponsorship scheme and what it entailed, and they were enthusiastic about working with me. However, after a few days, that person emailed me and said oops, sorry, actually we can’t pay you after all, there’s been a problem with the bureaucracy. So that was several months of effort down the drain.

It’s not only independent researchers who are at the sharp end of this kind of bureaucratically induced misery, but also casual staff. An academic who I met online recently had a problem with a post-doc who was working for him and had employed a research assistant. The RA started work very late in the contract, which was partly due to bureaucratic difficulties, and ended up working more hours after the end of the grant period so they were owed money. In the meantime, the post-doc had moved to a second university, with another grant which included funds to pay the RA. However, the second university would not issue a contract because the amount of money concerned was too small, while the original university would not raise an invoice without a contract. So the RA ended up having to invoice the second university themselves. That meant the RA had to declare those earnings as self-employment for that tax year, with all the attendant hassle of completing a self-assessment form: a classic example of bureaucracy generating bureaucracy.

These are just three sad and sorry cases of bureaucracy impeding effective academic work. I am sure most, if not all, of my readers will have their own examples to share. I know it doesn’t have to be this way, from work I have done with universities where bureaucratic systems have supported and enabled, rather than obstructing, academic work. Perhaps that’s why I, and others I know, find bureaucratic impediments so very frustrating. We know they don’t have to be there – but they are there, and at times, for unfathomable reasons, they’re insurmountable.

Creative Research Methods Summer School 6-8 July 2017

casic-logofinalPhD students and Early Career Researchers are welcome at this event organised by the Community Animation and Social Innovation Centre (CASIC) at Keele University.

The Summer School will be held in central England at the New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme (6-7 July) and Keele University campus (8 July), where you will experience the KAVE and our Makerspace facilities.

The facilitator will be Dr Helen Kara, author of Creative Research Methods in the Social Sciences: A Practical Guide. Speakers will include:

  • borderlinesProfessor Mihaela Kelemen – CASIC Director
  • Dr Lindsay Hamilton – Keele Management School, Keele University
  • Véronique Jochum – Research Manager, National Council for Voluntary Organisations
  • Dr Emma Surman – Keele Management School, Keele University
  • Dr Ceri Morgan – School of Humanities, Keele University
  • Professor Rajmil Fischman – School of Music, Keele University
  • Sue Moffat – Director of New Vic Borderlines, New Vic Theatre

keele-logo-2The Summer School will enlighten, inspire and guide ECRs and students at all stages of scholarly or professional doctorates. Each day will be packed with interactive hands-on sessions addressing six broad topics:

  • Arts-based research
  • Transformative research frameworks
  • Mixed-methods research
  • Knowledge co-production
  • Research using technology
  • Writing creatively for research

We are offering an “early bird” price of £230 for bookings received and paid by 21 April. After that date the price will be £270. The cost includes refreshments and lunches and a complimentary copy of Dr Kara’s book on creative research methods.

There will be a dinner and performance of ‘Around the world in 80 Days’ at the New Vic Theatre on July 6th, at an extra cost of £20.

For more information click here.

Please follow #CRMSS17 on Twitter for pre-event updates.

Twitter Can Make Your Dreams Come True

I’m at the end of a working week in Melbourne, sitting in my hotel room; all I have to do is write this blog post and pack. It’s been a great week. One keynote, three workshops and six meetings. Miles and miles of pavement-pounding, including four bookshops (only one book bought due to luggage weight restrictions; several others noted) and the best pistachio gelato I ever ate. Free trams! Melbourne has free trams in the city centre! I didn’t figure out how to use them till day four of six, but my feet have been grateful to me since. And lots of lovely drinks and snacks and dinners. Melbourne likes its grub, and so do I.

The best part about this week, though, is the people I have met. People I’ve only known on Twitter up to now. Not all of them from Melbourne, either: Naomi Barnes (@DrNomyn) from Brisbane and Deborah Netolicky (@debsnet) from Perth were both in town for the Australian Association for Research in Education conference, and it was great to hang out with them. They have both, since, written considered and scholarly blog posts: Deb wrote about the conference, and commented that one thing she loves about Twitter is that it helps her feel as though she knows people, even if they’ve never met in person. Naomi reflected on whether Twitter really creates or enables communities.

I came to Melbourne this week entirely as a result of Twitter. The photo at the top of this blog post was harvested from Twitter. I’ve been doing work generated through Twitter, and people have been tweeting that work out into the Twittersphere. Twitter supports my work in a lot of different ways. This week I have met and talked with eight people who I only knew online up to now. With each of them we went straight into real conversation: when you already know someone online, you can dispense with all the ‘how was your journey?’ and ‘did you find us OK?’ type small talk. This means that when you only have a couple of hours with someone, that time is much more useful. So I get where Deb is coming from with her comment.

Naomi makes a distinction between communities and, as sub-sets of communities, tribes. This is pretty much how I experience Twitter. There is a community of researchers that flocks around hashtags such as #ecrchat (early career researchers chat), #phdchat (PhD chat) and #acwri (academic writing). And there are smaller tribes. I have felt for some time that there’s a little Australian tribe that I belong to, made up of ten or a dozen people. Twitter tribes aren’t necessarily co-located, and indeed my Australian Twitter tribe is scattered around Perth, Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, and Canberra. But the biggest concentration is in Melbourne, and the others either have spent time in Melbourne or visit the city fairly regularly. So this feels like the geographical heart of the tribe. Also, not everyone in my Australian Twitter tribe knows everyone else. I was able to introduce Naomi and Deb to another tribe member. And there’s one tribe member who, despite being at one of the universities where I taught this week, doesn’t know any of the others. And to be fair, I first got to know her through her work, rather than through Twitter; our Twitter contact came later. But that doesn’t matter; she’s still part of my tribe.

Meeting these people in person has, without exception, been an absolute delight. They have introduced me to wonderful bars and restaurants. We have talked non-stop, planned projects, generated ideas, and laughed immoderately. I have wanted to meet them for years but thought it could never happen. It has, quite literally, been a dream come true.

Untold Stories of Academia

Para-cover-v07-resizeI’ve heard a number of stories, in the last couple of weeks, which suggest that the academy is hurting people. Some of these stories have been in the mainstream media, e.g. the Guardian article on the inability of universities to support students who are the victims of sexual violence. Some have been on social media, e.g. this blog post on the experiences of people with disabilities in academia or the comments on this blog ‘About Me’ page, whose author describes himself as having run ‘the whole gamut of the academic track (degree-postgrad-PhD-postdoc-despair)’. And some have been in person, mostly stories of managers who are unsympathetic at best, discriminatory or bullying at worst, and staff who are at serious risk of buckling under the strain.

The Para-Academic Handbook, edited by Alex Wardrop and Deborah Withers, tells more of these stories. Its subtitle is A Toolkit for Making, Learning, Creating, Acting, which sounds positive, but much of the text uses strong language to bemoan the state of higher education today. Staff are ’emotionally drained’, students are ‘burdened by extortionate debt’, para-academics are ‘subjected to the callous mediocrity of temporary contracts that offer absolutely nothing in terms of “career development”, or any kind of rung on the ruthless academic ladder’. This is a ‘landscape where ideals and values are devastated’.

This is fighting talk, though I’m not entirely sure where the battle lies, because I hear other stories too. For example, in the last couple of months alone, one academic has told me of promotion, pleased at the likelihood of being able to use their increased seniority to lever better outcomes for students. I spent time with another academic celebrating their successful research funding bid, and heard about the social problems that research team will now be able to investigate and address. And a young friend found a job just before she graduated with a good degree and a manageable amount of debt; she is happily embarking on her new life this very week.

These stories paint a picture of a landscape where ideals and values are alive, well, and possibly even flourishing. So why are there such opposing experiences? And why do we hear so much more about the negative than the positive?

I wonder whether some people may have a particular set of expectations about academia, which it no longer lives up to – if it ever did. I’m sure there are people who have similar experiences in other professional fields: who want to work on a cruise ship, say, or in a hospital, but when they get there, they find it’s not what they thought it would be and they have to move on. Also, those who interact with academia have specific skills. In particular, they tend to be articulate and good at writing, which may explain why we hear more from those unhappy with academia than we might from those unhappy with cruise ships or hospitals. And, of course, misery is regarded as newsworthy, whereas people doing their work well or getting good results is never going to make the headlines.

Most of the unhappy stories seem to be presented in terms of people struggling with academia. Yet it seems to me that what matters is not the relationship between person and institution, but the relationships between people. For sure, there are real problems caused by the managerialist, corporate, performance assessment culture that has developed in academia. But from the stories I have heard and read, it looks to me as though part of the trouble lies with some managers who dump these difficulties onto junior academics, offloading the problems without providing commensurate support. Conversely, other managers shield junior academics from those difficulties as far as they are able, and help them to navigate the rest.

Again, I’m sure this is not the whole story – but it is a story I don’t see in the mainstream or social media. I hope the negative press that academia is getting at present doesn’t damage the morale of the good managers, as has happened in other professions such as social work. There are a lot of good managers, working hard, mostly unseen, to make their small corner of academia function as well as possible for students, colleagues, para-academics, research participants, and all the people they come into contact with. I know this because I’m lucky enough to work with some of them, and ‘callous mediocrity’ has never been my experience. They are resilient and creative, and they don’t cause harm, they help people. Let’s tell their stories, too.