Acahacking (or how to do academia when you’re not an academic)

Cat in a small box
(Box – you are in denial. Cat – you just keep on doing you.)

Cross-posted from a rant blog and edited for less rant. 

It has recently occurred to you that you have quite strategically sabotaged any chance you have ever had at an Academic Career. Apparently, while you want an Academic Career, you don’t want to be an Academic.

Or perhaps it’s the other way round.

Either way, you’ve sabotaged something, and rather well.

You started more than ten years ago, working in higher education with vague ideas of becoming an academic. And you’ve trudged along doing things that you heard people do as academics. But only if you really felt like it or thought it necessary and/or useful and/or interesting.

So you write. And you publish. But mostly just for yourself, because you like the journal or because you want to start or join or contribute to a particular conversation. A few times, with colleagues, because you like and respect those colleagues and that’s what you thought you are supposed to do with colleagues as-an-academic. In all the paper publishing, however, you’ve not given a thought to the University’s reputation, the Faculty’s research output, not even the Australia Research Council. (Not a crap given either for rankings, for Excellence in Research Australia ratings, for impact factors, citations.) It’s really just all been about you and what you enjoy doing and reading and writing and thinking and talking about with others who know more and less than you about things. For shame.

You teach. At least, you taught. Lectured, tutored, convened, facilitated. Until it really kicked in that, as a casually employed university teacher, you weren’t given the resources to do that work to the best of your ability. So you hung up on that career calling. (This was – and still is – hard. You really enjoy working with people who are students. And working with people who are students – scholars – at all levels and enjoying it  – valuing it – is a thing you thought academics just do.)

You collaborate. Basically, by wandering around, sticking your nose into other people’s academic projects (Academic means research AND teaching by the way. Because each is fundamental, critical, crucial, to the other. You can’t research without the doing of teaching, whether it’s teaching yourself or others. You can’t teach without reference to research, yours or others). You ask others what they are working on, and they all make their project, their lecture, their PhD, their thesis, their article, their book chapter, their book, their fieldwork, their interviews and focus groups, their experiment, their workshop and seminar sound fascinating. (You have yet to hear someone rave about the tutorial they are planning).

You offer your service/s to teachingandresearch (‘let’s collaborate!’) as co-researcher and/ or co-teacher, especially if you think the project interesting. (Lately, however, if someone has called a project ‘innovative’, you’ve been steering clear. See also: ‘impactful’ (you are not sure this is a real word) and ‘engagement with industry’.)

You visit the university library a lot. Take out books. Read them. Think about them. Take some notes. Bring the books back late. (Quite honestly, some days, the only thing keeping you here is the excellent and free-even-to-casual-staff inter-library loan system.) Again, this is what you though being in academia was all about. In fact you were told as much by your Latin American literature professor. (He had a very red nose and a permanent three-day growth. Hi Steve, if you’re there. No, we don’t blame you for telling us tall tales in our first year of undergrad about what it is to work in A University. No blame. None whatsoever.)

You download and read a lot of papers. Take a lot of notes. Think about them. Sometimes you use them as references. More often you don’t. They just kind of sit there in your head waiting for you to make satisfying connections to other things and ideas, and when things go really well, to other people’s projects.

You make a living cobbled together from teaching and research and research admin gigs and contracts. You have many academic-ky gigs going at any one time. In this jobbing worklife, you cross disciplines as often as you cross roads, becoming a Jill of many disciplines (PhD of one). There’s no time or space for any  T-shape deep-learning here, more of a knocked-over, prostrated ‘I’. Some days, even an ‘E’ (for ‘exhausted’) on its back with all limbs flailing.

You’re an inter-disciplinary researcher by necessity, where ‘by necessity’ = to get paid + make a living. So you know a littlelot about many things. Go on, ask yourself about first year threshold concepts in geography; sessional teaching; risk cultures; early career researchers in accounting; work-health-and-safety indicators; the sociology of names; the career aspirations of taxi drivers; professional scepticism in auditing; wine regions of NSW; heavy transport drivers’ safety; going back to work after cancer; accountability in non-profit organisations; increasing women’s participation in governance; what makes a good board director; the politics of NIMBY; cyber-security; energy markets; messy places; parenting spaces, class systems in the contemporary Australian workplace.

Ask yourself about casualisation, contingent academics, and contract work in higher education.

You’ve taken up numerous professional development opportunities. Then you’ve done the complete opposite of what’s been advised. No career goals set, no 5-year research plan, no strategic collaborations, no research team, no formal mentoring. No time management, not enough ‘saying no’, too much ‘saying yes’. (You’d like to go slow but not sure if you already are.)

You haven’t applied for grants. Actually, technically, you can’t apply for grants; as a casual / fixed-term academic / professional / alt-ac staff member, you’re not eligible to apply for any grants. So you don’t.

You don’t fight (very) hard to be eligible to apply for grants. This is based on extended participant observation in contemporary Australian higher education that grant applications seem to be a time-taker-upper as well as, well, unsuccessful. And your field of research, thank goodness, only requires the ability to read, write, listen and talk to people.

You research. You research the bejeesus out of everything. You don’t use (can’t afford) research assistance so always it’s just you and the data. And the analysis. And the planning-a-paper. And sometimes, the writing-a paper (Sometimes. If you want to (see above) and if you think the ideas warrant a long 3-10,000 word piece that perhaps, if you are fortunate, more than 3 people will read.).

You sit on committees (those you are eligible to sit on as a fixed-termer or casual). You’ve sat on over thirty committees, working parties, panels, advisory groups. Not because you had to or were paid to or because it was part of your job description or your workload allocation (you have no formal workload) but because you’re interested in seeing how things work in a university (and the short answer is:  they often don’t, or at least not very well, or smoothly, or only by a fluke, or by one person working into the wee small hours and/or foregoing human contact for a significant period of time).

Somehow you’ve done this for over 12 years and through forty-something teaching and research and professional contracts, and god knows how many time sheets. (Actually, at least 312. Because at the university you work at, sometimes you need to fill out two a fortnight – one for the ‘academic’ (teaching), one for ‘professional’ (research support)).

In short, you do your version of an academic career which bears absolutely no resemblance to anyone else’s (or to any academic job ad or position description that you have ever seen. And you have seen a fair few).

In another short, the only way you know how to be an academic is through not being actually employed as an academic.

And so this is what this blog is going to be about from now on.

How to be a working (i.e. paid) scholar when you’re not employed as an academic.

How to do academia, regardless your employment status or classification or job title.

How to reshape the academy around you for you, despite the sometimes-subterranean morale of colleagues, the audit cultures, the overwork, the overthinking, the desperate need for time to do your own research and/or for proper resourcing of your teaching. Despite too, the medieval bureaucratic hierarchy trying its hardest to be corporate, and failing miserably all over the place (we see you Fawlty Ivory Towers) and the extraordinary paper- and screen-work this generates. Despite the invisible powerful hierarchy that is constantly shoring up a fundamentally false dichotomy between Those Who Research and Those Who Teach while ignoring the contribution of the many Those Who Support the academic researchers/or/teachers. Despite too, the discrimination between those employed on an ongoing basis and those employed by the hour.  Despite the tremendous, often overwhelming anxieties, security, status, and otherwise.

How to hack what academia has become, what being an academic has become. Resisting and persisting.


It’s what all of us working in higher education are really doing anyway so we might as well take a good, long, hard look at it.




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