A paper cut from my weird, academic-ky, alt-ac, acahacky career, where I have had to say no to something that would have been so perfect in another life, it’s not even funny. I’ll write about the reasons for this decision in a future post (perhaps) but in the meantime, please feel free to wince along with me.
I’ve had to say No
(or really, “I so want to but I can’t right now. I’m sorry”)
to writing a paper
I was invited to submit
to a special issue that is
exactly on my PhD topic
for an academic journal that basically encapsulates my research interests, and
an outlet I have always wanted to write for.
My PhD was on same-sex parented families in Australia, and the paper would have been on one of the key findings: that same-sex families with children are disadvantaged through the parents not having access to legal relationship recognition.
There are so many, many things you care about while hacking/ working in academia and/or higher education (they are not always the same thing) that sometimes you need a reminder of what you DON’T have to care about. These are not necessarily things that you will not not care about tomorrow, or things that aren’t important. They’re just things that you don’t have to care about right now for whatever reason.
So below is a list of recommended things to not care about today.
(If you are more categorically minded, feel free to organise these under sub headings. Here are some suggestions for these sub-headings (in a pre-list list):
- Things you once cared about but no longer,
- Things you’re supposed to care about but don’t,
- Things you refuse to care about,
- Things you’ve learned not to care about,
- Things you’ve worked damn hard not to care about,
- Things you secretly never cared about in the first place,
- Things that you don’t have to care about because you don’t have them, and you don’t have to have them
- Things that everybody else / an apparent majority seem to care about, but you don’t really understand why, and don’t really care to
- Things that your particular organisation cares about,
- Things that are just silly,
- Dreams you broke up with. )
List of Things Not To Care About While Acahacking
- whether someone has a PhD
- whether you have a PhD
- whether you will finish your PhD
- whether you will ever get your PhD
- whether you should quit your PhD
- whether you should quit academia
- your job classification
- your job title
- your job description
- certain forms of official recognition
- being performance managed
- your citation count
- your H-index
- rankings of any kind
- ratings of any kind
- successful grant applications
- grant applications
- your book
- your book chapter
- how many papers you have or haven’t ‘on the go’
- how many papers you have published
- how many papers other people have published
- whether management know what they are doing
- whether management care about higher education
- whether someone is a Professor
- whether you are a Professor
- whether you will ever be a Professor
- your university’s brand
- your university’s student recruitment slogan
- your university’s graduates’ salaries
And somewhere along the way, this list turns into a kind of gratitude list because some of your colleagues have to care about these things, and care very hard.
But you don’t.
On academic ideals and realities:
We fixate on what these mythical figures seem to possess because it, like the airbrushed beauty of advertisement models, feels tantalizingly attainable — an idea seemingly confirmed whenever someone we know, who at least outwardly embodies the ideals of productivity, wins an award or publishes frequently. This perpetuates a deadening professional culture of suspicion, anxiety, envy, doubt, and bitterness — everyone displays successful facades to one another while secretly wondering how to attain what they suspect others have already found.
On academic ‘productivity’ as unbearable:
New shades of such anxiety await you at every professional echelon. They plague our perceptions and interactions, whether we’re competing for jobs or, if we’re so “lucky,” competing for tenure, grants, name recognition, or that nebulous distinction of just “knowing more.”
Why do we keep up this facade-driven culture when it’s so emotionally draining? Why do we perpetuate myths about “productivity” and “success” when they consume us with doubt and envy?
The road to productivity” will be unbearable, especially for those of us in the precariat, if we can’t find ways to enjoy our work.
The myth of productivity:
Like bear traps clamped onto our spleens, the contemporary academy holds us in place with such polished myths, which tell us who we are or who we should be — myths about how productive we’d be if we “focused more,” about our mental health being an entirely “personal” issue having nothing to do with our exploitative environments, about academe being a meritocracy, about the golden shores of tenure waiting for us if we just swim hard enough. Uncompromisingly, publicly, communally, we need to renounce our allegiance to these myths and throw them into the fire for good.
I don’t have your average academic career. I don’t even have your outlier academic career.
But what is an academic? And what is an academic career? If it’s what I don’t do (or haven’t done in my various jobs) then being an academic is basically a) being securely employed while being eligible to apply for b) sabbatical and c) research grants.
In which case, I would love the first, appreciate the second, and curse the third for now being the main pivot of my newlywholly legitimate Academic Career.
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.
From George Saunders in the Guardian on What writers really do when they write :
On the basis that, if it’s better this new way for me, over here, now, it will be better for you, later, over there, when you read it. When I pull on this rope here, you lurch forward over there.
This is a hopeful notion, because it implies that our minds are built on common architecture – that whatever is present in me might also be present in you. “I” might be a 19th-century Russian count, “you” a part-time Walmart clerk in 2017, in Boise, Idaho, but when you start crying at the end of my (Tolstoy’s) story “Master and Man”, you have proved that we have something in common, communicable across language and miles and time, and despite the fact that one of us is dead.
Another reason you’re crying: you’ve just realised that Tolstoy thought well of you – he believed that his own notions about life here on earth would be discernible to you, and would move you.
Tolstoy imagined you generously, you rose to the occasion.
And, just beneath that:
We often think that the empathetic function in fiction is accomplished via the writer’s relation to his characters, but it’s also accomplished via the writer’s relation to his reader. You make a rarefied place (rarefied in language, in form; perfected in many inarticulable beauties – the way two scenes abut; a certain formal device that self-escalates; the perfect place at which a chapter cuts off); and then welcome the reader in. She can’t believe that you believe in her that much; that you are so confident that the subtle nuances of the place will speak to her; she is flattered. And they do speak to her. This mode of revision, then, is ultimately about imagining that your reader is as humane, bright, witty, experienced and well intentioned as you, and that, to communicate intimately with her, you have to maintain the state, through revision, of generously imagining her. You revise your reader up, in your imagination, with every pass. You keep saying to yourself: “No, she’s smarter than that. Don’t dishonour her with that lazy prose or that easy notion.”
And in revising your reader up, you revise yourself up too.
Here’s to us rising and revising to the occasion.
It’s time for a reboot for this blog.
2016 has proved to be a rather extraordinary year, and I want to ensure that at least some lessons that were hard learned, are put into play.