Monday, 21 March 2016

Paying in kind(ness)

At the end of last week I wrote a fairly incoherent piece which boiled down to this: academics, students and managers need to be a little bit nicer to each other (it seemed to strike a chord out there and Music for Deckchairs even flattered me out of all proportion with this). Despite the rhetoric of (1980s) business which has infected the academy (certainly there's no sign of Google-style relaxation zones, massages and cereal bars at my place, though there is the pervasive surveillance and fiscal secrecy) we are one of the few professions which has a long and mostly proud tradition of collegiality – the clue's in the adjective. Here in Britain the government is systematically targeting the professions to reduce to the status of a proletariat and render them vulnerable to the vicissitudes (sorry, efficiencies) of the market: nurses, doctors, teachers and even lawyers have been undermined. Academics have only been left until because we don't matter so much, though universities certainly do. 

So anyway, having established the necessity for nurturing an ethic of kindness in the Republic of Letters, what are the barriers and how do we get around them? This is only a partial and idiosyncratic list in no particular order, but it's based on what I see around here and elsewhere. I should say at this point that most of what I say is drawn from my experience as a union representative and university governor: I've been very lucky in my colleagues.

A few years ago a friend of mine got a job in a very prestigious university's very prestigious English department, having previously been a senior lecturer in two other institutions. Within a few weeks she was physically removed from her office and walked – by the head of department – to a hall to oversee a day's worth of examinations. Why her? Well, it turned out that there was a high-powered speaker coming to do some research seminars and the HoD didn't want the bright young things to miss out. Entirely coincidentally, it turned out that all the Bright Young Things were posh young white men, each of whom was treated like Little Lord Fauntleroy by their equally posh, white male Gods amongst the professoriate.

Invigilation, it seems, is one of those menial jobs which is best left to women or other such losers, not the stars of the future. Other menial jobs include: first year lectures (not important, apparently); advising and counselling students; survey modules; study skills; visiting schools, attending meetings; organising and attending events; boring committee work; simply being available. You may have your own list and I invite you to add them using the comments facility. It's not solely stereotypically female work, but previous generations have a term for it: Department Mother. If you don't know who your department mother is, it's probably you and it doesn't matter what your job title is: I know plenty of Head of School Dept Mums. Sexist terminology aside, it's important work and you should be congratulated for doing it. More than that, you should be rewarded and promoted for doing it. When students and colleagues leave, they remember the person who was always there, who bought them a coffee or loaned them that book they lost, took pleasure in their successes, commiserated with them for their struggles, read their draft papers and gave them a generous reference that didn't mention The Case of the Vanishing Milk or the time they nominated you for the Positive Environment Working Group Sub-Committee C. At least I think they will. Roses inexplicably fail to pile up outside my door. Though as my old mother always said, your reward will be in heaven.

The question is, should we Herbivores – I regret the use of 'plodder' in my previous post and now substitute a taxonomy of Herbivores v Carnivores (it could be far, far worse) – bask in the expectation of eternal life, and is it good for us, our colleagues, our students and our institutions, let alone The College Invisible? I would suggest it isn't. If you spend your time being Department Mother, you're letting rather a lot of other people – the carnivores – be the Department Absent Father and yes, it is a patriarchal structure. They 'work from home' and hold cursory 'office hours' of 0758-0807 every third Thursday. They churn out the grant applications and projects and keynotes and books and make it look effortless because they've informally outsourced lots of the work of being a good academic citizen to we herbivores. It's not that we can't do the same thing, it's that we've allowed ourselves to become enablers of privilege. I refuse to believe that I and my friends, getting out a decent chapter now and then are constitutionally incapable of producing more and better research, or writing better lectures, or leading inspiration tutorials. Instead, I believe that we have been taken advantage of as a group. We have clung to co-operative values in a system which deforms co-operation.

The situation is of course rather more grey than this black-and-white construction implies: outside the very rarefied atmospheres of élite institutions nobody escapes the quotidian work, but some are better at avoiding it than others. Their work isn't not done: it's done by others and it's rarely acknowledged that their successes are due at least in part to the efforts of others. It reminds me, in fact, of Selma James's campaign for Wages For Housework. The underlying discourse is not generated by the Carnivores but by wider social pressures. The individualism which emerged from the Renaissance and Protestant capitalism in the 15th-17th centuries privileged the Individual Genius who rises above the herd to Achieve Greatness. It's a doctrine familiar from Trump to Carnegie, but from academia to pig-breeding, Obama's assertion applies: the Individual Genius relies on the work done by his or her entire society.
if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get there on your own. I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something — there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there. (Applause.) 
If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet. 
The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.
 Most of our carnivorous colleagues know this. They support the sentiment. But the system encourages them to behave as though it wasn't true. Research evaluation frameworks, sabbaticals, promotion criteria, appraisals, funding applications, the class structures of academia, the tacit division of work between Genius and Menial: all conspire to encourage the division of the Achiever sheep from the Nurturing goats.

As far as I can see, there are social and systemic solutions to this. At a personal level, we must develop and promote empathy as a core constituent of what it means to be a good academic citizen. Ask yourself how you felt as a first-year student, as a new PhD candidate, as an hourly-paid lecturer, junior research fellow or freshly-spawned head of department. If you didn't like how it felt, don't perpetuate the structures and behaviours which made life hard. Distribute 'plum' modules or year-groups around the department rather than treat them as rewards for instance, or (and I'm a big fan of this one) discourage the idea that teaching first-years or research skills or whatever are somehow less important than a module based on your book. Make sure your students are invited to events even if you strongly suspect they won't turn up: a few will. Treat everyone as a community of intellectuals and try to understand the academic and social landscape from their perspective even if their perspective is partial (whose isn't) or just plain wrong. Have high expectations of everyone but comprehend their starting points. Identify the Department Mother and formally or informally share their burdens. If you can't bear teaching and see it as detracting from your magnum opus: fake it. The Academy is nothing if not a collective effort and if you can't hack it, sod off. On which contradictorily rude note, I suggest that what we need to look at is the idea of Slow Scholarship. I didn't invent it: I only heard of it yesterday, but Alison Phipps has pointed me towards a very persuasive paper about it as a feminist space for resistance, while the ever-reliable Thesis Whisperer and Liz Thackray have been thinking about it as praxis for ages

A few years ago a Professor of Education gave a lecture in which she said that all students should be treated as tabulae rasa; that whatever their cultural contexts and experiences, they should be treated absolutely identically. It struck me as the worst kind of nonsense, derived from the spurious claims of 'equality of opportunity' and meritocracy that has replaced intellectual enquiry in the political classes. I think I would make a plea for the very opposite when we think about our colleagues, our successors and our students. They aren't stupid and they aren't identical. They have needs, desires and aspirations which should be examined, elucidated and in most cases nurtured. One of the reasons I'm a raving Red subversive is that I follow William Morris and the utopian socialists' belief that we all have enormous potential, potential which is stifled by the discourses of consumerism, acquisition and above all competition. Where Morris postulated revolution we have the struggle to reform our institutions and the social structures that construct them, but I also think that we have agency. Our institutions are not physical, nor the property of sectional interests but Imaginary Communities in Anderson's sense. We make them and remake them with every thing we do, every remark we make. Whether it's refusing to sit on all-male panels, surprising someone with the offer of a co-written paper   simply because you know they're working on interesting things, or going off-piste in a class because something tangential but intelligent has come up in conversation, we can subtly remould the institution under the radar.

We should, however, be remoulding the institution above the radar too. Rotating heads of department (not paid extra here: they get 50! hours) so those poor dumb animals get to have some fun too. Demand that managers still do some teaching. Replace your executive with a Senate. Democratise your departments whether the students want to be or not (one of my departments recently invited students to participate in the hiring process: none came). Unionise, always unionise. Talk, to the point of tedium, about exactly how big the sex and class and race gaps are between students, Herbivores, Carnivores and management. If you're a Herbivore, tell your colleagues about the interesting things you're doing and the interesting things you want to do. Take on a big scary job that might actually involve wielding power. Finally – and this is not something I've managed to do yet – learn to say NO  and Yes: No to that final straw, or to that task that attaches itself to you because you're the only reliable one, or the only one who reliably takes things on. Yes to the new, the weird, the opportunities that normally get grabbed by the Carnivores. If you are Carnivore, take on a class you'd normally avoid. Ask your herbivorous colleagues how you can help and what they get out of the stuff you'd forgotten needed doing. Colleagues are for life, not just for breakfast…

In all things, behave as though we're this close to Paradise. We have a special social space which is hugely privileged, and which can be a model for society. If you behave like a Utopian, you'll wake up in Utopia.


Emma said...

I read through this nodding and occasionally shouting "yes!" the whole way through. The only way academia will stop being as ridiculous as the prestigious university you mention is if academics actively work against it. I work in academic development and I think we have a part to play too: don't just 'help' academics to 'implement' management's latest favourite strategy, but encourage those who critique it, raise the voices of those who may not be heard, question the hierarchies of the university and show that they are part of 'good pedagogy'. Because they are, and if pedagogical and other development training isn't to become a tool of management, we need to take it back - and help academics to take it back too. I'm not sure if that made any sense, so I'll simply say "hurrah for Vole, as ever" and leave it at that.

Kate Bowles said...

I'm really just here to shout "yes!" back to this vision of academic development as having a role to play in supporting, encouraging and amplifying critical voices. Why I think this is quite an exciting thought: academic developers are typically well networked outside their own universities, aware of scholarly literature that can support critical positions, and often in the best position to form a kind of scholarly protective cordon around academics who are beginning to speak out. I am certainly aware of this at my own institution, and daily glad of it.

PV, this is a really powerful piece. But I wonder (because I've been asked this recently) whether Utopia can be reclaimed, or whether it needs to be upped and moved. Can we imagine education after the academic? Over at the deck chairs, people are asking about MOOCs, and I realise they don't mean FutureLearn or Coursera, but more the way in which alternative online models for university have the capacity to reach quite a long way and find sustainability in those places. Thinking about this a bit. How long will universities enjoy their current monopoly on credentialling?