Bibliography: Working class and first-generation academics

At the moment I’m reading a number of academic articles relating to a longer post in the works, which will be focussed on class and academia, with an emphasis on how class operates in graduate education and the (academic) job-seeking process.

Here I thought I’d share this bibliography of sources relating to “first generation” and working class graduate students and academics, which I’ve been putting together while I looked at some of the literature on this subject. And here is a link to a Google Docs copy where you can add a resource if you know of a good one that hasn’t been included yet. Cheers!

Some links relating to contract faculty

Special Issue: Understanding the New Majority of Non-Tenure-Track Faculty in Higher Education—Demographics, Experiences, and Plans of Action. Adrianna Kezar and Cecile Sam. 2010.
“This monograph provides a portrait of non-tenure-track faculty, describes studies of their experiences, and proposes plans of action. Much of the research, particularly early on, tried to provide a picture and description of this faculty that have been largely invisible for years.”

The University of Stockholm Syndrome. Ian Bogost. August 18, 2010.

An underclass is educating your children. Rob Faunce, Chronicle of Higher Education. September 2, 2010.
“I think we’ve all heard that refrain before, but perhaps it’s time to hear it again, and to think about the conditions of our younger peers as we move on into mythical jobs and mythical tenure.”

Solidarity vs. contingency. Cary Nelson, Inside Higher Ed. September 7, 2010.
“The only true solidarity among current faculty members requires granting tenure to all long-term contingent faculty members. […] The only goal worth fighting for is full justice for all who teach.”

Undocumented and unsung-Growing worldwide dependence on part-time faculty.
Liz Reisberg, Inside Higher Ed. November 8, 2010.
“Among the most interesting were the very large gaps in available data about who is teaching and the remuneration they receive. In most countries national data are collected and compiled by the Ministry of Education, but they are generally incomplete. One consistent pattern in all of the country studies was that there has been a dramatic increase in part-time contracts but with virtually no national data available about their number, profile or remuneration. As a result we are left to guess at what percentage of the teaching faculty is part-time, who they are, and how they are compensated.”

Conditions imposed on part-time adjuncts threaten quality of teaching, researchers say. Peter Schmidt, Chronicle of Higher Education. November 30, 2010.
“The two Michigan State University researchers who conducted the study […] stressed in an interview this week that they fault the conditions part-time instructors work under, and not the instructors themselves, for their failure to use effective teaching methods more often.”

Whatever happened to tenure? Stephanie Findlay, Maclean’s. January 17, 2010.

Documenting adjuncts’ pay gap. Scott Jaschik, Inside Higher Ed. January 20, 2011.

Loyalty or desperation? Lee Skallerup Bessette, Inside Higher Ed. February 16, 2011.
“I was told upfront that I would never get a full-time job there because my specialty and interests were not a priority. Can I help it if I adapt as mercenary an approach to being an adjunct as they take towards adjuncts? Nothing personal, just business.”

Review of “The Faculty Lounges”. Dan Berrett, Inside Higher Ed. June 8, 2011.

Taking the leap. Janet G. Casey, Inside Higher Ed. November 21, 2011.

The time is now: Report from the New Faculty Majority Summit. Lee Bessette, Inside Higher Ed. January 30, 2012.

A call to action. Kaustuv Basu, Inside Higher Ed. January 30, 2012.

The ‘new majority’ of contingent faculty try to get heard. Léo Charbonneau, University Affairs. February 14, 2012.

Rhetoric and Composition: Academic capitalism and cheap teachers. Ann Larson, Education, Class, Politics. March 3, 2012.

The adjunct problem is every professor’s problem. Jonathan Rees. March 20, 2012.

Data storm. Kaustuv Basu, Inside Higher Ed. April 2, 2012.

The disposable professor crisis. s.e. smith, Salon (originally at Alternet). April 4, 2012.

Just not that into you. Kate Bowles, Music for Deckchairs. June 10, 2012.

Original sin: What responsibility do tenure track faculty have for the rise of adjuncts? Jonathan Rees. June 18, 2012.

The adjunct scramble. Kaustuv Basu, Inside Higher Ed. August 23, 2012.

Working for change in higher education: The abysmal state of adjunct teacher pay. Jeffrey Nall, Truthout. November 25, 2012.

Making the case for adjuncts. Colleen Flaherty, Inside Higher Ed. January 9, 2013.

Sessionals, up close. Moira MacDonald, University Affairs. January 9, 2013.

Chart of the Day: Overwhelmingly female adjunct staff face low pay and few employment protections Kay Steiger. January 9, 2013.

Quit! L.S. Powers, The Adjunct Project. January 28, 2013.

Why are so many academics on short-term contracts for years? Anna Fazackerley, Guardian. February 4, 2013.

The academic graveyard shift. Andrew Lounder, Education Policy. February 11, 2013.

Profiles: The faces of precarious work. Laura Kane, Toronto Star. February 23, 2013.

Academia’s indentured servants. Sarah Kendzior, Al Jazeera. April 11, 2013.

Tackling the cap. Carl Straumsheim, Inside Higher Ed. April 24, 2013.

When tenure-track faculty take on the problem of adjunctification. Jennifer Ruth, Remaking the University. May 25, 2013.

The pink collar workforce of academia. Kay Steiger, The Nation. July 11, 2013.

Who teaches university students? Contract teachers. Craig McFarlane, The Globe & Mail. June 21, 2013.

Don’t cheer the rise of the adjunct. Jonathan Marks, Minding the Campus. September 16, 2013.

Zero hours in universities: ‘You never know if it’ll be enough to survive’. Harriet Swain, Guardian. September 16, 2013.

Death of an adjunct. Daniel Kovalik, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. September 18, 2013.

Zero opportunity employers. Sarah Kendzior, Aljazeera. September 23, 2013.

Sifting through the scant data on contingent faculty. Léo Charbonneau, Margin Notes. October 29, 2013.

What does the national data say about adjuncts? Matt Bruenig. December 4, 2013.

Adjuncts and theories of politics. Fredrick deBoer. January 3, 2014.

Thinking beyond ourselves: The “crisis” in academic work. Melonie Fullick, Speculative Diction. January 10, 2014.

False statistic: 76 percent of American faculty are adjuncts. Matt Bruenig. January 14, 2014.
“The article says tenured or tenure-track professors make up 24 percent of the workforce. The remainder are not all adjuncts. They are a mix of adjuncts and all these other kinds of employees who the Times distinguishes from adjuncts.” [Read the comments on this one.]

The new old labor crisis. Tressie McMillan Cottom, Slate. January 24, 2014.
“Think being an adjunct professor is hard? Try being a black adjunct professor…to be clear, there’s been a labor crisis in higher ed for a long time. It just hasn’t always been a crisis for everyone in higher ed.”

The Just-In-Time Professor. House Committee on Education and the Workforce
Democratic Staff. January, 2014.

An ‘alarming snapshot’ of adjunct labor. Sydni Dunn, Chronicle Vitae. January 24, 2014.

Congress takes note. Colleen Flaherty, Inside Higher Ed. January 24, 2014.

Invisible hands: Making academic labour visible. Christina Turner, rabble. January 24, 2014.
“…while [in Canada] the average salary for a full professor in 2010-11 was $138,853, contract instructors make $4000-8000 per course and have no benefits or job security and little academic freedom.”

The income gap between tenure faculty & adjunct contract professors in Canadian universities. The Current, CBC. January 27, 2014.

Representing the new faculty majority. Stephen Slemon, ACCUTE. January 30, 2014.
“We still don’t have competent statistics about contract academic faculty numbers within the Canadian postsecondary industry, a fact that speaks volumes in support of the hypothesis that ignorance is motivated. We do know that the numbers are growing.”

Sessionals. Alex Usher, One Thought Blog. March 6, 2014.
“Basically, no one “decided” to create an academic underclass of sessionals. Rather, they are an emergent property of a system where universities mostly earn money for teaching, but spend a hell of a lot of it doing research.”

Remaking the Public U’s professoriate. Jennifer Ruth, Remaking the Public University. April 2, 2015.

The new normal. Kate Bowles, CASA. April 12, 2015.

The adjunct revolt: How poor professors are fighting back. Elizabeth Segran, The Atlantic. April 28, 2014.

Slavery should never be a metaphor. Tressie McMillan Cottom, The Adjunct Project. May 5, 2014.

Casualisation, (dis)ability and academia. Carla Barrett and Natalie Osborne, CASA. May 15, 2014.

I was a liberal adjunct professor. My liberal students didn’t scare me at all. Amanda Taub, Vox. June 5, 2015.

The teaching class. Rachel Riederer, Guernica. June 16, 2014.

The plight of hidden academics. The Agenda, TVO. June 24, 2014.

Sessional instructors: what we know so far. Léo Charbonneau, Margin Notes. July 16, 2014.

The opposite of good fortune is bad fortune. Ian Bogost. July 20, 2014.

New move in union-busting? Colleen Flaherty, Inside Higher Ed. August 5, 2015.
“…union members are saying [Duquesne University] has hit an unprecedented low in the fight, threatening in a legal brief to fire adjuncts who participated in the unionization process.”

I used to be a good teacher. Alice Umber, Chronicle Vitae. August 20, 2014.

Is that whining adjunct someone we want teaching our young? Catherine Stukel, Chronicle of Higher Education. August 25, 2014.

Offensive letter justifies oppressive system that hurts both faculty and students. Marc Bousquet, Chronicle of Higher Education. August 29, 2014.

‘Traditional’ academics are an endangered species. Geoff Maslen, University World News. September 9, 2014.

Calling it out. Kate Bowles, Music for Deckchairs. September 10, 2014.

No country for old adjuncts. Colleen Flaherty, Inside Higher Ed. September 24, 2014.

First Amendment rights for adjuncts. Colleen Flaherty, Inside Higher Ed. October 31, 2014.

Your waitress, your professor. Brittany Bronson, The New York Times. December 18, 2014.

Adjunct to tenure track. Scott Jaschik, Inside Higher Ed. January 12, 2015.

A day without adjuncts. Colleen Flaherty, Inside Higher Ed. January 27, 2015.

The woman behind #NAWD. Colleen Flaherty, Inside Higher Ed. March 5, 2015.

Academia has to stop eating its young. Showey Yazdanian, The Globe and Mail. March 5, 2015.

More contract work in post-secondary education – a former bastion of secure work. Mary Wiens, CBC. March 5, 2015.

Academia’s 1 percent. Sarah Kendzior, Chronicle Vitae. March 6, 2015.
“No amount of publishing, teaching excellence, or grants can compensate for an affiliation that is less than favorable in the eyes of a search committee. The fate of aspiring professors is sealed not with job applications but with graduate-school applications.”

Crisis in academic labour puts Canadian universities on the brink. Erin Wunker, rabble. March 10, 2015.

Past is prologue when it comes to contract faculty. Melonie Fullick, Speculative Diction. March 11, 2015.

At universities, who is going the teaching? Editorial, The Globe and Mail. March 13 2015.
“Those superstar professors and public intellectuals who bring High-Ranked U. its global stature? They’re preoccupied with producing research, the university’s reward for greatness, and increasingly the university’s measure of greatness.”

What next for #NAWD? Lee Kottner, University of Venus. March 23, 2015.

O adjunct, my adjunct! Carmen Maria Machado, The New Yorker. March 25, 2015.

“Most students couldn’t afford to live on what we make”: The grim reality of MUN’s contractual faculty. Laura Howells, The Muse. April 2, 2015.

The professor divide at American universities and How to Fix It — The Case for a teaching-intensive tenure track. Jennifer Ruth, LSE Impact Blog. April 10, 2015.
“In our forthcoming book, The Humanities, Higher Education and Academic Freedom: Three Necessary Arguments, Michael Bérubé and I propose that universities and colleges put the professoriate back together again by building teaching-intensive tenure tracks.”

The cost of an adjunct. Laura McKenna, The Atlantic. May 26, 2015.

Zero-hours contracts and precarious academic work in the UK. Jonathan White, Academic Matters. Spring—Summer 2015.
“In the UK there are tens of thousands of people working on zero-hours contracts with no guarantee of work from semester to semester. Many of them are students, recruited into doctoral programmes by universities hungry for their course fees and then used to teach fee-paying undergraduates.”

Gratis. Kate Bowles, Music for Deckchairs. June 10, 2015.

I am an adjunct professor who teaches five classes. I earn less than a pet-sitter. Lee Hall, Guardian. June 22, 2015.

Contingent faculty aren’t working in the minors. John Warner, Just Visiting. July 9, 2015.

Employment (in)security and shame: Working hard on soft money. The Smart Casual. July 15, 2015.

Landmark court case win by NTEU, voids Swinburne anti-worker EBA. Josh Cullinan. National Tertiary Education Union. July 17, 2015.

Solidarity to Save Jobs. Jacqueline Thomsen, Inside Higher Ed. August 6, 2015.

The economic inequality in academia. Richard Goldin, Counterpunch. August 13, 2015.
“The reinforcement of professorial class privilege begins with the hiring process for the few available tenure-track jobs. Excellence in teaching, without academic publications, will rarely qualify an applicant for a university level tenure-track position.”

‘Sessional’ Instructors: Return of the Penniless Scholar? Katie Hyslop, The Tyee. September 21, 2015.

In Search of Solidarity for Sessional Instructors. John-Henry Harter, Briarpatch. September 2, 2015.

Fed up with precarious work, academic staff speak out for fair and full employment. CAUT. October 7, 2015.

Silence on campus: Contingent work and free speech. Alex Press and StudentNation, The Nation. February 17, 2016.

The uses of care

(Here is a link to the original post published on December 16, 2015 at University Affairs: The uses of care.)

Recently on Twitter and Facebook I’ve seen more articles on taking care of ourselves and the practice of “self-care” in academe, which makes a lot of sense at a time of year when (in the Northern hemisphere) the combination of colder weather, anxiety and exhaustion at the end of the semester—and the potential added stress of the holiday season—means that many academics and students are feeling worn out and in need of a break.

But when I see these articles and blog posts that take up the concept of self-care, I can’t help also thinking of (and comparing to) the articles from business publications that frame some of the same activities in a completely different way: from the viewpoint of employers, where our wellness is too easily seen as valuable only if it leads to improved productivity and an increase to the bottom line. These latter “advice” pieces are also regularly shared on social media.

In this post I’m going to look at the issue of how those very different “framings” overlap and intersect: what’s the connection between self-care and the “care work” that is done every day, often invisibly and without compensation? How does all this care work happen in the context of managerial governance with its imperative to productivity—and in a competitive academic culture? Is it also possible that “wellness” and related practices can work more in the interests of employers than employees, transferring the responsibility to change problems in the workplace and its culture?

For a start, care is work, as an entire body of academic research can attest; this work is also gendered, disproportionately performed by women. Women are already engaging in this “extra” work both in professional settings and in their personal lives, because it’s what’s expected of them. Tina Barnes-Powell and Gayle Letherby write that “[b]oth in the wider community and in the communities of higher education (whether provided by women or men), ‘care’ is feminized and undervalued.” Care work is often invisible and informal work, present and necessary but largely unacknowledged in everyday life.

For scholars who hail from groups traditionally marginalized in academe, (mutual) care is even more crucial, since working in the institution so often feels more like trying to work against it—both for themselves and for their students. That accumulation of daily experiences is a process of sedimentation, a psychological, emotional and physical burden generated by the structural gaps those scholars are expected to work to fill in themselves. If “diversity work” is also care work—work that can’t be done by committee or accomplished with a policy—it is beyond the logic of institutional rewards.

The concept self care used in this context has its roots in Black feminist thought, exemplified in the well-known words of Audre Lorde: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” As Sara Ahmed explains in her post on “Self-care as warfare”, this is radical because it involves caring for one’s self when the (social) world daily denies one access to that care. The elements of race and gender are key to the analysis, because of the performance of care for others that is expected of Black women, the discrimination they face, and the low value placed on their lives and work: “some of us, Audre Lorde notes were never meant to survive.”

Lorde’s work shows “how structural inequalities are deflected by being made the responsibility of individuals,” and we can see this pattern also in current discourses about workplace stress and mental health. For example, I wrote “Beyond puppies and yoga” to critique the tendency to individualize the “solutions” for the effects of systemic changes to (and problems with) how we live and work, including in academic institutions; in another previous post I discussed how this individualistic framing is reflected and reinforced in media coverage and advice columns about mental health. No amount of tending to the self can adequately compensate for the broader lack of access to mental health resources for those who need them, or indeed for the effects of discrimination and economic inequality on people’s health.

In the media articles we see now, this care for the self is re-articulated through the overarching, individualized logic of productivity. Examples show that a certain level of stress and anxiety is deemed to be fair and “natural,” but that we can manage it ourselves by taking control with advice and adopting appropriate practices. Naps, we’re told, are a good thing because they increase productivity (and sleeping close to your work has never been easier!)—while the debate about how much sleep we “need” rages on, because sleep, of course, is not (in itself) productive. Happiness itself can be calculated as another part of the equation that leads to more productivity. The Onion’s parody of the advice of “wellness experts” only works because we’re so familiar with the content and tone of said advice and the context in which it’s offered.

A useful example of this is the concept of “mindfulness” that is now regularly discussed in business magazines and mainstream media advice columns, having developed as a trend after gaining popularity in Silicon Valley. Zoë Krupka writes that “pasteurised versions of the ancient practice of mindfulness are now big business,” but they are about fixing “not so much what ails you, but what is ailing those who depend on you.” Using mindfulness as a tool to manage stress and increase innovation and productivity doesn’t get at the underlying problem, which is where the stress is coming from, why the work is so stressful, and how much stress people have to deal with (a few more critiques, if you’re interested, hereherehere and here). The strategic application of mindfulness is not a way to address overwork and unhealthy conditions in the workplace, and it places the responsibility for sustaining those conditions directly onto individuals.

These examples show how something that has a great deal of potential to be positive, can be reinterpreted through the lens of economization and enfolded in its logic. Mindfulness really does have benefits; and sleep, healthy food, exercise, and so on, are things we need in order to be healthy, things that improve our lives. It’s more the conflation of our lives and health with the needs of our employers that is potentially a problem, one that’s particularly prevalent in academe, but certainly not only there.

Robin James gets to the heart of this problem by making a distinction between “self-care as surplus-value producing work” or “resilience,” and “guerrilla self-care” (I recommend you read her post on this). The former, argues James, “is not about personal healing: resilient self-care is just another, upgraded way of instrumentalizing the same people” in the service of the same structures that caused them stress in the first place. It’s not “about cultivating what you need, it’s about adapting to dominant notions of success.” Guerrilla self-care, like the “subversive self-care” discussed here by Shanesha Brooks-Tatum, is a means of pushing back against destructive systemic problems as well as alleviating their effects on us.

This is why it’s important that we acknowledge care as work, which is a fundamental element of relationships and organizations, yet exists outside the “value” that matters in a market. The issue with care work, for the self and others, is not that it needs to be done at all but more that some people are expected to do it or compelled to do it—while others can take it for granted that the work will be done for them (by the institution or by other people in their lives). This is also why each of us needs to think through our unique position in relation to these institutions, their histories and their current priorities. Each of us will be able to do different things to contribute in this context. For example, learning to “say no” to extra uncompensated work is a lauded practice, but not everyone is in a position to do this without negative consequences. Those who can, need to make sure the work they say “no” to is not simply downloaded onto others who can’t refuse.

In this context it is radical to resist working on ourselves for the sole purpose of producing value for a “greedy institution,” in a competitive market for stable paid employment. Can care work become radical, resistant, in a system that attributes no value to it yet cannot function without it? Instead of (ironically) individualizing our problems and expecting people to deal with them through technologies of self-management, we need to acknowledge — and keep re-acknowledging — structural problems including those that create stressful, unhealthy workplaces. We also need to de-individualize our means of response so that the burden does not fall, as it has done and still does, on those already most affected by systemic injustices; otherwise we’re merely re-inscribing the things we claim to critique, both to our own detriment and to other people’s.

War of attrition – Asking why PhD students leave

After finishing up a bibliography of sources on graduate education, I wanted to write a post about some of the things I’d read on the topic. Because there had been recent articles about attrition and supervision, in this post I point out the link between them, citing some of the literature on PhD non-completion and its relationship to factors like academic and social integration, professionalization opportunities, and support/mentorship from faculty members. The original post is from July 17, 2013: War of Attrition.

The Times Higher Ed in the UK had a hit this past week, regarding the issue of doctoral supervision, with an article by Tara Brabazon titled “10 truths a PhD supervisor will never tell you”. Worth noting alongside that one is a recent article by Leonard Cassuto that appeared in the USA’s Chronicle of Higher Education, regarding doctoral attrition, which has long been notoriously high (at least in the United States – an average of around 40-50 percent). Attrition rates in Canada are, as far as I know, not generally available though some numbers from eight of the “U-15” were published in this article from Margin Notes blog (and a longer discussion of completion rates and times to completion is here).

I mention these two issues together because for my dissertation I’ve been going over the research on PhD supervision and attrition, including the work of Barbara Lovitts (who’s cited by Cassuto as well), Chris Golde, and Susan Gardner among others. This research shows clear connections between supervision styles, departmental “climates”, professionalization opportunities, “student satisfaction”, and the outcomes of PhD study – including attrition.

What necessitates this research is that there are long-held misconceptions about the causes of non-completion. A key finding is that often faculty attributions of student non-completion have looked very different from either the students’ understanding of their experiences (or of what other students experience), or from the reality of their reasons for leaving. Since those who leave don’t generally get to tell their stories, assumptions can be made that they simply “didn’t have what it takes” or that the admissions committee didn’t “select” the right candidates for the program. Not only does this download the blame onto the individuals who leave, but it also masks other entrenched problems that can then continue without serious examination. Additionally, it doesn’t mesh with research that’s shown the non-completers tend to look just as “prepared” for academic work as the students who finish.

While there is no single reason why students tend to leave (in fact it’s usually a combination of reasons), a major take-away from the scholarship on this topic is that the supervisory relationship is of crucial importance – not only in whether students graduate, but also in their subsequent (academic) careers. For example, Lovitt’s book Leaving the Ivory Tower confirms that supervisors who have already helped PhD students to complete are the ones most likely to continue doing so. However, the reasons are complex. These supervisors tended to have a give-and-take relationship with students rather than expecting the students to do everything on their own. They “scaffolded” and supported their supervisees, and cared about students’ intellectual development and overall well-being; they facilitated the students’ professionalization and their academic and social “integration” into the department and the discipline, through a variety of practices.

If there are no exit interviews with those who leave their programs, then it’s much easier to continue making erroneous assumptions about why they left in the first place. This is important because there are significant policy implications for the reasons we assign for attrition. For example, even Cassuto’s article places emphasis on selection of the “right” types of students, and on certain types of student responsibility such as seeking out the department’s attrition rate before applying – though this is not information that programs tend to provide to potential students. His taxonomy of students doesn’t include those who simply don’t know what support they will need, and don’t end up receiving it; it doesn’t include those who had the capacity to complete but were abandoned by their supervisors, sabotaged by departmental politics, or derailed by personal life circumstances. All these factors are discussed in the literature on PhD attrition.

Like most other issues in education there are many causes for problems with completion. Any relationship is a two-way street, as pointed out in this post by Raul Pacheco-Vega. There are plenty of faculty who are already engaging in the helpful practices described by Lovitts and other researchers, as well as PhD students who don’t put in enough work, or who probably shouldn’t have chosen to start the degree in the first place. But when it comes to implementing solutions, the nature of students’ supervisory relationships should be one of the primary targets of inquiry and intervention.

An example of an important issue that could be addressed is that of responsibility. Reasonable student expectations of faculty should be made clearer, and tacit institutional and professional knowledge – which is so crucial to students’ success in graduate programs – must be made explicit rather than being left to students to discover for themselves. If students understand what they should expect from a good supervisor – and for what they are responsible themselves – they may be able to make a more informed decision about this important working relationship (and whether in fact it’s working at all).

In some cases, this kind of change will take time and a great deal of consideration because if we take the research seriously, the problems extend beyond merely asking professors and students to engage more often in certain practices. They may be problems with the culture of a department or program, or in fact (considering some of the comments from Lovitts’ interviewees) the nature of academe itself, which is where we have to ask ourselves – what kind of a university do we want, and what kind of faculty will be working there? For example, if students also listed “personal problems” (as many of them did) including stress on existing relationships and the demands of raising children, does this mean those who desire a more balanced life will be inherently unsuited to academic work?

PhD students’ “dissatisfaction” should not be dismissed as merely the whining complaints of the academically inadequate. When students don’t know what to expect, they don’t have the opportunity to align their decisions and behaviour with the appropriate expectations; when they don’t receive adequate support, they may not know how to get what they’re missing, or indeed that they’re missing something in the first place (until it’s too late). Not only that but if we ignore these issues, do we not face a reproduction of what may be the worst aspects of academic life, in the name of “trial by fire”? Those who “make it through” are often assumed to have some inherent set of qualities that make them a better “fit” for academic life. But closer attention shows that this clearly isn’t the case, which means – even if the attrition rates are lower in Canada – we need to seek out appropriate explanations.

Risk, responsibility, and public academics

This piece addresses the way that early-career academics feel encouraged to engage in public or interactive communication, yet find that the professional assessment of these activities is still fairly low – and that the professional “risk” isn’t the same for everyone. It was re-posted on the LSE Impact Blog, titled “More attention should be paid to the risks facing early career researchers in encouraging wider engagement”. Here is a link to the original post, from July 3, 2013: Risk, responsibility, and public academics.

As my last academic event of the season, I attended Worldviews 2013: Global Trends in Media and Higher Education in Toronto on June 20th and 21st. I’m not going to write about the panel in which I participated (“Who are the MOOC users?”, with Joe Wilson, Aron Solomon, and Andrew Ng), since I’ve already spent enough time thinking and writing about that issue of late. But there was another very interesting theme that I noticed coming up throughout the conference. In a number of the sessions I attended, I heard emphasis being placed on the need for researchers and academics to communicate more with publics beyond the specialist audiences that have, until recently, been the norm.

This language of “engagement” has been taken up ever more enthusiastically by funding agencies and universities, often alongside the concept of “impact”, the latter term having already become influential (and embedded in the logic of research governance) in the UK. However, in all this talk about “engagement” and public communication it seems that less attention is being given to the question of which academics participate in this process – who can make use of the opportunity to “engage”, and why.

For a start, it’s somewhat disingenuous to discuss the “responsibility” for academic public engagement without considering the risks that this involves, and for whom that risk is most significant  – i.e. most likely those already in marginalized positions in the institution and in society. The point about risk was not addressed explicitly in discussions I heard at the conference. In spite of the rhetoric about “impact”, the fear that many graduate students and early career researchers (ECRs) feel – and the anecdotal evidence of folks being told not to get involved in certain kinds of activities – suggests that “engagement” must happen on terms explicitly approved by the institution, if those involved are seeking academic careers. Grad students are not generally encouraged to become “public intellectuals”, a concept that regularly provokes critiques from those both within and outside the academy.

Not only was risk left out of the picture, but the discussion wasn’t adequately placed in the context of increasing amount of non-TT labour in academe. Those not fortunate enough to be on the tenure track still want to be (and are) scholars and researchers too; but it’s harder for them to contribute to public debates in the same way because they don’t tend to have a salary to fund their work, or a university “home base” to provide them with the stamp of academic credibility. I noticed at one panel there was also a discussion about tenure and academic freedom, and the argument was made that profs with tenure don’t speak up enough, given the protections they enjoy. Again, I think the more interesting question is about who gets to speak freely, with or without tenure, and why. Do all tenured faculty get to assume the same kind of “freedom” that someone like Geoffrey Miller does (or did)? What will happen to such freedom when the work of academics is further “unbundled”, as with the growing proportion of low-status contract faculty?

Blogging of course falls into the category of “risky practice” as well. Writing a good blog post actually takes time, effort, practice, and a lot of thought. But what’s interesting, and perhaps predictable, is that blogs were dismissed as not credible by at least one participant during a Worldviews panel that was about the future of the relationship between higher education and the media. In fact a specific comment referred to ECRs “trying to make a name for themselves” through social media, as if this is merely a form of shallow egotism as opposed to a legitimate means of building much-needed academic networks.

This seems particularly short-sighted in light of the intense competition faced by graduate students and other ECRs who want to develop an academic career. To suggest that ECRs are simply using tweets and blogs as vacuous promotional activities is an insidious argument in two ways: firstly because it implies that such tools have no value as a form of dissemination of research (and development of dialogue), and secondly it invokes the idea that “real” academics do not have to descend to such crass forms of self-aggrandizement. Both of these points are, in my opinion, simply untrue – but then again I’m just “a blogger”!

If universities are going to help educate a generation of researchers who will cross the traditional boundaries of academe, they will need to support these people in a much more public way – and in a way that will be reflected by the priorities of departments and in the process of tenure and promotion. Yes, we have the “3-Minute Thesis” and “Dance Your PhD“, but not everyone enjoys participating in this competitive way – and myriad other forms of public, critical engagement may be less well-accepted. Universities may make the claim that they value such forms, but who other than well-established researchers would be willing to speak up (especially about the academic system itself) without the fear of making a “career-limiting move”?

Those starting out in academic life need to receive the message, loud and clear, that this kind of “public” work is valued. They need to know that what they’re doing is a part of a larger project or movement, a more significant shift in the culture of academic institutions, and that it will be recognized as such. This will encourage them to do the work of engagement alongside other forms of work that currently take precedence in the prestige economy of academe. Tenured faculty are not the only ones with a stake in participating in the creation and sharing of knowledge. If we’re looking for “new ideas”, then we need to welcome newcomers into the conversation that is developing and show that their contributions are valued, rather than discouraging them from – or chastising them for – trying to participate.

Interview: @Home in the public sphere

In February and March, 2012, Dr. Grace Pollock of the Public Intellectuals Project (at McMaster University) published a written interview with me; it was published in two parts, and the links to the original posts are provided below:

@Home in the Public Sphere – Part 1 (February 28, 2012).

@Home in the Public Sphere – Part 2 (March 21, 2012).

 

PhD education and mental health: A follow-up

In December, 2011, I wrote a blog post about PhD students and metal health as a major issue in graduate education. The post below is one that I wrote to build on the many issues that came out of discussions generated by that first piece. Here is a link to the original post from January 3, 2012: PhD education and mental health: A follow-up.

As my first post for 2012, I want to provide a bit of a follow-up to my previous piece about PhD students and mental health issues.

Though I always had the sense there was a problem with mental health in grad school and especially during the PhD, I was still surprised by the intense reaction to my post. As I write this, there are 38 comments (not counting the one I left myself). Some of these comments are very moving and all of them are refreshingly honest, and I’m extremely thankful that so many of you shared your experiences and insights. Throughout this post I will link to your comments directly.

Through Twitter, Facebook, and the comments on my post, many relevant points were raised. Some people discussed an assumed “ideal” for PhD students, and a sense of guilt and self-doubt they felt when they “failed” to live up to this, which in turn can be exacerbated by the isolation of the process and by the apparent lack of structure in advanced academic work. Others mentioned the persistently gendered (masculine) nature of the scholarly ideal, with women being affected by systemic biases that implicate them differently in academic work as well as in parenthood and family life. Bumblebee wrote that the effect of PhD problems on intimate relationships could be disastrous, particularly without institutional support.

I focused on some of the structural issues in PhD education because I think they contribute to a “pluralistic ignorance” — the fact that a student may believe that she is the only one with a problem, and blame herself for it as well, even while others are experiencing the same thing. Several people commented that compounded by insecurity and isolation, the lack of acknowledgment of and open discussion about depression and mental health issues — the “silence” associated with stigma — is actually the most significant problem because it prevents students from seeking help either from the university or from their peers.

Another effect of silence is that prospective students cannot necessarily make an informed decision about whether to enter a PhD program at the outset (and which program and supervisor to choose). Marketization of higher education is problematic because it encourages institutions to persuade students to enroll rather than informing them about their “best fit” for the program or department. A PhD program tends to be a “black box” in terms of information about problematic aspects of the course and/or the negative experiences of students. This is only compounded by not asking students who leave about the reasons for their departure (reasons that are not always negative—as noted by Alex O).

In another comment, Lil makes the crucial point that accessing support services on campuses can be a trial in itself. Students need somewhere else to turn for support and perspective when significant academic relationships begin to turn sour. But it can take time — sometimes weeks — to land an appointment with a counsellor, and in some cases students will be speaking with a trainee rather than an experienced professional. Usually they will be speaking with someone who is not familiar with the PhD process and the kinds of issues that can arise during it. Often there are a limited number of appointments available to each student in a given period, and since these services tend not to be covered by available health benefits, the student may not be able to afford to go anywhere else for help. Some students may feel too uncomfortable even to seek out professional assistance, which requires a kind of self-exposure that can be off-putting.

Of course not everyone who enters a PhD program will suffer from mental health problems. Students with a lack of social and academic support and/or past histories of depression are more likely to be vulnerable (and this applies to other high-level forms of education as well). But it’s important to consider carefully the nature of academic environment and the ways in which it can affect students’ experiences, both the good and the bad. Graduate students, like all students, are not only learning but also becoming different people; they are “changed” by their experience, and this includes the psychological and the emotional as well as the academic and professional.

Many of the comments I received thanked me for being brave enough to write publicly about this issue. On the one hand it’s disturbing to me that there is such a lack of public discussion in spite of the apparent pervasiveness of the problem. Then again, if my posts can be used as a way to open the door to that discussion, then I’m happy about it indeed.

“My grief lies all within” — PhD students, depression & attrition.

I wrote this post about depression and attrition among PhD students, thinking I’d probably chosen a topic that would only be of interest to a niche audience. To my surprise it became the most popular blog post I’d written (and still is). I still think this indicates that not enough public attention has been directed to the structural elements that contribute to mental health issues among PhDs and in other student groups as well.

In a follow-up post I addressed a number of the issues that had been raised in the comments on the initial piece. These include the role of the “ideal” for and of students; insecurity and isolation; lack of information before applying for the PhD, and the difficulty of accessing resources to help with mental health issues.

The first post was republished on World.com on January 3, 2012, and a summary appeared on The Scholarly Web on the Times Higher Education UK website on January 12, 2012. Here is a link to the original piece from December 14, 2011:  My grief lies all within” — PhD students, depression & attrition.

From November to March is prime time for academic burn-out in graduate programs — I’m convinced of that. Perhaps it’s a seasonal thing; it can be easy to sink into a trough of exhaustion and stress, and not climb out of it for months. But rather than just the seasonal doldrums, my sense is that clinical depression, extreme anxiety and other mental health issues are becoming more common in graduate programs as well as in undergraduate education.

I asked one fellow student her opinion of this, and she replied, “it seems like everyone I know in academia is depressed.” On another occasion when I was very unwell, I was told that “everyone” has some kind of breakdown during the PhD; my troubles were nothing to worry about!

Is this a serious structural (and normalized) issue rather than an anecdotal one, and if so, why is no one discussing it? When I sampled the Twitterverse, I received many replies reinforcing and elaborating the impression that yes, this is a problem — perhaps now more than ever — and that it can’t be reduced to students’ individual propensities and “weaknesses.”

In the current context, there are plenty of structural issues that contribute to the PhD as a time when students are vulnerable to stress.

Within their programs, students face a more intense workload than in their undergraduate degrees, and they may for the first time be around students with as much academic aptitude as themselves. These factors can contribute to “imposter syndrome,” the sense that one is about to be “found out” for not really being smart enough. As adults being placed in a subordinate position, some PhD students experience a sense of infantilization alongside the conflicting expectation that they develop a professional identity.

In terms of the student’s academic experience, the PhD emphasizes a transition to autonomous work that is often a new challenge. The lack of structure, and unclear boundaries about responsibilities, mean that some students are unsure what help they “can” ask for from supervisors. This is compounded by the lengthy isolation from peers that often occurs in the later stages of research (in the humanities and social sciences at least).

Career-related pressures in academe have intensified in the face of recession and long-term political economic changes that have affected the university and its governance. Graduate programs in Canada and elsewhere have increased enrollments often without proportional increases to the tenured faculty who provide supervision, or to non-repayable funding. The shortage of funding can lead to student debt and other financial difficulties as well as more intense competition for grants and teaching positions, and pressure to “complete” sooner. Fewer tenured faculty means that students may need to compete for academic mentorship and support as well. And all these changes have helped to feed further competition in the form of a tightened market for academic (i.e. tenure-track faculty) jobs; this kind of competition can be depressing and stressful.

While only a relatively small proportion of PhD graduates obtain permanent faculty positions, in many PhD programs there is still a deeply-held assumption that students can or should strive to engage in research-oriented academic careers. Thus the definition of successtends to be rather narrow, making it easier to feel like a “failure.”

The culture of academic replication — the inculcation of certain academic goals above all others, in spite the “reality” of the larger job market for PhDs — has been roundly criticized, even compared to a cult. Taking on an awkward double stance, many students are engaging in a process of translation and re-valuation of themselves and their work that continues until long after the degree is over; some must overcome a long-held sense of exceptionalism with regards to their academic chances.

And of course, alongside the professional pressures there are also the so-called “personal” issues and events that affect everyone, and which can throw one’s entire degree (and life) off-track if they occur — a break up or divorce, for example, which can itself result from relationship problems triggered by the academic lifestyle.

A larger problem is not only the context described above (and its effects), but also the thickly oppressive silence that surrounds it. Not coincidentally, I think, there is a parallel silence around the issue of attrition. Considering the high rate of attrition from PhD programs and the cost of graduate education, you’d assume there would be a plenty of research on the reasons why students “drop out.” But according to Chris Golde (2000) we still don’t have much information on why students leave PhD programs, partly because PhD attrition “looks bad” for everyone involved (responsibility for this “failure” is usually transferred to the student). I wonder how many students simply leave due to mental health and related issues brought on or exacerbated by the psychological minefield of the PhD process — and how much of this is preventable.

More than a storm in a teacup – the debate on academic blogging

This was a follow-up post that I wrote (published on October 21, 2011) after a briefer article of mine on academic blogging was published in University Affairs. I wanted to get into some more of the reasons why blogging is still considered a lesser form of communication, and therefore isn’t something that usually contributes to building an academic career. Here is a link to the original post from October 21, 2011: More than a storm in a teacup – the debate on academic blogging.

Last week an article I wrote about academic blogging was published in the print and online editions of University Affairs. I decided to provide a follow-up to the article, because there were so many interesting comments from bloggers that couldn’t be included in the scope of the original post.

I also want to take time to link their points to those from another discussion over at The Guardian, involving the critique of academic publishing and the call for its reform. Many of the issues mentioned by bloggers were clearly entwined with this recent thread of criticism that targets academic journals and their business model, one that is described by its current critics as restrictive, exploitative and out-dated.

A benefit of blogging cited by most of those who commented was the development of a public profile independent of the regular channels of academic validation. This visibility tended to lead to more (and diverse) opportunities because of exposure to different audiences. Having a public “face” meant being recognizable as an expert on a particular topic, and PhD student Chris Parsons (UVic) explained that “this is important for graduate students, in particular, given that most of us lack established publishing records.” Because of his active construction of a body of “alternative” online work, Parsons has been invited to contribute to more traditional peer-reviewed publications, the accepted signifiers of academic success.

The bloggers also described using social media for professional networking and collaboration. Blogging sparked dialogues and exchanges across disciplines, facilitated by what David Phipps (of York University) describes as “enhanced reach and two-way communication,” enabling new connections that were unexpected, serendipitous, and productive. Blogs were also viewed by students as more inviting and accessible than traditional publications; UVic professor Janni Aragon discussed how students have become engaged with her online work, many of them reading and responding to her posts.

A related theme was that of the benefit of gaining access to different audiences. Academic publications are associated with specialized audiences confined not only to the academic realm but also to disciplinary areas. Professor Marie-Claire Shanahan (U of Alberta) discussed how blogging has helped her to build a research community, allowing her to “meet people with similar interests who work in different areas” and also to reach out to audiences for whom the research is relevant but who don’t normally have access to it. All the bloggers who sent me comments made mention of this relationship between development of a public profile, and the ways in which “blogging extends our ability to communicate our research beyond academic circles in an accessible and timely manner” (Alfred Hermida, UBC).

Several bloggers expressed their frustration with traditional academic publishing, including complaints that the regular publication process takes too long and that the resulting publications are inaccessible to non-academic audiences. Sharing ideas through accessible online sources is more efficient because it isn’t hindered by the gatekeeping function of peer review (part of what validates academic knowledge). Chris Parsons described how his work has been cited in “government filings, academic papers, news sites, and so forth […] none of that would have happened if I was constrained to the slow process of peer-review or forced to utilize traditional media outlets.”

The publishing model that currently dominates renders research inaccessible to the publiceven though much of the research done in universities is publicly funded, and the journals technically acquire their content for free. Parsons argues that his work “is publicly funded, so it should be available to the public” and blogging is a part of this. The current model reflectsthe concept of knowledge as a “private good” rather than a “public good” (Slaughter & Rhoades, 2004, p.28). A private-good model goes against an ethic and practice of sharing as discussed by PhD student Rebecca Hogue who explained, “I like to get my ideas out there, and by sharing them (and writing them down) they become more solid […] I hate to hold stuff back because someday it might be published.” In spite of the myth of the lone scholar, collaboration has been an essential feature of academe in the past. How does an increasingly proprietary, private model of knowledge affect collegial work?

Those academics involved in blogging are engaging with new modes of communication and new models of scholarly collaboration and research dissemination. The vehemency with which this practice is debated by bloggers and non-bloggers alike speaks to the deep roots of the issue; because academic publishing is key to professional advancement in academe, everyone has something at stake. This debate touches on the heart of the university’s mission, and what accompanies it — a continued struggle over the definition of authoritative knowledge.