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.

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.

Myths and mismatches, part 1

This series of posts was written as a response to – and a means of thinking through issues raised by – an e-course by Jo VanEvery and Julie Clarenbach called “Myths and Mismatches“. According to Jo and Julie, the “goal with this series is to help you understand your experience [in academe] as both personal and structural.” This was a helpful series for me, since I was in the process of thinking through the implications of seeking a tenure-track job (hence the in-depth blog responses).

Here is the link to the original post, from January 8, 2011: “Myths and Mismatches”, Oh My!

Over the next week or so I’ll be blogging my responses to “Myths and Mismatches“, an e-course by Jo Van Every and Julie Clarenbach. The goal of this series is to bring attention to a number of “myths” that can get in the way of making “conscious career choices” in the academic environment, particularly for those who are feeling “dissatisfied” with academic work.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately (and blogging about it too), since I need to make decisions about “where to go” next, and I find the options overwhelming. I thought it would be interesting to think through my responses to Jo and Julie’s course by writing about each of them as they arrive in my inbox.

“Myth #1: The Life of the Mind, or, Academia Is the Only Game in Town”

The first post refers to a misconception about the nature of academe, the idea of the “Ivory Tower”–one that is perpetuated by media images of university life. Jo and Julie advise us not to fall into the trap of imagining “academe” as a cloister into which one can retreat from the Real World whilst pursuing one’s ideas in peace among like-minded colleagues (and as far from possible from demanding undergraduate students, for example).

I would say it’s no coincidence that this concept of the Lone Scholar is reinforced by the ideal of the tenured research professor, which we’re generally encouraged to think of as the norm or the goal. If this utopian environment/position ever came close to existing, it was a characteristic of the traditional “elite” model of university education, something I’ve written about in previous posts.

The point here is that given the current context, you’re certain to be disappointed if you see this as the ideal, since the job description for professors includes juggling not only research but also teaching, committee and other “service” and administration work, student advising and mentoring, attending and planning events and conferences, and and array of extra-curricular work/activities. In fact the trend is for professors to be more “engaged” with audiences beyond the university because ultimately, public communication is what strengthens and smooths the relationship between universities and the communities/contexts in which they operate.

In terms of my own experience, I don’t think this idea of the “life of the mind” has ever been one to which I’ve had much access; and as wonderful as it sounds, I’ve also never really expected to be able to participate. Jo and Julie make the point that the mythical Great Solitary Thinkers were all men, which is only one part of that equation; there aren’t too many role models to emulate. I also don’t come from a particularly privileged background (economically or culturally), so my expectations have been different all along. I certainly never imagined I would end up doing a PhD at all. Since my undergrad years I’ve talked a lot with full-time faculty and had a good look at what happens in the day-to-day life of tenure-track professors (and part-time/contract profs as well). Probably the combination of these factors is why I’ve always felt ambivalent about the idea of trying to become a professor, as a specific career track. The increased competition in recent years has only made me feel less certain.

Jo and Julie point out that the flip side of “academe as intellectual cloister” is that the “world” outside the university is a barren and banal place, devoid of intellectual engagement. I think the myth of “real world” vs. “academe” is quite destructive, including that of a corporate/business world that’s somehow inherently unethical and opposed to academe. It simplifies the problems faced by universities, often reducing them to an “us vs. them” argument, and it precludes the possibility of meaningful engagement across boundaries. This kind of belief also seems to entail that academe is somehow more ethical than other environments. But to cling to that idea is to set oneself up for a despairing fall–academics are no more (or less) inherently moral or “good” than other groups.

Decisions, decisions, part 2: tenure and what else?

This as the second of two posts, written in 2010 and published at Speculative Diction blog. Link to the original post from September 6, 2010: Decisions, decisions, part 2: Tenure and what else?

As I discussed in my last post, the “vanishing tenure” problem is partly a simple matter of numbers, but it is also something more. There are now (not coincidentally) many, many more graduate students than there ever were in the past–both in terms of gross enrolments and also by proportion. In Ontario this is by design, as is evident from recent government policy. But does the government intent to expand graduate programs in order to create more tenured professors? No. Their primary goal is to develop self-sustaining “human capital” and to boost the provincial (and ultimately, national) capacity for constructing a competitive “knowledge economy”.

So according to that logic, most of us should be looking to build careers in other, “knowledge-intensive” fields. But how many of us currently in grad school (especially on the PhD track) know what those fields are, and how to access them? Can professors (our supervisors) help or not? How can we find appropriate mentorship for this kind of transition? What is this alternate path we’re expected to take, and where does it lead? Was this what we were encouraged to expect when we applied to graduate school?

Here we hit upon a cultural snag that is not being addressed by government policy: in many PhD programs, there is a perpetual assumption (or implication) made that non-academic jobs are inherently less desirable and somehow not “pure” or good, since in the academic system, designed to replicate itself, graduate education has historically been a process of “socialisation” to the professoriate. This ethic is still being inculcated in graduate school, and it’s one that goes directly against the exhortations of government policymakers and professional pundits alike. This is why there are so many articles and blog posts dedicated to the subject of “escaping” academe, and why graduate school has been characterised as a “ponzi scheme” and even a cult.

As I mentioned in my last post, this socialisation/enculturation model worked well in the past, when very few students went on to complete PhDs and then filled the professorial positions available. But it is directly at odds with the form of systemic expansion we’re now experiencing. In another previous post I discussed a breakdown of graduate mentorship; now not only are mentors becoming scarce, they may not possess the knowledge, social capital, or indeed even the motivation to help graduate students find non-academic work. What’s worse is that after years of graduate study, many students remain in denial even when faced with the reality of the academic job market.

For current graduate students, I think the important question to ask in the face of all this is not “why did you really go to graduate school?” but more fundamentally, “will you make a decision about why you’re there?” rather than continuing to assume that your PhD will (and should) lead to a job as a tenured professor. In suggesting these kinds of questions, I don’t mean to imply that we should take an entirely instrumental view of graduate education or discount the joy of serendipity. But we do need to learn to think twice before counting on that desirable academic position waiting somewhere down the line (or thinking that once we obtain such a position everything will be fine).

And this isn’t a negative thing. We do have options: the choice is not between “tenure-track professordom” and “failure”. The choice is not between an endless cycle of job applications and contract positions while waiting for that elusive permanent academic position to appear–and “giving up”; it is not a choice between intellectual martyrdom and “selling out”. And while the question of “alternative” careers is addressed more or less and differently across disciplines and programs, there is still a strong culture of replication in PhD education, one that is bolstered by increased competition for scarce resources.

As graduate students or prospective grad students we need to think about why we’re being encouraged to go to graduate school and what will become of our lives because of it. I don’t believe that we should accept the sacrifice of balanced and healthy lives in order to realise the Academic Dream. Nor should we feel that achieving this Dream is the only form of sanctioned success.

Among those who have made the decision to follow the academic trajectory, there will have to be more consideration and awareness (in all disciplines) of the fact that while the traditional tenure arrangement worked in the past, the current system–stressed with undergraduate and now graduate expansion, limping by with proportionally less government funding than ever, and increasingly reliant on exploited contingent faculty and rising tuition fees–cannot be what it was even 50 years ago, and what it is in so many people’s minds still.

This is not a matter of ideological positioning, but one of recognition: universities have changed, for good or ill. But while we face certain contextual realities, our actions in the present and our choices for the future will reflect principals and values, and it’s those choices to which we now need to look, and to those principles we’ll have to rally.

Our systems can no longer afford to bear those who in the past sought tenure for its security and financial rewards – nor those who seek to contain their knowledge within the mythical Ivory Tower. In my opinion we need to resist the purely bottom-line oriented, economic model of governance that frequently predominates, the one that treats knowledge as an object and education as a commodity; but resistance will be a matter of principle as well. And in order to have other, better options we’ll need to be ready to participate and collaborate, to help think of new solutions for sustaining this oldest of institutions, to contribute to its re-invigoration with all that our fertile brains have to offer.

The inculcative ethos of the academic PhD sets up the question – should we “abandon” the academy, or is it more ethical to tough it out and fight for the old ways? I think the answer to these questions is both yes and no. Tenure as we know it is not the solution to the need for more teachers at universities. But neither is the exploitation of thousands of young (potential) scholars who have the desire to build fully-rounded academic careers. On the other hand, the features of tenure – academic freedom and job security, fostering long-term commitment to the institution and to students – still have a definite purpose and should be incorporated into/cultivated by whatever model we create. Academic freedom is now more important than ever and still under threat, as somerecent cases in the United States show.

A related point: just as the academic career shouldn’t be a sacrifice, teaching shouldn’t have to be a labour of love. We need to come up with a way to change the distribution of work in universities such that those who are happy to teach and good at it are offered long-term stability and rewards , just as tenured, research-oriented faculty are now. And we should strive to allow for more movement between academic work and other kinds of engagement and research, with recognition of that “other” activity in the promotions process. These kinds of changes will help to overcome the problems with inequity and faculty diversity, as well as opening up more options for students, allowing them to develop the necessary social capital to move to positions outside the university. This could also help to dispel the misconceptions and negative stereotypes that abound in public discourse about university education and professors specifically.

And of course, all this will entail a different understanding and practice of graduate education, one that can encompass preparation for academic careers but also for other applications of graduate-level skills and expertise.

I’ve been lucky to have a lot of good guidance on my own journey. I have role models who work or have worked both within academe and outside it (often simultaneously), so I have something to look to when it comes to “imagining” a different kind of career or even a different “way of being” as a professor. These people have helped me to acquire the explicit and tacit knowledge I needed to understand and participate in academic life, and they’ve provided invaluable support and encouragement.

But they’ve also taught me to consider other possibilities, to think reasonably about my goals and how best to achieve them. Now I’m asking not only “is there a tenure-track job for me?” but also “would I do a really good job as a professor? Would I be happy?”. For me this is important, partly because I want a mantra of feet-on-the-ground guidance in my attempt navigate the murky bog of dissertation-writing, “professional development”, fellowship applications and the post-grad-school job search. I’m hoping the combination of keeping informed, building social capital and cultivating self-awareness will be enough to keep me afloat through all this chaos. I’ve learned to plan and prepare, and to make decisions in stages.

Perhaps, after all, these are the skills we should cultivate in our graduate programs: self-knowledge, adaptability, independence, creativity, and the ability to question our own assumptions, as well as the resilience to deal with the outcomes of that questioning.

Decisions, decisions, part 1: what’s in store?

I wrote this as the first of two posts, back in 2010, not long after I started the first incarnation of Speculative Diction blog. I started writing these because I’d started following the higher ed news more closely, and I was thinking through the process of the Ph.D. and what kind of paths we’re encouraged to take throughout that process. This has since become one of the threads in my dissertation, where I’ve interviewed doctoral students about the nature of “success” in their academic contexts.

Link to the original post from September 5, 2010: Decisions, decisions, part 1: What’s in store?

Almost every day I take time to read the higher education (PSE) news from Canada and around the world. And every day a cluster of common (and inter-related) themes tends to dominate the articles and blogs.

One of those themes is: How many (or how few) tenure-track jobs are there availablefor new PhDs in various fields? Can we give tenure to “adjunct” (contract) faculty whose working conditions are insecure? Given the lack of tenure-track hiring, should we be encouraging and preparing grad students for careers outside academe? And inevitably the questions arise–should we retain the tenure system in universities? Can we keep it, and if so, how and why? What purpose does it serve, and for whom?

I’m going to try not to repeat too much what others have already said, since the discussion has been a regular one over some time and many of you have been following it with interest. What I write here is profoundly influenced not only by what I “study” (post-secondary education) but also by who I am, since the question of tenured academic employment is more than merely theoretical for me–it’s about actual life choices I need to make in the immediate future. My personal perspective is that of a PhD student who will need to decide, within the next couple of years, about either focussing on an academic track or looking for work outside the PSE system (and possibly returning to it later in my “career”–if I’m lucky).

I feel deeply conflicted about this issue. On the one hand, I love the “ideal” of the academic life: I love teaching and would like to be able to do research of my own (and even write the book I have planned). I was drawn into grad school because I loved the conversation, the learning, the sharing and development of knowledge and ideas that occurs when academe is at its best. And I like participating in the continuance of the university itself, in decision-making within the institution.

But then again, close observation of the academic environment over the course of about 7 years has led me to doubt the reality of the “life of the mind”, to question its continued existence in its (past and) current form, and to think through the privilege that is necessary merely to have access to such a life, let alone to live it through the university. I feel more trepidation and doubt now that I did at the end of my BA. What kind of career might be possible for someone like me in the increasingly competitive environment of the university–and would I want it?

I do love teaching but I frequently feel frustrated by the context of teaching, wherein I’ve often felt stressed and compromised and have seen many others in the same state. Universities have continued to expand during the last 30 years in spite of relative declines in funding; the growth in undergraduate numbers has meant an increase to the amount of teaching work, and this task has been transferred to inexpensive contract faculty rather than to new tenure-track hires. Universities are now dependent on such faculty, and on inexperienced graduate students, to carry out undergraduate teaching at budget rates–in spite of the potential for negative effects on the learning environment.

Even as the need for teachers has increased, research and publishing are still the main means to reaching desirable tenure-track jobs. For those unable to score such a position immediately after the PhD or post-doc fellowship, the “hamster wheel” of contract teaching can take up all the time that might have been put towards writing. Gender also matters: not only is teaching itself feminised, but as a female entering my 30s I will face difficult choices about family and career–choices that often put women at a disadvantage in the university workplace, wherein we already earn less on averagethan male scholars. Contingent faculty also have much less input–if any at all–into the way the university is run, so they are shut out of decision-making processes that affect them.

The question of “tenure or no tenure, academic work or not” is not only about choice of jobs. Academic training involves 10 or more years of post-secondary education, which can mean stalling the supposed milestones of adult life (buying a house and/or car, having children, building a long-term retirement plan and so on) until your late 20s or early 30s–unless you had a healthy amount of economic privilege to begin with. This is a significant investment of time, money, and other resources. If you’ve managed to accumulate a mound of student debt during your time in university, then you’ll also be trying to find ways to juggle that with your regular living costs. In other words, you’ll want a steady, reasonable income, not the tenuousness of contract-to-contract teaching work.

The lack-of-tenured-employment problem is not just a short term one, a “dip in the market”. On the contrary, it is bound up with the structural changes associated with massification that have occurred in universities over the course of the last 60 years or so. For a while, the potential problems were allayed simply by injecting more public funding into the system (from the 1960s to 1970s), and hiring more full-time professors, as a means of increasing accessibility for previously excluded groups. But the recessions of the 70s, followed by 1980s neo-conservatism and (here in Ontario) the Harris Conservatives in the 90s, have made fiscal instability the norm. Hence contract faculty also serve as conveniently expendable labour when budgets shrink.

The future of tenure as a system is shaky, primarily because of these structural issues. As our PSE systems are stretched to their limits, old ways of doing things have come under attack not only by those marginalised by the existing, unequal tenure system but also by increasingly influential “stakeholders” outside the university. Tenure was a system that functioned reasonably well when universities were elite institutions with few undergraduates and even fewer graduate students, but in Canada at least, the beginning of the end of that arrangement came in the 1960s. And it’s somewhat ironic that while universities have become more “accessible”, tenure is now becoming much less so.

Even as contract faculty form associations to lobby for their rights, we see regular stories from the United States and elsewhere about PSE institutions making it easier for themselves to dismiss tenured faculty as well. So changes to tenure are already becoming an issue that affects everyone, one that needs to be resolved fairly and sustainably and in the near future. If we don’t come up with a more equitable solution by design, then the situation is likely to degenerate along the current well-beaten track–with persistent inequalities between a small, elite group of well-paid research professors (and increasingly, administrators), and the non-permanent faculty who pick up the expanding teaching duties necessitated by mass post-secondary education.

None of this looks to me like the kind of situation on which I want to stake my own career and livelihood. And I think the “rational” decision would be to choose some other field. But my love of learning–and of helping others learn–is not necessarily rational, though I do have a healthy desire to see things change for the better and to put my own energy toward that goal. As always I’m walking a line between intuition and “reason”, frustration and elation, helplessness and empowerment, and looking for some happy middle ground on which to build a launching pad, a castle, a jungle gym, whatever seems necessary. Of course that must be done whilst successfully navigating the way through the PhD process, but I’ll get to that in my next blog post.