They walk amongst us: The invisible academic

“Silverfish: “He disappeared a few years ago.”
”Disappeared? How? said Cuddy.
”We think,” said Silverfish, leaning closer, “that he found a way of making himself invisible.”
”Really?”
”Because,” said Silverfish, nodding conspiratorially, “no-one has seen him.”

— Terry Pratchett, Men at Arms

Although I don’t write in the area, I’ve been interested from the start of my career in academic labour and although I’m a so-so academic, I’m an excellent observer and the more literature I read about academic labour, the more I think there is a hidden class of academic, I’m not sure what to call this hidden class, I’m also not sure if they are simply a product of my imagination but the more I observe the more I am convinced they exist and walk amongst us. 

My issue with a lot of the academic labour material is that it depends to concentrate heavily on traditional academics and a rather narrow cast of stock characters – the exploited adjunct, the selfish research superstar and the burnout who wanted to change the world but couldn’t. Increasingly (and positively) there is more intersection with gender, race, sexuality but still broadly tied to our stock characters.  Now given that the exploitation of adjuncts underpins and props up the University system, it seems right to me there is a heavy concentration on that group (similarly for attempt to move us away from thinking of the academic in relation to white straight middle aged men).  However it equally occurs to me that a lot of debate is about how to get the selfish research superstar to help the exploited but this conceptualisation misses out another group who I think in many respects holds more power to enable change. 

I’ll be perfectly upfront and say there is no rigorous research – this is pure deductive reasoning based on observation, interaction with others and interaction with others as a trade unionist representing members. With that caveat,  you are well to rubbish or ignore this. This seems feels right to me. 

So who is this invisible academic who I think is missing from the literature? I think they have (most of – but not always all) of the following characteristics:

  • They never are people who went ‘straight through’ – they always are people who have come back to academia after doing something else as a career;
  • They tend to cluster around ‘professional’ areas (management, health, COMPSCI);
  • They did a PhD because it was offered and someone else was paying or it was very cheap;
  • They have no intrinsic motivation in research so either do very little or do enough to be ‘respectful’;
  • They however know that it’s important to *sound* interested in research so have a good understanding of the process and wider context;
  • They have no little or no interest in who the names in their field and the concept doesn’t mean much to them;
  • They have little or no experience of being an adjunct because they were a) recruited for their professional experience and b) if there was no full-time job, they would just carry on in previous profession;
  • They don’t tend to suffer from burnout (in the sense of the gap between expectation and reality) because they had no particular expectations from academia and their unit of analysis isn’t other academics, it’s their previous career;
  • They tend to position themselves as the person or people in the department who keep everything running because they see that as way to off-set relatively weak research profile;
  • They tend to put more stock in an individual concept of professionalism that any sense of duty to a wider nebulous field;
  • They are very political at local level because they see that as the most natural way to ensure their employment continues. The Dean always knows their name even if he doesn’t know yours; 
  • The dean knows that they can be trusted to make things go away (within limits) and are discreet. 

Maybe this invisible academic is in my head… maybe. 

 

Are you ready for your first full-time lecturership post? (quiz)

Congratulations! you’ve hit the jackpot, you’ve managed to land your first academic post (or hold an offer of a post). Try my handy quiz to see if you are ready for what awaits you. 

 

  1. What is the difference in benefits between being in TPS and USS?
  2. Your first job is going wonderfully, your head of department is very happy with your progress. Sadly you get knocked over by a bus and die. What pensionable benefits do your children receive?
  3. Sticking with pensions. If you make an additional contribution to your pension via payroll, this reduces your overall tax bill – true or false?
  4. You can get a tax rebate for membership of many professional bodies and membership fees of a recognised union such as UCU – true or false?   
  5. Rank these investment types in order of risk – Cash ISA, Cash, Money Market Funds, Stocks and Shares ISA.
  6. Your starting salary is £32,000. Your wife/husband is a basic rate tax payer and earns £7,200 a year. They can transfer some of their tax allowance to you – true or false?
  7. Are you financially better off on £38,000 in London or £30,000 in Cumbria? 

What’s that? you thought this was going to be about teaching or research or complex department politics. There are many many people better placed than me to advise on that. In the same way that you need to take care of your research agenda, you also need to take responsibility now for ensuring that you are not eating dog-food on retirement or if you suffered some career-ending illness.

The answers to all of my questions is the same – I’m not a financial adviser, so speak to someone who is (oh ok I’ll give you one –  yes you can claim back membership fees for various professional bodies and trade union membership – get guidance here). 

  

Academic pro-bono hours

I’ve discussed previously how I don’t do freebies – that is to say additional unpaid academic work. However there are a few exceptions to this, I will for example do a review for a journal if its not for profit and in an exceptional circumstance will do one for the one of the mega-profitable journals if it helps a friend out. 

Without repeating myself, saying no to freebies has turned out to be a great way of reducing my workload and simplify my decision making process. However… I often find that I have to explain my position on why I don’t do freebies. 

So I’m introducing academic pro bono hours. Hours I’ll ‘donate’ outside what I’m actually paid for. 

In many US states, Lawyers as part of their professional practice are required to do pro bono (or free) work to maintain their license. 50 hours per year seems to be the common number. As I am a generous person, I have set my academic pro bono hours to 75 hours per year. 

Academic pro bono hours  might covers:

  • Doing reviews (for non-profit journal, I wouldn’t do freebies for multi-nationals)
  • Reading speculative PhD proposals that people send me personally rather than via the University (which is part of my paid workload)
  • Giving advise on grants and bids outside internal paid for work
  • Advising small business and charities outside of links via the University (my own graduates sit outside of this and I’ll talk to them as much as they like). 

By my calculation, I’ve already used up 15 hours this year doing reviews. As a rule of thumb, if someone else is getting paid, then either the University needs to get paid for my time or I need to get paid (within the limits of what I am allowed to be paid for personally). 

 

 

 

Free research questions about the academy

Given my research schedule is now full-up until 2018 (maybe 2019) – here are some free research questions that I’d love to know the answer to but have no time:

  • Why do sociologists always seem more stressed than management academics? Is it oversupply,  the need to churn out a monograph we don’t suffer from? Something cultural about the field?
  • If on social media, women academics, POC, LGBTQ etc need to put PhD after their name because of various ‘isms’, Does it make any perceptional difference if a white male academic does it or do people just assume you have a PhD anyway? 
  • If I gave student feedback on assessment as a two minute recording, how much more likely are they to engage with it than written feedback?
  • What if we got students to draw their module feedback? 
  • What would happen to the career choices of a full time Academic/Adjunct/Associate Tutor if they were given five hours of pensions guidance? 

On working for free (academic labour – Part 2)

On the decisions I make when I decide not to work for free. 

I wasn’t going to return to the topic of academic labour so soon but a couple of things prompted me to do so – first was this twitter conversation about training and if people should attend for free (no, it’s immoral to ask people to attend work training for free) and then this article today in the Guardian about choice.

What’s the relationship between the two? In my first blog about this I discussed the economic reasons for not doing this but I’ll tackle it from a slightly different angle. As the guardian article makes clear:

That wasn’t how endless choice was supposed to work, argues American psychologist and professor of social theory Barry Schwartz in his book The Paradox of Choice. “If we’re rational, [social scientists] tell us, added options can only make us better off as a society. This view is logically compelling, but empirically it isn’t true.”

Academics are faced with endless choices but limited resources in terms of times, energy, existing commitments. There are  internal pressures to do research, teaching, service and there are the external pressures of actually having a life. Many academics react to the first by not having the second. We know that female academics feel pressured to put off or carefully time when they have children to fit around things such as their REF submission.  

My choice was slightly different in that having come from industry and doing a PhD part-time I never got the graduate school indoctrination because I rarely mixed with other students. I therefore saw my job as something I do from 9am-5pm Monday to Friday (and actually that is what I am contracted to) and nothing happened during my PhD to change that view.

The problem therefore came up – how do I match the fact that I’m not willing to work all hours with the fact that there are endless potential decisions to make as an academic? I needed a rule or heuristic that I could use to aid me in my decisions and “you have to pay me for this” principle seemed the most straight forward heuristic to apply. Moreover it fit in with my world-view having grown up on a council estate and there being a strong principle that work is something you get paid for. 

 I quickly found that the decision making process was actually quite straight-forward. You want a freebie? that’s a no. You will pay? Good so now I can pay someone else to take care of x (generally teaching). Decisions are easier because I have limited the number of possible outcomes at the start.

Have I missed out on some opportunities? More than likely but so what? there are always more opportunities than hours in the day. 

This does however lead to some uncomfortable conversations – I don’t do peer review for journals because I cannot see why I should prop up some multi-nationals with fat margins in my own time. Now the response to that is – ‘But you expect others to review your stuff?’ If academics undervalue their own labour, how can I stop them? Why should they? Who am I to force my radical position on them (and that’s the nonsense -asking to get paid is the radical position in the academy). 

Operating profits - taken from https://alexholcombe.wordpress.com/2013/01/09/scholarly-publishers-and-their-high-profits/
Operating profits – taken from https://alexholcombe.wordpress.com/2013/01/09/scholarly-publishers-and-their-high-profits/

Oddly academics who campaign for restaurants to pay the minimum wage and make sure staff keep their tips see nothing incommensurable between that position and providing their intellectual labour for free to an equally profitable large multinational. 

Have a nice weekend. 

 

 

Tips for being a good ally (part 1)

Some tips on being a good ally from a female academic

These were sent to me by a UK Female academic, I present them unedited:

I’ve been thinking about the practical steps white male allies can take to support women and ethnic minority colleagues. I suspect many of these could also apply to white women academics who consider themselves allies. Much of these relate to ‘speaking out’ which is probably easier for some than others. Some ideas, in no order.

1. Draw attention to all male/all white panels, meetings or committees. Are you in a position to step aside so someone equally experienced or qualified can take your place?If there is a social event, e.g. lunch with a big academic cheese – who has been invited. In my experience senior men invite senior men to give talks, and invite other men to the lunch or dinner.

2. Don’t just send your distressed students to your women colleagues. We have enough to do with our own students, never mind your work too.

3. Don’t send your work on to women to do e.g. you can’t work the VLE – please don’t send your material on to a woman who does know how to work it. Learn how to do it.

4. Please don’t come into my office and spend 40 minutes showing off your feminist credentials to me. Lets see a little less conversation and a little more (feminist) action please!

5. You’re at a meeting – are the appropriate people there? More than once I’ve seen all male academic meetings about a degree programme run by a woman. She’s not there to inform the discussion.

6. Please don’t laugh at sexist jokes in meetings. Please.

7. Notice who is and who isn’t speaking in meetings. Notice who is being heard and who is not being heard.

8. Look at the admin roles in your department – who has the high workload, low prestige roles, and vice versa. (often a teaching, research split).

9. If you’re a manager think about who you are allocating roles to. More than once I’ve seen (strategic?) incompetence rewarded, with roles taken away from those not doing them well and passed to those who will do them. This is not always a male to female transfer, but can be. Consider the implications here for career development and advancement.

10. This applies to us all but do respect people’s non working time. No weekend/evening emails – or at least don’t expect a response.

On this blog as a safe-space

On the swift response to my last blog post. 

Yowza – my previous blog post within 10 minutes of going up  resulted in me receiving virtually instantly a number of DMs on twitter from three female academics who were interested in writing an response. 

I’ll make anyone reading the blog the same offer I made them – I’ll publish anything you like on the topic with no-name and at no point will I reveal your name to anyone else or keep any records of your name. 

I did also receive an offer of a blog post talking about the struggles of white males like us via a throwaway email account – I’ll keep your name a secret as well but rather than offering you the opportunity of a blog post, I’ll leave you with this. 

GTFO
GTFO

On how White male academics fail as allies

Why I’m a shitty ally despite my protests.

A couple of recent things have made me think  how I conduct myself as an academic. My thought here are rough and might veer into #mansplaining. If they do, call me on it.

I’ve done UCU casework for a number of years at a number of different places – I’ve tried to help people confront bullying, sexism, homophobia, transphobia etc and hopefully make a little difference and along the way I get to pat myself on the back as a progressive chap who has done his bit. However the more I think about it the more I think as an ally I fail in two important ways. 

The first is that no matter how many times I deal with cases, no matter how many people I assist, I still have a lived experience where none of this stuff ever happens to me. I am absolutely the default which the academy is constructed for. 

I am the living embodiment of the default in the academy
I am the living embodiment of the default in the academy

Nobody doubts my credentials as a professional, students don’t engage in micro-aggressions, my contributions are listened to at meetings, no senior profs tried to feel up at a conference etc etc etc. Moreover when people talk about the stresses of the academy, I actually have a great time on a daily basis, many of the frictions that occur on a day to day basis just don’t exist.  

So here is the first way I fall down as an ally – even though I know on an intellectual level that all these things occur all day, everyday there is a little voice in my head that I have to constantly fight down which is saying “well it cannot be that bad” because emotionally this is all invisible to me. Every single experience I have as an individual gives me a set of mental heuristics that say “everything is A-ok!” 

So I wonder if I don’t push as hard as I could do as an ally because there is that dualism going on. This leads me to the second reason I think I fail as an ally, given the academy plays overdue attention to people like me – are we (people like me) really doing as much as we can to win structural meaningful change or am I happy to win tactical battles for individual people and then pat myself on the back? 

White male academic to the rescue! Look he's got a blazer with brass buttons he must know what to do. 
White male academic to the rescue! Look he’s got a blazer with brass buttons he must know what to do. 

So what should I do? Well I guess I get to Listen more and speak less and think a bit more. 

On working for free (Academic labour – part 1)

Why I don’t work for free. 

I seem to be having the same conversation over and over on twitter and am in danger of being a one trick on a particular issue – that of academic labour and working for free. 

I never do it*, something will have gone seriously wrong if I ever have to do it. I’ll point out that my current employer Edge Hill University has never asked me to work for free so none of the examples I’ll discuss applies to them.

Let’s get the caveats out of the way first:

  • If you are happy and comfortable to work for free, more power to you, we need to change the underlying systemic issues not snipe at each other
  • I’m a white heterosexual man with no disabilities and have all of the advantages that occur in a system where people’s default idea of the academy is a white hetrosexual man with no disabilities. In general I never suffer from the micro-aggressions that many people have to deal with multiple times a day. I’ve never detected any problems with coming from a working class background. I know this stuff goes on because people tell me (and if you want to debate that it goes on – this is the wrong blog for you) but its invisible to me. 
  • You really think that your career would suffer – then go for it, I’m not you and thus why this makes sense to me might make no sense to you
  • You have a passion project that will not happen without free labour

With that in mind, why don’t I work for free? 

  • There is the opportunity cost – every time you work for free you commit time that can used for something that actually pays.
  • By working for free, you send the signal that either your time isn’t valuable or your expertise is worthless. 
  • If you are already working for free, why pay you? 
  • If you are working for free, why not ask you to do more – because the marginal cost of asking you to do more to the person asking is… zero
  • There is the multipller effect – I once was asked to attended a conference and was expected to pay for it myself, it came to about £800. This was ten years ago, I stuck the money into my investments and got a average return on that £800 (even during the financial crisis) of about 12% – I cannot even remember what the conference was. Working for free is stealing from your future.
  • Every time we agree to work for free, we make it harder for all of us to be paid.
  • I’ve been poor, I didn’t like it – it was the most stressful experience you can think of and is even more stressful now given the language of ‘scroungers’ – “oh my god, what if they invite me to join them for coffee, I’ll have to do without dinner” (if you’ve never been poor that might make no sense to you, if you have been it makes perfect sense to you).

Now at this point some of you are disgusted:

what sort of academic is this guy who is concerned about money? aren’t we all suppose to be doing it for love?

Doing it for love is fine if that floats your boat but I don’t plan to be eating dog food on retirement or if I get ill or if my job disappears and I don’t want my family to have to do that either. I also don’t trust in Govt. to provide. To me sound financial planning is the same as regularly exercising and not eating kebabs every evening – it just makes sense.

There is a secret about the academy, there is money, they just don’t want to give it to you, I’ll return to this but some examples to finish with on that theme:

  • Along with some other graduate students, I was invited to mark some dissertations for free that needed to be done quickly – I promised to turn them around fast but needed to be paid, the others did it for free. There were some uncomfortable conversations later… 
  • I did a post-doc where I asked the salary and we talked about what they were going to pay me. I found out later that rather than spilt the money between me and two other Post-docs, they paid me at the top and then at the bottom of the grade, simply because they hadn’t asked. 

We’ll return to this again.

* OK I likely do it in ways that I’ve hadn’t thought of – but before someone suggest working at weekends and evening – I do neither – if it doesn’t get done in the day it doesn’t get done.