On being a working class academic (or not).

Me at 23 in South America

I recently got approached about contributing to a publication about being a working class academic, I demurred. The reason is that I feel there is (or should be) a time limit on claiming to be a working class academic. After receiving a free degree, a free masters and a free PhD, I’d be embarrassed to tell a 21 year old today that I understood the situation they were in if they were considering being an academic.

However it’s not just the free education that makes me wary of providing advice to young WC people considering if they want to be an academic, it’s also my lived experience when I was your actual working class hero. Time for some family history…

So I grew up in rural Shropshire in a place called Ellesmere (come visit it’s lovely) – my Dad was a miner, then a lorry driver and then a sales rep and my mum worked in a care home. I’m the youngest of five and I grew up on a council estate called Berwyn View (where my parents still live). I attended the local comp and then went off to the local college to do a BTEC.

Good stuff for a working class academic narrative – however the problem is that I lived in warm clean house and we were never short. I have no idea how the benefits system work because I never used it and I have no idea of what it was to go hungry as a child because we had full cupboards. I have absolutely no idea what it’s like to go to school in shoes with holes in them or any of the other stuff that people often stereo-typically expect from a working class upbringing. The council estate I lived on backed onto fields, and in regards to crime, I do remember someone stealing some lollies from a shed when I was a teenager.

hair was cool, I miss having hair.

Fundamentally there is a gap in my lived experience and what people want from a WC academic or expect it to be like. So at times, when I follow the chat on twitter about being a working class academic, I often feel that my own personal history, and people like me, are seen as not authentic enough because it’s simply not miserable enough (I’ve never suffered from impostor syndrome as a result of being WC – sorry). When I’ve explained this to people they appear disappointed (Surely some drugs, poverty and crime in there? You know that’s all is to being working class) because middle class people get a complexity of experience but working class people have to conform to a series of rigid stereotypes seen via a prism of poverty.

This now reads as if I’m bragging but I guess it’s just me sticking a flag in the sand and saying I’m allowed to have my own personal history even if it doesn’t chime with others and it doesn’t make my origins any less working class or as I might have said when I was 18, if you don’t like it, you can ram it up your hoop.

Funny Business – what I learnt from doing stand-up comedy as a lecture

So last week because it was my final ever session with my finalists I decided to do something I have thought about previously but never done before – a stand-up comedy routine as a lecture…

The topic was a summary lecture to my digital economy module so covered material such as useless apps, theories on the development of technology and the problems of researching the digital economy from your office when every bit of research can lead you down a dark hole…

What I learnt

Stand-up is really really hard – it’s feels superficially similar to a lecture but it is very very different with its own pace. To complicate matters I needed the material to be funny but academically rigourous (thus a lengthy digression on how the technological deterministic perspective of history was wrong because men’s obsessions with their genitals actually drives society).

Now on the day I was very very nervous,because I had no idea how this would turn out, which the students picked up on (because I don’t get nervous).

I did the session and there were aspects that worked and some that did not work. If I every did this again, I’d lengthen some of the material and cut some other stuff.

What I really learnt

Here’s for me is what was really interesting about the experience. Over the following week, I received a number of emails off students who were concerned that I would be put off trying something like this again or simply wanted me to know that they appreciated me taking the effort to do something different. Some had suggestions for changes and others had ideas for theoretical concepts I could weave into my material !

This reminded me that it sometimes feels as if HE is something done to students bit really it’s a process of becoming – where something new – a lecture, a lecturer, a student are formed from the interaction between individuals, the experience of Higher Education and the organisation that mediates that experience and interaction.

So the lesson for me is that my becoming a lecturer is never over, it will keep shifting and changing over my career. That has to involve a level of risk and challenge, the sort of risks taken by trying to do something in a new format and the sorts of risk that we ask students to take all of the time when we assessment. The challenge that we ask graduates to rise up to when they take their next step.

Answers not to give at an academic interview

I’ve recently spent a lot of time in our HR suite conducting job interviews and here are the answers to questions at interview that I suggest avoiding or at least thinking about a bit more.

My upfront disclaimer: – a) this is just my view, b) there is no academia, if you are an an ECR, talk with a trusted mentor who understands your field better than I do – there are lots of difference between fields and this means a sensible answer in one area is a dumb one in another.

So here are some random thoughts in no particular order.

I’m going to publish all of the things!

Now this varies depending on if you are an ECR or a bit further on in your career but the key rule is that it’s got to be credible in light of your CV. In a tough job market it’s very easy to over-promise but for various reasons (partly to do with changes to the REF that is a different blog entirely) it is better to have a clear research strategy that shows you are selective. I’m more interested in a candidate who can articulate a pipeline of strong outputs (which could be papers, book chapters) that are fewer in number than some promises that indicate that you are an alien who doesn’t need to sleep or that you are completely unrealistic about what can be done in a specific time-frame.

Dr. Kieran Fenby-Hulse makes a good point (and he makes many excellent points about research you should follow him) that your covering letter is where you should outline your research narrative. It’s good advice because covering it there forces you to articulate it clearly to yourself before anyone else.

Now if you feel that you have under-performed because of factors such as working in an institution that has given you a heavy teaching load I think it’s perfectly OK to mention that but I’d always link it to a discussion of material that you can output with more support/time.

If you are coming from a professional background and this is your entry into the academy you might be a bit stumped by this question of research anyway. I’d suggest having a chat with a friend who is an academic before the interview and have a thinking about what in your current practice might be developed into a research area. I’ve seen professional candidates (and Business Schools get a lot as do media schools and so on) come unstuck because they confuse Academic with Teacher. Academics teach but we do more than that and you need to make sure you understand that before going in. I have never once seen a professional who if they cannot answer this question where I do not think “You fool! That work you did with organisation X would be an amazing study”.

I use all the journals!

You are doing super-well and then one of the panel asks ‘So what do you consider your go-to journals to inform your teaching’. Now this isn’t a question that I actually ask myself but it’s one I’ve seen asked in interview and its one that has completely thrown people and I’ve seen strong candidates crumble. Fundamentally if you claim to be an expert in area X, we’d expect you to be able to at least *name* some journals in your area. You might even give a ‘depends’ answer but if you cannot name one…

I use YouTube all the time in my teaching!

This one is a bit of a baffler – at some point, you might get asked, ‘what do you consider to be innovative in your teaching?’ and quite a few candidates them go on about how they make use of YouTube. Now I use Youtube myself but it raises more questions than it answers. Most UK Universities spend a lot of money on various services (BOB, Lynda.com) and candidates who talk about making use of the existing T&L infrastructure in their University indicate to me that they are engaged with what is going on in their University and what it provides. It also suggests to me they are engaging with their Learning Technologists or at least reading the updates they sent out.

I can totally explain that thing you asked me about, I’m an expert in whatever it is

A usual way for a panel to conduct an interview is to divide up the questions and ask the same ones to all of the candidates. Now as a rule of thumb, people get questions based on their own specialism or job role… or they totally go off and ask whatever question they like. The bottom line is disregarding questions about your own research, the person asking it is likely to know the boundaries of any response.

The question might be about subject-level TEF, it might be about REF Impact case studies, it might be about anything. The bottom line is that bullshitting your way to an answer is the worse possible thing to do. The long you ramble on with your made-up answer, the worse it gets. The person asking the question is nodding and smiling not because they think your answer makes sense but because they feel sorry for you.

Ihavegivenmyanswerbutithinkiwillkeepgoing

Think about this – the interview panel are likely at this all day and depending on how many posts they have to offer, doing this tomorrow as well. When asked, take a moment to consider your answer – even saying “let me think about that question for a second”. Then provide the answer in the least possible words you can manage. We thank you for this.

Good question, my current University is crap

This is a tricky one – are there a lot of bad practices in HE – yes, is there bullying – yes,  Do Straight White Guys have a much easier time – absolutely. However your interview is really not the time to hash out your problems with your line manager, your department, your dean or anyone else. The real problem with raising this in an interview is that the interviewer has no way of assessing the validity of your complaints and therefore has to consider your complaints in a vacuum. Reveal all *AFTER* you get the job.

Did I mention my PhD is from X

Yes repeatedly – The TEF and REF assess your University, we don’t. It’s really not a significant factor once you are in the interview room.

Hey Charles let’s take about our kids, I’m a male candidate and we can bond over this.

This is an answer to a question I never asked and I don’t have any – stop it.

Thanks I don’t need the feedback

You didn’t get the job, so why don’t you want the feedback to find out why? A surprising number of candidates decide that it’s not worth having. Baffling.

Some quick thoughts on being an academic manager

So on the 1st of January I became an academic manager – my rather grand sounding title at Edge Hill University Business School is Associate Director – Student Experience. Now the interesting thing is that while academics will discuss pretty much anything openly the only conversations I can find online are reflections about academic managers not reflections from academic managers. That is a shame because there are excellent peer networks on places like twitter for ECRs and others but absolutely nothing for academic managers. 

With that in mind, some early thoughts:

  • Your email traffic as an academic is out of control. As an academic manager, I think the volumes of emails I received went up four-fold in the first week. My response to that has to be try and move staff away from round-robin emails to shared online documents. It’s early days but it’s making some difference. 
  • You suddenly get copied into everything. See above.
  • Your peer group shifts around you. The peer I recognised as my peers now don’t see me as their peer and people I didn’t now do. It’s a shift and I’ll write more about this.
  • I only work monday to friday, 9am-5pm. This one has been hard but so far I’ve held the line. You just have to accept there you cannot do it all.
  • Your diary becomes a fiction. No matter what you plan, in a Business School with thousands of students, stuff happens and stuff happens that you have to deal with now
  • Your diary is no longer your diary. Things just appear in it. 
  • People think you have awesome power. Actually you have awesome responsibilities and how to work out how to do it.
  • You have to learn to say “I’ll think about that”. 
  • You never read your emails after 5pm. Just don’t.

Is this a whine? Not at all, I’m enjoying the job greatly (and let’s not lie to each other – the extra money) and it’s been obvious for a while that my career was going this way. However it would be great to see some more networking for us academic manager types. I have already developed a good network in my own University but it would be great to see that extended outside in the online space. 

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 Toolkit: ThinkPad x260

If, in an alternative dimension, I did product reviews, I’d think they’d look like this. 

There are a lot of general consumer review sites so I will not replicate what they do.  Instead I am going to review my new Lenovo Thinkpad X260 in terms of how it fits an academic life-style and working habits. The ThinkPad range is Lenovo’s business aimed line and not to be confused with their cheaper laptops.

Black is the new black - if you want sleek good looks then you are looking in the wrong place.
Black is the new black – if you want sleek good looks then you are looking in the wrong place.

As a management academic, I tend to live in MS office, Nvivo and also light use of Android Studio and Lightroom. I have a desktop machine at home and this is my portable solution. If you do want to consider this as a sole device, you can get a dock for it so that at home it instantly connects to a monitor, external keyboard etc. 

For academic purposes, I think the key reason you should consider this laptop (and why I picked it over a macbook) are:

* Excellent battery life – I get about 15 hours on medium brightness with the six cell battery. Yes you read that right, 15 hours. This is because the ThinkPad has a swappable external battery and an internal battery. I don’t charge it for two or three days at a time. If I am going away for a weekend break, I don’t bother with the charger at all. For conferences, this means that when out and about, I’m not searching for power or having to carry the extra weight. During term, I can go from class to class with no worries about power. In two years or so if needed, I can simply replace the external battery. 

The battery life is fantastic.
The battery life is fantastic.

* Good keyboard – the keyboard on this device is excellent with a good range of travel. Yes the Macbook is thinner but the trade-off is in the feel of the keyboard. I can type for hours on this beast. I should also point out that due to the design of the x260 if you spill anything on the keyboard, it drains straight through. The keyboard also lights up if you like that sort of thing. 

The keyboard has a lovely feel to it - I can write for hours on it with no problems. 
The keyboard has a lovely feel to it – I can write for hours on it with no problems. 

* Ports – yes,yes I know you can get an adaptor for the Macbook but this thing has three USBs (one you can use to charge other devices – handy at the airport), Ethernet, SD, HDMI, Display port and has a VGA adaptor in the box. VGA is an old standard but you just know that when you rock up to give a talk, the one connection will be a VGA one. My university is slowing moving more and more rooms to HDMI but I think it will be a while until VGA completely dies out in the sector. 

* Fingerprint reader – I initially didn’t think this would be much of a benefit but academics are ‘corridor warriors’ going from meeting to meeting. This is really useful because I open the lid, slide my finger over the reader and away we go. It’s a little thing but on a daily basis is a neat little touch.

* Connectivity – You might not want or need this but I can put a data simcard in this device and use it with no other devices or without wifi. If you are using this on wifi, you can turn it into a hotspot for other devices to connect to.

* Upgradability – I don’t actually plan to do this for the moment but it’s fairly easy for the user to upgrade the RAM, hard-drive etc – something that a lot of thinner laptops have made harder if not impossible…

* Toughness – I throw my laptops around, the Lenovo is designed to meet Milspec – for academic purposes this thing will take a beating (and a glass of wine on the keyboard – see below). People who buy Thinkpads tend to stick to them for that reason.

 

So when considering a new laptop, I’d certainly recommend looking at the Thinkpad – with academic discounts and a few voucher codes I got it for £770 with a three year onsite (they come to me) warranty. I went for a midrange spec but many people could get away with the base spec. Now you might be reacting to the price but find that the reason that people have such terrible experiences with Windows Laptops is that they spend £250 on a consumer grade laptop and wonder why the experience isn’t as good as a £1000 macbook…  

The specification of my device for people who care is:

– Intel Core i5-6200U Processor (3MB Cache, up to 2.80GHz)
– Windows 10 Home 64
– 12.5 FHD IPS (1920 x 1080) Non-Touch
– 8GB DDR4-2133 SODIMM
– Intel HD Graphics 520
– Software TPM & Hardware dTPM
– Keyboard Backlit – English UK
– UltraNav (TrackPoint and ClickPad) with Fingerprint Reader
– Software TPM Enabled
– 720p HD Camera
– 192 GB Solid State Drive, SATA3
– 3 Cell Li-Ion Battery 23.2WH Front
– 6 Cell Li-Ion Battery 72WH Cylindrical Rear
– 45W AC Adapter – UK(3pin)
– Intel Dual Band Wireless-AC(2×2) 8260, Bluetooth Version 4.1
– Integrated Mobile Broadband
– Mini DP/VGA Adapter
– Think 3 Year On-site

 

 

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?