There is a lot of activity that an academic undertakes that acts as ‘glue’ holding together the whole scholarly practice.
Martin Weller, Scholarship Can’t Afford Itself, July 2015
But after what happened at the Tour, I need to prove myself on a bigger scale.
Tejay van Garderen, 2015
Two stories about the glue that holds together the whole scholarly practice.
It’s 2007. I’m in my office. I’m always in my office. Looking back, I don’t remember much else about that time. I have three primary school kids, and a partner who’s done the heavy lifting of being there for them when they were very small, but now he’s working too. The phone rings, while I’m trying to keep as many windows open as possible, and it’s my daughter’s school.
Now what, how can I possibly … ?
A teacher whose name I don’t recognise introduces herself, and then asks if I’d like to speak to my daughter, who’s 8.
“Is she OK?” I ask.
“Yes. She won.”
It turns out that she stood up in front of a large crowd of teachers, kids, and parents, and delivered a small speech we’d been preparing at home. So far so good. I knew about that bit, although I hadn’t taken in that it was a Big Thing involving other schools and a sea of strangers’ faces.
And she found herself in the final round, where the winners were asked to talk off the tops of their 8 year old heads about their favourite animal.
“My favourite animal is … humans.”
Except not really.
It’s 2014. At the worst possible point of the chemotherapy cycle, a whole other 8 year old says “It’s the athletics carnival, do you think you’ll be OK to come?”
Wild horses wouldn’t keep me away. We gather me up into the car, where I sag against the seatbelt sweating cytotoxins out of every pore, wondering what it will mean to show up among all the other parents at this time.
Prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.
And then I see her. She’s running her whole race sideways so that she can scan the stands to see if we made it, and she’s coming a triumphant and celebratory last, because she can see me and there we all are together.
Actually winning this time.
One of the sadder sights of this year’s Tour de France was the retirement due to illness of third placed rider Tejay van Garderen, who collapsed and was led weeping from the race by his team management. In technical terms, he abandoned the race.
Now that I’m back at work, I’m trying hold on to everything I learned when I abandoned work for cancer, including about the value of time spent doing things other than work. And it’s clear that thanks to what Anne Boyer brilliantly describes as “Capital’s inventive temporal bullying“, the prospect for my colleagues of finding time that does not always, already belong to the scholarly work that hasn’t been finished—that might actually be unfinishable—is rare.
How do educators teach, and what do we model, when this is the case? On Wednesday I spent a challenging, invigorating session with students looking at ways of grounding everyday professional choices in personal rather than institutional values. This is one of the things I teach, based on a fair bit of study and training in the field of narrative practices. Together we began the process of thinking about how work actually works, and what it will take for them to adapt capably and optimistically to the pressure of employment scarcity.
They are experienced long-term casual workers, so they know what this is about. They know the importance of giving just a bit more than the person next to them, in the hope of being remembered when next week’s shifts are organised. When work itself becomes scarce, when whole professions vanish into the sinkholes of technology and automation, then the power to limit expectations of service shift decisively. These students will graduate right back into the culture of outperforming the person next to you that characterises their existing casual work in call centres, retail and coffee shops.
And the skilled and successful graduate role models they’re most exposed to are those teaching them at university. Casual academics are hired under the same conditions as their students, but work under the same expectations of uncompensated overtime as their securely hired colleagues like me. This is the worst possible combination. They’re driven into hours of volunteerism because they are genuinely conscientious; because they know they won’t be hired again if evaluations of their performance dip; and because there is no guiding intelligence holding back the whole academic peleton from hurtling forwards at a pace that only a very few can sustain.
This is precisely the nature of “Capital’s inventive temporal bullying”. Choices about what invitations to accept, what tasks to take on, which calls for help to prioritise, are evaluated only in the narrowest context of personal capacity, and sometimes not even then. No one has yet worked out how to look at the systemic cost in physical and mental health of the entire thing going too fast.
This week Martin Weller, who I seem to be stalking, suggested that the rise and rise of service costing in universities has missed the fundamental value of the generosity and inventiveness with which academics manage time’s assumed porosity. If we costed the glue holding universities together, he says, we would find that scholarship can’t afford itself.
I get asked to examine quite a few PhDs. It’s generally both a pleasant thing to do, and also very useful in that it helps keep me up with the field also. You will sometimes get an honorarium for these, say £200, but if we were to fully cost it, then the figure would be closer to £2000 I expect. I’m a pretty quick reader and reviewer, but even so it takes me a couple of days to read a thesis, and then there is the viva day itself. I know colleagues who will spend much longer reading a thesis. Some of that reading takes place in work time, some in my own time, some could be counted as research time, some as a service to the other university. So it’s messy, but the point is we don’t make an attempt to properly cost it. And that is a really good thing.
I don’t share this view, not least because describing humans as glue is a little too glue factory for me.
Frankly, I think we need to apply the same critique that we’ve brought to the unpaid internship, to the culture of uncosted service. The capacity to offer your own time to service is grounded in the privilege of having that time in the first place. It’s hardest for those with other responsibilities, and although at higher salary levels there might be some opportunity to claw back bits of time by outsourcing domestic work, this isn’t a solution for those in early career and casual work. And academics working evenings and weekends shouldn’t just be seen as a problem for working parents. Everyone loses.
We need to recognise that service time that isn’t costed is human time that isn’t valued. So until we properly cost all the services that universities have committed us to delivering, we’re going to be sprinting over the mountains in a broken peloton, endlessly trying to prove ourselves against those nearest to us.
Let’s keep thinking together about what it will take to slow this down. Even professional cycling costs the labour of the domestique.
Lee Skallerup Bessette has consistently influenced my thinking about counting what counts. Check out her excellent post on social media as academic service, over on the lovely Hybrid Pedagogy blog.
Liz Morrish has written an outstanding piece on the management of productivity and performance in universities, and with colleagues will be participating in a seminar in September at which the death of Professor Stefan Grimm will be remembered.
George Siemens, who I think is probably more optimistic than me, has recently given an important keynote in which he explains why he expects technology to liberate time from routine work and expand opportunities for quality of life. The slides are here.
One of the best writers on labour and productivity in higher education is Canadian blogger Melonie Fullick. Typically when I’m curious about something I find her already on the case, as in this excellent 2011 post on counting the labour value of graduate students. Among other points, she says this:
Grad students aren’t paid for the time we spend writing conference presentations, or for the presentations themselves; nor are we reimbursed for the travel costs. It’s all considered part of the investment we make in our own careers.
In fact, budding academics do a lot of unpaid work, including peer reviewing, writing book reviews, and producing journal articles (we even hand over copyright to the journals, who then profit from our labour)..
Raul Pacheco-Vega, who curates the #scholarsunday hashtag (which is exactly caught in the dilemmas about work time referenced here), has just written a fantastic post about slowing scholarship down, with links through to some important new feminist work on slow academia.
And on domestiques, a metaphor for service work in universities that’s so obvious it makes your head spin, read the story of Canadian cyclist Michael Barry.