Unbroken

If we don’t sit with the rough edges of our journey, we forget how we made it.

Kevin Gannon, The Tattoed Professor, ‘On being broken, and the kindness of others

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It’s Friday at the end of a long week of being trivially unwell. Trivially in the not-cancer sense, but disruptively in the whole-family-down-with-it sense, the “Oh, everyone has this, isn’t it dreadful, have you got the cough yet?” sense. Whole days in bed, shivering and sweating. And coughing.

Having to cancel a large lecture and now being very late with grading, I’ve been struck by the kindness of students who sent messages of sympathy when I said I was sick. These are the ways we all work together to shape workplaces worth working in. (And if you feel cynical about the contribution students make to this, please go back to Liz Morrish’s account of students comforting staff at times of workplace distress. Or anything by Sean Michael Morris, but especially this post.)

The students where I work are easy going, understanding, and when they need to complain, they’re constructive and tactful. They want things to be less awful, and that includes for the people who are teaching them. They know what it’s like to have a bad day at work, to be dealing with difficult people, to juggle work, study, illness, stress and exhaustion. As Kevin Gannon says in his beautiful post on disclosing our own brokenness in higher education:

We’re not sending graduates “out into the real world”–they’ve been there for their entire lives, and most of them know at least implicitly how the deck is stacked against people regardless of how hard they’re bootstrapping. We have given our students a wide array of tools, and tried to prepare them to use those tools well for themselves and for their communities. We teach in the hopes of a better, more compassionate, and more just world. But then we tell a graduation-day story that assumes our graduates will go out into a broken world riven by hate, fear, and inequality but also that it’s their fault if that world beats them down.

Fault is the shadow thrown by the magic bean we sell as the means of clambering up to a future in which not everyone can win. This bean is something to do with making an effort, toughing it out, following the rules. Resilience, grit—we peddle all sorts of qualities demanded when the world is harsh. And I think this is why we monitor attendance as a kind of minor virtue, a practice of grit. But when we make showing up compulsory, then we have to have a system of checking it, and penalties, and some means of managing something we call “genuine” adversity, and the whole thing has to be insulated against complaint. (And if you want to know more about how this goes down, this forum is an eye-opener.)

Where I am we have a fixed tolerance for not showing up 20% of the time, which has the rat farming perverse incentive effect of causing every sensible student to calculate that they have two free tutorials they can plan to miss. And I’ve written this all over the place, so just bear with me while I haul out my soapbox one more time: we then ask students to get a GP certificate for every single additional missed class over the two free passes, which means that we are clogging up the waiting rooms and schedules of our overworked public health bulk billed GP clinics in order to sustain a rigid and penalty-driven policy that doesn’t prepare students for their professional futures, while they’re sneezing all over the really sick people around them.

(University business data divisions currently measuring every passing cloud over the campus, why not measure this? How many GP certificates for trivial illness have your attendance policies generated? How much public health time have you wasted pursuing this?)

Just quietly, I take a different approach. We talk about modelling attendance on the professional experience of attending meetings, including client meetings. If you can’t be there, you let people know in advance. If you can’t be there a lot, this will impact on your client’s confidence in you, or your manager’s sense that you are doing a good job. It may come up in performance management. Your co-workers may start to feel that you’re not showing up for them. Opportunities may dry up a bit, if people think of you as someone who won’t make a reliable contribution.

And at work there won’t always be a form, but you will need a form of words. You need to know how to talk about what you’re facing with the relevant people comfortably and in a timely way, ideally not after the fact of the missed project deliverable. If hidden challenges are affecting your participation now, you can expect some of these to show up again when you’re working. University should be the safe space to develop confidence in talking about the situation you’re in, and what helps you manage it most effectively. You need a robust understanding of your rights in law. And, sadly, you also need to understand that sometimes the human response you get will be uninformed, ungenerous or unaware of your rights, and you’ll need either to stand your ground or call for back up.

To me, this is all that’s useful about expecting attendance. It’s an opportunity for us to talk with students about showing up as a choice that may be negotiable if you know how to ask; about presence and absence as ethical practices; and about the hardest conversations about times when you just can’t, and at that point need to accept the kindness that’s shown to you, just as you would show it to others.

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Thinking about how important it is to learn to have these conversations, I’m watching the rise of automated employee mood tracking with unease. Attempting to track employee mood over time is a natural consequence of discovering that we can track other physical health indicators, and that wearables (or implantables) give HR an opportunity to track health as one of the predictors of both absenteeism and presenteeism in teams. The Global Corporate Challenge (now owned by Virgin) is all over it. They even have a Grit In the Workplace Report (“Research shows that grit is a significant factor in success. Employees who have it help their organisations achieve better business outcomes”) which I can’t bear to read.

This morning someone was telling me about a Slack bot that could be set to enquire about my mood, and I know there are plenty of apps that can do the same. I’m all for journaling my own thoughts about this, but we do need to notice that these apps are now also being pitched at HR. My friend wondered if this was about our failing capacity to listen to each other, to ask how someone is feeling and really wait for the answer. I think it’s that organisations are starting to perceive all human interactions as potential data points, and conversational care as wasted data that evaporates uselessly into air. We’re affronted by our own forgetting: surely it would be better to remember that over the last six months, Thursdays have been good days?

The problem with this is that mood is far more nuanced than any algorithmic system can be bothered with. One I saw this morning offered a happiness scale of 1-5, and three mood choices: Great! Stressed! Or Tired! The Slack bot has a menu of five options, with emojis.

Screenshot 2017-05-12 13.04.43.png
Screenshot from http://oskar.hanno.co

But really, life is more complicated than this. To sustain compassionate workplaces, we’re going to need to do more than dashboard our moods in these simplistic ways and hurry on. We’re going to need to “sit with the rough edges of our journey”, as Kevin Gannon puts it, to understand how we each got here differently, in different states of mind, and to hold each other up with care.

This will take time.

With our own meaning

I met for the first time the essential questions of my own mortality … None of us have 300 years. The terror that I conquered in those three weeks left me with a determination and freedom to speak as I needed, and to enjoy and live my life as I needed to for my own meaning.

Audre Lorde, The Cancer Journals

Short version: it’s about this.

Please donate.

Long version

Last week was national Go Home on Time Day, and for me, the anniversary of all this. After a year of writing about academic overwork—why we do it, and what it costs us in human terms—I spent the day at the NTEU Insecure Work conference in Hobart, learning about makes these personal choices part of a larger system in which, as a colleague said to me a couple of days ago, labour itself is broken.

To nudge overworking academics into going home on time, the NTEU put out straightforward and sobering resources, including the astounding fact that “Australian workers donate $110 billion unpaid overtime to their employers.” I’m not sure how we manage to do this, given that a recent UK study showed their overall unpaid overtime value to be a trifling £640 million, but the general point is clear: the most developed economies run on a chronic habit of overwork for some that’s chained to a chronic problem of underemployment and underemployment for many, that together leave millions locked out of the benefits of having a developed economy at all.

UK reports are now consistently showing that the problem of overwork is being driven by the “culture of extra hours” of workplace managers who lead us from the front in using their early mornings, late evenings and weekends working and communicating with their staff, continuously promoting to the entire workforce a powerful lesson about what it takes to flourish in this culture:

Almost half of UK managers work an extra day of unpaid overtime per week, a study into working practices has suggested. … Around 13% of managers work two days unpaid overtime per week, the Institute of Leadership and Management said.

To say that academics can relate to this pattern of work is to enter the terrain of bears, woods and shit. It’s so obvious that we hardly know where to begin in thinking about it. Although if you listen to any group of academics talking about their own experience of overwork, you’ll still hear from people who think it’s about the privilege of flexible working lives, the ability to work when and where we want, to get on with doing what we love at all hours of the day and night.

This packaging of system failure as personal privilege is precisely how we cooperate in ensuring that the unpaid overtime never gets back on the balance sheet, never amounts to business intelligence that not enough people are being hired to do the work the organisation wants done. Your day of unpaid overtime might feel like the only strategy you have, the only way to survive, the only hope of future promotion or the protection of those around you—and it actually might be all of those things—but it’s also the sound of someone else’s job not being created, not even being reckoned with in the budget and the strategic plan and the audit of the sustainability of the organisation where you work.

And universities are leading whole communities in this way of living because when we do this, we also send this message to our students and our kids and our friends and our neighbours that secure employment now naturally involves relinquishing the political solidarity it would take to do what we came here to do, and that we do well, within the compensated hours on our contracts. This is also how we find ourselves without even the time to listen to one another in ways that would make our work more effective and durable, because every day we’re being chased by deadline after deadline, and our whole thinking lives are galvanised by interruption and crisis: because the system as a whole has said yes to too many things at once.

So the lesson that I’ve learned in my year away from all this finally sank in this week. A visitor came to our campus, and a small group of us sat down together to reflect on the questions about the fragmentation and repair of academic life and practice that he had raised for us by sharing a short piece of his work in progress on networked participatory scholarship. We didn’t come out with a grant proposal, a research paper, or an outcome of any kind. This work would show up on any reckoning of our productivity as a little gap, an inefficiency, a nothing.

But I came out smarter, better at listening.

And we also came out to a world of hurt, like people who were on a plane when the big news broke. As we sat in the room, #FergusonDecision. The immense, desperate spectacle of anger in the US on a scale that Australians find hard to imagine. And from Australia, the anger in return of all those who live here under the shadow of our own reckoning that some lives matter less than others: that some people get to participate in our economy and enjoy its prosperity and raise their kids in freedom, health and safety, and some people don’t, and that’s just the way things are.

So I got snagged there for a moment there on the problem of how to sustain practices of hope that will lead to change when the evidence seems to pile up on all sides that we have already broken the environment we live in and that the best we can hope for is to pull off surreptitious gestures of resistance or appreciation, before going to lie down in a darkened room and wait for the finish.

Then some things happened. That is, things didn’t happen differently, but having taken time to think, I noticed things happening that add up for me to a way of looking differently at this mess we’re in.

The Koori Woman wrote this about the kindness of strangers. The Smart Casual—the most kick-ass colleague you could ever hope for—came flying out of the corner where higher education had her boxed in and wrote this astonishing piece about grief. My daughter Clementine wrote this about what she has learned from her dad. Australian journalists Mark Colvin and Julia Baird shared this conversation about resilience, love and survival in the face of life. A bunch of famous Australians got together and made a thing that—even if celebrity singalongs aren’t your cup of tea—at the very least shows a group of influential humans right in the act of saying that the way things are won’t do for them any more.

And while thinking about tipping points, I came out to an email from the organisers of a health campaign that really matters to me, telling us that the tipping point has been reached, and they’ll be converting the pledges to donations. This is great news. But they have a way to go, so they are reaching out for the practical support of anyone who can give a small donation in the final 13 days of their campaign.

I support this campaign because these women, in the context of their own community and in line with their own cultural meaning, will get this done. It’s their idea, their cause, their health, their plan, and their determination to change the way things are. The donation process is really, really simple and quick. Please find time to read about them, please pass on this message, and please consider giving them a donation if you’re in a position to.

Dianne Biritjalawuy and the women of Hope for Health, I really hope this helps.