The peacock and the fish

Lava lamp

That we have found the tendency to conformity in our society so strong that reasonably intelligent and well-meaning young people are willing to call white black is a matter of concern. It raises questions about our ways of education and about the values that guide our conduct.

Solomon Asch, Opinions & Social Pressure, 1955


Lava lamp
Lava Lamp, Ged Carroll 2011, CC BY 2.0

It’s been a week of sitting and thinking as the presentations slide by. University strategic planning is a bit like a lava lamp: ideas rise and fall gently, and come back up again later in much the same shape. We’re mesmerised by incremental change on slow repeat.

So, full of coffee and fancy catering, we stew over trends and brainstorm ideas for budget repair. Corporate euphemism bingo is an easy mark. People who haven’t taught for a while say “at the coalface” a bit awkwardly. Students are represented only in charts. Percentages make us feel sciency, and tempt us to compare things of incomparable size. The data is so convincing, the narrative so authoritative, it feels naive to ask whether the problems we’re facing might be messier, less obvious, in their causes.

While I was looking away, I noticed Mike Caulfield on Twitter pointing out that data can only see what it has been trained to see. If an algorithmic image search has never seen an emotional support peacock being taken through an airport before, then “fish” is a good enough guess. And if an algorithm tells us that a peacock is a fish, the natural human response is to sort of see it that way too. We’re trained sympathisers.

Google image search misidentifies this peacock as a “fish” which I find fascinating (because I can sort of see it!)

Solomon Asch’s famous conformity tests of the 1950s demonstrated that an individual can sometimes be persuaded that the evidence of their own eyes is wrong, if the majority claim to see things differently. Asch experimented on small groups of male students, planting an individual among actors who had been coached to provide the wrong answer to an obvious test of size. The unknowing individual gave the wrong answer less than 1% of the time when left alone to think, and when allowed to report privately; under the pressure of a consensus on the wrong answer, and having to report publicly, he yielded to the group 38% of the time.

This is the part that the history has chosen to remember, and that crops up in the business and leadership literature. But in his post-test interviews, Asch documented the more nuanced accounts of what participants thought they were doing, while they were trying to work out what they were going through. Humans are social: attending to contradictory reporting of phenomena we expect to experience commonly is part of an intricate ethical negotiation over the way we hope to get along together. It’s critical to understand this, because it hits us hard when it fails.

Ronald Friend and his colleagues map out the erroneous reproduction of the conformity thesis in social psychology literature from 1953 to 1984, and point their readers instead to Asch’s underlying view of the way in which we all encounter the world as different members of a shared social field. Asch believed that we start with an expectation that others see the world as we do. That’s the starting point for responding to statements that provide evidence of a contradictory position; we accept that someone else, standing where they stand, might see things differently, while acknowledging the epistemological trouble that this brings us. To Asch, consensus isn’t simply a practice of yielding to untruths, but of placing confidence carefully in the possibility of sufficient cohesion—but this is exactly how the risk of conformity is introduced. So in the social field, we balance the need for productive consensus with the need to call out data that we know to be misleading.

And as Mike knows, this balance is now radically undone. He’s driving a key initiative in the US to raise understanding of digital polarisation; he really thinks about algorithmic judgment as a new political formation, one that we’ve underestimated. We’re not alone together in Asch’s social field any more: we’ve outsourced the work of seeing the peacock from the fish to non-human actors, even though as humans we will go on trying to make sense of their inputs using the same social efforts that Asch observed. We will learn to sort of see it.

And so the more we squint and try to see students as enrolment data points on charts, the more they start to look like fish too.


While we’re watching the charts glide by, my daughter is moving to another city to become someone else’s commencing enrolment data point. Is it worth the debt she’ll take on? And what responsibilities do universities have for recruitment to debt using the vision of employability, when we have so little influence on the deterioration of the labour market?

The future of work we’re selling to students like her looks a bit like the new Amazon campus in Seattle, all natural light and four storey plant walls and treehouse pod meeting points. We hope our graduates will drift among the unassigned workspaces being cherished for their creativity and problem-solving energy and critical thinking skills. We tell them that the jobs we’re preparing them for haven’t been invented yet, or at least that all the jobs we’re doing now have been so transformed by technology that they might as well be new. (For a deep look at the history of this ruse, read Benjamin Doxtdator’s marvellous Field Guide to “Jobs That Don’t Exist Yet”.)

But the social impact of the future of work is more complicated. This week tech media has discovered Amazon’s 2016 patent application for a tracker to record worker hand movements, reducing the need for local human supervision.

Ultrasonic tracking of a worker’s hands may be used to monitor performance of assigned tasks. … The management module monitors performance of an assigned task based on the identified inventory bin.

This is undeniably futuristic too. And as every tech journalist points out, it doesn’t matter whether there are active plans to use this device this year, or even this decade. It’s just a patent.

But this is our culture making sense of something: this is group human consensus forming around what’s acceptable in disruptive innovation. For Amazon’s corporate employees to enjoy the benefits of 40,000 different plants from 400 species that are specially chosen to be comfortable at temperatures comfortable to humans, its warehouse operations need to be optimised to the point of cruelty. And so there would have been corporate level college graduates involved in every step of this awful thing, from vision to design to patent preparation and submission, apparently seeing black as white at every step, apparently not speaking up.

So we come back to the real value of what we do. As Alex Usher points out, the debate over the economic value of education pivots on whether it improves skills and has the potential to raise productivity; or whether it’s a signals game, in which case benefit is primarily private. Universities need to stop hovering on this one. We need to stop carrying on about employability, and take a wider view.

Sure, we need to know what college degree will help this year’s 18 year olds survive for the next 40 years in a future where work is being transformed so aggressively.  But let’s set a more ambitious strategic goal for ourselves. The role our graduates play in shaping this future can’t be confined to whether they survive and what they earn. Our real future lies where it always has: in what our graduates will do to build a socially just future for themselves and others.

So what kind of strategic courage can we embed in our planning now, and what values should guide our conduct, to make this more likely?

All the routine jobs

All the routine jobs will eventually be replaced.

Someone talking on the radio one morning


It’s the morning routine. I’m driving to work, and thinking about my job, and all around me are the people doing their jobs as I’m on my way to mine.

Right there in the morning traffic, there are two men laying out bollards in a row, because something’s up and today’s the day. And beyond that the freeway and all its stuff that’s only there because people with routine jobs were sent out in all weathers to put road things in place: traffic lights, direction signage, concrete lane separators, small new plantings of suitably tough freeway trees.

But suddenly a voice on the radio is telling me we’ll all be better off when driverless cars reduce the possibility of human error and with it, presumably, the need for all this signage when vehicles are guided by satellite, and don’t need to know what the speed limit is.

Who will pay a premium, he asks, for a human driver? And maybe this won’t be the only road-based job that’s lost in the workless future he’s explaining to us.


At Macca’s, people are the key to our success.

We’re taking a quick road trip break, and her eyes light up. We can do this, she says, and shows me how. We stab at a brightly lit board, like we’re checking in for a flight. It’s drive through, just indoors. While we’re waiting in line for the food to come, I point out to her that she’s a low-waged supermarket checkout worker and this is exactly the tech that’s coming for her. “I suppose it is,” she says.

Together we watch her peers and even younger doing the kind of routine minimum-wage work that disruptive tech can’t be bothered yet to replace: putting fries in a bag, calling out the number on the docket. It looks to be unsmiling work, requiring the minimum of customer engagement. The voice on the radio promised that factories are already competently staffed with robots. But service work is something else.

A tired looking girl who looks about fourteen calls out our number, and hands over our bag.


I’m at my desk, filling out forms. The forms are all the same. If this isn’t routine, I don’t know what is. The voice on the radio promised that cognitive labour won’t easily be replaced, that computers aren’t coming for the thinking or emoting or analysing jobs, just the routine jobs. Computers can provide brief sports reports, he said, maybe a paragraph. But we will still be needed for the thinking work.

The voice on the radio is a professor. He works in my profession, and I can guess roughly what he earns for the cognitive work of writing books on the automation of labour, and talking about this on the radio.

To see if I’ve remembered his words properly, I stop filling in forms, look up the radio program, download the recording, play it back, and then search again to read about his book. It’s routine academic work to link from this blog to all of that, to play my part by contributing those unrecoverable moments of my human time and attention to his enterprise. (It’s much rarer to acknowledge this invisible labour in the academic attention economy.)

If I don’t do this routine work of citing the specific individual who put these words in a sentence and frisbeed them out into the public conversation, then I’m also eliding the work of their career building effort, their sacrifices, their hopes, their research and all the supporting labour that got them to the point where they could be on the radio in the first place. If I don’t do my routine job properly, they’re just an anonymous someone talking on the radio one morning. Because the most easily replaced part of any idea is the person behind it, once it’s out there.

The taken-for-granted routines of respectful academic practice are those that we don’t think about nearly enough in labour terms: making connections, citing, linking, building each other’s reputations, carrying each other along like a raft of fire ants in a flood.


Last week I had the honour of leading a track at the Digital Pedagogy Lab in Fredericksburg with Maha Bali. Maha’s blog is titled “reflecting allowed”, and perhaps more than anyone I’ve worked with, she means it. She reflects constantly and compassionately and deeply, and you can see this in her two blog posts about the event, here and here.

Though the week I learned that we’re still struggling to centre professional development on the most urgent questions of labour in higher education. This event did touch briefly, and painfully, on the question of what it means (to Americans) to have tenure, and what it means to walk away from tenure and start a business instead, to become an employer instead of a cultural critic of capital. But the majority of workers in higher education, including in America, don’t have anything like tenure. This isn’t some dystopian future: most work in universities is already done by people who can be let go or replaced in a variety of ways, because there is both a labour surplus in our profession, and a politically-inflected funding crisis in higher education, and these two system failures converge to create the business conditions in which precarious staffing is a norm.

And at the same time digital pedagogy is significantly and continuously extending the ways in which we and our students volunteer our labour for large (American) corporations with every keystroke we contribute, every search term we fashion.

Labour is not an optional topic.


The room that Maha and I worked in during the week was furnished with the kinds of seating designed for learning that irks Amy Collier.

These chairs rile me too, for so many reasons. They’re the fidget spinners of higher education. It’s not just the overblown claims made about their transformative potential by the vendors who are excited to sell them to us, but because of all the ways they normalise a particular body type, and in doing this prepare to humiliate any student who doesn’t fit the mould, literally.

And in Fredericksburg we quickly learned that a roomful of 30 of these chairs places a particular burden on cleaning staff who are required to restore room layout at the end of every day. Rolling them back into line, if you’re not sitting in one, is back-bending work.

rolling classroom chairs
So much transformation, taken by Amy Collier, DigPedLab 2017

To craft good pedagogy, we need more than fancy chairs. We need to be vigilant in keeping all levels of labour in view. The workless future that is purportedly going to free us up for more creative and engaging lives will not treat us all the same. And we need to be equally scrupulous in acknowledging all of the work of invisible hands that make digital pedagogy possible (and thanks to Audrey Watters for that link). This is essential critical justice work; without it we really are just putting fries in a bag.


Automated cognition: a footnote

It’s lately seemed that updates to autocorrect have dialled up its intensity. It’s becoming either quicker to finish our half-formed thoughts, or we’re slower to notice.

Halfway through a conversation with a friend, I read back over what I’ve written and notice that Deleuze has been substituted with delouse.

When I back up to explain what I was trying to say, autocorrect jumps in to suggest that what I really mean is delusion.

And all the routine jobs will eventually be replaced. But not like this.

Access to care

The Site is owned, operated and/or provided by LLC (“RMP”), a subsidiary of Viacom International Inc., which offers television channel or programming services (such as Internet websites, applications or other interactive services) and offers other products and services under various brands, such as those Viacom Media Networks brands listed here.

RateMyProfessors.Com LLC Terms and Conditions

He always has a piece of paper in front of his mouth when he talks which makes it hard to hear. He also hisses like a vampire a lot. I would not recommend this class.

Rate My Professors, actual comment

The consumerisation of student opinion: there’s gold in those hills, for sure. In 1999, a Californian software engineer created to aggregate college student reviews of individual college professors, and the site became in 2001. In 2005, was sold, and then sold again in January 2007 “for an undisclosed sum” to mtvU, a Viacom subsidiary. This wasn’t the only item in the shopping cart. Recognising the captive commercial value of the campus student market, Viacom were hunting channels, brands and products that would enable them to bracket the social and consumer dimensions of being a student to their other entertainment investments. mtvU promotes among its popular shows Professors Strike Back, redirecting users back to RMP (click!) to see video clips of academics reading their reviews aloud, where they can also take a moment to rate their favourite professors from the movies (click!).

It’s feedback, on $tilt$.

So at one level, RMP is a story of extraordinary personal success. Patrick Nagle (Internet Enthusiast, Dealmaker), who bought and sold RMP and also owns Rate My Teacher (“helps students, parents and teachers make informed decisions by promoting transparency within education”), is 33 years old. He has been buying and selling internet real estate since he was 16. He’s a role model for young entrepreneurs and innovators. He makes stuff, and makes stuff happen. It’s just that in Rate My Professors, what he has made happen is complex at the human level, and ethically fraught.

Let’s get the big distraction out of the way: Rate My Professors leans on Likert scales like they’re going out of fashion, and true to its current corporate home in the entertainment world, rate my professor screenshotit still rates professors on their hotness. Yup, this is what you think, with a chilli pepper. And even if you’re OK with this as a harmless bit of internet lint, RMP is now such big business that its annual rankings of the top college professors in the US pop up all over the place, including through cross-promotion via other Viacom products. So if you link back into the site (click!) from a seemingly serious national ranking of professional standing and start browsing, there it is: you’re staring at a professional colleague’s hotness rating, and that’s an actual thing now.

And suddenly you remember everything about the sophomorish social origins of Facebook as a hot-or-not student rating site, and the hopeless commentary on women as sexual distractions in science labs, and everything we know about role congruity perceptions in the evaluation of performance, and every comment you’ve ever read that’s focused on appearance not performance. It’s tiring, and sad, and dealing with it is exactly what Audrey Watters recognises as the affective labour of higher education that won’t be replaced by a machine any time soon.

(The three professional factors that are included in the rating itself that are more obviously about teaching are helpfulness, clarity and easiness. Some comments valiantly defend the idea that a thing that’s hard isn’t necessarily what you came to college to avoid, but there’s a powerfully visible aggregation of sentiment around fairness that mentions how easy it is to get a good grade from this person.)

And wait, there’s more. The rating of individual professors has now expanded to be the basis on which RMP rates whole colleges. Hello, college rankings! What we have here is an uncontrolled brand situation, that will draw in the social media teams who keep a very close eye on this kind of malarkey. And when they get there, what do they see but the very professors who are holding up the averages, and those who Rate My Professors screenshotappear to be holding them back. Suddenly those who are hissing like vampires, or grading too harshly, or are difficult to contact because they have 400 students in a gen ed class, or are working three teaching jobs across town while holding office hours in their car, or who have an invisible disability, or a kid in hospital, or a class that was dropped in their lap because someone else pulled out, are right there in a handy list.

And if it turns out that one or two have a red grumpy face by their name, how could you possibly not remember that when hiring comes around?

Because this is really what bites about both formal SETs, and informal but immensely powerful and profitable reviewing platforms like RMP: in a majority casualised workforce, the reform of service delivery that disappointed consumers seek is simplest to achieve by not hiring a person again. US higher education is only patchily unionised which makes not hiring of an adjunct pretty easy; even in Australia it would be very hard for a casual academic to prove that not being hired was the direct result of an unfavourable evaluation, when the labour market is at saturation point, and then some.

What can we do better? This week while worrying generally about the ethics of customer service reviews in higher education, I’ve been thinking about good examples from healthcare, and a heartbreaking but really important example from Veterans Affairs.

There are several organisations working to solicit and pass on patient feedback, on both good and bad experiences. The best of these, I think, is Patient Opinion, and the Australian site is here. A recent example of how effectively and thoughtfully they reflect on whether they serve organisations or patients is in their blog here. They argue that organisations solicit service user feedback in part to limit risk; while patients are cautious about being labelled difficult if they complain. As an intermediary in this often confronting environment, Patient Opinion is focused on doing better—on building a reflective relationship around critical care incidents, not just a complaints forum. It’s a really good model for higher education.

But there are no short cuts to this model. Real change doesn’t come from one-sided feedback, but from negotiated relationships built on trust and reciprocal respect, and this is a point made in a useful post from the Cancer Geek blog, “Does Healthcare Need Cooperation or Collaboration?

Collaboration requires all involved stakeholders to listen to one another, define the problem together, and understand the expectations and requirements for what a successful outcome will look like upon completion. Collaboration takes time, effort, and commitment.

Time, effort, commitment.

What would it take in time-impoverished institutions like public universities or hospitals for their service users to be fully and respectfully included in the story of what is being done to provide the service? How can our reputation-mad institutions take the risk of sharing with students the way that they’re cutting service costs? How can academic staff conscientiously and professionally deal with the affective cost of austerity budgeting while trying to do a good thing in the room, in the grading, in the vanishing time for consultation?

While you’re thinking about this, and perhaps while you’re thinking of reviewing a service incident—either as a patient, or a student—take one minute and listen to a VA employee and a veteran break down together on the phone over access to care. They’re both exhausted, and weeping, and neither of them is wrong, and everything is wrong, and at the end, this is what the veteran has to say about what happened:

“I want to give that fucking woman a hug. I just want to tell her that I know it’s not her fault. I wish she hadn’t hung up the phone.”

Think like this.

Service as a Service

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.”

Won what?

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.

runningPrepare 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.


Oh, the gratis.  There is always some contest or another available to the cast members to earn gratis, and even working part time I was able to earn soooooooo much.  For those who don’t know, gratis means “free, or complimentary” and is provided by the company or a brand.  …  Also, if you are a holiday hire, gaining gratis also means you are showing your worth, so not only did I get lots of makeup goodies, they also kept me on after the holiday were over…one of 3 girls kept on out of over a dozen.  Win-win!


Travelling across North America during the dispute over tenure at the University of Wisconsin, I’ve found myself looking twice at the claim that tenure is higher education’s last ditch, to be defended at all costs—let alone the assumption that those excluded from tenure might have some sentimental attachment to the values it represents.

As it happens, we don’t have unconditional security of employment in Australian universities, although we do have an active national education union that it’s relatively uncontroversial to join. So we have some protection against capricious dismissal, including against dismissal on the basis of controversial or unpopular attitudes or research. But our institutions also have procedures for voluntary and forced redundancy, increasingly seen as reasonable responses to shifts in market demand for courses and disciplines. And of course, we have a large and growing casual teaching workforce who have no defense against this flexibilisation trend, because not being hired next semester is not technically the same as being fired, and triggers no severance entitlements or protections at all.

So while I’ve been sceptical of the claims that compromising tenure will bring about the end of higher education as we know it, simply because the higher education I know gets along without it, I can’t really argue that introducing flexibility to the academic labour market has done Australia much good. We’re still grossly casualised; it’s just that now our permanent academic staff also know what it’s like to feel the hot breath of administrative calculation on their collars. Do we really need all those different languages? What about computer science? Isn’t there a MOOC for that? Who needs Ancient History? How come this class only attracted 15 students? 

Sure, this continuous competitive analysis of the cost and efficiency of staying in business is common to other industries, but in the context of higher education’s necessarily slow-moving planning cycles, the attempt to be both agile and strategic at the same time really just ramps up anxiety and confounds calm decision-making. The problem for us is that our core service involves a course that typically takes a few years to complete, so we need stability of resourcing and hiring to be able to offer this in something other than a madcap way. (If you’ve had anything to do with assisting already enrolled students through a major course restructure mid stream, this may ring a bell.)

But because labour inefficiency is a criticism that plays well with higher education’s many critics, Australia is also now fooling around with the idea that casualisation as a cost problem can be addressed by redeploying underperforming researchers into “teaching focused” positions. So we also have some experience to share on the teaching tenure track proposition currently being promoted by Michael Berube and Jennifer Ruth in the US, albeit as a potential solution in the other direction—to bring more faculty into the tenure fold. (For a really thoughtful response to this, read Lee Skallerup Bessette’s latest column on “The Teaching Track“.)

The problem here is that it’s not possible to offer full-time job security and entitlements at a rate that makes it worthwhile for both parties, especially while the relative cost for zero hours teaching stays on the table. So it’s particularly hard to believe that this will be the excuse for an expansion of secure university employment in the current budgetary climate.

So if universities are to start voluntarily paying people more (especially in terms of leave and healthcare entitlements) than they are prepared to work for now, this means that either full-time and relatively secure teaching intensive positions must be of lower status, lower pay and fewer entitlements—economy class, rather than at the front end of the plane—or they will remain an institutional cost problem relative to the pay rates for hourly paid and contract teachers.

Formalising this solution also means revisiting the claims universities make about student experience being enhanced by research currency; a whole lot of marketing blurb would have to be rewritten. But if we want to uphold the ideal of research-aware teaching, then how should teaching intensive academics be supported to keep up with their disciplines? And if teaching intensive positions are to be some kind of meaningful career track option, surely this brings an expectation that specialist higher education teachers are also familiar with current educational theory? Otherwise they’re not specialists, just load-bearing generalists. So they’ll need time baked into their contracts for some kind of research practice.

Hello, square one.

Thinking about this I found myself yesterday in the brightly lit store of a well known North American retail brand where the staff are notoriously friendly, product-aware and super keen to help. In online surveys of employee satisfaction, they continuously rate their experience as positive. As we made our way around the store, they jumped out at us to answer our questions and make us feel good about ourselves. And then at the checkout, we were asked if we remembered who helped us. Because right there on the receipt—look, she said, I’ll circle it—is a website for us to rate them by name.

“We don’t work on commission, we work on recognition.”

Doing some research online I found that employees of this company are paid a pretty low hourly rate that’s compensated for by the gratis: the free stuff they get, that they get more of if customers rate their service highly. So as in any recognition-driven industry, care is reduced to a hustle with measurable reward, that needs the customer to be coached in the practice of timely feedback. The conversion of gratitude into gratis isn’t a cultural novelty, just a modest extension of the expectations of a tipping culture that have over a long time enabled employers to offload to customers the responsibility for people actually making a living wage. It makes for an extremely friendly set of interactions, for sure, but I’d honestly rather someone didn’t have to flatter me in order to be properly compensated for the job they do.

Because local variations in tipping etiquette have been on my mind as I’ve been travelling, I’ve been having a bit of back and forth with Mike Caulfield on whether it’s useful to think of tipping as a model for scholarly acknowledgement. And now I recognise that something like tenure does represent a robust alternative to the distortions of recognition. It’s a safeguard against the promotion of one kind of employee over another: the extroverts, the super competitors, the jumper outers, the crowd pleasers. And it’s challenging to institutions and their governing boards precisely because it formalises the expectation that universities behave with a sense of obligation towards their faculty. It’s also a vital defense of universities against political interjections in their academic governance, including those that are right now dismantling research into poverty and social justice.

But in the end I’m with those adjuncts who have responded with a slow hand clap as their privileged colleagues try to imagine working in higher education without the protection of tenure. Tenure can’t be defended only in the abstract; it needs to be called to account in its practice and application. The values it represents aren’t sustained by the hoarding of tenure to the few. And if academic freedom is offered to a minority only, then it’s really not the foundation of a whole system of values—it’s just what passes for gratis in our line of work.

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.

Calling it out

Many academics in their 50s might feel that they’re not ready to retire yet – but should they be forced out early? Well, of course, not all of them should.

Anonymous, ‘Should Older Academics Be Forced To Retire?‘,  The Thesis Whisperer

Bullshit. Is this really the world we choose to live in? Is this a system that works?

John Warner, ‘Calling BS … BS‘, Inside Higher Education

I’m a fan of The Thesis Whisperer (“just like the horse whisperer—but with more pages”), Inger Mewburn’s pathmaking PhD student support blog. It has a deservedly wide and international following, and it’s a model for other Australian group blogs, including the excellent Research Whisperer (“just like the Thesis Whisperer—but with more money”). For all these reasons TW hosts a serious critical conversation about Australian higher education, while also offering practical, encouraging advice for those who believe it’s not time to call bullshit on higher education.

So it says something about the state of things that TW’s anonymous contributor today dug up higher education’s zombie question: are unproductive older academics refusing to make way for the next generation? Unfortunately, couching this in sweeping generational terms scooped up those who are at least 15 years from retirement age, and ended up with this:

I can’t understand those over 50’s who hang on when they are clearly hating the way academia has changed.

They were lucky to live through an age when it was possible to have aspirations for an academic career and have a reasonable chance of fulfilling their dreams. And now they get a second bite at the cherry! They have great pension arrangements which means they have the opportunity to spend the next 20-30 years in relative comfort.

Early retirement might give some of these world weary academics a chance to discover who they are, apart from their academic identity. Imagine all that time, just enjoy being alive, healthy and prosperous? So few people in the world have that opportunity.

Touching as this is, it completely ignores weary academics with dependent families, or a backstory of contract employment and patchy superannuation contributions, or who just took out their first mortgage in their 50s. Is this really too hard to imagine? And the problem is that if you start like this, you end up with this kind of comment:

And we all know successful senior academics (again of any age, but let’s face it predominantly older than 40) who do nothing except the bare minimum they can get away with and resent any thing new and even seem to take pride in being techno-phobic.


Despite the fact that I should be reaching for my secateurs, I’m a specialist online educator, surrounded by academics of all ages who embrace, object to, experiment with and loathe technology—sometimes all on the same day. From close reading of global higher education literature, policy, reports, statistics and the endless blither coming at us from the tech sector, I don’t think it helps to reduce higher education’s problems to “we all know” and “let’s face it”.  It’s just not that simple.

The problems we are facing are structural, entrenched and worsening, and not the consequence of anyone’s underwork. So even if you know a senior academic sauntering to retirement, they’re not the reason there aren’t enough jobs to go around, and they’re not holding back anyone’s promotion. Resenting academics who have better superannuation or were hired at a different time is like resenting someone who bought a beach house before prices went up.

The twin problems corroding university work—for those that have it and those that want it—are underemployment and overwork. Just as in the northern hemisphere, Australian universities have discovered that the risk of market volatility can be moderated by the use of flexible, short-term seasonal hiring, and they’re using it to keep the business open. The only question that concerns them is how much casualisation an institution can bear before there’s some pushback on student satisfaction or quality assurance metrics.

So the rapid expansion of academic casualisation isn’t some kind of stalled wait line for the career escalator, that will resume its normal function once the bodies blocking it have been removed. It signals a more profound and unfixable market failure: like the US, Australia has failed to deliver on promises made to PhD students when they were enrolling. So anyone who’s pitching intergenerational change as a lure to PhD recruitment is selling a part-share in a unicorn. Academics in their early fifties are still picking up their kids from primary school.

This leaves the question of unproductive academics. Shouldn’t they be forced to give up their seat for someone who would appreciate it? This seems more reasonable, and even the defenders of the zimmer frame generation pause at this point. Why yes, productivity.

What if we had 360 degree feedback with academics – getting input from their students as to their performance? What if all academics had performance metrics and were accountable to their students to retain their positions? I think you would find that those academics who felt the pressure to actually perform, keep up with technology and be accountable would leave on their own accord.

Now we really have both feet in the quicksand.

First of all, academics are already measured, surveyed, evaluated and reported on. Research support and leave is already being withheld from anyone not measuring up. Institutions already have productivity management processes, and they are already being used. We don’t have tenure in Australia; academic jobs can be lost through performance management, and without fault through restructure and redundancy. If you don’t think your institution is moving fast enough to use these measures against your senior colleagues, go for it. But as John Warner asks in his terrific essay, is this really the workplace we choose to build? And do we trust that its instruments are true?

Productivity is a weak measure of contribution to the overall work of an academic institution because it focuses so narrowly on one part of the institutional portfolio, and measures by outputs. So it excludes all the collegial processes essential to the institution’s survival, including governance activities, professional service, mentoring, participating in networks, and professional development; and it overlooks the impact of structural change requiring more inputs for the same outcome. If you’re suddenly leading larger teaching teams, preparing more website content,  filling out more forms to meet internal and external QA requirements, keeping more complex records to meet separate audit requirements, and taking longer to drain your email sump, none of this will amount to an increase in your productivity–just a decrease in your available time.

But it gets worse. Productivity as a faith system is inseparable from the operations of the paywalled academic journal publishing industry and its enclosure of publicly funded research inside a privileged domain. So it’s one of the most corrupting pressures placed on the public mission of universities and the values of those who choose to work in them. Should it be the means by which we measure each other as well? In May this year, Melonie Fullick wrote a critical analysis of productivity in higher education that’s worth reading in full.

The concern about time and “production” can be internalized to the point where we strive to find ways of making our progress visible. But for much of what we do, this may not be possible.

If academic work is about knowledge, and we come to apply the concept of “productivity” to this work without questioning the implications, then what are we saying about how knowledge happens – and the nature of knowledge itself? The epistemological question flows from the question of governance. If we govern universities on the same terms that we manage factories, we change our relationship to knowledge and also the nature of what we “know”.

Parallel to this, Richard Hall has been writing all year about the increasingly fraught relationship between the managerialist ideal of the quantified academic self and the operation of the university as an anxiety machine. He looks closely as an expert educational technologist at what lies behind the recruitment of technology to help capitalism come to terms with the diminishing productivity (in other words, profitability) of human labour. It’s a grim picture, painted by a pathologically successful senior academic, of the consequences of our complete capitulation to the logic of overwork.

We won’t address these deep and damaging structural inequities within higher education work by using its most broken instruments to surveil and rebuke each other—this is complicity with bullshit, and it won’t change a thing.

For G.M. and R.C.


On impact

I know that there are people who actually enjoy sports but I never thought that there would be such a thing as a dodgeball enthusiast. Well, there isn’t really. There are just highly competitive people who use dodgeball to satisfy that need to win.

Dodgeball, an autobiography

When life is understood as a career, the resume becomes an extension of the body. Gaps in the resume are institutional stigmas. Since most of us have to work, it is hard for ill persons to resist accepting “productivity” as the measure of our worth.

Arthur Frank, At the Will of the Body: reflections on illness

Prayer flags
all the time in the world
(photo credit: Kate Bowles 2014)

Last week a colleague came to visit and asked, pretty forthrightly, “When this is over, and you know what you give a shit about, what will that be?”

It was the right time to ask the question. I’ve reached a point in this process that I think many people experiencing illness go through. After the truck-crash of diagnosis and surgery fades in intensity, and the long slog of treatment begins, recuperation involves moments where you stop and think, over and over: wait, what happened to my life?  It’s the first week of the Australian teaching year.  I’m reading emails about car parking and welcoming students and new colleagues. My friends are back at work.  And I am here at home, taking stock of surgery, chemotherapy and the long road up ahead.

Having cancer is like repeatedly walking into the middle of the room and forgetting why you came there. You can remember, more or less, what you were just doing moments before, but now you’re standing here: this is real. Only this has not yet explained itself, it doesn’t yet make sense. So you go back over what you were doing just before (“Remember we said we would, you know, before …”) and you try to rebuild some kind of hindsight identity working backwards from the moment of diagnosis, to what didn’t begin at that point, which is of course a way of not thinking about how it will end.

When did it start? How much of this challenging treatment is the consequence of that work-delayed diagnosis?  What future for me and those I love was decided in that year that I didn’t get checked out? These are the questions I’m trying not to ask physicians, because I truly don’t want to know the answers. I’m worried that knowing might compel me to send a career-limiting email about the very irritating tone of our university’s workplace wellness programs, that do absolutely nothing to address to the culture of academic overwork that cause people to miss health checks in the first place. (Global Corporate Challenge, I’m looking at you.  Your emails this week reminding me that it’s not too late for a fantastic burst of energy have been fantastically mistimed.)

But if there’s one thing I do now know, the question of “when this is over” can only refer to treatment, because cancer won’t be over. That’s not to dramatise my situation, but simply to say that a cancer diagnosis is a status change like becoming a parent. Even when your child moves out of home, even if your child dies, you are still a parent. That part never gets unmade.

So I’m returning to the question of how being a person with cancer might work, especially in the context of a fairly long time being a person who works in a university.  Conversations this week—including with Philip Nel who has a beautiful piece in Inside Higher Ed on why academics overwork—have made me think hard about what academic work and illness have in common, and why this matters. It’s not that academics are unique in overworking in the current economy, but that there are structural incentives to our overwork that are fairly peculiar, and they’re matched by our coping practices that on most days amount to a weird co-dependency with a system that can no longer afford to run itself. Nel’s covered most of them, in my view, but I just want to add one that I think is becoming very important.

We overwork because the current culture in universities is brutally and deliberately invested in shaming those who don’t compete effectively; as a correlative to this we are starting to value and promote to leadership roles people who really do believe in the dodgeball triumphalism of university rankings as a way of nurturing educational values and critical inquiry.

The cruelty of this shaming is that it passes itself off as supportive collegial celebration of the heroic few; it’s hard to call out precisely because it looks like a good thing. It’s rampant in internal messaging (newsletters, all staff emails) that continuously reinforce the institution’s strategic mission by high-fiving those who win the prizes. It’s the self-justifying logic of casualisation, creating a vast second-tier of precarious and under supported university work for those who don’t get the real jobs. And it’s the immense project of research quantification, that crowds out practices of thinking, collaborating, listening and sharing in the name of picking winners and hothousing them because ultimately they pay off.

Being shamed isn’t the result of failing or refusing to participate in this system; it’s the result of being willing to supply your labour to enable competitiveness to work at all. Because there have to be losers, for there to be people who win.  (As Cate Blanchett put it so beautifully, “the world is round, people.”) For the 20% of ARC Discovery successes to have career valency, there have to be a very large number of people who calculate that it’s still worth their time falling into the 80% who fail.  To understand why we go along with this, and trash our physical and mental health in the process, you really need to read the literature on why people buy lottery tickets, and how they understand their participation in something with such a tiny prospect of success.

So I was thinking about how this deficit-driven measurement of value at work prepared me so well for being the subject of medical diagnosis, when I read yesterday a thoughtful discussion of the current culture of rankings-driven professorial recruitment in Australia, and the way that universities recognise whether their staff have value or not. And this is how it started: “An academic once told Third Degree that a failed academic was one who retired as a senior lecturer. A successful lecturer would have at least made it to associate professor.”

I’m a senior lecturer. You do the math. The tenor of this comment, and presumably the discussions at the university executive strategic retreat described in the article, imply that if I had any kind of professional integrity at all, any scrap of loyalty to the stated goals of my institution, I’d be offering to step outside the tent and take some time coming back.

But actually, I find this very liberating. Whatever it is I’m going to find I care about, I do so with the considerable freedom of being marginal to the university’s sense of itself.

So on that note, here’s a thing I care about. This week we opened CASA, an online home for those affected by casualisation in Australian universities. My colleague in this is a cultural geographer, and we both care very much about practices of belonging and hospitality in higher education. So we made a home for people to come together, and think, and share ideas for how this situation could be made less scarring for all concerned. I care about giving my time to this, and from the response and support we’ve had, so do lots of other people. We haven’t won a competitive grant; we haven’t published in a top-ranked journal. But we care about impact, and in this case, the human impact of our dodgeball culture is something we’re ready to call out.

All are welcome to join.

A few good things

Philip Nel’s essay “In Search of Lost Time” in Inside Higher Ed is accompanied by further reading and links to the pieces he cites, on his own blog, including a piece that deserves to be read over and over: Miya Tokumitsu’s “In the name of love“, originally published in Jacobin Magazine in January.

His piece has been covered, from opposite ends of the academic work spectrum, by Overworked TA (“The underbelly of putting yourself last“) and Ferdinand von Prondzynski (“Recognizing hard work in higher education“).

Richard Hall has provided considerable extension to all of this today, in “On academic labour and plutonomy“.

What you have when you don’t have tenure

Over the holiday period there’s been a flare-up among US higher education bloggers, that began with important questions about the miserable process of tenure-line job searches conducted at big annual conferences (do candidates really end up sitting on the bed in front of the search committee? Good Lord), and jumped from there to whether those currently tenured are doing enough to change the system that gives them their privileges. Understandably, tenured US bloggers wrote back, most substantively agreeing that university work is broken, and pointing out some of the reasons other than tenured privilege that higher education can’t afford to pay its staffing bills properly.

For those of us in other places, where neither hiring nor tenure work in the same way, it’s been like visiting someone else’s family for Christmas dinner and watching them fight. Every old thing gets raked up. Seething alliances form. Insults are defensively reexplained and stuff gets overstated. Once there’s a crowd, reactive escalation becomes its own self-sustaining energy. So then tone-policing becomes a thing, a penalty dive, in much the same way that “political correctness” was used by Australian conservatives in the 1990s: claiming to be silenced in order to silence others back.

Something that Australians would recognise is at work here: the art and tactic of sledging (which has nothing to do with snow). Sledging isn’t just there to unsettle your opponent, but to build solidarity among the team dishing it out. Sledging is a public test of team loyalty and commitment to the cause. Whose side are you on anyway? Whenever critics of sledging say that that it’s gone too far and is tipping into bullying, and indeed when it does evident harm to some of those on the receiving end, sledgers amp it up a bit while disavowing it in the same neat move. It’s just a game, and off the pitch we’re all mates.

Social media sledging in the current climate is tangling with the ways that universities (and governments) are mobilising to minimise critique from higher education workers, by widening the definition of inappropriate speech online to include anything that brings the institution or its brand into disrepute.  And to this powerful audience, some of the obvious strategies for breaking up this brawl while clawing back more money from university staffing are already on hand. So if we want to get beyond sledging and make workplaces worth applying to, really we need to try to think about these other options and familiarise ourselves with what they might mean.

First: outsourcing. Universities are generalist institutions made up of lots of little divisions that do different things, and academics are often not aware how many of these are already outsourced to specialist providers.  We could be better at sharing administrative services; even research time is able to be lent so that cross-institutional teams can function. But in teaching, the idea of outsourcing was hushed until MOOCs blew it out of a big trumpet. (The exception is LMS contracts; and even then few academics get to find out much about the vendors that they’re partnered with, because that partnership is sequestered within a specialist bit of the institution, and sometimes actively covered up with in-house support.)

So academic work itself remains the least outsourced part of the institution’s activity, and this could change. Public universities could run on outsourced online labour quite straightforwardly—other major corporations do, as do MOOCs, and many private education providers. Casualisation itself is already both outsourcing and sharing, but it’s still relatively costly compared to how cheap it could be if it was unbundled and the cheaper bits put out to tender. Of course this work then wouldn’t go to those who are currently trying to find local employment in higher education, because there will always be cheaper sources of piecework labour in other states or other countries, just as there are in other industries. So this wouldn’t create more just employment, but it would save money.

The second option is potentially more attractive to people who want to work in higher education: remove tenure and make universities like other sectors, where security of employment is based on continuation of demand for what you do, matched to your continually tested capacity to do it better than the next person.  This is exactly what life on the open market is like for car workers, basketballers, miners, IT workers, business professionals and farmers, not to mention journalists, artists, and people who make cricket caps.  Demand for what you do can change, and someone younger, fitter, taller or cheaper than you can offer a better deal to your employer.

So if you’re sitting on a CV that’s more impressive than someone currently in a tenured position, maybe this would work in your favour. And maybe the younger, fitter, taller, cheaper person would never come along to replace you either.

As it happens, this one’s also already here, because the underlying bargain also favours the employer. Many Australian universities have in their three year contract with their workforce the capacity to redeploy or retrench academics if the discipline market shifts, or technology makes a difference in very unexplained ways, and it’s no longer in the business interests of the organisation to commit to the expense of someone’s permanent salary. This is what makes the culture of continuous departmental restructure so serious. While universities shuffle their salary commitments around the disciplines to optimise their ranking performance, academics now also need to imagine remixing their expertise quickly to be something else if that’s the way the wind blows—which is to say that expertise itself has already been redefined as a barrier to flexibility.

It’s a high risk strategy for both employers and elite performers, who are bought in at the expense of an international search, and then bought out of governance and/or teaching so that they can bring in research funding. But if demand trends away from them, then they can be difficult to redeploy, because it turns out that universities are within rights to argue that a senior academic can’t simply be plonked in front of first-year undergraduate students to do generalist teachingIn a very recent judgment, the Australian Fair Work Commission has decided in favour of an Australian university that:

A category E professor is a far more expensive employee for the School than a Lecturer A or B employee. The retrenchment and redundancy provisions of the Agreement are objectively intended to allow the University to address commercial imperatives arising from changed business circumstances. A practical approach to the construction of the Agreement favours a conclusion that does not oblige the University to retain that far more expensive employee to perform work that can be, and is presently, performed by significantly less expensive casual employees in the Lecturer A or B classification. [emphasis, as they say, not in the original]

This whole judgment is painful to study. At its heart is the story of three real people fighting unsuccessfully to keep the jobs they signed up for, and a union fighting alongside them; hidden behind this are all the stories of their significantly less expensive colleagues whose terrible working conditions have become the very low-lying marker in the struggle for fair work in sustainable universities, and whose situation could yet get worse under MOOC-driven disruption and tech-supported unbundling of work.

The judgment is clear on the climate for thinking about security of academic employment in Australia; and shows how little impact we have had on assumptions about the time it takes to teach conscientiously, patiently or well, especially where students may be underprepared or poorly supported.  It differentiates between the value of contact hours based on an individual’s salary, and by these apparently reasonable means finds it appropriate to service first-year teaching at the lowest possible cost, which is precisely how casualisation is endorsed as a strategically good response to “commercial imperatives.”

So if you still really think that people who talk about structure are avoiding the struggle for fair work and turning a blind eye to humans harmed by it, or that it’s possible to separate the struggles of the academic precariat from the management of those on salary, then read this judgment closely. Because this is the court of opinion where real power is at work, and where the structure is already being redesigned.

Big thanks to Stephen Matchett (@SRMatchett) for daily higher education reporting in Australia. His Campus Morning Mail is where I first read about the judgment discussed here.

Because work

At this time of year, many of us are dreaming of lying on a quiet beach under a palm tree … . Instead, we are more likely to be watching the sun shine down from behind the office window, while staring obsessively at our computer screens and becoming consumed by our overflowing inboxes.

It seems that Australia isn’t the laidback nation it’s perceived to be.

Aussies: reluctant to take annual leave, Big Fish Global Consulting Group, back in 2012

Summertime in Australia, and the sharks are tweeting.

When I first came here in the mid 1990s, Australian universities still operated like the television industry in the expectation that everyone went on holiday for the whole of January. Academics didn’t need to book leave; under the terms of a “deeming provision” in the employment agreement, it could be taken for granted that we were all at the beach because that’s what January means in Australian culture. So the legal fiction of annual leave could be maintained without much admin overhead, while the actual practice of leaving work and doing something else with your time was gradually being washed out to sea by sector-wide changes to the way universities operated in the summer period.

Realistically academics have always used January to write, setting up exactly the conditions for other kinds of work bleeding into their personal time. But now there are more and more administrative deadlines, including those related to grant-getting and grant-acquitting, that require a more routine kind of work through January. It’s also peak hunting season for potential undergraduates who have better or worse than expected high school results.  And the ferris wheels of shared governance all started to turn at the beginning of the month, even if some academics might still be choosing to protect themselves from knowing how any of these work.

So Australian universities now recognise that if they need to stay open for business all year, then the deeming provision that writes everyone’s leave off in January is fraudulent to the point of risk. Even though some of the cultural expectations about January still apply, the practical change is that academics now get to apply for annual leave, which means that someone has to approve it, and then the whole system spends the rest of the year auditing, worrying and auto-generating emails about the fact that what we have here is a burned-out profession sitting on a huge stockpile of untaken time away from work.

To this extent, despite the popular caricature that we barely show up at all, academics turn out to be pretty much the same as any other salaried workers in a churning economy, with Australia coming fifth in 2012 in a global survey on “holiday deprivation in developed nations“:

According to the survey, we are only taking fifteen of our twenty entitled annual leave days. Therefore we’re waving goodbye to a whole working weeks’ worth of holidays. As a nation, this leaves us with over 118 million days of annual leave stockpiled; or in other words: 350,000 years of holidays and $33.3 billion in wages.

Although 70% of annual leave stockpilers acknowledge that taking time off to recharge does wonders for your work/life balance, many also say that personal or work-related barriers are holding them back. Concerns regarding money, failure to plan, deliberately saving for emergencies or not being able to coordinate leave with a partner’s availability were cited as major reasons for not taking leave. A further 57% of stockpilers blame work-related barriers for their inability to take holidays, including; separation anxiety from work, lack of cover, negative reactions from employers and difficulties of being granted leave in the first place.

So there’s that. But let’s look at this another way.

Paid leave is the privilege of a minority of those who actually teach in universities. It’s part of the package of privileges that come with salaried, permanent academic employment, including sick leave, carers leave, bereavement leave, sabbaticals, paid leave for long service, superannuation, access to retention and attraction bonuses, access to research grant funding etc. But wait, there’s more: a permanent salary also underwrites your credit standing in relation to other middle-class institutions (banks, real estate), gives you a professional identity, and sustains a general ability to plan for your future. So even where it doesn’t come with healthcare, a salaried job is the golden ticket in an economy characterised by precarity, underemployment, unemployment, and the vast shadow economy of informal work.

In Australia, the compensation for being excluded from the privilege of security is a loading that nominally treats casual academics as self-managed contractors who fund their own entitlements. On paper, this looks OK. But while we still systematically underestimate how long the institution’s teaching work actually takes to get done—because the same calculations feed into the very, very sensitive matter of staff-student ratios—then we not only reduce their hourly rate, but also drag down with it the significance and real value of their compensatory loading.

There are two problems here. One is that we still base most measures of teaching work not on outputs but on the fiction of the contact hour, which is recognised as not quite belonging to the temporality of corporeal life but to some weird metonymic calculation where the hour in front of a class implies the other hours required to enable that contact hour to happen. Only the contact hour is measured in the tick of a regular clock and the others are calculated according to a piecework formula which amounts to however long a piece of string happens to be. It’s a mess, because it’s a gross effort to discipline 21st century university work, which is asynchronous, virtual, global and multitasked, in the name of 14th century scholarly practices.

The second problem is that the variables in how long teaching actually takes are among the most politically sensitive in higher education. Topicality and currency of teaching materials, building and equipment maintenance, variability in student preparedness, professional development for teachers, health and accessibility considerations—these are all topics that make higher education institutions wince because they’re in the cost planning side of the strategy. This is the bit the institution uses to try to manage the risk of volatility on the revenue side as students and families weigh up the prospect of college debt v. college premium. So institutions underinvest a little bit in all these things, and try to calculate how much they can save without introducing reputational risk, which is of course risk to revenue. That’s how both salaried and hourly paid academics end up having to contribute their own time to the enterprise, whether they’re supposed to be off the clock or off on leave, to cover this gap.

So thinking about the complexity of all this, here’s a New Year message to our colleagues in edtech.  As you’re making your 2014 to-do list, please make sure that you’re really well informed about the labour market conditions in the sector you’re promising to disrupt. We’ve had two years of listening to you about the democratisation of student access to education, and the efficacy of student management; now let’s hear your thoughts on improving the human experience of work in higher education—and not just for the handful of mostly male tenured celebrities at top-tier US institutions you’re using to promote your brand.

Because until you really understand the rapid, serious deterioration of work in higher education, your chances of achieving sustainable change, the change that you want to be part of, are nil.


Health update: Thanks so much to everyone who’s written and asked, brought meals for us, and hung out our washing. Recovery was quite tough this time because of a second general anaesthetic quickly following the first, but I’m up and about, and waiting for results from the second surgery at the end of this week, before moving to the next stage of this thing. I heard Shane Warne say yesterday that the Australian cricket team is essential to the idea of Australian culture, and I can see why he thinks that, but for me it’s Medicare. Australian public hospitals and the people who work in them are facing the same underfunding and casualisation as us, the same mad search for efficiency, but as Mary-Helen Ward pointed out to me this week, what they deal with is beyond comparison.