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.

Networked professionals

Ambiguity is always at the centre of an interesting experience because this causes us to question, to wonder why a thing holds our attention.

– Bill Henson, Oneiroi

How will the professional identity or professionalism of academics be supported, rather than eroded as the University is proletarianised?

Richard Hall,  ‘On the HE White Paper

I can’t pin down when I started to say “professional” so much. Maybe I’m gesturing towards something that might help students think outside of the frame we place around them. What if not student, if not casual worker? Future professional. A professional, I want to believe, is someone who manages frustration, responds to challenges with equanimity and not spite, who keeps it together. Be professional,  I say. And for good measure, I add that all this is sure to be helpful to them in their graduate professional future.

But Bill Henson’s right, we should stop and think when a thing holds our attention. In the era of the employability mantra, values are on the fritz. So I wonder if I’m trying to keep something on side, or whether I’m just trying to get a fix on a moving horizon.

I catch myself noticing, in much the way that Kathleen Stewart describes her ethnography in her beautiful 2008 essay “Weak Theory for an Unfinished World”:

A noticing that gropes from a haptic space in the middle of things. The objects of such a practice are things noted obliquely, as if out of the corner of the eye, but also, often, as punctums or punctures. Things that have impact. Things caught in a circuit of action and reaction.

Workshop poster on noticing details
#dlrn15 workshop on change in higher education, 2015

Professionalism: I’m noticing it everywhere. It’s in the inflight magazine, it’s in conference codes of conduct, it’s in the recruitment toolkit and the career planner. It’s in songs. It’s ironic, and hopeful, and thrown into disarray by the current condition of work. What is our professionalism within this labour market that has come so spectacularly unstuck? Who is exploiting our professionalism, and what business models are glued together by it?

I find other people using “professional” to mean two things. One is about the boundaries that keep us apart from one another. A nurse educator told me that she felt it was unprofessional for nurses to share any detail about their lives with patients, even if this made patients feel more comfortable and trusting. She explained to me that this practiced professionalism also kept nurses safe from the risk of empathy with patients who might, you know, that. Both sides are protected when the behavioural boundaries are clear.

Something similar sidles into this assertion about how university staff and students are supposed to get along:

Victoria Bateman, fellow and director of studies in economics at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, believes that “the relationship between a student and an academic needs to be a professional one, rather than something more informal.

Nina Kelly, ‘Should academics avoid friendships with students?’, June 2016

The idea that the opposite of “professional” is “informal” gets some academics worked up about the value of titles, the way that students write emails, the need for standards to be unyielding, and things to be done properly. It seems we’ve awarded ourselves the contract for the moral education of students, all managed under the shingle of employability (“And, let’s not forget, any increased laxity in marking, deadlines and attendance will not help students prepare for the reality of a career after university.”) There’s something defensive and sad in all of this, as though a levee has failed and the water’s coming in.

But there’s a second meaning that Liz Morrish brought out recently in a post I’ve already cited, that’s not threatened by students calling us by our first names, and that holds itself accountable to something other than the expectations of compliance and self-management set up by the first meaning:

In what seems like a perverse project designed to deprofessionalize, casualize and atomize the academy, community has been hard to maintain.

Liz Morrish,  ‘Care in the Virtual Community’

What is this professional self, that holds itself together, that is opposed to casualisation and fragmentation? How does this professionalisation connect us to each other, and enable us to go on making community, both inside and in refusal of the perverse project of transforming higher education into a sporting contest? Can we prise it away from the ruses and routines of our credentials, our legacy of vocationalism that is suddenly transitioning into chronic volunteerism, and then notice something principled, enduring, and trans-institutional that is not fully subordinated to the market anxieties and brand vanities of our sector?

There are ideas emerging around us. When doctors refuse to return children to offshore detention centres because they have a professional commitment not to place children in harm’s way, we get a look at something beyond the ordinary verticals of career and employability. This isn’t about getting on and getting up, but about standing up for something that goes beyond self-interest.

So what is our version of this action?

At least one model showed up in Australia and internationally this week as academics responded to La Trobe University treating a Facebook comment about Australia’s flag as “serious misconduct” — and a cheer to the Thesis Whisperer for her fierce intervention on this case. It turns out Twitter isn’t just cat pictures (looking at you, Baroness Greenfield) but is some kind of professional community prepared to speak out for one another, who quickly recognised something symptomatic in this case—something really demoralising about universities playing social media gotcha with their staff without the faintest idea how the network actually works.

Mulling all this over, last week I finished delivering two courses. The first has been with a generous, creative and inspiring group of students who came together with me to use narrative methods to think about how professionalism might become a critical practice. The second has been a values-centred examination of the role of research in our cultures and our working lives, which closed on the topic of professionalism itself.

I shared things that are personal to me, especially on the predicament of human time. In return, students shared with me their experiences as casual workers. I heard about professionalism as something you make for yourself even when work doesn’t offer much in the way of status or appreciation. It’s not how you put up with the customer that’s hassling you, but how you speak up for yourself, how you ask to be treated properly. Professionalism, they told me, is a potential for conduct in all circumstances, but it’s a contract: an expectation of dignity, integrity and a right to be engaged.

When I asked if they have the opportunity to rehearse this professionalism as students, the answers were discouraging. To conduct yourself, you have to have some choices, some range. You have to be able to see yourself setting a course of action, exercising judgment, appraising standards, reflecting, and being open to change. And more or less everything we do—with increasing force as we dig deeper into the error of treating rules as qualities—prevents students from learning these skills. We deprofessionalise students as we herd them around, organise their time for them, set their tasks according to inflexible internal standards, grade their work according to rubrics that leave no room for surprise, claim credit for their employability, prize ourselves for their graduate salaries, and bolster the competitive durability of their qualification by minimising creative tinkering with its curriculum.

So it’s not surprising that our own sense of professionalism has become imperilled as we become the functionaries to these shallow procedures. Not to mention that we’re so busy contributing two unpaid working days of our lives every week to keep our chocolate factory running at a competitive pace relative to the one up the road, that we should have no time to sustain ourselves as ethical professionals. But we do, and increasingly we do it in the network, in the things we write, share and debate online.

So this is really why universities are starting to monitor social media more closely. It’s the space to which our professionalism has escaped and regrouped. It’s where professionalism correlates as much to care as it does to competition, where despite the occasional misstep there is a resilient community of purpose, making a network of our better selves.

And perhaps because of all this, it’s also the one space where we get to welcome students who choose to join us as our collaborators, already building their own professional futures, alongside ours.

 for Paul

Standing room only

What do you stand for? Who are you? How can you know that—and operate from that position of power?

bell hooks

There are times that it’s hard to know what to say. Things seem to ask for a response, even just a raised hand to say “Here”. But how to start with this world?

This week I discovered that the place where I work has a new brand tagline, and this is it:

Stands For Purpose

(It’s not that bad. My daughter’s primary school has Strive to Excel. Although this one’s apparently on the back of buses, which is about as funny as it gets.)

While I was still trying to figure out my own misgivings, let alone whether it’s legitimate to express them publicly (because brand) I came across a widely shared clip of bell hooks explaining how as a feminist she doesn’t find herself able to support Hillary Clinton’s run for President. In this one minute explainer, drawing down the powerful words of James Baldwin, she nails it for me: there are these identities we’re meant to embody with force and conviction, and yet they may not in any given situation represent the values that we stand for.

Values aren’t corporate mission statements or brand collateral because they’re personal. I suspect this is even true of people with faith, which I’m not. Values aren’t practices of compliance with institutional rhetoric, they can’t be. Values are who we are, and the only reliable source of our power to act in this world because they’re earned, through difficult experiences that make us proud of ourselves. Values separate us from machines and the stars. Our values make it possible to operate with intent, to think independently, to settle for ourselves the big question of how to live, what counts as enough.

So while I respect that this standing for purpose is the mission of my institution, and that it’s standing room only all the way to our chosen destination in the world university rankings, something else is tugging at me, something closer to what I’m learning that I stand for.

At the end of last year, I was asked a big question by someone whose thoughts are really precious to me. Are things getting worse, do you think? he said. And it’s complicated. The mood swings towards pessimism. Will children exposed to television ever play in cornfields again? Will the economy ever pick up? Will the planet survive our occupation of it? And because hard times have come again before, no one wants to get caught naively thinking things are different now. So we muffle our disquiet, because we’re not sure if our moment in history is a landmark or a decisive moment, or just another weary day.

But I think he’s really asking something about us, not just about what’s happening: are we the crowd applauding, whistling, cheering as the ice bridge caves in to the sea?

For me, the question is about work. Is it getting worse, and are we at risk of applauding as it does so, because we’re so busy standing for the spectacular, when we should be sitting and thinking very carefully about what it tells us about environmental cause and consequence?

I take this to be a question about employment as a whole, but the case study I understand best is employment in higher education. And because our role is to educate, it really matters how we manage our own working. Whatever we speculate in marketing or curriculum about the future of work, the practice we model to students everyday is how we occupy our own jobs now. Every time we meet, students learn from us how we sustain a critical professional voice as we go about our careers—and how we do this constructively, pragmatically and optimistically.

So let’s do this openly, and see what happens.

This week Liz Morrish has written an extraordinary post about breaking the code of silence in conversations with students about academic stress, and what systematic and structural pressures are troubling the people teaching them. She told them the story of Professor Stefan Grimm, who committed suicide in December 2014, and left clear advice for his professional colleagues about the particular workplace pressures that took him to that point. Several of us committed to keeping his name in our thoughts and our writing, and we have done so. But surely we shouldn’t talk about these things with students?

And yet, here’s what happened:

I hope I got it right. It felt as if I did. This was not a monologue; students had questions and comments. Most of all they offered support; their responses were simply heartwarming in contrast to the totalising judgement of management by metrics. As I lost my ability to contain my sadness, my voice trembled and I became tearful. A young woman stepped forward and offered a hug. Later more students arrived at my office with coffee and cake, or just concern. Students I barely know out of class offered more humanity and understanding than institutions with a duty of care to prevent workplace stress. I was humbled and grateful.

Two more writers have since responded. The peerless Plashing Vole detailed his 13 hour working day (and playlist, if you need one). And Siobhan O’Dwyer mapped out very carefully why even job security and a genuine appreciation of career privilege doesn’t remove the sense of personal unsafety that so often accompanies academic work.

Both Siobhan and Liz make clear that what prompts them to speak is the worsening health—and mental health—of colleagues. And this is also haunting me at the moment, for a whole range of reasons, not least the story of Fergus McInnes. In September 2014, he disappeared, and has not been found. His family are still waiting for some sense of what happened to him. With care and caution, his story was shared recently on the Matters Mathematical blog, and I found myself reading through his spare and beautifully written website, Fergus’s Brain Online. It’s just a big page of links like it’s 1996, but this is the story of a real human who was a colleague of all of ours, who carefully explained his struggles with depression, and his search for a way to manage it better. He had a stellar academic career.

What is a university’s responsibility if someone takes up an academic position and also has a disability of some kind, especially a mental health condition? Let’s make this simple: surely we should all be standing together for a safe mental health culture for everyone at work, just as there are wheelchair ramps into every building? If the expectations of academic pace and productivity are making work unsafe for some, shouldn’t we look harder at the values of the institution that causes these pressures to seem reasonable to anyone? Anyone?

Or have we really created a culture where, as I learned this week, a research executive who was told the story of Stefan Grimm responded that someone who enters a university career should understand what it takes to succeed. Is this how we persuade academics that it’s normal to push themselves beyond their own limits, without hope of care in return? (And is this relentless commitment to productivity at all costs the reason that academic job applicants who disclose hidden disabilities don’t get jobs?)

These are the values of an aspirational, purposeful economy in which everyone from students to whole institutions is lined up by rank, and the logic of measurement is used to allow the weakest performers simply to fail. It’s a brutal culture in which the competitive lucky ones get careers, and the rest get uberised or not employed at all.

Let’s stop standing for this.

Thanks to many influences here: Liz Morrish, Aidan Byrne, Siobhan O’Dwyer, Will Littlefield, Andy Clarke, Melonie Fullick, Mark Drechsler, Richard Hall, and the students and colleagues I get to sit down with every day.