Oh Academia

It’s been one of those weeks in academia.

Earlier in the week the “I quit academia” meme went through my Twitter stream. Perhaps the closest this meme came to me was @marksmithers “On leaving academia” post.

That was about the day when I had to pull the pin on a grant application. Great idea, something we could do and would probably make a difference, but I didn’t have the skills (or the time) to get it over the line.

As it happened, I was reading Asimov’s “Caves of Steel” this week and came across the following quote about the “Medievalists”, a dissaffected part of society

people sometimes mistake their own shortcomings for those of society and want to fix the Cities because they don’t know how to fix themselves

On Tuesday night it was wonder if you could replace “Cities” with “Universities” and capture some of drivers behind the “I quit academia” meme.

And then I attended a presentation today titled “Playing the research game well”. All the standard pragmatic tropes – know your H-Index (mine’s only 16), know the impact factor for journals, only publish in journals with an impact factor greater than 3, meta-analysis get cited more etc.

It is this sort of push for KPIs and objective measures that is being created by the corporatisation of the Australian University sector. The sort of push which makes me skeptical of Mark’s belief

that higher education institutions can and will find their way back to being genuinely positive friendly and enjoyable places to work and study.

If anything these moves are likely to increase the types of experiences Mark reports.

So, I certainly don’t think that the Asimov quote applies. That’s not to say that academics don’t have shortcomings. I have many – the grant application non-submission is indicative of some – but by far the larger looming problem (IMHO) is the changing nature of universities.

That said, it hasn’t been all that bad this week. I did get a phone call from a student in my course. A happy student. Telling stories about how he has been encouraged to experiment with the use of ICTs in his teaching and how he’s found a small group at his work who are collaborating.

Which raises the question, if you’re not going to quit academia (like Leigh commented on Mark’s post, I too am “trapped in wage slavery and servitude”) do you play the game or seek to change it?

Or should we all just take a spoonful?

11 thoughts on “Oh Academia

  1. I’ll post here part of what I wrote on Mark’s post, because it rather neatly answers your final question:

    “Other than permanency the thing that keeps me here is not so much a belief in the ‘positive friendly and enjoyable’ but that if everyone who is disgruntled with academia quits academia, nobody is left to provoke change. The only thing worse than a profession full of disgruntled people is a profession that isn’t. So I figure me hanging around is kind of the professional equivalent of sneaking vegetables into hamburgers so kids will eat them.”

    I’m a rubbish game player. My H-index is probably negative, and all of the things I have impact in are things that are not counted by the likes of ERA. So my only choice really is to seek to change it.

    1. Good reason for not leaving. Though it will be interesting to see how long it takes the game players to push folk like yourself out.

      I’m planning to play the game a bit – one of the reasons I’m doing work around learning analytics is partially game playing – but I’m hoping to use that as a basis to push for a bit of change. But the game playing drags me down at times.

  2. You don’t have to play the game their way. For all its faults, academia still gives you unparalleled freedom to do what you want to do, when you want to do it.

    Do the research you want to do. Publish where you want to publish. If you need more money to do the research you want to do than you have, lower your expectations for the time being and want to do something else. There are lots of great cheap things to want to do in any discipline. What carrots do the managers have to make you play the game? Promotion? To do less research and less teaching and waste more time sitting on stupid committees? Please… that’s a stick with nails in, not a carrot!

    And yes, I do know my h-index. And our DVCR really liked the analysis I did of my discipline’s ‘performance’ in the 2012 ERA (Excellence in Research in Australia) exercise and how we can game it to get a better result next time.

    But I also know that by any intrinsic and meaningful measure of quality, my best paper is still one I published in 1998 that has been cited exactly once, by me.

    1. G’day Chris, Thanks for the comment. While the “unparalleled freedom” comment has and is currently true for me. There are increasing signs it won’t be forever. Some of the language currently being used within this context gives indication of a not too distant future that may be much more dystopian.

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  4. I hope I’ve paid off my house by the time the dystopian future arrives! I know from talking to colleagues at other institutions that we actually have it pretty good here, so I’m confident we will be one of the last ones standing.

    Also, very soon I will be able to put my hand on my heart and say unequivocally that I am having a greater educational impact through YouTube than through my paid work. How do I make a living as the educational landscape shifts like this under my employer? I don’t know. All I can say is (again) that I hope I’ve paid my house off by then, and that my gardening skills have improved so I have a chance of having enough to eat…

    1. As a way to make a living – “Fellows Academy” i.e. rip off “Khan Academy” or perhaps something more interesting. As they say, “…to live in interesting times”.

  5. Hi David,

    We could take a spoonful and harden the fuck up but I’d rather do that in an occupation that I actually enjoyed being in and wanted to stay in. Preferably an occupation with a lower proportion of sociopaths than you find in academia.

    I agree with you disagreeing about what I said in the quote. I sometimes try and offset the fact that everyone thinks I’m just a grumpy old cynic with overly enthusiastic displays of optimism.

    Having said that I think the future is what we make it and what we mustn’t do is sit back and let the academy fall into ruin on the back blind leadership pandering to outdated notions of what a university is and does.

    If you can’t change that from inside (and I believe it’s not possible) then you have to do it from the outside and the very factors that are challenging the academy are the ones that make it possible to create a better version.

    @Chris – I appreciate your points about some of the benefits of working in the academy. Sometimes we lose sight of these and we mustn’t. Whatever comes after this must include the good things that we still have now.



    1. My problem – especially when I feel sad for myself sitting in my rather cushy ivory tower – is that I think of “those academics”. I’m sure you’ve seen them as well. Complaining about their lot in life – over their 3rd morning tea of the day – and wishing for the good old days when whether or not they returned assignments in the same calendar year was an optional extra. I sometimes wonder if, as I age, I’m becoming one of those.

      It’s still a job in which I have a lot of flexibility and freedom – so perhaps I should take a teaspoon – but I’ll still try to change it.

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