“Take my advice but don’t follow my example”

I have not done very much writing recently unless you count many emails and feedback on other people’s writing, mainly students and peers whose work I have been examining, being a critical friend on, and reviewing. I have been pretty terrible at being any kind of example to my students of how to make time to write, basically. I am currently supervising a few part-time students with full-time lives and teaching a new round of my writing for publication course. As such, I have a great deal of advice for my students about how to carve out time, make reasonable, achievable writing goals, and generally put their writing closer to the top of their ‘to-do’ lists. I pretty much insist that they do this so that they have writing to send me for feedback. Am I taking my own advice, though, and being an example? Nope. Not even a little bit.

Now, I could argue that this is fine, actually. My time is quite justifiably taken up with supervision and teaching, and the ever-present admin and emails that come with that. This online life is nowhere near to being over, and being present in all these online ways takes up more energy than it seems like it should. So, I can have and dispense advice about all sorts of academic things I do not actually need to take or use myself (because I have taken it in the past, which is where it comes from). Right? Well, I am thinking lately the answer may not be so helpful if it is ‘yes’. I think I probably need to start taking some of my own advice and putting it into practice, rather than making excuses for not doing so, however reasonable these may seem or be at the time.

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See, I have learned over the last few years especially that too much time spent on other people’s writing means less and less energy for my own writing. And the less time I have for that, the less time I spend reading and thinking and generally feeling stimulated as a scholar. The more I start to feel like a workhorse for others and after a while I start to feel a bit resentful and cross that they are all writing and I am not. Let me be clear: this state of affairs is no one’s fault and this is not about blame. But, I think many academics – teachers and supervisors – feel like this: like they are there for everyone else but not so much for themselves. And it’s easy to say that this is on us, that we have agency and power and can change this and make more time for ourselves, our own writing, thinking, reading and scholarship. I have said that. But the reality is harder.

Without going into too much detail, the last four months have been intense on a personal and professional level to say the very least. I have been offered and have accepted a ‘dream’ job but that means I have to move countries; my mum has had unexpected medical issues that have meant a complete change of lifestyle for her. There has been so much noise in my head caused by all of this and the admin has been unreal – hours on phones and email and the Internet, asking questions and finding answers and filing complaints and claims. And on top of all that, the marking and teaching and examining and reviewing keeps coming in and needing to be done. And, of course, parenting and daughtering and partnering has to happen, too, and in very present ways. So, my brain goes: ‘Where am I supposed to make time, let alone find the emotional and mental energy, to write things that contribute to knowledge’? And it answers: ‘There is none right now, let it go, dude. That can come later, just survive now’.

There’s a lot of wisdom in knowing your limits, creating boundaries, saying ‘no’, caring for your mental, emotional, physical, spiritual wellbeing. Overworking yourself to the point of burnout helps no one, least of all you. I can’t help my mum or my family with zero energy on any front. But, see, this pandemic life has created quite a few of these moments of ‘Leave it for now, try again later’. And the thing that I most enjoy about being an academic is the thing that is constantly at the top of the ‘Leave for Later’ list. My writing, my scholarship. What is taking up the Now is admin (so much admin), emails (don’t get me started) and other people’s writing. I am not on the list. My work, my ideas, my writing, is not on the list. And, actually, that’s not cool with me. It’s not good for me and it is not good for my students, because being a good teacher and supervisor is bound up in and shaped by being an active thinker, reader, writer and researcher. I don’t think I can really be either; I need to be both.

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But, how to be both right now in this time and space where there is too little time and not enough space? How do I work on being more of an example and less of a cautionary tale? How do I feed my scholarly soul so that I have more energy for other people’s writing and ideas, which is actually a big part of my current and also new job?

I think this has to be my focus now. I tell my students not to start the week saying ‘I’m going to write all the things!’ I tell them, ‘Start with 25 minutes today on something productive: some freewriting, some planning, a bit of reading, some editing – whatever gets you a step closer to your writing goal. Cross it off for today, pat yourself on the back and tomorrow, try that again. Make small achievable goals you can reach to build your confidence and momentum. Be as encouraging of yourself as you would your friends and peers. Don’t be mean to yourself but don’t take it so easy that you get nothing done day after day and then sink into a pit of despair, feeling stuck and too scared to write’. I think this is actually pretty good advice and it is widely shared by writers who know their stuff.

I can take this advice. I can try this tomorrow, before all the marking and examining and emails. I can put myself in the Now and leave some of that stuff for Later.

Musings on self-care

I’m up relatively early this morning and I am kind of feeling like I could write something for the first time in a long while. So, here I am. I have been quiet on the blog for a while. Lots of Big Things happening in the work and life departments, which mean lots of hours between 1am and 4am trying to get my brain to be quiet enough to let me go back to sleep and lots of mornings which see me stumbling into the work day tired, sluggish and just over it all. I’ve been reading quite a bit recently, in light of all of this, about self-care and all the different meanings ascribed to this notion. I don’t feel, most days, like I am doing a very good job taking care of anyone, never mind myself, but I am aware that if I don’t start trying to look after myself a bit more consciously, things are unlikely to get much better any time soon in this regard. I have been musing about what self-care is, what it could be, and what I can do about that for myself. I think, pandemic notwithstanding, that most of us could probably benefit from more time and energy spent on ourselves, that we could all learn to take better care of us.

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Self-care is understood in a range of literatures to encompass physical, mental, social, emotional and spiritual wellbeing, and in in this article, the author addresses each of these areas, arguing that taking care of ourselves in all five areas is key to developing resilience and the ability to cope with both everyday life stressors and more acute stress (like a harsh set of comments from a supervisor, or a meeting that goes badly). If we’re not sleeping, we’re not coping. But, to be able to sleep, we need to find ways to calm our minds, we need to exercise (even just a little bit), we need to eat decent food and take in the calories our bodies need. I am not good at any of these things right now. I am drinking too much coffee and eating sporadic and not always very nutritious meals (apart from dinner, mostly because I don’t only have to feed myself). My brain is always going and because I am tired, meditation is super-hard, and because I am tired, I can’t be bothered to cook oats if there’s a cereal bar and a banana that require no cooking, and because I am tired, I don’t want to go to Pilates or walk my doglet. For me, right now, part of my self-care is making myself take a walk even if it’s a short one; it’s boiling two eggs instead of a bowl of cornflakes or a cereal bar; it’s taking my thyroid and iron tablets before I drink my coffee so that my body actually absorbs them (and not skipping them altogether); it’s going to bed before 10.30pm, so that I can get some proper sleep in before the inevitable brain circus at 3am. And it is hard. I have to consciously make myself take care of myself.

This is something else I have been reading about in regard to self-care: it’s not always pleasurable or easy, and it’s not necessarily about beauty products, mani-pedis and spa day (although, don’t get me wrong, I would LOVE a massage and a facial right now, and so would my tired skin). In this article, the author argues that when we persistently link self-care to massages, spa days, shopping for a new outfit or taking time away from our daily lives we frame self-care as indulgence and as a luxury. Not only do we have to spend a lot of money we may not have on this version of self-care, we also locate this care externally, in things. Rather, as several more critical pieces on self-care argue, we need to start internally, with ourselves, and we need to understand that self-care is necessary, not indulgent, and everyday more often than involving any form of luxury. Self-care often takes discipline and it is not always glamorous or pretty. Over the years, for me, self-care has looked like going to Pilates even when I want to stay in bed, going to therapy even when I do not feel like talking to my therapist, taking my pills when I don’t want to, going to the doctor to get the pills in the first place, closing the laptop and saying ‘no’ to work because I actually know I need to rest (even though the work never does). And this takes work – some days not so much, some days a great deal. Self-care is about working out what “you need to do to thrive” and not just survive, and then doing that as consistently and consciously as you can.

This reading led me to a more radical understanding of self-care, one written about by Audre Lorde when she was being treated for breast cancer. In The Cancer Journals, Lorde wrote about being a black woman, a poet and a lesbian, having a single mastectomy and refusing a prosthetic breast. She wrote about the kinds of advocacy she engaged in to defend her decisions against well-meaning others, against the medical establishment, against society – a society that did not care for her in the ways that she chose to care for herself. In this article, the author makes a thoughtful link between us and society: if society does not care for us, then we need to choose to care for ourselves, and these acts can be radical, like choosing to work a 40 hour week and taking the weekend off; choosing not to answer email or be available for work in the evenings; choosing to take your vacation time and leave your phone and email and work at home; choosing not to take on extra projects because it’s expected of you or its what everyone else is doing; choosing to say ‘no’ when no is the best choice for *you*. In an academic – and more general – work culture that has made a virtue out of being available to everyone all the time, that equates success with loads of research papers and grants and memberships and being ‘on’ all the time, that valorises living to work instead of working to live, many of us struggle to keep up. Research has already shown that working mothers’ research “productivity” declined significantly during the first year of the covid pandemic (if productivity is understood as papers published and grants applied for and not as home-schooling their kids and keeping their families safe and alive). In this culture of over-work, then, choosing not to overwork can be recast as a form of self-care against accusations of laziness or not being ‘committed’ enough to be successful. We need to redefine success and we need to redefine work-life balance, especially for those who are already starting from further back and need to run harder, faster and further just to keep up.

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Most days these days, being any kind of successful at my work and my life does require disciplined self-care – taking my pills before my coffee, sitting at my desk to work instead of on the couch so my back doesn’t hurt, walking the dog and being outside, tidying up so my house is not an unmanageable tip, eating Proper Food. But, even though I am grumpy about it, I know I’m coping because I am trying to do it most days. I would not be coping at all if I was not trying to look after myself and care about myself as much as I care about my kids, my partner and my cats. And I also realise that I am able to buy heathy food to make for myself, that I live in a house that is near a park and the beach, that I work in a role that allows me a measure of flexibility with my time, that my kids are older now and pretty self-reliant, that my partner is supportive and does most of the cooking. I am, in many ways, privileged enough to do this kind of self-care without having to really struggle (to afford the food, the medication, the time). What of those who are not so privileged, who do not have support, enough money, a safe and warm roof over their heads, safe spaces to exercise in, flexibility at work? How do they build resilience, create their best lives, thrive?

I think perhaps each of us, in our own corners and in our own small but visible ways, can start redefining ‘productivity’, ‘success’ and work-life balance. Instead of just not answering emails after 5pm or on weekends and not explaining why, I can explain that I choose not to do that because that time is to unwind, to connect with my family, to do non-academic things. I can valorise that, instead of being always-available. I can help my students to make different choices about their work-life-PhD balance by talking to them about how they work and when they work and not just about what they’re working on; I can offer advice on strategies I have used to maximise my writing and reading time without taking time away from my kids and the rest of my life; I can encourage them to rest and not make that a taboo. Maybe there are other ways you can do this in your work space, to disrupt or at least put a question mark onto practices that have become taken-for-granted in many ways around publishing, teaching, meetings, email, “productivity”. Not only can we find more time and space to care for ourselves in doing this, we can also advocate for those around us who have relatively less power to speak out against work and study practices that diminish rather than build our resilience, that make us feel like failures when maybe, as Lorde argued, we are not the ones who are actually failing.

What do you think you ‘know’ about your research problem?

*You can listen to this post on the podcast player.

I am currently supervising several students at PhD and MA level, and a few of them are starting out with reading, writing, constructing their gap and setting out the shape and size of their research problems. This is an exciting and also at times frustrating process for students and supervisors. It is often characterised by steps forward and then backward or perhaps sideways, and sometimes what feels a lot like going around in circles. I’m not focusing on this whole process here, but rather one dimension of this part of doing research: the things we think we “know” before we start our research, the assumptions we bring into our reading and writing that we may not always see clearly, and why we need to think reflexively about these issues to do more ethical and credible research.

We often approach research, perhaps more at doctoral than any other level, from the starting point of our own interests, passions, questions: what do we want to know more about? What do we want to use this research project to find out or change or do? This means that we may be coming into this research with existing knowledge about the topic we are researching. And, crucially, our approach to the new research may be shaped or influenced by certain assumptions about what we think the project will be about, or how it might unfold, or what we might discover or find out. This is all really normal: when I started my PhD I had been working as a lecturer and tutor for almost 10 years and I had a lot of ideas about what we should be doing better or what we might be doing poorly and what could be improved and how. Many of these were founded in what might be termed a form of experiential knowledge or practice wisdom*, and some of them were probably quite common-sense understandings of teaching, learning and higher education.

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This is knowledge we all have, whatever field we are working in, I think. This may be more pronounced in some fields than in others, especially when you come from a professional space you have been working in to the doctoral research space. Some of this knowledge may come from overt forms of learning, such as reading research or attending seminars and making deliberate notes and working to make sense or meaning of all of this input in relation to our work and research. But, much of it can also be gained more tacitly, through time, experience, being in the environment and working things out as you go. This can feel like “common-sense” knowledge: this is the way we do things, it works, it’s fine. But we cannot rely on common-sense knowledge as a basis for research because it is too partial, too biased, and perhaps not necessarily supported by peer-reviewed, theorised research in our field of study.

I’ll offer an example from my own research journey. I work in higher education, as many of you may know by now. Specifically, I am a writing and academic development specialist and practitioner. I started my PhD a year after I started managing a university writing centre, and about 6 years after I has been consistently involved in teaching academic writing to undergraduate students at three different universities in different faculties. So, I had a lot of ideas about the “problems” with student writing itself, with students’ “motivation” for writing, and with the teaching that was happening. These ideas were shaped by colleagues I had worked with, the departmental ethos and course structures and materials I worked within and with, and my own experiences with students. I had not read very much of the scholarly research because I was not asked to or required to, and thus it didn’t seem relevant. It was pretty much all I could do most weeks to keep up with the teaching and marking. When I started my PhD and wrote the first few drafts for my supervisor, I was really challenged on a lot of my assumptions – assumptions I did not realise I had – that revealed positions and ideas that were not supported by the more critical parts of the conversation the field was having about literacy development, student writing, and effective teaching and learning. I wanted – needed – to join this critical conversation and this meant that I had some difficult thinking, reading, and reflecting work ahead. Specifically, I had to unlearn some of what I had learned about curriculum design and teaching, and notions of student “deficits” and discourses that put individual development and change over and above deeper and more sustainable systemic development and change.

This was hard work: not just intellectually, but also emotionally because it challenged who I thought I was as a teacher at that time. I always thought I was helpful, kind, made tough things like writing essays easier for my students. I think I was that person for some of my students, but the reading I did and the related thinking and writing work at PhD level made me realise that I was probably not that person for all my students because I had blind spots around questions of knowledge, access, success, systemic dis/advantage and how university opens spaces for some students to succeed and closes places for others, for a range of reasons that need to be made visible, named and addressed.

My early research questions and writing reflected my early blind spots and biases – in the language I was using (“In what ways can we better allow students to succeed”; “How do we deliver the curriculum more effectively”). My verbs, perhaps more than anything else, gave me away: they revealed my assumptions and bias. These needed to be challenged and made visible for two key reasons, I think. The first is that if we cannot or do not see that we have all sorts of assumptions and ideas coming into a project, we may well end up with a significant mismatch between the work we want to do and the work we will probably end up doing. We may say, for example, we want a participatory research design but end up doing something far more directive and hierarchical if we have an assumption that we know what the answers are and all we need to do is work to find them, or that the researcher needs to be an authority in their project, for example. This may extend to disconnects between theoretical and conceptual frameworks and the language you use in writing the thesis, or between the theoretical and methodological frameworks.

The second reason is that these assumptions and biases, if they remain unseen or unchallenged, may affect the way we obtain and make sense of our data. If you think you “know” that student motivation is the issue in whether or not students are successful, even if your reading of the literatures challenges this, you may construct data gathering instruments, such as survey items or interview questions, that are leading – that try to get participants to confirm these assumptions or ideas. You may also only seek out literatures that confirm these assumptions or ideas. In all research, we need to be quite aware of and cautious around confirming our biases, rather than constructing a research design and data gathering process that reflects the literatures we have included and aligned our study with, our theoretical frameworks, and that is open to discovery and analysis, rather than seen as “The answer”. “The answer” may be too coloured by our common-sense knowledge and what we think we “know” to really push us forward in our thinking, challenge some of the more problematic aspects of our work, create new knowledge in our fields of study and practice. In my own study I used Nvivo to code my data and in one of the training videos there was a phrase that stayed with me: “We need to be open to being surprised by our data”. Scientists may tell you: “Believe what you see; Don’t see what you believe”.

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There are many different research paradigms, or worldviews, that shape what we think the world is like, what we think counts as valid or credible knowledge or “truth”, and how we can reliably come to know that knowledge or verify those “truths”. Our worldviews are not always visible to us because we may come to them quite tacitly, over long periods of time through immersion in particular fields or disciplines of research and practice, through prolonged engagement in particular social and political environments, and so on. Surfacing our assumptions about what we “know” and how we know it and why we think it is valid knowledge is a powerful step in making our research paradigm clear enough to ourselves to explain it to readers and examiners. And this is important because it lends further credibility to our choices of research design, analytical framework and methods, and our eventual findings. On what basis do you make claims to “truth” or knowledge? How must others evaluate and make sense of your claims? How do you show the different ways in which you are making your contribution to knowledge and thereby persuade the reader that they matter and are valid?

This is not always easy work and it happens over the course of the project rather than all up front in the proposal. You need to begin there, at the beginning, reading and thinking with the scholarly and additional relevant literatures in your field, keeping a reading journal to write to yourself about how the reading and your own thinking and purposes/plans are connecting and speaking to one another. Speak to others about your research, including but not limited to your supervisors. Share your thoughts as openly as you can with people you know will listen and think with you, and not shut you down. Consider having a critical friend to regularly debrief with about different stages of your research process, so that you have help in spotting and revealing blind spots and biases that may derail your study or undermine the credibility of your arguments. The key thing, I found, was to find as many different useful spaces as I could to be brave enough to talk about my work and my thinking, and be open to listening to the critique and doing the work it demanded. It was not easy, but I do think that my research itself and myself as a researcher are better for it.

*This a term I reference to Veronica Bamber and her keynote at HECU7 in 2016.

Making time to think

*You can listen to this post as a podcast.

A few years ago I wrote a post called ‘Making time to write‘ in which I argued that we need to actively and sometimes creatively make time to write. This is, to my mind, a more active act than finding time, which seems to me a bit more passive. If you say “I can’t find time to write” it implies that the time just wasn’t there. But, saying “I can’t make time to write” implies that there could be time but you are giving it away to other people and other tasks or projects. So, I think that if we want to really get writing and stay writing to finish a project – paper, thesis, report, whatever – we need to be making time to write, carving it out, protecting it, prioritising it. But what do you write when you have made that time? Do we also need to actively make and protect time to read, and crucially, time to think?

I have been working on something new research-wise for the last year or so. I have pretty much worked on shades of the same large project for the last almost-10 years. I have written about other things, but all of the writing has focused on different angles of the same larger issue or problem and has used various applications and parts of the same theoretical toolkit. This new project is not a complete departure, but I am working with different theory, different data, and a different set of issues or problems. This means, then, a great deal of reading and writing in my reading journal. This is expected. And I am mostly able to make time for that, mostly. But, what I am finding I need to be far more active about, and strict with myself about, is making and protecting thinking time. And I have been wondering: ‘How much time do we need to think, and how do we use this time effectively?’

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It should go without saying that being an academic, a scholar, a researcher implies being a thinker. You cannot write anything original, novel, pathbreaking or well-argued without doing a good deal of thinking – about what you are reading, about the connections between theory and data, about what kinds of data you have and how they may speak to one another, about the field you are part of and the different conversations that are happening in various places, such as published literatures, the media, in your research community and/or university. Thinking is part of everything we do. But, thinking is not as visible as writing and so we often underestimate how important it is and how much time we need to make for this vital labour.

In the present measurement-and-results heavy culture gripping academia (to differing degrees depending on your context), many of us feel increasingly pressured to “publish or perish”. You have to produce a certain number of research ‘units’ and win grant money and have an ‘impact’ to justify your university keeping you around. It feels like a relentless hamster-wheel that just spins faster and faster, threatening to throw you off at any minute. There is no time. There are just tasks, one after another. The lack of time is even more evident now in this pandemic-shaped world we all live in where many of us are still unable to work outside of our homes in offices, libraries or even cafes where we can create a space to sit and think or read or even write in a slower, quieter way.

But even in a non-pandemic world, time is pressed, right? And what we do spend our time on has to count. It has to be impactful. This means it has to be visible. This is, I think, why so much airtime is devoted to writing: how to write, when to write, what to write about. If I spend a whole day writing I (should) have something tangible to show for it. We talk and talk about writing, but we spend far less time, comparatively, talking about reading and thinking. These activities are core to academic knowledge-making, though: what do you write about if you are not reading and thinking, before and during the writing process? It seems to be that the reading and thinking work is assumed – of course we all know how to read and how to think. These are less difficult, less quirky and strange, less stressful than the act of writing. Or are they?

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I ran a seminar recently online on how to critically and forensically read a journal article to obtain and create for yourself meta-knowledge about how knowledge is created, positioned and shared in your field. It was very well attended and there were a lot of questions in the chat that showed me that the acts of reading and thinking are not quite as stress-less and straightforward as some may think. Knowledge is not neutral; it can be specific, arcane, technical, theoretical, often-strange if you are new to it (and even sometimes when you aren’t). Why then would the practices we use to come to know and create knowledge be assumed to be simple or straightforward or even generic? Reading is not just picking up a text and looking at the words. It is an active process of engaging with an argument, with evidence, with methodology and findings, with underlying principles that shape what counts as valid knowledge and also credible ways of sharing that knowledge with other researchers and readers. It involves connecting what we are reading to the research or the practice work we are doing and either fitting the new knowledge into an existing frame of reference, or adjusting our frame of reference if it is challenged by this new knowledge.

This means, then, that thinking is not a general or straightforward process either. Thinking, too, is an active process of meaning-making: we think with texts, we think about problems, we think within and sometimes against existing conversations and frames of reference. We often think with others – “real” others like supervisors, co-researchers and critical friends and “imagined” others like the authors of the texts we are reading and working with. This work is not quick, either. It takes time to read deeply, think about connections, create these and find evidence to justify and strengthen them, put the pieces together into a shape and form that is novel and makes a contribution to the field. And, for a portion of the time we are working on a thesis or a paper, it appears invisible because it happens internally, in research and reading journals only we read and in conversations with others to which the outside world is not privy.

This invisibility to the outside may mean that we struggle to really make time for it and protect that time. We want to rush ahead to the parts that are visible – being in the field and gathering or generating data, writing drafts we can show to people and send to supervisors and editors, doing the teaching and tutoring, and so on. We stress when the reading and thinking bits slow us down and take more time because it means we might not have a ‘unit’ to upload into the university portal to show them that we are serious about being an academic and playing the game. We might be seen to not be doing anything. How many times have I spent a day reading and writing in my reading journal and thinking and then caught myself thinking that I have nothing to show for a day’s work? Too many.

I think we need to push back against that kind of thinking. Taking time, making time, to think and read and talk through our ideas with critical friends is incredibly important and valuable work. Slowing things down to do this work carefully is a valuable act. It helps me to see my research trajectory as cyclical rather than a straight line, especially when I get frustrated at the pace of my current labours. There was so much reading and thinking that went on during my PhD and early postdoc years and not many papers, but then there were a few years of several papers and a book. But this “productivity” was only possible because I took that time before (and also to a lesser extent during) all the writing and publishing to read, scribble, think with others and for myself. Now, starting a new project, I have to make that time again and be patient with myself and with the process. I know that the writing will come and, when it does, that it will be sharper and more meaningful – and feel more authentic to me – for having emerged from this slower development and creation process.

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It’s not easy. The push to publish, publish, publish is strong and the discourse of productivity becomes internalised over time. This is more marked in some contexts than in others, but all around the world we are pushed to start publishing earlier and earlier in our academic careers, and also to begin diversifying where and how we publish so as to have the greatest demonstrable impact with our research. I am not making an argument against this, necessarily. I write papers and books because I want to have an impact. Research findings can be powerful and important in shaping fields of practice and knowledge and need to be shared, within and beyond the university or academia. But, I do think that what counts for me as impact and what counts for the NRF or the DHET or some other oversight body may not always align. Their understandings often seem to me to be narrower and more instrumental than mine may be, and thus they focus overly much on products and underestimate the extent of the processes that lead to these products being created and shared. This is where I want to try and push back a little, make time for different kinds of thinking and writing work, and help others to do the same so that we have a wider and more nuanced understanding of impact. This may enable us to develop and hold a more conscious understanding of all the work that goes into creating novel contributions to knowledge and thus offer more empathetic and careful support and development to scholars doing that work.

Making it in academia: holding the tension between vulnerability and imperviousness

*You can listen to this post as a podcast.*

I was reading a piece on Medium last week about the mysteries of packaging and writing academic job applications, especially for scholars from contexts very different from those they are applying into. In amongst all of the very true and useful points in the piece, I was struck by one sentence that has stayed with me: “Making yourself vulnerable to critique is a central part of academic life”. Vulnerable. That’s a scary word for many people. Especially, if you have had experiences of making yourself so and feeling trampled on by harsh feedback, neglect or even overt unkindness. Academia is not the same boat for everyone; it may be the same sea but there are many different boats and also different kinds and sizes of crews that we are sailing with. For some, being vulnerable is much more scary than it is for others and I think that needs to be recognised and talked about. In many cases, we may feel that we need to rather be impervious, invest our energies in developing that thick skin people are always telling us is vital to survive in an academic career.

This has got me thinking about all the ways in which academics are made vulnerable or have to make themselves vulnerable and what happens when they do. What do we do about the tensions and contradictions inherent in all these processes and acts that ask us to be vulnerable but at the same time tell us to pull it together, be tough, be impervious to the feelings of hurt, frustration and sadness that the different forms of feedback can cause? Can we make this act of making ourselves vulnerable less scary for those already in more precarious positions, like early career researchers, casual staff, women, scholars in minority groups on campus?

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One of the main ways we are asked to, and have to make ourselves vulnerable is through asking for and getting critique, as suggested in the quotation. We write thesis chapters for supervisors and a final thesis for examiners, we write papers for journal editors and reviewers, we stand up in front of peers at conferences (or sit down at our screens in front of peers, these days). We also, if we are teaching academics, have to ask students and sometimes peers to evaluate our teaching, our course materials, our knowledge of what we are teaching. We may also write funding applications for committees internal and external to the university. We apply for jobs and submit ourselves to committees of strangers for evaluation. There are many ways, then, in which we are made to be vulnerable, open to rejection, to criticism and judgement, to both kind and unkind feedback responses.

But, we are also told that, at the same time as we have to make ourselves vulnerable and open in so many ways and to people we know and do not know – often people relatively more powerful than we are – we must be tough, impervious to being hurt and feeling rejected and sad. We need to have a thick skin and be resilient, make peace with rejection and head back out again to ask for more critique, feedback and possibly more rejection. Over and over this seems to be the cycle. I ask for feedback, it’s not good, the paper needs more work, the grant or the job is going to someone else, the opportunity is lost. And instead of wallowing and feeling sad and sorry for myself, I have to pick myself up, be philosophical about the whole thing (Ah, academia, such is the life), and move forward as if I’m not all that bothered. This imperviousness makes me seem successful and strong; it may even be admired, especially if I don’t share my failures or feelings openly.

But I am bothered, and not just for myself. I am bothered for the casual staff for whom one bad course evaluation or loudly unhappy student can mean no more contracts. I am bothered for the early career scholar for whom one harsh and unhelpful peer review can mean giving up on a paper that could be useful for readers in their field. I am bothered for all the postgraduate students studying outside of their more familiar ‘home’ contexts and feeling misunderstood, misheard, misrecognised by homogenous systems that reward conformity in various ways. I am bothered for non-mother tongue writers of English for whom not-so-subtle comments about needing to have an English speaker ‘fix’ their paper may mean feeling pushed aside or put down by an institution that finds many ways to create us and them groups, insiders and outsiders. I am bothered for every academic who is asked, in obvious and not-so-obvious ways to conform to an elusive way of being, speaking, reading, writing, dressing that somehow marks out belonging and not-belonging in academia. And more and more in this cycle it is the individuals doing this difficult emotional labour who are asked to shoulder the responsibility for responding “appropriately” to this system. Individuals who have relatively less power to set the rules or change the state of play. Don’t cry when your supervisor is unnecessarily cutting in a meeting or in their written feedback. Crying is not appropriate. Don’t talk back to peer reviewers or journal editors who use their power to break down instead of building up or helping. That’s disrespectful. The unequal ways in which the system itself works thereby become normalised and when individuals or groups break with this system to try and push back, ask for more or different or better, they are the ones who are the problem, rather than this system itself.

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I think this makes for a pretty unfair and biased game, myself. It’s becomes quite clear, over time, that academia is not a game created by everyone, for everyone. It’s a game that a few people created for themselves and a few select others a long time ago, and while they have over the years allowed others to join in, they have been pretty slow in sharing all the rules and sharing the field. Even more so in being open to making real and meaningful changes to the rules so that the game isn’t quite so uneven, opaque and frustrating for so many people to play.

There are very big changes that need to be made – many of these beyond ordinary people like you and me, perhaps – at the levels of funding policy and allocations, challenging biased ranking systems, creating more just policy and governance environments and practices. But there are smaller, meaningful changes we can start making, us ordinary folk. One clear change is in how and how often we give feedback and to whom we offer it. I have seen several Twitter threads about grant applications that take so much time and work and when they are rejected have no feedback attached that can help applicants be more successful next time. Perhaps that’s a starting point: offer some feedback on unsuccessful grant and job applications on issues that can be worked on, like how the project is framed, the extent to which the criteria were and were not met, writing style & jargon use, etc. Even a few clear lines can make a big difference to the applicant and their chances (and confidence) on the next try. Another change is peer review and how editors manage this process. I see far too many threads on social media about unkind peer review and editors just letting the unkindness happen. As an editor myself I know we have the agency and the knowledge to both encourage and guide better peer review and to mediate (or even choose not to share) poor, unhelpful and even spiteful reviews.

These may seem like too-small changes, but they may begin to make a meaningful impact if we commit, more collectively, to two things, at least. The first is to commit to creating openings for new voices, new scholars, different knowledges, different bodies, rather than making efforts to diversify seem more cosmetic than truly transformative. But to do this, we need to make a second simultaneous commitment: we need to look long and hard at what we make legitimate and reward or reproduce – what knowledges, what ways of being, speaking, writing and acting, what bodies and histories, whose stories. And then we need to start thinking about how we use critique to punish some forms of vulnerability and reward others, and in so doing, continue to set up the game to favour those who already know how to play it or have the means to somehow figure it out. We continue to make vulnerability core to academic life, but this act is not rewarded for everyone who undertakes it. That’s a problem we need to address, together. And we can. This is not utopian thinking. I think that undertaking the kinds of work, individually and collectively, that make genuine steps towards transformed ways of being an academic and working in this space is crucial to keeping university connected and relevant to the communities and societies it is part of, and to taking the academic project forward with and for the many, rather than the few.