I found myself this week wondering if it is acceptable to come clean about what’s good about being in higher education. And just as I was thinking this three other things happened.
The first was that I hung around #ecrchat, because it’s both in my job description and my research interests to be curious about what academics early in their careers think/need. This particular tweeting was about motivation, and you can find the storify of it here. What struck me at the time was that a number of people tweeted about how much they love, yes that was the word, love, their scholarly work. This was – and is – not to deny all of the multitudinous crappy stuff about early career working conditions, but rather is to acknowledge that being in HE requires a real passion for teaching and research.
The second was a chat held by The Guardian about improving working life in higher education. The panel consisted largely of people who do the other half of university work, and included some marketing and HR folk. At one point someone tweet-asked if staff should be surveyed like students to see if they were satisfied. I was very irritated by this and immediately tweeted that I didn’t want to be treated like a customer in my own institution. Another contributor clearly had something of the same feeling and commented that she was proud to work in a university because it was about education. Both of us I think were moved to suggest that intrinsic motivation and philosophical commitment were pretty important when thinking about university as a work-place.
The third was a blog post in The Guardian by Jeannie Holstein who came to doctoral research after a successful career. She began her post saying
Very early in my doctoral journey, I was fortunate to experience that moment when you know the decision you have made was the right one. It came with the realisation that I was being paid, not very much admittedly, but nonetheless funded, to sit down every day, to read, think and write, and occasionally talk, freely – and about something I was interested in.
Now Jeannie’s story is not entirely dissimilar to my own. Coming late to doctoral research after an entire lifetime working in schools and education policy-making, I had a big chip on my shoulder about academics who thought they knew more about education than I did. However, like Jeannie, I chose my location and supervision arrangements carefully and found that, contra to my fears, what I knew from practice was actually valued and respected, and that it would take me a long way in scholarly activity.
My revelation was how much interesting stuff there was to read and find out about – truckloads of books and papers that I had no idea existed. Entire libraries of it. Multiple disciplines and perspectives and ways to come at things. Why didn’t I know about this?? I kept saying. It wasn’t that I wanted scholarly texts rewritten or predigested for me. I simply wanted to have had access to it earlier, and most of it was at that time shut up very tightly behind paywalls and membership cards, and plain old physical access barriers.
I have to say that I loved every minute of my PhD, save for about twenty four hours when I wrestled with exactly how to get the thesis text into the best working order. After twenty seven years working, it was an unmitigated pleasure to have time to think my own thoughts, to spend as much or as little time as I wanted on particular topics, to engage with all kinds of ideas that were new and exciting. That’s Jeannie’s point too, she talks about “academia as a well kept secret”.
And indeed, it’s the legitimacy to think and write and talk to others that is what I most value about higher education, as opposed to my previous working life. Having been a headteacher for a long time, it was always the needs of the school and community that came first. However there was a great deal of autonomy in that post and I guess that’s why, when I went to work for a little while as a senior civil servant, I hated and loathed having to consider Ministerial opinions and needs at all times. Moving from being on call, day and night, to being a humble, broke but ‘free’ doctoral researcher was bliss.
Now I’m a proper, or perhaps improper, academic I also take considerable delight in making connections with others. My previous working life was more mobile than most and I’d been fortunate to travel around Australia and well beyond, but this was nothing compared to the regular interactions and voyages I am now able to make. And it’s legit – this is what makes my scholarship international. And maintaining and building connections with practitioners is OK too – that’s about impact and relevance. What’s not to like about this?
Now, I’m not being Pollyanna here. I can be as critical as the next person about the marketization, audit and privatization of higher education. I hate some of the practices that happen in HE, not the least of which is the overdeveloped will to critique each other and do each other in through the peer review process. And I am really and truly cognizant of the fact that I’m in a highly privileged position as a professor with tenure and I don’t have to put up with five or six stressful years or more of being in the academic precariat.
It’s just that I do think we ought to be able to say what the job means to us. We don’t do it for the money, although those of us with tenure and no student debt are certainly comfortable by comparison with lots of other people. We don’t write just for institutional benefit. We don’t do research just to get funding. We teach and research because there’s something about working with the mind that we care about, and we enjoy. It’s surely this that keeps us hanging in and wanting to be in universities, despite all the things that need fixing.
If that’s so, then I just think we ought to say that more often. And LOUD.
And for me, this week, it’s all power to the early career and doctoral researchers for leading the way in coming clean about the pleasure of academic work.