This is a guest post from Dr Julie Rowlands, Deakin University, Australia. Julie is concerned about problems created by institutional demands for academic hyper-performativity. Perhaps you are too.
Recently my university’s central research office promoted a workshop for PhD students seeking an academic career and at early career academics. It was called something like ‘managing expectations about teaching and research’. The workshop organisers claimed it was aimed at encouraging participants to develop reasonable expectations of both teaching and research performance and workloads – not aiming too high and not aiming too low.
On the face of it, this is a good thing. However, positioned immediately below the workshop description was the presenter’s bio. In ten short years, and on a full teaching and research load, this academic had published more than 70 peer reviewed papers (that’s 10 per year), supervised multiple PhD students to completion and won many funded grants. It’s hard to imagine doing this in the kind of balanced work and home life that the workshop was promoting.
The potential effects of this curated synopsis represented by the presenter’s bio are significant. Early career academics I spoke to felt that the list of achievements carried the hidden message that this is what we should all be achieving and if we are not then we are either not doing enough or are failing. This is completely at odds with what the workshop proclaimed as its intent. It also overlooks the decontextualized nature of the bio. We don’t immediately know what discipline the presenter is from and the effect of this on the nature and form of their academic work. For example, in some disciplines such as the sciences, the tradition of shorter multi-authored papers means that a long list of publications is more likely than, say, in the humanities and the social sciences where long, single authored papers are still common. The availability of grants and PhD students vary significantly by discipline. Gender, race and social class also have significant differential effects.
Institutionalised demands for academic hyper-performativity can also be part of formal academic workload models. Last week another Australian university announced cash incentives for highly cited papers and even larger cash incentives for papers published in certain highly prestigious journals. Such incentives, either in the form of cash or via other means, are intended to inspire success but the pressure is intense. This is reinforced when academics who can’t sustain the desired level of research output are encouraged to take up teaching only appointments so that they do not impact on research assessment outcomes.
In highlighting these examples I don’t wish to single out two particular universities unfairly. These practices are widespread in many nation states. The point is that promotion by universities of idealised lists of research outputs can easily, if inadvertently, become an institutionalised demand for academic hyperperformativity. What is being promoted here is a sustained level of research output that many (even most) academics cannot hope to achieve. It is especially insidious because such demands typically cover four dimensions simultaneously: quality, quantity, speed and duration. That is, the research output must be of very high quality, produced very quickly, there must be a lot of it, and it needs to be ongoing.
Institutionalised demands for academic hyper performativity, even if inadvertent, are problematic for many reasons. Such demands give the impression that everyone on the academic playing field has access to the same opportunities and benefits – when this is clearly not the case. And that careers and outputs are directly comparable across disciplines, when they are not. They also give the impression that success occurs in a smooth upward trajectory when this is rare in academia.
As a scholar of higher education systems I understand that status accrued through research excellence is one of the most valuable assets for many universities. However those who produce this research are people, with all the vulnerabilities and foibles that this entails. Messages that suggest on the one hand that we should care about such vulnerabilities whilst on the other promote levels of performance that are unrealistic for most are highly problematic, especially, but not only, for early career researchers. I think it’s time we talked about this more often.
Do you have anything to add? Use the comments…