you expect what? hyper performativity and academic life

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. 

dennis-olsen-548519-unsplash.jpg

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…

Photo by Dennis Olsen on Unsplash

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic life, academic writing, career, early career researchers, hyper performativity, Julie Rowlands and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to you expect what? hyper performativity and academic life

  1. Richard A. Davis says:

    Thanks for this. It also seems to me that in academia one must not only do one’s curent job well, but also perform at a level for one’s next institution or role to prove that you can perform at a higher level. So the demand for hyper performance begins to filter down…

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    • Julie Rowlands says:

      Hi Richard, thank you for your response. Yes this has been my experience too, especially when trying to position oneself for employment or when applying for promotion.
      Regards
      Julie

      Like

  2. Hi Julie (and Pat).

    Thank you so much for this post. It comes at a very good time for me, as I am grappling with these very pressures. I am about 6 months into a postdoc, and am feeling rather overwhelmed by all the demands on me – all the different avenues in which I am expected to hyper-perform in order to take the next step in my career. The demand to publish rapidly and high quality, the demand to start supervising students, the demand to teach and the demand to build a credible research network and participate in national and international research conferences and workshops. All of this while I have just recovered from racing against the clock to complete my PhD in the 3 years of funding I had.

    All I really want is to live a happy balanced life. Work 40 hours a week, spend time with my husband, cat, friends and loved ones …. and maybe also have some alone time… and not feel guilty about it. Read a book or two, grow my own veggies. Phew.

    As a friend of mine pointed out recently, there are few, if any, role models in academia who manage to get the work-life balance right. Another friend pointed out that the only way she was able to slow down was when she was forced to because she decided to have a baby – wow, desperate measures 🙂 All the high flyers around me work evenings and weekends and look exhausted and work out.

    I want to contribute to academia and succeed in my career, but not at that price. But there doesn’t seem to be any other way.

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    • Julie Rowlands says:

      Hi Jessica, I think many will relate to how you are feeling and I certainly do. It is something my friends and I talk about a lot. I agree – I think it is difficult to perform at the level expected and still live a balanced life. Perhaps someone who has actually done it can post and let us know how they made it work?
      Regards
      Julie

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  3. Ciaran Sugrue says:

    Julie/ Pat

    Many thanks for this timely piece on hyper-performativity, and the unrealistic, and for most of us, unattainable ‘outputs’, but it’s worse than your contribution portrays. There is the contagion effect, thus the pressure on PhD students to publish, and for those seeking the lowliest of academic positions– short duration contracts etc– the necessity to have multiple publications, and secured some funding along the way– provides evidence that hyper-performativity has spread its tentacles to all areas of academic life. This is not life-sustaining, at a time when there is a great deal of lip service paid to wellbeing, resilience even– when there is a degree of Darwinism at play that is a considerable threat to the species homo academicus. I agree, we need to find the time to discuss the survival of species– but we are all too busy, aren’t we?!

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    • Julie Rowlands says:

      Hi Ciaran, thank you for your response. I agree the situation is much worse for those seeking academic employment or on casual or short-contract employment. But I think talking about it is a good thing to do for everyone affected by this phenomenon. Firstly to call it out and secondly to share strategies/responses. Some things are worth making time for (at least sometimes).
      Regards
      Juie

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  4. Lisa says:

    This is most unfortunate and our disciplines suffer because we lose out on the creative and innovative minds— these folks need to time to think. In the nursing and medicine disciplines, we don’t need greater quantities of evidence that all say the same thing, we need well thought out evidence that make substantive contributions. I believe there are other ways. My late father was an accomplished geologist who had numerous opportunities to join the never ending “rodent wheel” of the perish or publish side of academic life but instead, he chose to teach at a high quality but small college in midwest, US. He received all the accolades he needed, had a very happy wife, happy life and 6 happy and successful children. He taught until the age of 80 and he was STILL in love with his profession when he died at the age of 95…that is a pretty important message. There is another way…. I hope when I complete my PhD next year, I stay grounded and choose my life moves wisely. We only get one.

    Thanks for the insightful and brave post.

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    • Julie Rowlands says:

      Hi Lisa, thank you so much for your response and for telling us how you dad managed this in a way that clearly worked so well for him and for his family. It was such a privilege to read your insightful and heartfelt post.
      Regards
      Julie

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  5. JaneS says:

    I’ve never really understood how this ‘publish or be damned’ thing originally came about. Well-being and happiness cannot result from the extra weight of an anxiety neurosis. As Jessica and Ciaran say, a nightmare for early career docs ~ and later ones, too. Surely, the more one tries to live up to impossible targets, the less quality or value the work possesses? Burn out is also a risk.

    It will be interesting to see if more women than men comment here. This perceived requirement for hyper-performance adds yet another layer to the pernicious modern idea that we women must not only ‘have it all’ but also *do* it all to perfection ~ or fail. Jessica outlines things that are important in a proper ‘real’ human life: the space to switch off, to actually *think*, to reflect or recharge, to read around your field, to talk …
    Academic life isn’t just ‘outputs’ ~ it’s inputs, too.

    I shall now switch off this PC, to go and cook this evening’s dinner and talk to the cat.
    🙂

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    • Julie Rowlands says:

      Hi Jane, thank you for your response and well done for switching off to cook dinner and talk to the cat – both very important activities. You are so right that we can’t produce outputs if we haven’t had enough inputs!
      Regards
      Julie

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  6. madnecessity says:

    I am currently being badgered to submit what is effectively an engagement report or impact report as a PhD student. This is the first time the Australian government is imposing this requirement on PhD students, and it is definitely bringing home to me how higher education and research is instrumentalized and quantified in quite reductive ways, and how these expectations are increasingly being brought to bear on PhD students,
    As a little act protest I didn’t fill it out, but now the emails are getting more insistent and my paranoia about future career goals and postdoc applications is making me rethink this

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    • Julie Rowlands says:

      Hi, yes it is noticeable how procedural and instrumental the PhD process is becoming in Australia (I can’t comment about elsewhere) and it is very difficult for HDR students and early career academics to resist – or even to know when resisting might be productive and when it might harm us and others.
      Best wishes
      Julie

      Liked by 1 person

    • radiescent says:

      This effectively undermines the idea of the University, as it must undermine disciplines (especially those in the humanities) that have little or none immediate “engagement” or “impact” on contemporary society. Can’t we just let PhD students alone to do their research in peace?

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  7. KayDee says:

    Thanks for your post Julie, it’s very timely…
    I returned to study when my kids were getting up to highschool age. I did a health degree with honours and it was a very difficult journey, health issues, travel for clinical placements, teenagers, the whole box and dice. I then did exactly what I said I wouldn’t do and started a PhD… in an area I felt was in desperate need of attention (I still feel strongly about it a couple of years in). I’m on a scholarship and do some extra contract work as allowed under my scholarship. I’m exhausted. Every day. I have near-zero headspace. This could be funny given my health background and strong commitment to modelling a healthy lifestyle for my family, but it really doesn’t feel very funny at all.
    Jessica above said “All I really want is to live a happy balanced life. Work 40 hours a week, spend time with my husband, cat, friends and loved ones …. and maybe also have some alone time… and not feel guilty about it. Read a book or two, grow my own veggies”. I’m with you Jessica. I couldn’t have written it better myself, though I’m doubtful about the wisdom of the 40 hours a week these days.
    With a view to eating and keeping a roof over my head in future, I’ve been considering my options for work out the other end of the PhD. I’ve been thinking long and hard about what, and who, I’m seeing and hearing in the academic, private, government and self-employment sectors. I’ve been in all these sectors at some time in the past, so I think I have a pretty realistic take on my options.
    My life experience and value system present me with a conundrum. I can make a contribution via teaching, research and/or policy development, which draws on my education, skills, intellect and decades of life experience … this would make a contribution to my society and pay back my student loan. Or I could stay sane and take a job packing shelves at the local supermarket.
    I strongly feel that there should be a middle path. At the moment job sharing, part-time, sessional work or not aspiring to climb the greasy ladder seems to make one a second class or less desirable citizen/ employee. Perhaps real part-time viable jobs which allow people the opportunity to contribute, use their skills, remain solvent and have some time in the garden would provide a model for a healthier working life for all?
    In the end the hyper-performativity has done me a favour. I’m not taking on any contract work once this block finishes and I can’t see myself seeking a post-doc fellowship. I definitely won’t be chasing my tail over seeking a tenure track job. Sadly, there may be plenty of part-time mental-health work available looking after the people who did 😉
    KayDee

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  8. Pingback: Reading List (31/7)

  9. Thank you for your article, Julie! It makes me think of a bio I wrote for a journal article submission in which, as an ECR trying to sound like I had a track record, I listed the (few) journals I’d published in. The editors rejected the bio, telling me they only published bios that were not intimidating for PhD students and early career researchers, and that no mention of publications was allowed! They requested I rewrite the bio, describing my interests and passions, to invite dialogue with readers, not shut it down. Need I add this was a feminist journal?!

    I note the absence of mention of supervisors in the post and comments above, but surely they have a large role to play in modelling work/life balance. I’ve written a lot about the person-related dimensions of supervision on my blog: Becoming a PhD supervisor who cares about more than just a thesis

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    • Julie Rowlands says:

      Hi, thank you for your comment and for the reminder about the importance of the supervision relationship in framing this context. However I’m also mindful that supervisors are human too and subject to same foibles, ambitions and insecurities, with perhaps the added advantage of experience and sometimes (but not always) more secure employment conditions.
      Regards
      Julie

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  10. bmgrant2013 says:

    Hi Julie,
    I too am grateful to read this post and to have now the pithy phrase “academic hyper-activity” in my head. I find there are so many complicated inducements to become hyper-active.

    One is the idea of career advancement. I think if we can unhook ourselves from that admittedly now-normalised imperative, that is a powerful self-caring strategy. (Yes, some colleagues, likely your HOD/Chair, might think you are weird, but some others will be heartened by it.) I have been dismayed in recent years to hear more and more frequently the ambition of young academic women (who are participating in a Women in Leadership programme that I help to convene) to “be professors by the time they are 35 or 40”. This shift in focus from thinking about leadership in a broad, citizenship-like way to a focused career-ladder kind of way is supported by my university in many, many subtle and not-so-subtle ways.

    But there are other inducements to a hyper-active academic life that I personally find much harder to resist: for example, there is the steady stream of invitations to do interesting things (join new research projects, examining theses, reviewing manuscripts etc). I find it hard to say no – sometimes because of personal relationships (including the desire to mentor others), sometimes because of the intrinsically interesting nature of the invitation, sometimes because of the reputational benefits that will accrue from saying yes (it’s so hard not to think of such benefits in this time of the ‘portfolioed’ academic). For example, right now I’m dithering about an invitation to examine a PhD. I haven’t had one for a while and I’ve been quietly worrying about it: is my reputation that I’m too tough? Have I lost visibility in my field? Etc etc. Then along come two invitations within 4 weeks: I say yes to the first (partly based on the assuaging the worries) but the second is so much more suitable to my expertise. If I say yes to it, my work-life balance, which is already wobbling under the pressure of too many upcoming commitments, will blow out horribly for a good six weeks or more. Our autonomy is an achilles heel that is wearying – and sometimes disappointing – to protect!

    I don’t want to make it sound like I think the hyper-active academic life is a matter of individual choice. It’s much more complicated – and political – than that, but some of how we survive these conditions lies in how we choose to live inside them. And how we encourage each other to do so. I look forward to the day when our university leaders start to talk about these matters (given they largely originate in causes beyond our institutions) rather than pretending they are not happening, because how our institutions are playing the various games in town (rankings and so on) exacerbates them!
    Barbara

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    • Julie Rowlands says:

      Hi Barbara
      Thank you for your response which I can very much relate to. I agree that there is also something of a FOMO (fear of missing out) element to some of what we agree to take on which ends up being too much, and also the reassurance and confirmation afforded by the invitation/s. You are right – it is a complex set of factors that contributes to this problem.
      Regards
      Julie

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    • MistyB says:

      Hi there. I came across this blog quite late it seems, but it is a good discussion. I too am a mature age student (50) and am in my first year of my PhD on a very prestigious scholarship at an Australian university. Moving towards my first year confirmation I am quite tired on account of the extra time I have spent conducting career and development as a part of my scholarship, writing a couple of papers and also conducting my research. I am not sure how and when I am expected to start teaching over the next few years because having taught during my Honours year I know how time consuming it is. At my age I also want work life balance and having come from social services and government I know it is possible in other sectors. I cannot really turn to my supervisors for advice because they seem to have the same problems, so it filters down to me. I have three supervisors and two of them are concurrently supervising four other students, teaching, researching, publishing and travelling. From what I can observe (in my mature age lady wisdom) they have little work life balance. Sometimes I feel I am vying for meetings and feedback, let alone advice. Oh bmgrant2013, you just hit the nail on the head: “I have been dismayed in recent years to hear more and more frequently the ambition of young academic women (who are participating in a Women in Leadership programme that I help to convene) to “be professors by the time they are 35 or 40”. This shift in focus from thinking about leadership in a broad, citizenship-like way to a focused career-ladder kind of way is supported by my university in many, many subtle and not-so-subtle ways” I changed careers and went into study quite late and am surrounded by people in their mid-20s becoming doctors straight from school and my supervisor wants to be a professor by 50. Every subtle and overt message I have received this year, is that I am supposed to be driven by ambition, keeping one eye on climbing the career ladder and thinking about the elusive post-graduate job – and I am in first year!! I really appreciate this post because it reminded me I am driven by societal values and citizenship.

      Like

  11. Reblogged this on Digital learning PD Dr Ann Lawless and commented:
    another brilliant comment on the hidden reefs of the academy

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