The precariat of academia

Saw the following thread keep coming up in my timeline yesterday, and found it resonating, so this post is to archive it for my own re-read. Why don’t people blog any more, instead of leaving these beautiful remarks in the ephemeral streams of microposts, but that is my problem.

RT @DrSudaPerera My contract finally arrived. It took a threat to quit unless it happened, and 10 years of being undervalued and underpaid at 5 different institutions. This moment is not one of joy. It’s one of relief and finally having the security to actually rage against precarity. THREAD (5 June 2020)

Long-term precarity is exhausting & humiliating. It’s a constant conveyor belt of toxic productivity. It’s not being able to put roots in one place. It’s never being able [to] plan for the long-term because of fluctuating salaries and never having savings.

It’s never getting a promotion or pay rise and spending your salary on house moves and train fare. It’s constantly having to adapt to new systems, rules and procedures. Of living that “hellish first year” writing new courses again and again.

It’s not saying “no”, or calling out exploitation, in case you burn bridges or get ‘a name’. Being unable to say “I don’t know how to do that” and having to learn. It’s always showing goodwill in the hope that you’ll be in good stead when a permanent job comes up.

It’s the kick in the teeth when the job you’re basically already doing gets advertised as a permanent role and you’re not even shortlisted. It’s having to take that kick with good grace because you still need a job and there might be a next time (but ‘next time’ never comes).

Trying to get out of precarity means spending your free time applying for things. It’s the Kafkaesque feeling of being excluded from funding calls because your contract doesn’t last long enough, then having that held against you when you apply for permanent roles.

In precarity you document all the work you do as lines in your CV and displays of competence for your next job application, to keep being paid, so you can make your next rent. Your permanent colleagues put their work on their promotion applications for higher pay.

Precarity is having to hide your precarity from students and networks because it might undermine your expertise. It’s realising that your knowledge is judged on your position rather than what you know and you’ve got fake it till you make it (knowing you might never ‘make it’).

I got out of precarity because my colleagues @SussexDev fought for me. Because my Head of School had the savvy to use the Uni trying to cut staff that weren’t “business critical” to frame me as such. I’m good value for money. The Uni accept my worth as a number not as a human.

I’m still cheap labour, but at least now I can make a fuss. For all those precarious staff still dealing with this shit, I will fight for you. I can’t promise I have the power for change, but now I at least have the power to try. And I’ll keep banging on about your disadvantage.

I’ll speak up for the hardships you face. I’ll explain that we don’t have diverse faculty because we don’t value diversity of experience. I’ll speak up about how valuable you are because you’ve taught widely, sat on committees, run social media accounts and written blogs.

I’ll promote the emotional labour of caring for students, of the pressure to be collegiate and never say ‘no’. I’ll argue that your experience shows versatility and adaptability not a lack of expertise. That your string of shitty contracts shows resilience not mediocrity.

I’ll call out when permanent staff don’t value that and get seduced by research superstars who never contribute anything that doesn’t advance their careers. I only got to this point because some really great permanent staff did it for me, and my HoS & HoD used their power for me.

So today, as I sit with my new permanent contract, I’m not going to celebrate my ‘success’. I’m going to reflect on how much it took out of me to get here. I’m going to remain angry I had to go through it. I’m going to acknowledge my new privilege, and use it as best as I can. ❤

Since we are on the topic of a “constant conveyor belt of toxic productivity”, in academia, here are a few more that have weighed on me.

  • @ryancordell on the vicious circle of academic overwork (13 July 2018)
  • @sophiephilpott1: “Y’know how on the London Underground you’re never more than 10ft from a rat? In Higher Education you’re never more than 2 years from a restructure.” (4 July 2019)
  • @zeyneparsel on academia as third shift (15 January 2020)
  • @wishcrys on microaggressions against junior, women, and PoC scholars (22 May 2020)

One day at a time

Pandemics and PhDs (Pat Thomson, 16 March 2020)

I’m a PhD student and I’m worried by my university’s coronavirus approach (Jafia Naftali Camara, The Guardian, 18 March 2020)

Some advice for PhD students and their mentors in the time of coronavirus (Meghan Duffy, 15 March 2020)

Postgraduate supervision in the COVID-19 Era (for supervisors and students) (Miguel Nacenta, 25 March 2020)

Effective practices in supervising doctoral candidates at a distance (UKCGE, 1 May 2020)

Should you quit (go part-time or pause) your PhD during COVID-19? (The Thesis Whisperer, 8 April 2020)

Virtual Not Viral (since March 2020)

Remote vivas (Nathan Ryder, Viva Survivors, 6 April 2020)

Doing fieldwork in a pandemic (Deborah Lupton, since March 2020)

Doing arts research in a pandemic (Vida L. Midgelow, June 2020)

Social research for a COVID and post-COVID world: An initial agenda (Deborah Lupton, 29 March 2020)

Fieldwork in the times of COVID-19: Doing ethnography during a pandemic (Raul Pacheco-Vega, 17 March 2020)

Fieldwork in the context of COVID-19 (The New Ethnographer, 7 April 2020)

Doing fieldwork in a crisis or a quarantine (Benjamin Bowles, April 2020)

Research methods to consider in a pandemic (Helen Kara, 20 May 2020)

Security features in Zoom, MS Teams, and Google Meet (@joedale, April 2020; see also EFF’s advice on how to harden your Zoom settings, 2 April 2020)

Carrying out qualitative research under lockdown — Practical and ethical considerations (Adam Jowett, LSE Impact Blog, 20 April 2020)

How to conduct an ethnography during social isolation (Daniel Miller, 3 May 2020)

Doing STS research in a COVID-19 world: Voices from the global South (Joseph Satish Vedanayagam, Backchannels, 29 April 2020)

Participant observation: How does it work online? (Janet Salmons, Methodspace, 20 April 2020)

LSE Digital Ethnography Collective Reading List (since February 2020)

Collecting COVID-19: A crowd-sourced digital ethnography of the COVID-19 pandemic (since April 2020)

Why you should ignore all that coronavirus-inspired productivity pressure (Aisha S. Ahmad, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 27 March 2020; or as @robin__craig aptly puts it, “a pandemic isn’t a writing retreat”)

5 strategies for writing in turbulent times (Chris Smith, LSE Impact Blog, 30 March 2020)

The Science of Well-Being (Laurie Santos, Yale University/Coursera)

Are we all digital scholars now? How the lockdown will reshape the post-pandemic digital structure of academia. (Mark Carrigan, LSE Impact Blog, 10 April 2020)

The Politics of COVID-19 (daily reading recommendations from The Syllabus, since March 2020)

Public Books Database (Public Books)

Teaching materials for computational social science (SAGE Ocean)

Tools and Resources — Creative Commons (Open Access Oxford)

How to create an APA style reference for a canceled conference presentation (Timothy McAdoo, APA Style Blog, 16 March 2020)

The oldest story in the book [2]

I am a big believer in the pedagogic power of narratives. So, unsurprisingly, I am always interested in how others narrate their points in their (online) courses and learning tools. Here are a few interesting examples that I have saved for my own reference. The blurbs are mostly in the developers’ own words. Hmmm, it feels like this summer I am just making mixtapes one after another here.

The Hero’s Journey in Higher Education (Robert Farmer, Innovative Practice in Higher Education): This paper outlines and makes the case for a new, twelve stage narrative approach to the design of university modules. The twelve stages in the narrative approach to module design mirror the twelve stages which comprise the hero’s journey in myth and legend, as discussed in the work of Campbell (1993) and Vogler (1985). See also “the quest for the PhD” (McCulloch, 2013).

Game of Research (LSE): This game functions like Snakes and Ladders in that players will roll a dice and count squares along the board. However, in this version the ‘snakes’ contain a research-related setback and the ‘ladders’ have a positive research-related activity. See also the PhD Game.

E-learning Training on Prevent (HM Government): This offers an introduction to the Prevent duty and explains how it aims to safeguard vulnerable people from being radicalised to supporting terrorism or becoming terrorists themselves.

Responding to Hate and Extremism (Centre for Hate Studies): A suite of digital training modules which will equip you with evidence of ‘what works’ in challenging hate and extremism and in supporting those affected by it.

Facing Facts Online: With this course you will explore what hate speech is and why it is difficult to define. You will get an understanding of the harm of hate speech on individuals and on society.

Bad News (DROG): In this game, developed as a publicly accessible media literacy tool, you take on the role of fake news-monger. Your task is to get as many followers as you can while slowly building up fake credibility as a news site.

NRKbeta: Norwegian news site that has made readers take a quiz before commenting

UnBias Awareness Cards: News feeds, search engine results, and product recommendations increasingly use personalisation algorithms to help us cut through the mountains of available information and find those bits that are most relevant, but how can we know if the information we get really is the best match for our interests? The EPSRC-funded project team have developed an educational toolkit, including the said Awareness Cards, to help (young) citizens learn how to assess the trustworthiness and fairness of systems that heavily rely on algorithms.

The Legislator: License to Bill (Daily Show): In this game, released in the aftermaths of the 2019 El Paso shooting, your objective is to get gun control legislation passed by the Congress. It basically involves navigating through a series of decisions in order to get your bill passed — culminating in an intense showdown with Mitch McConnell himself as the final boss.

RT @GrubStreetWomen

Kapital!: A new game about class struggle, injustice and French politics created by a married couple of French sociologists, Monique and Michel Pinçon-Charlot. See also 수저게임.

국민 양형체험 프로그램 (대한민국 대법원 양형위원회)

Skills and literacies, everyone’s favourite words

# Skills is not a dirty word (Leonard D. Pertnoy, Missouri Law Review, 1994)

# Hacking is a mindset, not a skillset (Tanya Snook, LSE Impact Blog, 16 January 2014)

# Effects of postgraduate medical education “boot camps” on clinical skills, knowledge, and confidence: A meta-analysis (C. Blackmore et al., Journal of Graduate Medical Education, 2014)

# In conversation with Sir Ken Robinson (August 2015)

# UK Engagement Survey: universities have limited impact on students’ ‘soft’ skill development (THE, 10 December 2015)

Responses of more than 24,000 undergraduates indicate limited development in areas such as creativity and citizenship over course of degree.

# Academic superheroes? A critical analysis of academic job descriptions (Rachael Pitt & Inger Mewburn, Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 2016)

# Null effects of boot camps and short-format training for PhD students in life sciences (David F. Feldon et al., PNAS, 2017)

# “Students should encounter research or activities linked to research and innovation at all levels of higher education to develop the critical and creative mind-sets which will enable them to find novel solutions to emerging challenges.” (Paris Communiqué, 2018)

# Media literacy – everyone’s favourite solution to the problems of regulation (Sonia Livingstone, LSE Impact Blog, 8 May 2018)

# Future graduates will need creativity and empathy – not just technical skills (Natalie Brett, The Guardian, 20 December 2018)

# Our soft skills can keep robots in their place (Ed Conway, The Times, 18 January 2019)

# RT @timeshighered It’s time to start calling soft skills “power skills” @RBC CEO Dave McKay tells #TeachingEx (5 June 2019)

# Digital literacy demands new thinking from higher education (THE, 2019)

Students have a heightened confidence in the digital space that is not necessarily matched by their competence.

The writing must go on.

The new session is approaching, and I am planning to do more on the writing front this year, especially for the benefit of post-fieldwork students. This post is simply to keep in one place bits and bobs that have inspired my plans. You can think of this post as a sequel to my ‘productivity hacks‘ and ‘big qualitative data‘ posts.

# Reverse outlining (Rachael Cayley, 2011)

# Living in a writing dystopia (Joli Jensen, 2013)

# Do you have quotitis? (Nick Hopwood, 2014)

# Writing together by the fireplace (2014)

# Importance of managing the logistics of writing (Jamie Bartlett, 2018)

# The vicious circle of overwork in academia (Ryan Cordell, 2018)

# Painting the town red (Anthony Ocampo, 29 January 2019)

# Snowflakes, crystals, fractals, and other metaphors for thinking creatively about [nonlinear] writing (Annette Markham, 2019)

# RT @AcademicsSay Being an academic is basically just saying “I’ll finally get that paper written this summer” until you die (9 July 2019)

# Writing over the holidays (Chris Smith, 2019)

# RT @Used_For_Glue I don’t know who needs to hear this, but the aim of the first draft is not to get it right, but to get it written. (22 July 2019)

# 곽재식의 어떻게든 글쓰기 (2018)

Staying afloat

One of the questions I get most frequently from students upon their return from the field is “What now?”. They come back gloriously with tens of hours of interview recordings, pages after pages of ethnographic fieldnotes, and gigabytes of photos and news clippings, and they all say — understandably — that they feel overwhelmed by the challenge ahead of staying afloat and making headway in that sea of unstructured data.

RT @JessicaCalarco Doing qualitative research often feels like playing Jeopardy – you can see the answers (i.e., the patterns you find in your data), but you don’t always know the question (i.e., the problem those patterns solve). (21 December 2018)

I share with them well-established tips such as ease into it, embrace the messiness, keep an audit trail, put oneself in the reader’s [examiner’s] shoes, read what you want to write et cetera. These tips have all been highly appreciated, but then there are every now and then situations where students are still looking for something more concrete and readily usable in their research while I consciously try to be less prescriptive and more ‘Socratic’ (so to say). Those situations always feel to me like we are communicating back-scratching coordinates.

While I maintain that I shouldn’t be, and cannot be, too prescriptive, I thought I’d put together a nice ‘mixtape’ of resources for them. More will be added on.

For code-based theory building (as in GT)

For ‘Big Qual’ analysis 

For thematic analysis

For framework analysis

For discourse analysis

What we mean by a ‘case’ when we say we do case studies 

Then and now

Just came back from a conference on “migration, mobility, and borders”, organised by and for our doctoral researchers. Interestingly, I was invited to give a ‘career talk’. My immediate suggestion was to bring in a career consultant instead, but for a combination of a couple of reasons, I ended up doing the talk. Come to think of it, I have been living and working among doctoral and early career researchers for almost 15 years, while being required to monitor the latest developments in the sector, so I told myself that I might indeed have one or two things to say about for their benefit.

Considering the theme, I prepared my talk along the lines of the increased expectation of (early career) researchers to be available/willing to be globally mobile. That is just one of the many, previously non-existent expectations imposed on the current generation of PhD candidates. I included this image (as a GIF) in my slides because every time I see it, I think of them. I honestly do.

Here are a couple more items that highlight how far things have changed in the PhD game.

# 2015 advice for your 856-year-old Ph.D. (Christian Sandvig, 5 August 2015)

Academic superheroes? A critical analysis of academic job descriptions (Pitt & Mewburn, 2016)

100 years of the PhD (Bogle, 2017, Vitae)

# The UK doctorate: history, features and challenges (Deem & Dowle, 2018 [email of 12 January 2019)

# “How I Got My First Academic Job, 1965 ed” (@profmusgrave, 20 March 2019)

# Thesis declaration, now and then (source: Got this off Twitter two months ago, but despite my best efforts, I can’t trace back to the original link. Let me know!)

+ Speaking of thesis declarations, see also Stephen Hawking’sone that broke the internet.

Politics of counting [2]

A little new collection for an upcoming module. 🤓

# Using hierarchical categories in qualitative data analysis (Richards, T. & Richards, L., in Kelle, U. (ed.), Computer-Aided Qualitative Data Analysis: Theory, Methods and Practice, 1995)

# The Social Life of Numbers: A Quechua Ontology of Numbers and Philosophy of Arithmetic (Urton, G., 1997; see also The Social Life of Things, Appadurai, A., 1988; The Inbetweenness of Things, Basu, P., 2017)

# Tricks of the Trade: How to Think about Your Research While You’re Doing It (Beck, H. S., 1998)

Where Mathematics Come From: How the Embodied Mind Brings Mathematics into Being (Lakoff, G. & Nunez, R., 2001)

# Standards and Their Stories: How Quantifying, Classifying, and Formalizing Practices Shape Everyday Life (Lampland, M. & Star, S. L., 2008)

# Numbers Rule Your World: The Hidden Influence of Probabilities and Statistics on Everything You Do (Kaiser Fung, 2010)

What is SNA using qualitative methods? (Crossley, N. & Edwards, G., methods@manchester, 3 January 2012)

Data not seen: The uses and shortcomings of social media metrics (Baym, N. K., First Monday 18(1), 2013)

Oh Ordinal data, what do we do with you? (Petty, N. [Dr Nic], Creative Maths, 8 July 2013)

The Tyranny of Numbers: Why Counting Can’t Make Us Happy (Boyle, D., 2014)

Infinitesimal: How a Dangerous Mathematical Theory Shaped the Modern World (Alexander, A., 2014)

Scientific method: Statistical errors (Nuzzo, R., Nature, 2014; see also related articles published in 2015, 2016, 2017)

# Most psychology papers can’t be reproduced (IFLScience, 28 August 2015; crossposted 29 August 2015)

Measurement: A Very Short Introduction (Hand, D. J., 2016)

# The Quantified Self (Lupton, D., 2016; see also Seeing Ourselves Through Technology, Rettberg, J. W., 2014; Self-Tracking, Neff, G., 2015; The Qualified Self, Humphreys, L., 2018)

Surveying immigrants without sampling frames — evaluating the success of alternative field methods (Reichel, D. & Morales, L., Comparative Migration Studies 5(1), 2017)

Computer says so. ([yawningtree], 7 February 2017)

# List Cultures: Knowledge and Poetics from Mesopotamia to BuzzFeed (Liam Young, 2017, crossposted 1 September 2017)

Addressing the challenges related to transforming qualitative Into quantitative data in qualitative comparative analysis (de Block, D. & Vis, B., Journal of Mixed Methods Research, 2018)

How to sample networks using social media APIs (Coscia, M., 11 December 2018)

# Missing Numbers: a blog on the data the government should collect, but doesn’t [a blog about the gaps in government data] (Powell-Smith, A. (c) 2019)

# Rejecting labels and colonization: In exile from post-qualitative approaches (Kakali Bhattacharya, Qualitative Inquiry, 2020)

The four dimensions of feedback [2]

Have been having a challenging couple of months. A bit of a work-life balance crisis, if you like – because there has been no life!!! Exaggeration aside, all in all, it feels like September 2004 has been toppled.

While barely bumping through this autumn term, I must admit there have been a few high points too. One definite one was an anonymous comment in a student survey report circulated in-house recently. It said: “[…] She is also extremely professional when expressing concerns or having to remark a downside of a paper. […]”

I have had one-to-one meetings with hundreds of students since I joined the School, so I would never know who this respondent was. There were also other equally nice comments in the report. Nevertheless, I think this particular sentence just struck me because it was about something that I happen to care about and want to do well.

I once saw a tweet that summarised my stance on this topic in a way I couldn’t better, so let me simply pin that one here.

RT @seankross Strive to create a world where peer review feedback sounds like you’re trying to help your peer improve their work and less like you’re writing a product review for a blender. (21 December 2017)

“Fake news”, academia style

I believe the title says all. 

This is something I always mention when I do a session on literature review, but now my collection has grown too big to fit within one single slide, so here we are.