Wednesday, 11 December 2013

I Got Off My Bike And Stopped Looking For Work

Down Under, one of the academics I respect most of all is having a very nasty encounter with cancer. Unlike I would in such a situation, she's not rocking backwards and forwards in a darkened room uttering incoherent moans of terror (I would also be looking at the room of unread books and thinking 'that was a waste of money and time then'). She's thinking about the academic life and how it fits into social and institutional structures, particularly the way we all overwork.  

I know why I overwork: to make up in quantity what I lack in quality; because so many of our activities aren't following orders but help colleagues who are usually our friends too; because a student in need isn't someone you can ignore because time's up. A dentist doesn't clock off half way through a root canal because it's 5 o'clock, and nor can we. Also, a lot of our work is also pleasure. After a day's admin, it's actually fun to read some Foucault or scribble down some ideas for a paper. I think I got through my degree because study didn't feel like work (unlike the student who told me that she hates my Ethics module because it makes her think).

Kate's insight into why academics overwork (yes, we do) is that it's more than a personal act. She uses the fascinating comparison of pro-cycling. Being a fat cyclist myself, I initially thought that was a good thing, but I was wrong. From Coyle and Hamilton's book, she learned that:

To ride within the limits of your own ability became naive, disloyal to the team, and uncompetitive. Young riders waited to be invited to join the inner circle who were doping, and accepted pills handed to them on the basis that it would make them healthier; team management understood and allowed this to happen, because results had become the currency for economic survival, not just for individual riders, but for vast whirling enterprises of sponsorship, employment and profit.
For pro cyclists, being good wasn't enough because professional sport very much isn't about the taking part. It's about winning, and not for the sake of winning. Pro-sport is simply a complicated form of advertising. Teams need sponsors and advertisers need eye-catching sites for their logos, whether that's an F1 car or a cyclist's arse. Enormous profits and losses depended on whether a cyclist performed. Capitalism made Lance Armstrong dope, not simply individual greed.

That's the important point about Coyle's and Kate's point. I have my perceived reasons for overworking, but that's far less important than the culture and structure within which I operate. In a Foucauldian sense, I've simply internalised the disciplinary and surveillance models which surround me. I feel bad when I don't overwork because I've been trained to see overwork as normal. Our employers – and every employer: this isn't simply about education – depend on overwork. Our classes are bigger than is educationally optimal. Marking is more rushed than it should be. Holidays, when taken, actually become opportunities to do the marking in exotic new places or the time when new books are read. We have less time to keep up with the field, less time with individual students or small groups, less time to think about each student's development, less time to talk about colleagues' ideas: I've been trying to find time to read a colleague's paper on the politics and culture of the Youth Hostel Association for weeks, despite knowing that it's going to be fascinating. I couldn't hang around after today's 2 hour sonnets class to chat to students about their work in general because I had another 3 hour class to go to elsewhere. Colleagues aren't going to each others' research seminars because less important but more immediate demands are being made on their time.

Kate puts it like this:
Imagine that the university offered to pay salary X, but in any given pay week, multipliers applied to X on the basis of worker need in the moment. Imagine that your employer could hike up your rate of pay on demand like this, without any need for forward planning or budgetary calculations. Oh, you need more cash this week? Sure. How much more?

Because this is exactly what university workers offer in return. It’s Thursday and you need this report by Monday but I’m already in meetings or teaching all day Friday and grading on Saturday? Sure, I can offer Sunday, would that do? And of course, I’ll spend most of Saturday night thinking about it because I’ll be at a Christmas concert for my kids so I’ll have some mental calculation time and could check an updated version if you email it to me, provided I’m sitting up the back. So yes, we can meet on Monday and you’ll have your report, because I ride for the team. Obviously, if I wasn’t doing your report I’d be trying to meet a publication deadline, so I’ve already more or less paid my weekend up front anyway, as a downpayment on something or other. Don’t worry about the publication though, I’ll make that up next weekend.
It's true. Our work seems important to us, and we obliged to fulfil a lot of it not because of the money, but because we exist in a social web we don't want to break. I'm currently meant to be working to contract as part of my union's industrial action, so I'm meant to be doing 37.5 hours per week and not taking on any extra duties. But research is fun; I like my students and don't want to inconvenience them; X is my friend as well as my boss so I don't want to say no to him/her; this thing's really important, what if everybody says no?. The result is that working-to-rule is painful and divisive, however right. The pressures are the same in any job, but the situation is special in a sense: because there's less division between work and non-work (we're less alienated, in Marxist terms), it's harder to resist. Someone making things can stop at the end of the shift and can't make more of them at home. Because academic work often doesn't involve machinery or infrastructure, it can be done anytime, anywhere - and so it is.

So we all internalise the pressure to overwork, and feel bad if we don't. This is ideal for our employers. They like the fact that there are thousands of desperate PhDs out there looking for whatever hours they can scrape together. They like the fact that our consciences ensure that the work is done, however intolerable the pressure. They like outsourcing their requirements to our sense of responsibility. It gets the work done without having to spend any money.

There are a couple of downsides. Firstly: who will be the academic who refuses to take the steroids? Who declines on quality of life or quality of work grounds? That person will be pilloried by management as 'not a team player' and envied by colleagues for their selfishness. But overwork isn't only personally destructive: it forces everyone else to compete. Nobody wants to let their students and colleagues down, so (with some exceptions) we all overwork just to keep the ship afloat.

And here's the kicker: the more we overwork, the less we get paid.

For 5 years, our pay has gone up by 1%, which is significantly less than inflation, so we're back to 2008 real-terms salaries. The university intends to keep doing this for the next few years too. I sit in Board of Governors meetings and listen to everyone acknowledge that we're doing more for less, but I never hear anyone admit that we're making things worse. If we stopped overworking, those hungry PhDs would get decent jobs. We'd know our students' names and how they're getting on. Our lectures would improve. We'd write fewer, better books and journal articles because quality would once again trump quantity. Our loved ones would talk to us again rather than enduring apoplectic rants about work followed by an immediate and unromantic collapse into catatonia.

Where does it stop? No one university can get off the bus because the government's trying to organise private-sector providers who'll dump the expensive stuff (research, libraries, qualified staff) in favour of cash-and-carry courses, which is like a country voluntarily putting on the dunce's cap. No, it's much easier for a university to pass the pressure downwards and let us deal with – and worry – about it individually. But here's the thing: because the pressure is intangible and entirely absent from directives, reports and reviews, it's also non-existent. I couldn't point to a single piece of paper telling me to mark harder or do more. It's so diffuse that it's completely deniable, and as Foucault points out about Bentham's Panopticon, it doesn't even need a hierarchy. We'll behave as if they're watching even when they aren't watching. That's the point of hegemony: it doesn't need force or even explicit enunciation.

Kate found this all out the hard way: she couldn't find time for a health check with the result that her cancer was detected later than it should have been. Her choice, you might say, but the point of being a poststructuralist scholar is that we know that nobody operates in a void: we do things within structures and cultures, whether we're aware of them or not.

Take the evening off. Not for your sakes, but for your students and your colleagues. And for Kate.

*The title of the post references Conservative politician Norman Tebbit, who in the depths of a terrible economic crash, claimed that mass unemployment was due to laziness. He said: 'I grew up in the '30s with an unemployed father. He didn't riot. He got on his bike and looked for work, and he kept looking till he found it'. Which is so economically illiterate that he should have been beaten to death with a copy of The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money.


Eddie T said...

This post is fantastic and puts into words what I have been feeling and indeed trying to express over the past few weeks. It is, as one of my colleagues said a caring profession. One whereby we do not want our students to suffer. So even though it may undermine the strike a lot of us find interesting and innovative ways to make sure our students get the material that they missed during strike action. The depressing thing about all of this is that our employers know this to be the case and I fear will be willing to draw this out.

Life would perhaps be easier if we did not care about our student’s wellbeing, didn’t feel a duty of care, sense of obligation (rightly or wrongly) regarding the finished product. Though if we thought that we probably would not have entered the profession.

Kate said...

First, PV, just a big thanks for this.

I have a question, because there's a shift in the middle of this that I think is critical to the dilemma. You move from thinking about academic work as something that "seems important to us" to "We overwork because it's important."

The situation facing pro cyclists is much less muddled. Even the most committed understand that they're trading skill for money; no one mistakes pro cycling for a public good or a caring profession. Academics are flattered and recruited into something that feels like we're making a contribution, but there are much murkier forces in operation here. Someone or other has recently written a fantastic piece about how non-profits are essentially only different from for-profits in profit motive, not in the fact of looking at ways of making money.

So the way that higher education is managing its money at the moment is minimising labour costs, which it does by relying first on all of our volunteered labour, and second on the inherent sense of worthlessness that it cultivates in so many by extravagantly rewarding so few. So all the hamster wheels keep whizzing because there's a top table where a very small number of fat hamsters wearing tiny little crowns are lolling on velvet cushions.

I don't disagree with your sense of the value or purpose of education, but I think we need to be really candid—and stand up against—about the level of psychological manipulation that can go on.

Until we do, we'll be one of the sadder cases of unused collective power, because we can't figure out how to connect our individual actions to our shared values -- and our sense of importance and commitment is in some ways a mask for a whole lot of other messy stuff.

Thanks, and thanks again. This post has really got me thinking.


Kate said...

Also, there's a grammatical misstep in the middle of that comment that I hope you'll forgive, or attribute to the startling drugs I find myself taking! Best, K

organic cheeseboard said...

I might sound unpopular here but one of the things I've found frustrating at my University is that when people don't 'buy in', when they actively teach badly, when they do no research, and when they don't fulfil the basic admin for their courses - nothing happens. Pressure from management here seems to fall entirely on those who have demonstrated competence and enthusiasm (or those who management take a personal dislike to - which is, oddly, almost never the actively lazy).

The usual rewards for working hard - promotion etc - don't work either, because the criteria for promotion above Senior Lecturer level (essentially - doing lots and lots of funded research) are essentially impossible to achieve if one is 'doing a good job' here - we don't have the time to even try to think about writing bids etc.

amro said...

A very well written article, which I can only agree with.

People will put up with just about anything to work in the academic sector - that's a real problem.

I had to supplement my income by doing another job, and now that I became unwell, it's hit home that I won't even get the most basic of help to get back on my feet. I am lost, sadly.

Well done, keep up the good work.

Anonymous said...

I agree with this, providing you have some kind of initial standing, In the university environment the best way to reduce your workload and to avoid doing things you don't like / don't want to do is to show incompetence in them. The lowest levels of management then have to remove you from such tasks to avoid chaos and complaints (including from higher management mostly via the knock-on effect on various statistics), but representation to higher management to deal with said person go completely unheeded even when they are the line managers to such people.

Anonymous said...

You don't lack quality. Fantastic post.

JoVE said...

In thinking through the relationship between this desire to do good work (for the students, etc) and the need for collective action, I think it is worth remembering that overwork is not conducive to high quality work in the long term.

When you are tired and overwhelmed you make more mistakes, you find it harder to concentrate, you have less patience, and so on. This can create a vicious cycle in which you are continuously trying to catch up with yourself.

Taking time off, working reasonable hours, and so on actually provides the conditions for better quality work.

No one in HE is going to tell you to take the time off (except maybe the union) and even if they did, the culture is such that most academics would resent that type of management. It takes a lot of personal strength to do this but it needs to be done, not only to resist this type of exploitation but also to deliver the quality of education that you want to deliver.

organic cheeseboard said...

Om a slightly different topic, but linked to enormous termtime stress levels, I'm always amazed by how little even middle management at Universities understand the demands of termtime. No central strategic, training, or admin stuff here ever happens in the Summer - it's always scheduled at the exact busiest bits of the teaching year, seemingly wilfully. And by the time we have a bit of space to plan changes to courses to improve them, the deadline for Scrutiny etc has passed. Nobody who can do anything about this ever notices, though, because senior management so rarely teach and so rarely have a sense of what any of us actually does; or if they do, they have a horrible attitude that we're all shirkers. A case in point here is REF documentatio nat my University - our coordinator was regularly tasked with doing things within a couple of hours, which led to various of their seminars/lectures being cancelled, or to their not having a weekend, etc.

I do think this is especially problematic at post-92s where so often senior managerial positions are effectively for life, so people simply lose touch with the activities of teaching (and even research) staff.

Kate said...

I really agree with Jo, especially about further managerialism, but I want to ask a question about whether it's feasible to ask for individualised responses to this. Can individuals reform this huge and immensely complex system on their own? Where else does responsibility lie? How can we think through, e.g the emerging culture of individualised incentives?