Down With This Sort of Thing

Image shows a PowerPoint slide on a projector screen, white background with black text. The Text reads: "Make Science the Centre of Your Life" at the top and then has three bullet points as follows: "Do it as well as if it was a matter of life and death"; "Saturdays and Sundays are normal working days for creative people. If you want a 40h week, work in a bank or in industry (or in a humanities department)"; and "Take breaks when necessary - but stay clear of non-breaks (e.g. other stuff you can also do on a computer screen ... social media, news websites etc)".

On 19th January 2017 there was something of a kerfuffle among academic Twitter. Someone tweeted this slide (pictured above) which was apparently being shown by a ‘top QM biologist’ as advice to junior academics. Entitled ‘Make Science the Centre of Your Life’, the slide says:

  • Do it as well as if it was [sic] a matter of life and death
  • Saturdays and Sundays are normal working days for creative people. If you want a 40h week, work in a bank or in industry (or in a humanities department)
  • Take breaks when necessary – but stay clear of non-breaks (e.g. other stuff you can also do on a computer screen … social media, news websites etc)

The academics (and related professionals) I spoke to on Twitter were rightly outraged by this, scientists and non-scientists alike.  Many made the excellent point that such rhetoric excludes those who simply can’t work seven days a week because of caring responsibilities, disabilities (including energy-limiting invisible disabilities), parenthood or other reasons – but who are valuable assets to any professional community. When we valorise the 24/7 workload, we do our profession a disservice by excluding all those who simply can’t do it (essentially those who either have no disabilities or caring responsibilities at all, or who can dump their responsibilities onto others less fortunate).

I wish with all my heart that the author of the slide had been right, and that if you wanted a normal working week you could work in a humanities department. Sadly, it’s been the case for a long time that stress and overwork are endemic in any given academic department. The Times Higher Education‘s 2016 University Workplace Survey found that the majority of academic staff felt overworked – something that’s been voiced eloquently by academics including Raul Pacheco Vega, , Liv Little (on the particular burdens placed on BAME women in academia) and Richard Hall. The Guardian‘s Academics Anonymous series regularly carries stories of academic overwork and how it makes life harder for many of those working in the sector (see in particular this one on being a single parent and scientist).

It’s for this reason as well that I want to focus not on the slide itself, nor on its author, but on the rhetoric and broader trends that they represent. There is a trend, as one reply to me on Twitter pointed out, for “very damaging rhetoric and quite a deal of bluster around HE”: we ‘worship the workload that keeps out minorities and families and carers’, as another put it. I think this is broadly true: my experience in academia was characterised by a lot of competitive oversharing about how much work we were all doing. This rhetoric can be very dispiriting. It’s not at all fun to take a necessary day off and feel utterly guilty about it when you see everyone sharing how much more work they’ve done that day. It’s exclusionary, particularly when it comes from a senior academic. It says: you, with your responsibilities and your life, are not welcome here. You have to choose: academia or a life. If you don’t have the luxury and the privilege of being able to choose, you can’t come in.

However. However. When people write like this, they aren’t always doing it because they want to exclude people. I can’t speak for the senior scientist (who might very well have a stated agenda of excluding people) but I know a lot of academics, especially during and in the decade after their PhD, who don’t feel they have a choice but to submit to the workload. As Kirsty Rolfe has eloquently pointed out:

academia is a favour and reputation economy with some very big power imbalances indeed; the various pressures of this can’t always be dissipated by even the politest of refusals.

It’s usual, early on in one’s career, to rely heavily on the goodwill of other, senior academics. They provide references for those all-important, ridiculously competitive job applications, of course. They might be able to put you in a position to teach or publish to which you otherwise wouldn’t have access. Even later on, goodwill is important. Not to mention that there’s just a lot of work: I recently met an academic who was facing down the prospect of marking over a hundred essays in three weeks, and she wasn’t considered overburdened by departmental standards.

As workloads are this hard to control for the individual (and I think they are) it seems that the blustering rhetoric around HE is not a deliberate exclusionary measure but rather a self-defence mechanism. That’s not to say that it doesn’t exclude. Rather, it forms a small, subsidiary part of the real problem – which is the workload itself. It’s easier to be proud of one’s overwork, and even think it makes one a ‘real academic’, than it is to just feel miserable and trapped. It’s much more comforting to draw an invisible line between oneself, in the lab on a Saturday and Sunday, and those ‘others’ who didn’t ‘make the grade’. Crediting one’s success to hard work, rather than privilege, also makes it less scary. Privilege can be taken away much more easily than an abstract, depoliticised notion of ‘hard work’. In reality, hard work is often a function of privilege, but that’s a different post for a different day.

All this isn’t to excuse the rhetoric. But I think the solution lies not in just shouting back at the rhetoric, but rather in fighting against the source – workload and the impossibility of saying no. In the ‘favour and reputation economy’ (to borrow Kirsty’s phrase) of academia, this is something that will be hard to do the less secure and/or senior one is.

This, then, is up to those who can. Not just to say no, but to be transparent about how much time and effort are required by different aspects of academic workloads. How long does it take to mark a hundred essays? What can’t be done in that time? What could you do instead? Often the problem is that academic work is invisible. An article of 10 or so pages might have taken months of work. Rejigging an online learning page might seem insignificant, but can take full days. So make it visible and explicit where possible. Mark off time in a calendar that others can see. Be honest: if you’re asked to mark a hundred essays, note what you won’t be able to do in that time.

I realise that the above isn’t possible for most of the people who are either excluded or on the brink of exclusion from academia because of the overwork. Most people who Tweet about being in the office at 10pm aren’t there because they just didn’t fancy saying no. They’re there because saying no is, or feels, less possible than missing dinner.

I want to make it clear that I’m asking those who can do the above, to do as much of it as they can. If you can’t, I don’t blame you and you shouldn’t feel bad for not trying. Just get whatever rest and leeway you can, and try to help those less fortunate by fighting back where possible. Join the Union; fight against racism, ableism, casualisation and sexism in academia; highlight the work and the causes of your less privileged colleagues. Read the stories on Academia is Killing My Friends [nb: this is pretty tough reading] and, if you get to a position of influence, do what you can.

I’m proud to work at an institution which explicitly states that PhD students should receive 30 days’ annual leave: QMUL’s Code of Practice for Research Degrees states that “For full-time students the annual holiday entitlement is 30 working days plus the eight UK public holidays and the four QMUL closure days. Holiday entitlement is pro rata for part-time students and for parts of a year.” This is in line with Point 63 of the RCUK guidelines for students in receipt of research council funding.

My PhD (not at QMUL) was funded by the AHRC but I never knew about this guidance; I’m sure many other students, funded and unfunded, felt the same. To me, ‘holidays’ from work were an option that I could take but would take time out of my completion time and were entirely at my discretion. This feeling is likely to be even worse for unfunded and part-time PhD students who will likely be juggling jobs and other responsibilities as well. PhD supervisors: I’d urge you to encourage your students to take proper leave. This means agreeing it with you first, putting it in their calendar, putting on their out-of-office email autoreply, and not checking email or being on campus.

This needn’t be a long time, and I’m not for a minute suggesting that you should force students off campus for 30 days. But you should encourage it, explicitly, as a wise strategy rather than a form of laziness. Model it, where you can: be out of contact for a little while and don’t feel guilty about it. Where you can, practice basic self-care and be open about it. Push yourself a little: you might not be able to say no to everything, but you might be able to stop checking your email for a whole week.

Finally, I want to address senior managers and those who set expectations and targets. Full-time staff owe you 37 hours’ work a week, and their attention during those hours (subject to other work-related limitations; they can’t check email while teaching or in the archives, but they are definitely working). If you email staff late at night to reprimand them for not finishing work, or if you feel your staff are lagging behind on work: take a good look at your workload levels. If everyone is failing to complete the work you’re setting them, then you’re likely setting them too much work. Listen to your staff (as I noted above, saying no is a pretty brave thing to do in academia) and reduce their workload. Hire more staff if necessary; say no to those above you if need be. It’s scary, but at your level, you’re paid enough to deal with it. And you owe it to your staff, your department and the whole profession to do so.

If we get this right and do better on workload, we could finally begin to make academia a less exclusionary place. It won’t happen overnight, and it won’t be perfect when it does, but it might be a start.

2 thoughts on “Down With This Sort of Thing

  1. Thank you so much for writing this. I have been following the work of a group of people researching as ‘the Accelerated Academy’, and this is a wonderfully explicit account of the toxic environment of escalating expectations in universities. I was also offended by the slide and it’s implication that all will be compared to the ‘over achievers’ – although that designation also needs to be examined. I doubt very much whether anyone who follows these prescriptions will achieve everything they might wish, or enjoy it along the way. We really need to move away from the discourse of competition, towards a new discourse of enjoyment, competence and benefit to self, others and the disciplines we work in.


  2. Pingback: Opposing lecture capture is dis/ableist. Period. | The Higher Educationalist

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