Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Tenure Track

            Early on in my career at UBC I found myself with my two young sons at a Thunderbirds’ basketball game in War Memorial Gym.  I’d picked them up from their swimming lessons. On the way home we stopped to watch the women’s game.  The wife of one of my colleagues was also there with her children.  After a few moments watching the game she turned to me and said “ I never saw my husband for the first three years he worked as a faculty member at UBC.” 
            Nearly twenty years later that comment sits with me as though it had only been said yesterday.  At the time it seemed to be part warning, part regret, and part observation on a crazy system of apprenticeship that compels faculty members to sacrifice all to publish as much as they can. 
            As the boys and I walked home after that game I wondered what if I was making a mistake in my priorities. Was I undermining my career?  Did even my colleague’s wife think I wasn’t doing enough to keep the job?
            Getting an academic job is just the start of a very long process of keeping it.  Most of us will have spent a dozen or more years accumulating the education, degrees, and debt required to be eligible for the job offer.  Sometimes we find ourselves in a series of part-time or grant funded positions before landing a tenure-stream job. The tenure-stream position is not, however, a guarantee of a life long job. Now comes the pre-tenure period that I was in when I found myself at the basketball game speaking with my colleague’s wife.  There is no guarantee that at the end of seven years a faculty member will keep their job. A denial of tenure is not rare and it comes with massive social and emotional upset and disruption to family and personal lives.
            The couple of years leading up to the tenure decision, plus the year or more that it takes to make the decision, are arguably the worst years of most academics’ professional lives.  Given the nature of academic work there is no Hail Mary Pass that can save a weak record no deus ex machina that saves the hero at the last minute. By the time one starts to prepare the paper work and compile the portfolio the die has been cast.  It is now a matter of waiting.
            The reality of all of our lives is that we have multiple and conflicting responsibilities and claims upon our time. Figuring out a way to manage all of this is a skill that is seldom taught but necessary to master if one is to succeed in an academic job.  Early in my career I would glance around at my colleagues and wonder whether they had a personal life at all.  It seemed that all they ever did was research and write.  The pressure of the tenure system leads us to squeeze whatever spare hours we might find in our day (or night) to do more work.  This is mostly a system of self-exploitation compounded by the fact that most of us also love what we do. We feel compelled to do as much as possible –even more than is possible- while most of us constantly feel inadequate compared to what we see others doing (even if the others feel the same as we do).
            Given this kind of work environment one needs to deliberately and consciously pause and set aside one’s worry and anxiety.  This is not easy to do.  It is important.  One of the best pieces of advice I every received from a mentor was to reserve a period of time each week for myself to refresh and to step away from my work.
            Reflecting back on that basketball game some two decades ago I am glad that I kept my eyes on the ball – not trying to pump out the most papers, not trying to get the biggest grants- but rather staying as focused as possible on family, friends, and the aspects of my work that is fulfilling and rewarding.  This is ultimately the path to success.  If a new colleague were to ask me for advice I’d say: “get out with your family or friends, go do something fun and forget about the deadlines for a while.  Deadlines will always be here; close friends and family may not.”

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Digital Privacy

In the post-Snowden world is there any sort of real expectation of digital privacy? We can – and should- rail against such intrusive acts of government into communications that we have been told are private.  The surveillance of the state into the private affairs of individuals is an insidious form of violation. However, what does one make of the growing trend of digital citizens to self reveal in places that are for all intents and purposes the digital equivalent of highway billboards?  Here the individual can’t blame an intrusive outside agency.  Rather, the individual puts the disclosures and publicity out there themselves.

Politicians tend to get stuck more frequently than the rest of us.  Witness the feckless Irish politician forced to resign after sending ‘spanking’ messages to women while in the Irish parliament.   Or Raymand Lam, a young NDP candidate, who with drew from the election after facebook photos of him circulated. Both of these politicians found themselves in the public eye for behaviours that flouted public sensibilities. 

Politicians, however, are not alone: the list of folks like, teachers, lawyers, or doctors, who interact with the public in the course of their normal work, who have been outed via social media for violating social sensibilities is growing.  To a certain extent this is a category of people who are held to higher social standards.  They should know better.  Court decisions have consistently held teachers to a higher standard of behaviour, even when not at work!  This has extended into social media where teachers, in particular given the special trust society has placed in them (loco parentis) to care for legal minors, find a particular needto create privacy firewalls. 

However, there is the grand ocean of most other people who perplexingly place all kinds of information out there into cyberspace.  I sometimes wonder if they know what they are doing.  Is this deliberate?  Or, did they misunderstand the privacy controls on the social medium they are posting to.

In my role as a university professor I know that just about everything that I say might be blogged, tweeted, or posted somewhere – quite likely not in a way that I might like.  There might even be videos There is even that special place of shame –ratemyprof- that gives students license to say the damnedest things about their faculty.  I might not like this but it is part of the practical reality of the social world within which I work and teach. 

I do try and pay attention to what I actually control online.  I think about emails that I send (even so I am like most other people and there are emails that I might rather wish I hadn’t sent).  I carefully edit and reedit my blog posts (but still typos creep in).  I focus upon commenting on information that is in the public domain.  However, it is becoming increasingly difficult to determine the borders of public, quasi-public, and private online.

I consider any information a person has posted online that is available to anyone with a browser (and is not hidden behind a privacy wall or password) material in the public domain.  I presume that if an author doesn’t want me to read something they won’t post it online or, at the very least, will post it into a closed forum or other controlled space.  However, it seems that more and people are posting things online that they consider to be quasi-private or safe places that no one they know knows about.  While I find that a strange conception, it is important for one to consider this on two levels.

First this seems to indicates changing ideas of privacy and divergent perceptions of public/private divides.  Second, and more practically, authors who post in this fashion need to consider the fact that people they don’t think will see what they post will in fact see it.  I’m not sure what to make of the first point.  If someone posts comments on a blog that they think isn’t findable but I have found it am I supposed to ‘know’ that it is really private and advert my eyes?  I’m left wondering how am I supposed to really know.  That brings me to the second point, which I find easier to make sense of.  If you don’t want someone to read what you are posting don’t put it out there.  At the very least place it behind a password or make it totally anonymous.

At the core of things we can all take a step forward and consider our digital citizenship.  We should, I think, start from the perspective that anything we put online might be seen by anyone.  If we want a limited circle of folks to see our posts then we need to take a little bit of initiative to place our work into a quasi or totally private space.  Put a header somewhere saying "read but don't repost." Or, better yet  use an old fashioned paper diary.

Ultimately the best approach is to be aware.  Everyone from acquaintances to potential employers check people out online.   Our governments and large corporations do it industrial scale, but we are all out there in cyberspace.  The best approach is to make an informed decision each time we consider posting, texting, blogging, or emailing something.   If it's about someone, ask yourself if you would say it to them face-to-face.  If its a rant consider calling up a good friend first.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Excellence and the Corporate University

Excellence is the goal contemporary society strives for: excellence in sport, in business, in art, in
scholarship, and in life in general. Yet as Bill Readings so pointedly observes, contemporary society has emptied the idea of ‘excellence’ of meaning. The search for excellence structures workplace competition, student recruitment, and the evaluation of practically all aspects of the contemporary university environment.

In its operational mode excellence is little more than a set of quantified indictors—dollar value of grants, number of publications, ranking of publication venue, completion rates of students, and so on. These indicators are tabulated by individual, unit, or university and then ranked accordingly. Deriving from the tautological market principle that those who win are by definition excellent, being top ranked makes one excellent.

There is, however, a problem if too many people get the reward. The crux of excellence is its reliance upon failure as the foil against which it is itself determined. Excellence is no absolute; it’s a normative measure that relies on failure and the threat of failure to propel people to engage in acts of self-exploitation simply to keep their employment or their place in the university of excellence.

In a utopian world we would banish all talk of excellence because people would finally be freed to actually achieve and accomplish things in an atmosphere freed from market competition.

I say more about these ideas in my autoethnogrpahic essay, Reflections on Work and Activism in the 'University of Excellence.'