Beware excellence

At a recent international conference focused on research administration, there was the usual palaver about every researcher, their institution, and their dog achieving excellence.

It’s presented as why we’re in the game – to achieve this highly circumscribed and metricised ideal of ‘excellence’.

We’ve all heard this rhetoric before so I have a certain level of ennui every time I see the posturing.

This feeling also emerges for me these days when people use ‘innovation’, ‘engagement’, or ‘impact’. I’m extremely fond of Rolin Moe’s statement that “innovation means less than any other word we use in regular discourse” (The Innovation Conundrum).

I would say the same applies to ‘excellence’. Just about every organisation uses it, government policies are ridden with it, and senior executives at universities mouth it at every opportunity. But it usually signals little, and indulges in the conceit that if we say we have it, it makes us better than others who don’t say they have it (it doesn’t actually matter whether they have ‘it’ or not). Read more of this post

How my university runs Academic Writing Month (#acwrimo)

Photo by Mark Young

Photo by Mark Young

I was chatting with my good buddies @WarrenStaples and @jod999 the other week, as they wanted to know more about what went into the planning and running of La Trobe’s Academic Writing Month (#LTUacwrimo) in November each year.

Based on the fabulous, world-famous #acwrimo that was created by @charlottefrost in 2011, this month focuses on academic writing: the doing, the celebrating, and the learning of it.

This year will be the fourth time it has run at La Trobe, and the third time that I’ve managed many of the schedules and activities. The month culminates in the three-day RED researcher writing retreat (running for the 2nd time this year!), and has a significant social media component throughout the 30 days. As you can imagine, running an uber-packed, month-long program requires a team effort!

After much transparent prompting by @jod999, I thought it might be a good idea to share with you the layers of initiatives that we have running through our month, and how we pull it all together. I’ve had several questions about how we ran #LTUacwrimo over the past couple of years, and it would be fabulous to spread the #acwrimo love around more institutions!

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Saved by slow scholarship

Ali original b and w - smallDr Ali Black is an arts-based/narrative researcher.

She is interested in research that supports connectedness, community, wellbeing and meaning-making through the building of reflective and creative lives and identities.

Her recent work explores storied and visual approaches for knowledge construction and the power and impact of auto-ethnographic, collaborative and relational knowledge construction. One of her recent projects is Australian Women: Telling Lives.

Ali has a ResearchGate profile. She is still learning how to tweet but when she does it is from @draliblack.


Photo by André Freitas | unsplash.com/photos/uu5PfAzu0s4

Photo by André Freitas | unsplash.com/photos/uu5PfAzu0s4

Mid-life.

I’m not where I thought I would be.

Identity. Ego. I reject them. They are things that I dislike, a lot. They are close cousins to competition, comparison, measurement, judgment, and (misguided) self-glorification. These are also things I dislike, a lot. But they hurt me even so. Do they hurt you?

It’s important to shed light on our academic experiences, to make public the stories of what it has felt like, and feels like, to be an academic. It’s important that collective conversations about academic culture and what constitutes our social, political, and intellectual life in the academy can take place. We need to share our findings on what matters to us, and how we might cultivate kindness in the academy, foster care-full work, and count that which is not being counted.

I have been in academia twenty years, as a teacher, a researcher, and an innovator. I have given it my all, and been driven, dedicated, passionate. My current job title does not reflect the work and time I have put in. Rather than move up the hoped-for ladder, I have slipped, lost footing, fallen with my re-location to this new university, like a mud-faced-red-faced failure. Read more of this post

When you can’t always get what you need

mayngoMay Ngo is a recent PhD graduate in Anthropology from the Swinburne Institute for Social Research, Swinburne University of Technology.

Her thesis examined the role of religion in humanitarianism within the context of irregular migration in Morocco. Her research interests include religion, migration, development, theology, and fiction.

She is also developing her father’s memoirs of his time with the Vietnamese communist army as a collection of short stories.

May has a blog at The Violent Bear it Away, and tweets at @mayngo2.


This is a post in response to two blog posts on post-PhD graduate careers (How to construct a DIY scholarly career and 21st Century Scholar) that reflect a growing trend of what each post has termed a ‘DIY scholarly career’ and an ‘entrepreneurial 21st century scholar’, respectively.

Photo by Sebastian Boguszewicz | unsplash.com

Photo by Sebastian Boguszewicz | unsplash.com

In response to the increasing casualisation and scarcity of academic jobs, and instead of just waiting around to get an academic position post-PhD, these posts exhort graduates to make themselves more competitive by engaging in various academic activities (research, attending conferences, networking) without the support of a university position.

This would run parallel with what they are already doing job-wise, supposedly. Inevitably, all of this is self-funded, and includes an investment of time and energy outside of one’s regular job.

I found it interesting that both bloggers who advocate this have been able to get work in universities, in non-academic jobs. This implies a minimum level of working conditions and job security.

I work in a casualised, low pay, no-paid-holidays job. I do this out of necessity. I come home physically tired, cranky and, most of the time, not in a capacity to think – let alone write – academically.

What I push myself to do in terms of trying to get a foot in the door of academia are postdoc applications, which always involve writing well-thought out and well-written research proposals that take a lot of time and energy.

Apparently, this is not enough. Imagine my jaw dropping when I read one of the blog posts advocating that research could be done during lunch-breaks, at night, and on weekends. And, furthermore, that the research trips and conferences she attended were self-funded and used annual leave from her job. I thought, “This is a particular world where there are paid holidays and job security, but it’s not currently mine”.

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Why bother creating postgrad groups?

Photo by James Petts | www.flickr.com/photos/14730981@N08

‘Barometer’ | Photo by James Petts | http://www.flickr.com/photos/14730981@N08

The question of how to build a research culture occupies a lot of big-brained types at universities, at all levels.

PhD researchers want to feel they’re a part of, and can contribute to, a good one. Professors like to think that they helped create and grow a thriving one.

University executives want an excellent one yesterday, preferably bristling with national government grants, effective and fat industry partnerships, top-flight publications, and seamless higher degree candidatures and completions. Sometimes, they want this almost instantly.

Research cultures are complex and often fragile systems, and when you look too hard for specific components to engineer one, the whole thing can evaporate.

Can you force staff to be productive without having a good research culture? I think you can – but you won’t have productive or happy researchers for very long, in that case. Nor would you have particularly good research.

For me, one of the best barometers of the health of an institutional research culture is the presence and activity of graduate researcher groups and associations.

Why?

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Hashing it over

Pink button with # symbol and blank line, held in an open palm

Hashtag button (Photo by Eclecticlibrarian)

Anyone who has converted to Twitter, and uses it with regularity will know about the prevalent use of hashtags to ‘stream’ tweet content.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, have a quick read of this official Twitter page, or check out the wittier, unofficial Guardian version.

In short:

A hashtag, for the non-Twitterati, is a word or smashed-together phrase preceded by the hash symbol (#), originally devised as a way to keep track of the flow of subject matter in the Twittersphere. (Ben Zimmer, Visual Thesaurus)

I recently saw someone on Facebook cramming hashtags into their status update. I must admit to rolling my eyes and muttering acidly, “It’s not Twitter, doofus” (oh, yes, fear my acidity).

Yes, I know Facebook is trying to get in on the hashtag action, but – in the very average ways I use Fb – it is largely absent and still an anomaly. Those who frequent Yammer have often used hashtags, and I know of tragics who have brought the hashtagging habit to their emails.

For the most part, though, hashtags live on Twitter.

When I first started on Twitter, I thought hashtags were silly. Yeah, that’s me: broadminded and noble embracer of change.

What I failed to realise was that getting value out of hashtags, and getting to a stage where I’m using and following them deliberately, requires a commitment to the medium that I didn’t have as a newbie. At that stage, all I saw was a soup of symbols and run-together text.

Since that time, I have come to love hashtags. Love them with an unnatural, nerdy love.

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Myths about research cultures

Water Dragon (Photo by Jonathan O'Donnell)

Water Dragon (Photo by Jonathan O’Donnell)

As I was digesting information about the funding cuts a few weeks ago, I read Kate Bowles’ considered piece on the folly of applying an “efficiency dividend” to higher education.

At the time, I wanted to blog more specifically on the idea of applying such a mechanistic and corrosive idea as an “efficiency dividend” to research institutions and the effect it would have on research cultures.

When I sat down to type it up, I realised that it would be a long, tedious rant that no-one would want to read.

What I thought might be more useful is a post focused on myths about research cultures, and letting these cultures’ specific, complex forms speak for themselves.

Universities and institutes scrambling for pieces of the (often shrinking) grant pie is a narrative as old as time. OK, maybe not quite that old, but certainly old enough to scar the past few generations of academics and researchers. There’s the constant hope for a slice of the grant pie; sometimes, we make do with crumbs and, at other times, we go hungry.

As the pressures of chasing the funding dragon bite deeper into research organisations, many in senior roles talk ever more loudly about building research capacity and structuring researcher development. These strategies are meant to result in better and more research wins (and outputs), and institutional hopes of establishing a research workforce that’s upwardly mobile for excellence metrics (e.g. Excellence in Research for Australia) or other metrics that might come out of the oven.

Before I spend too much time mixing metaphors about dragons, pies, and baking, here are five myths about research cultures I want to debunk:

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