Do it because you can

In-between landscape (scale of 1:1): mangroves near Wynnum, looking towards Stradbroke. Megan McPherson, work in progress: Relief printed etching, rice paper, hand coloured with pigment ink, archival glues. Approximately 280 x 500 x 20 cms (hxwxd) (Undulating surface)
In-between landscape (scale of 1:1): mangroves near Wynnum, looking towards Stradbroke. Megan McPherson, work in progress: Relief printed etching, rice paper, hand coloured with pigment ink, archival glues. Approximately 280 x 500 x 20 cms (hxwxd) (Undulating surface)

I tried to let this particular white-hot rage die down. But it won’t.

So, hopefully, here’s a constructive post built from the foundations of my infuriation.

I heard a researcher talking about how they balanced their academic work life a while ago, and it made me very angry.

Basically, they said that anything that wasn’t clearly noted as part of their workload, they wouldn’t bother doing.

The implication being that anyone who did ‘extra’ or ‘unnecessary’ things were total mugs because those things weren’t getting them ahead in their careers – therefore, not worth doing. They considered the idea of communicating research (and social media as a whole) as a fad in which only the gullible would indulge their time.

They also seemed smug, and it’s always hard for me to like those who seem smug.

I agree that people shouldn’t fall on their swords and slog away at little recognised, exploitative roles or over-the-workload-limit tasks and responsibilities. I’m not saying that academics must carry the weight of all that needs to be done, because we know that it’s always already too much.

What made me so angry was that this researcher wasn’t talking about solidarity with colleagues in the face of workload adversity. They were totally focused on what would be worthwhile doing for their own career and promotion prospects; everything else was secondary, if not worthless.

It went against everything I believed in, within the academic sector and beyond. As I wrote in my earlier post on “What makes a good colleague“:

“There is a whole raft of intangible, essential, labour-intensive work that goes into a healthy research ecosystem”.

Nothing makes me see red more than people who are willing to take advantage of a strong, collegial research environment but don’t contribute to the necessary and intangible work that makes that environment possible. They’ll take every research opportunity, but aren’t willing to work alongside various colleagues to create those same opportunities for others.

Either they fail to recognise that they are enjoying a context created by the work of others, or they think that the work done by those colleagues is beneath them.

Either way, white-hot rage!

I’ve realised over the years that what I’m good at – and really have a passion for – is bringing people together and making things happen. The biggest face of this is the research network that I helped create and have run for over a decade now. At its core, the AASRN creates an intellectual community under the broad sociopolitical umbrella of Asian Australian Studies. Through the network, members have helped each other out with research questions, worked on major projects, assisted with recruitment for a wide range of projects, collaborated on and attended one another’s events, shared references and papers, and got to hang out and befriend like-minded colleagues. Many of the collegial relationships made in the first few years of AASRN’s existence remain intact, and are often stronger, today.

In the various positions I’ve occupied (salaried or not), I’ve recommended various researchers for academic roles, written letters of support, been a referee, and widely shared news about positions and new fellowships/scholarships. I’ve introduced researchers to one another when I thought they’d enjoy meeting and have cool things to talk about and plans to hatch. Through Research Whisperer with Jonathan, we’ve made a space for researchers to connect about academic identities and cultures, and offer insight into the funding games and academe more broadly. I still wear way too many hats.

Many colleagues comment that it’s a lot to do, they don’t know how I do it, and they say they’re really glad I do. Occasionally, someone will ask why I’d bother doing some of the things I do, because those things don’t result in an immediate (or even horizon) career pay-off.

My answer is that I do it because I can. I know that sounds a bit Pollyanna-ish, and those who know me will likely LOL because I’m anything but Pollyanna-ish, but it’s true: I do it because I can.

For example, my scholarly output has been affected by the fact that I have often edited books or special journal issues. I’ve chosen to edit these publications because they’re an opportunity to showcase emerging researchers’ work, and add more depth to a field I’ve helped create. I’ve written about how I think “[t]here is no better way to fast-track your grasp of academic productivity and evaluation than becoming a journal editor” (Becoming a journal editor).

I’ve also written and published my own papers, of course, but there’s no doubt there’d be a lot more of them if I didn’t edit a thing.

I think about that at times, when I do that terrible comparison that we do with others within our broader career cohort. I think about whether those authored papers might’ve tipped my track-record over into being more competitive for the major fellowships I’ve previously applied for in vain.

What if I’d written those papers instead of editing those journal issues? What if I’d never convened those conferences or symposiums? If I’d never help start that postgrad group, or served on that academic association committee? If I’d ignored requests for advice about starting professional networks, or planning research programs? Some of them now look good on my CV and have become part of my career narrative but I didn’t do them for that.

My academic and professional life is all the richer for taking on diverse roles, and I gain a lot satisfaction from knowing that I’ve made things happen for a field and its next generation of researchers. I recognise that all the things I’m able to do today comes from the work of those who’ve come before me, especially given that I’m in the area of critical race studies and often focused on racialisation and discrimination. Where would I be without my intellectual, activist predecessors?

For things large and small, then, I help and do good things when I can. Because, really, why wouldn’t you? Why would you want to be part of a community that always did otherwise?


  1. Brilliant comments on the ‘problem’ with becoming a journal editor and your belligerent and considered response.

    Meanwhile, you are everything that is right about the academy, and your contributions stand as a challenge to all of this fear and mean-spiritedness that I hear people boasting about.

    I’ve come to realise in recent years that the same people who consistently ask me to do them a (work, collegiate) favour, are often the ones that then tell me that they only do the bare minimum of shared/difficult to claim research support activity. To add insult to injury (and I’m sure this is exactly the nature of some of the comments that you heard) they then lecture me on how if I didn’t do all of this extra stuff I’d have more time off/have a better work/life balance. The worst of it is that even my framing of it sounds like an unbalanced ledger and I hate that that even occurs to me. The next person who talks about maintaining a singular vision on their career, or ‘building up their research track record’ without any sense that it’s a part of a broader community, or that fails to acknowledge the work that you detail here, is getting a passive-aggressive/edifying email redirection to this link.

    Can I just say that – as an acknowledgment of your specific collegiate support to me – this was a breath of fresh air to wake up to this morning and helped me reframe a lot of negative thoughts into a far more helpful shape.


    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks, Sandy, for your brilliant comments and support of RW – very cool that the post helped with allaying negative thoughts (for the moment!). I think it’s a cyclic thing: going from feeling that the sector is something we can contribute to and actively intervene in to make better, versus the feeling that it’s all rubbish and awful and why do we even bother. I often vacillate between those two extremes. And it can be as simple as a nourishing conversation or exchange with a colleague (friend or new acquaintance) that can refresh my energy to tackle it all again.

      I think a lot of the “advice” that emphasises looking out for yourself is often passed on from those who mean well and don’t want to see their mentees or peers exploited or ‘falling behind’ their cohort, but it is advice given without the broader perspective of what it would mean to exist and live within a job sector where _everyone_ only looked out for themselves.

      I have been lucky enough to have good mentors through my PhD and early career days, one is an absolute stalwart and stays my closest academic advisor/colleague today (about 16 yrs on!). She has never said to look out for myself – it has always been about building track-record to enable me to do things for others, and to find ways to grow our field of research and make room for as many others as possible. Only having this as my experience, I didn’t realise others had such harrowing, and stultifying, situations.


  2. Thanks Tseen, your post really resonated with me. I think that people underestimate how important a collegial environment is – I could be a level E Professor, but if I didn’t like my work environment then what is the point in being promoted but miserable?

    Sometimes it is worth remembering that being an academic is not all about promotions, but about liking what you do, and like you, if I didn’t create these awesome networks around myself, I wouldn’t enjoy my work nearly as much!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Spot-on, Dani. What IS the point of being in a context where everyone’s hunkered down in their offices and viewing all their colleagues as competition? Academia is becoming increasingly competitive, so being able to have a truly collaborative and healthy work environment can appear too much to ask. But it’s not. If people just treated each other with the respect and support that they themselves would appreciate, it would be very different. I don’t know why it’s that hard, actually. Many people want to blame the system and how it turns academics into monsters who can’t treat their peers well. I don’t think those who are monstrous have been turned into such by the system – perhaps the system lets them get away with it more, but I think it’s a cop-out to say the academic system robs them of humanity. You and I, and all our #circleofniceness peeps, are in the academy and we recognise that being self-centred boors is not the way to go!


  3. Lovely post Tseen. I very much agree with your sentiments. Maintaining these things–respectful but rigorous refereeing; editing others’ work; mentoring and advising in ways that don’t figure in workload models–seems increasingly difficult in managerial work cultures. But as you say: why wouldn’t we do this? Isn’t this one of the crucial ways that we can maintain and re-make the academic collegiality we were attracted to, and can transform in importantly inclusive ways?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for reading + commenting, Anna! I think it’s definitely one of the ways that academic culture has retained it attraction despite the creeping managerialism. Those who participate in, and have benefited from, these acts of ‘unmetricised’ collegiality see the potential in how we work and what we do. The joy and stimulus of starting a new project with savvy, lovely colleagues is not something you’d likely find in other sectors. The way that research gives us opportunities to expand and enrich our various fields while – quite frankly – having a hell of a lot of fun, is a huge attraction for me. Even with the pressure of finding funding (and working without funding), carrying out research with those who are on the same critical page and in it for the greater good is a huge reward in and of itself.

      And even if one isn’t working directly with colleagues, the collegial networks that we have are incredibly powerful. We often hear of them being compromised – and seen examples of it, I’m sure – but I see a lot of emerging researchers do the building of academic community thing around me because they want to have a context that’s enabling and amenable. Fingers crossed it doesn’t get trained out of them!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. “They considered the idea of communicating research (and social media as a whole) as a fad in which only the gullible would indulge their time.”

    It’s not a fad however I’m not convinced on a purely cost-benefit basic that it’s actually that important to employers and thus why would should it be that important to employees not measured on it?

    More generally, I’ve always been open and honest that I see academia as a job – it’s an interesting job but not one I want to give my life over to. So I separate out doing favours on a day to day basis for workmates to do favours for a nebulous ‘community’ – so I partly agree with your thrust in the sense that careerists who only look out for themselves are a problem for all of us especially at the local level but I couldn’t see a situation where I’d spend time doing stuff outside my core duties that I’m paid for.

    Does that make me a bad person? Maybe?

    I settled this in my own mind by following what lawyers do and having pro-bono hours (75 a year) which I use up in community service (I wouldn’t use up a pro-bono hour doing a freebie for a profitable multi-national like a large academic publisher).


    • See, we differ on a very basic level here, Charles. My whole point is that just because it’s not measured doesn’t mean it’s not important. I don’t agree with the way that many of the things in higher education are measured, and the way these have consequent large effects on people’s ability to move forward with careers, etc.

      Sociologist William Bruce Cameron is quoted as saying, “not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted”, and Kate Bowles has flagged this saying to me recently. It captures how I view the increasing metricisation of university work, and especially research work, which is often not amenable to being set within hard categories.

      Having said all this, it’s not like I sit around waiting to do favours for people. I have my own research and work goals, and I wouldn’t agree to do something that took me too far off the path of achieving these. My post is not about being self-sacrificing – it’s about choosing to be collegial.


  5. This is fantastic Tseen, and I couldn’t agree with your sentiments more. I worry though about how we promote this kind of academic solidarity. I’m just finishing my PhD/starting a post-doc and all the institutional incentives are there to be the arsehole who only does things that further his own career. I worry that if I do the professional and collegiality things you have done, I will be on my way to joining the industrial reserve army of unemployed academics. How do we foster the kind of culture you have described without being punished?


    • I know you’re asking advice from the fabulous Research Whisperer folk, rather than me, but I just thought I’d share some stuff I’ve been engaged with recently with an informal community of practice research group I work with. I’m the director of a research centre, my role is research only and has been for a long time. A lot of the people in our CoP are both teaching/research, and have varying levels of security in their work, from full-time perm like me to short-term casual contracts. The whole ‘incentives are there to be the arsehole who only does things that further’ etc has been the subject of a lot of discussion and concern. Because, on the one hand, we know that most of us got where we are because someone edited a book, edited a journal, peer-reviewed our terrible crap and made us better through it, provided advice on funding and generally helped us through our scholarship in the academy. And those that don’t have that formally structured, want it.

      But there really is a catch. While you can negotiate some of these things under a performance review, you only sorta can. For a start it has no bearing on someone on a range of casual contracts (depending of course). Also, and with the best of intentions, you can formally list ‘mentor’ or ‘editing one industry-focused publication every two years’ or whatever it is that just doesn’t count, but it doesn’t actually mean that all mentors, editors or whatever are created equally. I’ve been a mentor for some people (even a couple of great academics) and we didn’t really connect on the areas that were helpful for them, and I’ve informally done it and it has worked… how do we account for that. I think your point (and the point of the RW) is *why* do we account for it.

      The thing that I find most frustrating about what does and doesn’t contribute to a well-rounded scholar is that the four things unis bang on about at the moment (money, more students, better research position, leader across a field) are actually all better through some of these informal processes. I can tell you I brought in at least 300K that I can identify (and a lot I can’t) through being good at social networking and providing support etc (not that that’s why I do it, but this is the accidental outcomes of being interested in your fellow academics). I can also say without question that I would never hire (or in my case, more likely work with) someone who was only self-interested because for me it demonstrates a singular lack of interest in the world and others, not a great thing in a researcher across nearly any platform.

      I am a better researcher because of the people I connect with, because of their kindness to me, because I genuinely care about how they’re doing. I’m definitely better off by reviewing national competitive grants and peer-reviewing for pubs. Is it a pain that I can’t count? Yep. Does it make my research and writing better, on-point, does it make my PhD supervision better. Yep. Does it give me a chance to read fantastic new ideas. Yeah. Is that a job requirement for me. Yep. It’s a win/win/win/slight lose to do this stuff and the slight lose can be a big lose if we just don’t get HERDC-eligible (in Aus anyway) pubs out. The real lie is that it can all be accomplished in a short period of time or that we can be consistent. I’m a researcher and one year I didn’t have a single publication… it was unusual and to do with expectations on publication (something out of my hands) and of course the following January I had 5 in one month. But what if someone had gone, how was 2014 for you, Sandy? We also feed the lie about the average amount of time it takes to build this up, do this work and how much on top of our work lives we need to dedicate to it. Since I was a level B academic I’ve been doing probably about 60 hours a week, sometimes more. My EBA doesn’t demand it, my boss doesn’t demand it, my institution doesn’t demand it. But I can’t get the work I need to get done in whatever the EBA says my workload time is. And if I don’t feel guilty for spending that time on it, I feel guilty when I don’t. But I don’t thrive on guilt. I have the best job in the world, I love my job and I enjoy doing it and mostly I don’t care about the time. I do have family that I care for, I do travel with my work, I do have other interests. It is possible to do all of this, but let’s not lie about time either and let’s at least make it worthwhile, and more importantly let’s make real stuff count.

      That report that came out by the Centre for the Study of Higher Education in 2011 was pretty damning of current trends – and you can see who commissioned it in the citation: Bexley, E., James, R., & Arkoudis, S. (2011). The Australian academic profession in transition. Canberra: Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, Commonwealth of Australia.

      My point is that in our scholarly support, mentorship, sharing – as well as all of that absolutely academic work that just doesn’t count – we make our universities richer… literally as it turns out. Students want connected academics who know the field and you don’t know the field by only focusing inward. We need each other to grow and make our disciplines relevant, but instead of active engagement we are encouraged to burrow down and work like automatons. If only that made good researchers.

      What Tseen and Jonathan do helps the sector. It helps a lot of us. Let’s recognise that, let’s honour it and also let’s support others in finding out about this space. As a researcher not connected to them I can tell you they helped us locate a researcher for one of our spaces (and we were struggling), they provide a great deal of help in doing the work that we don’t have time to do (or at least that I don’t find time to do), and when we absorb it and take it in and then pass it onto our postgrads or our colleagues, the knowledge grows. Most importantly and sorry this is totally a rant, I know, but I have to say that I don’t work with Tseen or Jonathan, but their work makes me feel very positively toward their university. In a sector that is all about position, how doesn’t that matter?

      Liked by 2 people

      • ” Since I was a level B academic I’ve been doing probably about 60 hours a week, sometimes more.”

        Haven’t you hit the key problem here? So you spend twenty hours a week working for free (well actually giving yourself a pay cut) doing ‘good works’ but do those goods works actually make it worse for young academics or those who need a job – because if we all spend free time doing good works – what’s the economic incentive to hire more people?

        More simply are people’s good intentions making the situation worse rather than better?


      • Sure. It is the problem. And, actually, I absolutely can just stop doing it all. I can reel back and do the minimum, which will actually mean that I will stop doing the following: peer-review, all of the mentoring stuff that has no direct outcome for my job and that I’m not required to do, editing (not paid to do that), writing letters of support (not paid to do that), reading the various submissions of others whether it’s funding or pubs. And if I did that, I am fairly sure I would work 20 hours a week less.

        The system itself is flawed, it’s based on money in and money out, and emphasising hours in that exact same way is also based on money in and money out and so it becomes the central part of the negotiation – which is also what our EBAs are based on (not having a go at NTEU, just recognising that the hours where they are identified are somewhat problematically not addressed by anyone). I actually don’t want to buy into the same problems that are setting up the lack of jobs, though sorry I have to laugh there, we have constant trouble finding junior academics with zero experience even vaguely interested in a research-invested humanities-focused Academic Level C job that requires minimum hours a week cos we’re in Darwin, so… yeah… contexts. Advocacy around employment is the responsibility of those that are employed higher than a C, I know that. And I can think of no more common discussion amongst colleagues. We aren’t sitting around talking in our CoP about how we can do more hours and greedily take them for ourselves, we’re trying to work out how to crack a system that is set up and funded to only consider about half of our scholarship actual scholarship. The informal CoP I mentioned is all First Nations’ Scholars (all but two are Aboriginal, in fact), and we vary across that range and provide support across that range, because we are responding (even informally and across institutions and disciplines) to the Behrendt review (2011) that talks about some really key issues of how we can provide support for our broader cohort across the academy. And it won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has ever been on a university committee to know that we are required to be on three times the amount of committees as our non-Indigenous counterparts, that we often have responsibilities to our Communities that are inextricably wrapped up with our jobs and that on top of that we all have to do NAIDOC, Reconciliation Week, and every other week that unis decide have a focus on our Communities. And I just mention this cos… hours. We could stop. We totally could. Or we could say I do all of this, I shouldn’t have to publish. Then guess what? Guess who publishes and guides the directions for Indigenous Australia, and guess who gets trotted out for photo ops. (*also might note in case anyone thought, after talking about Aboriginal CoP that I was talking about a Level C identified position above, I’m not).

        I don’t think any of this is out of our hands but I also don’t think we can easily change it all just by changing individual practice. And I don’t even think the govt are somehow the culprits (or the unis for that matter). And as much as its fun to find a villain, I also don’t think we (senior academics) f-ed up the future for emerging researchers and academics. That’s all too tidy. It’s all of it. It really is, so yes, sure I get it. But refusing to do these hours hurts junior academics, and that I’m not willing to do.

        I think there might be a few things that will effect some level of change in Australia – and Aus tends to lag and follow, so I can only assume this is a part of a broader conversation of which I only get to peer into. First of all, the requirements (if we read them to the letter) of the 2015 Standards coming in on 1 January 2017 now articulate the need for academics to engage in research and for the institution to provide evidence of that. If TEQSA enforce them, for the very first time they talk about reportable research, not research training, and the requirement is that research is supported and required of all teaching staff, this is going to change the cynical way that unis can approach this. They won’t be able to ‘reward’ teaching staff with research hours – which is pretty crap at a lot of levels, but especially across the scholarship of teaching. There is also a few new individual agreements that I’ve seen that talk about not 20/40/40 or whatever other configuration of research/admin/teaching but instead research/admin/teaching/support – disarticulating support from admin is key in this. I wish the NTEU had more discussion about this, but maybe they do and I just don’t hear about it, maybe it’s why these individual arrangements are reflecting that. I think the final thing is, you know that report that I mentioned in the last link? If you take that and you take every other report of its kind that’s been done in the 5 or so years on the problematic changing state of employment in higher ed, and you go through the citation list and order the cited material chronologically, it shows that this both isn’t new and that the same ideas are being rehashed (and often commissioned, as was the case there, by the govt). Knowing that what happens here in Aus isn’t as dire as what has happened in the US is similarly the slippery slope we can find ourselves on, but we can only challenge it as a cohort, not by trying to lone-wolf our experience as academics, cos I can say plainly just for me that hasn’t worked.

        So yes, sure. What I don’t buy is that 60 hours is somehow stealing 20 hours from a junior academic. If this is all a mess to figure out, tidily removing 20 hours from my working life isn’t going to magically fix the problem or even adequately identify it and I shouldn’t be penalised by having to work 20 hours less (yes, I just said that), and I am worried that if all we focus on is the numbers it’s very hard to, at the same time, challenge their (govt, institutions) numbers. Again a big old rant on this, all of which is just personal experience. Look, I don’t know too many academics who have started in the last 25 years (and zero Aboriginal academics) who have had a tidy path through the academy, who have not had to struggle with finding employment etc, for a long time. Blaming the ageing academic population is something we have to give up on as the sole cause/solution cos they’re kind of retiring now, we all have a much more complex set of decisions to make about staying in the academy, about fostering scholarship and about challenging the system. And I hope we do have it, and that we contribute positively with it.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I don’t think you can equate someone within an academic role carrying out good academic citizenship activities with not then hiring more staff. As pointed out above by the post and several others, the point is that this work is not necessarily listed as ‘core business’ even though it is in essence exactly core business. The academic world wouldn’t function without it but it isn’t counted as individual workload points necessarily – there is an erroneous assumption that the amenable research environment that exists within our areas will always be there to tap into but that environment is made up of networks of individual acts of refereeing, reviewing, giving advice, mentorship, offering of opportunities, unmarked collaboration, etc. It is unsustainable as it stands. Those working within it to positively affect its culture aren’t just people to be dismissed or condescended to as having ‘good intentions’. There’s much more to it, and the dynamics cannot be represented in an input/output equation.


      • Just commenting here in place of the standing ovation I will give you when we meet one day. Thank you. You articulate in detail exactly what I was talking (ranting) about on a general level.


    • Thanks, Francis – I really appreciate your take on this, especially as you are right in the front-line of forging a career and track-record. I thought a long time about the title of the post. The sentiments are one thing but, to recognise precisely the issue that you point out, I ended up with “do it because you can”. Not because you have to. Not because you think people will think badly of you if you don’t. But because you want to _and you can_.

      Researchers at different stages of career will have different capacities and networks. And most of the things I’ve done, I’ve done over various years and as others have passed opportunities onto me (I do subscribe broadly to karmic flows – if I received good karma, it’s only fair that I pass it on and generate some of my own…). Don’t feel you have to do All the Things right now. You’re right about having to establish your own track-record as well, otherwise you may not be long for the academic world. It’s always a balance. Right now, maybe you CAN’T do as much as you’d like. But the fact that you’re even thinking like this now means – to me – that you’ll be one of the lovely types who’ll do what they can, when they can.


  6. Great post Tseen,
    I have an alternative viewpoint to others but still relevant, I hope. I consider that the whole notion of work-life balance is overused, much like the term “stressed” and “busy” are words that people believe can make them sound more important.

    For me work-life balance equates to your passion, that is a passion for your career (if you don’t love what you do, move on!), your passion for your family, friends and lifestyle, and the balance of the choices that you make to enrich your life in all of these areas. If you love your work and your career then switching off does not work, ultimately you will end up being surrounded by people who can understand that, and that share your passion. Saying no to things is understandable. However, it is also incredibly limiting, what is most frustrating, as you mention, is that academics sometimes don’t realise or value the opportunities that come from saying yes, doing the extra activities and taking the time work with others and support others.

    Given the shift toward leadership, innovation, and research impact and engagement, these “extra” activities are where you get the runs on the board. Good leadership requires sharing, supporting and working with others to benefit both them and yourself. To be innovative we must work differently than we have before, and this, in turn, will result in greater impact and engagement.

    I could go on about this for hours but I won’t. That is my two cents.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good points, Tamika, and the more I hear good leadership talk + see it in action, the more I realise that the traditionally understood (and much wanting to be replicated) leader-follower dynamic is so wrong. Strong research culture leaders, especially, do most of their work not in front – they are the ones making things happen for others and ensuring that momentum is maintained (funding- and staff-wise).

      If you ever feel like going on for at least 1000 words, we’re happy to have a guest post on that topic. 🙂


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