Dr 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.
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.
After three years of probation with six monthly reviews of my performance, I have recently submitted a promotion application (my effort to reclaim the level I held for six years at another university). The pre-determined boxes and metrics make it hard to shine. I have 300 words to demonstrate deservingness, and summarise and substantiate my contributions. Since my employment here, I have generated 40 outputs. ‘Prolific,’ some might say.
But, alas, Scopus, SNIP and science journals are what matter to the panel. So, my outputs don’t count. I am not a scientist—I privilege different ways of knowing and seeing; I write about life, auto-ethnography, and arts-based research. Scopus may well be ‘the largest abstract and citation database of peer-reviewed literature: scientific journals, books and conference proceedings’ but, unfortunately for me, my research is missed when you measure using Scopus.
Two years ago I recognised I didn’t like this workplace. I didn’t want to be here anymore. I didn’t like the pressure, the stress, the mean people, the narrow mindedness. I wanted to escape the constant sense of being overwhelmed, the busyness, and the fragmentation linked to diverse, growing, never-ending tasks. I felt the unrelenting expectations, the deadlines, juggling and multi-tasking, and suffocating work demands for more, faster, and ‘please fill in this Excel spreadsheet with evidence you are doing all of the above by close of business today’.
I was never enough. The measures told me so. They still tell me so but I care a whole lot less because I have found a different way of working and the anti-depressants have kicked in.
Failure has opened a space for me to envision something new. It has made me decide: I will not succumb to the steady poisoning and paralysing effects of our sector’s managerialism (Collini, 2012, What are universities for?). My own sense of failure has opened my eyes to the many colleagues who care for others, who create, who hope valiantly, who know great enthusiasms, who spend themselves in worthy causes. Of course, their contribution is not valued by the busy and ‘important’ well-paid and well-titled Faculty Deans who critique and circle our performance documents with their red pens, who are too busy to add a personal comment or single word of acknowledgement.
As Theodore Roosevelt potently reminds us, however, “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the (wo)man in the arena…”
My awakening began when I invited seven women to come and write with me, to write about our lives. Our initial coming together was not driven by research, nor was it focused on experimenting with methodology. I was seeking connection through story. My heart wanted connection, wisdom, alternatives. We have now been writing together for more than a year. We write about our lives; about who we are. Our group of seven has become twelve, then more, and it grows. We are ‘the women who write’. What we have learned during this time of writing and sharing together has spilled over into our research and work lives, informing our beliefs about what matters when we are serious about utilising embodied, sensory, and contemplative pedagogies in our research and practice.
We work, write, and respond to each other. We engage in an ethics of care and caring across our personal/professional lives and work. We are a group that’s dissatisfied with counting cultures. We do not care for the auditing of the academic assembly line. Rather, we care about meaning, wellbeing, relationship, and connection. We choose different ways of being, and we are choosing to count differently!
Mountz et al state that:
Counting culture leads to intense, insidious forms of institutional shaming, subject-making, and self-surveillance. It compels us to enumerate and self-audit, rather than listen and converse, engage with colleagues, students, friends and family, or involve ourselves in the meaningful and time-consuming work that supports and engages our research and broader communities. …What if we counted differently? Instead of articles published or grants applied for, what if we accounted for thank you notes received, friendships formed, collaborations forged? (Mountz et al, 2015, p.1243).
Tseen Khoo’s post “Do it because you can” has sentiments that resonate strongly:
There is a whole raft of intangible, essential, labour-intensive work that goes into a healthy research ecosystem. In an almost-metrics way, this work includes being a good critical friend to colleagues and students, especially those who aren’t directly in your area; reviewing for grants, book manuscripts, and papers; convening events that set the stage for a field or cohort to develop and progress; mentoring someone without having to… the list goes on.
At a totally non-metrics level, this kind of work encompasses supporting each other and providing encouragement, the social work of building connections between groups and individuals, being good communicators, and that most difficult element of bringing people together because they want to be together. This is the invisible (often feminised) labour of any workplace.
And, so, here we are: a group of women who want to be together; embracing this non-metric way of supporting each other; and providing encouragement and connection.
We are embracing the values of ‘slow’. The ‘slow movement’ (Parkins & Craig, 2006), ‘slow scholarship’ (Mountz, Bonds, Mansfield, Loyd, Hyndman, Walton-Roberts, Basu, Whitson, Hawkins, Hamilton & Cyrrand; O’Neill 2014), and the focus of ‘the slow professor’ (Berg & Seeber, 2016).
In our writing as research, we are resisting the insidious, diminishing effects of managerialism, comparison and metric-based audits of productivity, impact and outputs. We have ‘outgrown’ these narrow containers. We recognise the joy and pleasure of responding to our longings to connect, to care for ourselves and others, and to be different – more ourselves – in academia. Our resistance and pleasure has been found in opportunities to listen and converse in meaningful ways that give time to reflection and relationships, It enables us to work cooperatively and speak our lives into the academy.
We are now recognising, and looking for, those conditions that support our flow—our highly focused, present-moment, imaginative, joyful work. By engaging in our writing and research as a collective, we are tapping into pleasure, togetherness, connectedness, interest, and joy. These positive emotions are undoing the damage of our highly managed work environments, and we are finding ourselves more resilient and creative, and our collective outputs intellectually expansive and prolific. We have an enhanced spirit of enquiry, intelligence, and inventiveness.
By working together, we have optimised our individual and collective experience; we have created a collective advantage. And we can see in each other that we are more than enough.
We work across five universities and our work with its instruments of comparison and shame can still make us feel that we do not ‘measure up’, but we have each other to remind us we are so much more than our citation index, student evaluation scores, or grant income tally. If only Stefan Grimm (1963-2014) had someone to remind him he was enough.
We are lucky. The sense of verification and acceptance in our group’s sharing and caring experience is powerful. Something fundamental is shifting. We have come to understand that the metrics and standards being imposed on us and reified by our institutions are simply constructions. They are versions of someone’s truth—not necessarily the truth, or a truth we accept. So, we reject those measures, and we establish for ourselves a new set of values, an alternative guide for our academic and non-academic practice. In doing so we are interrupting and rupturing the bounds of what is permissible and possible in academia, in writing, and we are creating for ourselves a manifesto of caring and care-full collaboration:
- Berg, M., and Seeber., B. (2016). The slow professor: Challenging the culture of speed in the academy. Canada: University of Toronto Press, Scholarly Publishing Division.
- Collini, Stefan. (2012). What are universities for? London: Penguin.
- Mountz, A., Bonds, A., Mansfield, B., Loyd, J., Hyndman, J., Walton-Roberts, M., Basu, R., Whitson, R., Hawkins, R., Hamilton, T., & Curran, W. (2015). For Slow Scholarship: A Feminist Politics of Resistance through Collective Action in the Neoliberal University. ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies, 14, 4, 1235-1259. Retrieved from http://ojs.unbc.ca/index.php/acme/article/view/1058
- Parkins, W., and Craig, G. (2006). Slow Living. Oxford: Berg.