Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Academic Freedom and Social Media

This tweet today made me think:
We value academic freedom highly and believe that academics should be allowed to speak openly and freely about a range of topics, including the state of academia. But does (or should) that principle apply to all university staff, orjust academics?

To a degree, I think there is one rule for academics and another for the rest of university staff. During the UCU strike last year, I was tweeting generally about the strike and how "non-academic" staff were too often forgotten in the conversation. I was always careful not to speak specifically about my institution but about the situation faced by university staff generally. I also looked back on my feed and could not find anything negative about my institution nor anything which I felt would create a negative impression of me in my role nor the university I worked for. Nevertheless, I was made to feel that I should be a little more discreet about my tweeting. I wondered whether the same thing happened to my academic colleagues.

Many universities have social media policies, although many still do not (mine doesn't as far as I can find). Regardless, if you are open and public about where you work and are tweeting about academia (whether that is about teaching, research, administration, etc.) I believe that you do represent your institution. I have always tried to take care in what I tweet. Not to the point of self-censorship, but of reputational risk both to myself, my career and my employer.

I was once sworn at publicly on Twitter by an academic. I saw it happen to someone else this week (see previous post). I'm not wading in again to the circumstances of the swearing. This is a question of whether certain sections have more leeway and freedom in what they post. I know that if I publicly swore at an colleague online (even if at different institutions) a number of things might happen:

  1. It would negatively harm people's perception of me and could harm my future career as employers often look at social media;
  2. Colleagues from my institution might see it, including managers, and it could be reported and brought up especially if there is a social media policy in place);
  3. Even if I deleted the tweet, people would still have seen it and we know that people take screenshots.
For me, I weigh the risk when I am tweeting about things that frustrate me about Higher Education and universities. I don't want to censor myself as I value my perspective and think it is worth sharing. But I also value my reputation, collegiality, career and my institution. I can't say whether "non-academic" staff might be held to different standards than academic colleagues. It may be that I am just more sensitive to this. But I do have a sense that the notion of academic freedom does not apply to all who work in academia - academics and professionals alike.

As to the question in the tweet (Should lecturers and researchers be free to criticise their managers and to discuss their jobs online without fear  of reprisal?) - I don't know the answer. But whatever it is, I think it should apply to all university staff.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Academic Collegiality

Firstly, apologies for the lack of any blogposts recently. Lots of change happening which has prevented me from being a regular poster:

  • I ended my job just before Christmas and am on a break before I start the next role shortly (more on that soon);
  • I got a dog (seriously, that is the most interesting news in my opinion!)
I have to admit to not feeling hugely inspired to write over the past few months. I couldn't post about my job search until I had a new role secured and even then I still didn't want to say much on social media (for reasons I may explain later). In addition to that, I felt that I was rehashing the same points about being an academic on the outside. But I feel the need to return to this topic to discuss the theme of academic collegiality. It relates to this tweet:

The timing of this is apt: I am currently about to start the next and exciting phase of my academic administration career while at the same time I am finalising the proofs of my second academic book. Because of this, I feel even more sensitive than usual to conversations about the nature of academic and who we define as an "academic".

I have written about this here, but to summarise: I believe that there are many who view academics in an exclusive way - someone who works in a university in a teaching or research capacity. In that narrow view, I don't count. Yet, I hold a doctorate, have published 2 monographs and a number of academic articles/essays - all done while I held an administrative role in a university. I have become more and more attuned to discussions about the state of academia which lack any sensitivity or understanding of the precarity of those on the outside, those without academic affiliation. 

While we undoubtedly need to be open and honest about the state of academic from those on inside of the university walls, we also need to acknowledge and respect the concerns of those on the outside looking in. The state of the academic job market is such that there are so many more people on the outside wanting to get in than available roles.

I was pretty disappointed recently with an exchange on Twitter about the state of academia for ECRs when someone brought up the challenges of those trying to get into academia. That person was summarily told to "f**k off" by an academic. Beyond the obvious nastiness and unseemliness of such a retort, for someone like me it spoke to a wider issue. We on the outside just don't matter. We aren't seen.We are rarely heard. Even more rarely listened to. We are not respected. Our issues are just not as important as ECRs on the inside. 

And yet, often our academic CV is better than those with academic positions. Our publication records may be better. But we simply don't get respected as genuine academic colleagues, regardless of academic affiliation or not.I don't want this to sound like a competition - who is better than who. But it comes down to basic respect for each other and our respective circumstances. It comes down to academic collegiality.

As is ever the case with Twitter, it is far too easy to fire off an angry or frustrated tweet in the heat of the moment. I get that, I really do. We simply don't think of the one at the receiving end of our frustration. In that moment, the optics of how that behaviour reflects on the academic, their institution and academia itself forgotten. I am absolutely aware that this post reads as a very long subtweet. I want to stress that this is about the behaviour, not the person. This is behaviour I have encountered from others. I have also been sworn at on Twitter by an academic - I can speak from experience that it is so demoralising and demeaning. It makes you question your self-worth. And it makes you question academia itself when you see this behaviour from academics. As academics, we are taught how to engage in respectful debate. And if you don't like what someone is saying but can't remain at least polite - just walk away. It is just social media at the end of the day.

Academia is hard - for those on the inside and those on the outside. All I would call for is to treat each other with respect, recognise each other as academics and therefore practice more academic collegiality.

*Postscript: Following this post I was accused of believing that swearing was worse than being bullied (the individual alleges that they were bullied and that justified the swearing). I never weighed into the debate between the two individuals, never took sides. I do not condone bullying under any circumstances. My point was that I don't think that publicly swearing in frustration at a colleague as a gut reaction is ever acceptable. Even if you recognise that it was wrong and delete the tweet - the barb still hit and unfortunately (with screenshots these days) it is difficult to ever delete something. My point is that academic collegiality should mean that we engage respectfully or just walk away.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Publishing outside of academia

I wrote before about passing deadlines. Even if I had a full-time academic position, I think it is natural for some deadlines to be pushed for a variety of reasons. When you work outside of academia and you have to write in addition to your day job, it is even more difficult to meet deadlines.

I wrote before (here) about asking for an extension to my second monograph with Routledge. Initially that was to extend my a month to January, then it became May, and now it is August and it is finally submitted.

Now, some of the delays were out of my hands as this was a collaborative project, transnational, and not done face-to-face. Nevertheless, the delays were substantial but ultimately necessary. Had we rushed it, then it would have suffered. We would have suffered too, with the pressures and sacrifices we would have to make to do it in addition to our day jobs and studies.

I am so proud to have it done. To have sent the manuscript for my second publication while juggling everything else in my life. I will never pretend that it is easy. It is not. And it comes with massive impostor syndrome as I know there are scholars out there ready to critique the translation (although they don't care enough to actually translate it themselves - can't have it both ways!). I am so grateful to the hard work of my collaborators and the patience from my editors at Routledge.

I don't know if I will go for a third monograph or not. While I have bits and pieces of academic projects to pick up, I can't see much value in my continuing to put the effort in when I don't want to return to academia. At this point, I am thinking about turning my hand to more public history, to write books and articles that are more accessible and not just for the academic environment (and the libraries who are the only ones who can afford to buy these academic books!). If you have any tips on seguing into more accessible publications, please do let me know.

In the meantime, look out for The Book of the Civilised Man: An English Translation of Urbanus Magnus by Daniel of Beccles, coming in 2019.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Being an academic on the outside

So, I had not realised that a new academic volume was already out that contained a new essay from me. It was by chance that I googled it to see that it was already on Amazon that I realised people were buying it. People had already bought it at the recent International Medieval Congress! And all the while, I am waiting for my copy to arrive in the post!

The volume is called The Elite Household in England, 1100-1500. Proceedings of the 2016 Harlaxton Symposium, and my essay is entitled: 'Administering the Household, 1180-1250 - from Daniel of Beccles to Robert Grosseteste'. You can see more here

This is particularly pleasing for me as the publication process can take so long that it takes time to see a project to fruition. This is even more true for me at the moment as I am in the final throes of completing my manuscript for my second book! I have written before about the challenges of pursuing academic research outside of the academy. It takes dedication, sacrifice (both of your personal time and time with loved ones), and pretty robust motivational skills to keep at it when you are tired from your 9-5 job.

Just thinking about motivation for a moment, I do sometimes ask myself why am I doing this. Why, if I don't want an academic job, am I putting all this time and effort into academic publishing? Perhaps there is a subconscious side of me that wants to keep that door ajar just in case I change my mind. But I doubt it. Rather, I think that I just haven't finished with my PhD yet! By that I mean, there is so much more output from my PhD research than fit in the thesis. My PhD proposal was the product of an Master's essay where I hit on a topic which didn't fit 2,500. So I did a PhD on it and tried to fit it into 100,000 words. And it still didn't fit! So I guess I want to continue to work on and increase the scholarship and visibility of it. 

But I won't sugar-coat it and say that it is easy. It's not. My Harlaxton essay was the product of networking, relationship-building, and kind colleagues who could point me to resources. I was invited to Harlaxton to present and as I was no longer a student and had no academic position, I had little means to cover the costs of travelling and attending the conference. Luckily I was signposted to and then awarded a scholarship which was open to both PhDs and researchers who worked outside of academia - incredibly invaluable for people in my situation. From that conference, I may have a second collaborative article in the pipeline.

Impostor-syndrome is something that people discuss a lot in academia, and it is an issue that academics who work outside the traditional bounds of academia face. Raised eyebrows when you say you don't have a postdoc or lectureship. Even higher raised eyebrows when you say you work in administration. The label 'independent scholar' is wrongly tabooed. You are constantly made to feel like a second class of academic where opportunities are not open to you (such as the BBC New Generation Thinkers Scheme). So it is incredibly validating and affirming to read the blurb on Amazon for this Harlaxton volume. It describes all the contributors as 'leading scholars' and it has taken me some time to accept that label. It is important to remember that it is not your job title that confers your expertise but your research, however you choose to undertake it. We are all more than our job titles.

Yes, my day job may be in university administration but I am still a subject expert, a leading scholar in my field, and that can never be taken away from me. 

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Catching Up

I've recently come to realise where my anxieties about my career path comes from - my PhD. As readers will know, I work in 'alternative academia' - having held various roles from student welfare, estates, library services, and academic standards. All of which support the endeavors of teaching and research within Higher Education.

I made the choice not to pursue an academic career but wanted to actively work in universities. I entered a fast-track graduate management scheme in university management and worked my way up a few grades in a short period of time. But I was always striving for more, always thinking 5, 10, 15 years down the line and where I wanted to be. Which is completely normal.

What wasn't normal, and was certainly unexpected, would be how I found myself comparing myself to others. I did a four year undergraduate, a one year master, took a year off, and then a 4 year PhD. By the time I was done, my school friends had a 6-7 year career headstart on me. Whereas, had I pursued academia, many of my colleagues would have been starting around the same age as me, now I suddenly felt left behind from my "non-academic" friends and colleagues (yes, I hate that phrase). I saw people the same age as me 2-3 grades above me, earning significantly more than me, with solid career paths and plenty of experience.

I wouldn't change my PhD for the world. It made me who I am, opened doors, and I still remain research active. But I wish someone had told me that it would be hard leaving academia and starting towards the bottom, feeling the rush to catch up and make up for the lost time.

I know that I shouldn't compare myself to others. I know that I am still young and there is plenty of time to develop a career. But there are days when that is hard, when you don't feel valued or opportunities pass you by, when you will wonder about the choices you made. And you will wonder if your potential is being squandered?

I think we need to be open about this when we encourage PhD students to consider careers outside the academy. Yes, these careers can be amazing but there will be challenges transitioning out of academia. As long as we acknowledge the highs and the lows, then we will be setting students up to succeed in whatever career they choose.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Saying no to academia (for the moment)

A little while back I found a job advert for an academic position that looked perfect for me in terms of alignment with my area of research. I was hesitant about applying for a number of reasons:

*Obviously that should read "Is academia worth it". Twitter - where is my edit button!?

But Twitter gave me a boost to believe in myself and I started to polish off my academic CV and get to writing the job application. But in the end, I did not apply.

I have to be honest that I don't know if I made the right decision or not. Some would surely say that I should have just put my hat in the ring, just to test the waters. And yes, that would have meant that I had more up-to-date application material at my disposal. But the reason I did not apply was that this was a teaching-only position, and the more I thought about it, the more I backed away from applying.

I have written here before about my relationship with teaching. I enjoy the rewarding feeling I get at the end of teaching and seeing my students thrive. I know that I am a good teacher based on the feedback I receive. I have massive anxiety in the prep and lead up to teaching. This is my impostor syndrome - the thought that my students will "catch me out". I has never happened before, and I admit when I don't know the answer to something, but I always have the lingering feeling that one day I will be exposed as an academic fraud.

So, my reasons for not applying to a teaching-only role was primarily for my personal wellbeing. I realised that I didn't need that stress or anxiety in my life. The current state of academia with TEF and the stress on student feedback and peer observation would only have worsened that anxiety.

It all brought to light the thing that I enjoy - research. I am happily working away on the second monograph, have a conference proceedings paper about to go to print, and a collaborative article on the horizon. If I were to return to academia, it would be for a more research-focused role with some teaching that I could find more manageable. Interestingly, there is something just like that being advertised which I may just go for! Who knows!

The point of this point was to say that sometimes the "perfect" job may be perfect in terms of the subject matter but not the remit of the role. It was hard for me not to apply and face up to a potential missed opportunity. But I had to put me first and not jump back into academia for the sake of being back. If I go back, it will be on my terms. For now, I have a good job with an excellent work/life balance that affords me positive wellbeing. It also allows me time to keep doing what I enjoy - research and writing. It would have to be a pretty "perfect" opportunity to tempt me back.

Monday, March 5, 2018


A short post today to say that I am tired. I am tired of my role in a university being an afterthought. I am tired of being undervalued. I am tired of academics and admin being pitted against each other. And I am tired of attitudes which render my career path (university management) as dispensable and redundant:

I know that the majority of academics value the work that academic-related staff / professional services do, but all it takes is consistent oversight mixed with one blatant statement of admin's uselessness, to make me question if it is worth it. And when I think about my career, do I want to continue in an environment that will devalue and deride me on a regular basis? Do I want to work in an environment where no one considers how I feel?

The answer may well be no.

I am passionate about education. I want to make HE the best it can be, just not in an academic role at present. But if a minority believe that my career path is meaningless and redundant, maybe I should put my skills and passion towards something that will value me as an equal partner.

I just wonder how many good people will be lost to HE because we didn't value them enough or, if we did value them, never took the time to tell them.