In praise of strategic complacency

Posted on | April 15, 2012 | 17 Comments

What follows is the basic text from my talk to “Early Career Researchers” at UQ earlier this month. As you’ll see, they are rough notes, intended for a small and currently employed audience. This is only one experience of “ECR”. I welcome comments for how to expand and edit as I might try to publish a version (taking my own advice? You decide…)

Not another mentoring talk
My own feelings about mentoring – and the category of ECR – are at best ambivalent. Mentoring in the professional neoliberal workplace of is one of those classic words that can be used to invoke or simulate institutional benevolence when there is actually a waning of reciprocity in the employment relation. Whereas once academia resembled a vocation, with a clear model of apprenticeship that led to security and stability, this is no longer the reality we face. This is part of the post-Fordist shift in economic capital and employment that is moving from organizations to networks. The form of recognition encouraged by the current regime is less about accumulation and duration of service, and more about flexibility and productivity. Put simply: you are only as good as your last five years, or even, it seems, three years. You only need to look at what is happening at my own university to see how this can play out.

Mentoring also suggests an ongoing interest in the development of a career, the gradual realisation of your individual potential. It’s not enough to have gotten the job. No, landing the job is just the first step in a constant process of planning, assessing and maximizing “opportunities”. From now on, there will be little if any time to sit back and acknowledge your achievements, and yet part of what I want to suggest today is that you must fight for this time. And beware of people offering “opportunities”!

This is because the system is set up to make you feel that you are never doing enough, just as technology has accelerated the amount of things we are expected to be able to do. This results in us all feeling like we are constantly behind, always “catching up”. How many times do you hear yourself saying that to people: “we must catch up soon”. The “catch up” is one of the principal manifestations of our present ontological bearing. At work, it occurs in small and large ways, whether it is the sense of defeat you feel in “wasting” an hour deleting email or the failure you might feel at not seeing your colleagues regularly for coffee. But mostly it presents as a chronic low level internalized suspicion of incompetence, that there just isn’t enough time to do everything you need to do properly.

While it feels highly personal, these are in fact the routine affects of organisational life today. It is worth recognizing the extent to which they are also the principal conditions of your labour that you can control – that is, once you appreciate that there is no temporal or spatial limit to the networked information economy that employs you. The network, which is to say the office, which is to say work and the prospect of doing it, will always follow you home. So part of what we need to imagine collectively is the degree of compensation we want for that new reality, as well as strategies to cope with it.

But I want to approach this in a slightly different way by focusing on the often forgotten fact that the university needs you. There is plenty of discussion about the competitiveness of the job market right now and an impending war for talent resulting from difficulties overseas. But there, as here, the system as a whole can’t afford to lose you. The market for higher education in English speaking countries may be transforming, and in Australia reconfiguring, but on a global scale it is not declining (Marginson 2011). Locally, recent research puts the figure of sector wide job losses through retirement as high as 35% (Hugo 2008, in Bendix Petersen, 2011). Current studies of workforce patterns being conducted here at the University of Queensland continue to identify the large numbers of employed academics who regularly contemplate leaving the industry, whether annually, month to month, or on a weekly and daily basis (I for one certainly count myself in most of these categories). There is genuine concern and existing policy discourse that recognizes a “lost generation” of academics that may or may not be recoverable. And while there are obviously many more PhD graduates now than previous decades, what I think this calls for is a level of strategic complacency among entry level staff that is currently under-utilized.

By now you will have heard a lot about what you should be doing to get an academic career, and what to do once you’re on the cusp. You’ll have plenty of thoughts on the limitations of that formula. But the point at this stage is that you are all here; you’ve done something right to finish a PhD, or be hired, publish a book or win a grant. So now’s the time to make space to think about the kind of work you want to focus on doing more – and less – of. This involves identifying different styles of academic practice.

Expand your imagined audience
You can begin doing this by thinking about the audiences you want for your thinking and research. It’s tempting to think that the audience for your contribution is the reader, the person who happens to find your article or buy your book. This is only a very small audience. In relation to the multiple publics you address day to day, your readership may be the smallest. In teaching and research jobs, your audience includes your students (undergrad, postgrad) and your colleagues (department peers, committee colleagues, superiors). You probably engage in written communication daily with all of them – but do you count that writing as output? Do you count it as part of your intellectual project? If not, why not?

Here I’m trying to offer ways to think about scale: the audience for your work can have local, national, and international reach. It’s a continuum of interaction and it all matters. One nice email can change the course of a student’s day, even her year; but we tend to want to think that it is our scholarly papers that will change the world. Identifying the many audiences for your practice is an empowering thing.

Publishing: realistic outputs, actual numbers.
How many publications is enough? Homework: check your university’s minimum requirements for research output. Some of my closest colleagues with dozens of publications still think they haven’t done “enough”. Yet they have already published more than most Professors had at the same age. There is a self-punishing dimension to the productivity imperative that today’s PhD graduates have experienced. It has genuine effects on people’s sense of self-worth as well as damaging effects on the research being conducted.

What helps with planning your writing and pacing it? Counting each stage of writing. When you are considering submitting something for publication, or wrestling with the fantastic “opportunity” that’s been offered, take account of how much time it takes to write even a short academic article. I can think of this many steps, but there are more:

Planning the proposal, proposing, planning the writing, writing, rewriting, proof-reading, peer review, recovering from peer review, response to peer review, proof-reading, editing.

Double that for co-authorship (done well).

From what I’m told, writing is like having a baby. We have amnesia about how painful it is, because the end product is so amazing. To push the analogy: try to remember the pain, and that it can be very hard to make happen by force! Also think realistically about how much time you have free to write without interruption, at which times of the year. i.e. without teaching, without meetings, without someone waiting for you to come home for dinner.

Grants: motivations for them – different types – which one is right for you?
DECRA. Discovery. Collaboration. Linkage. Non-ARC (all external income counts). On ARCs, it’s a known secret that the best track record for an ARC is a previously funded ARC. But there are exceptions. Time spent working up a collaboration should be weighed against more time spent on your own writing (track record). Also against how much the focus will change. Assessors will reward something that’s coherent and distinctively yours. Assessors will also be wise to opportunism, and don’t necessarily favour seniors who are overcommitted. Again, be cautious about accepting “help” from mentors: what’s in it for you vs. them?

Teaching and service: making it work for your research goals.
• Course design and content – rarely will your teaching directly match your research. But even overview courses can help keep you in touch with the field (and you can turn lectures into writing outcomes too, eg. book reviews for peers, feedback to colleagues whose work you set, etc).
• Don’t give written lectures every week. Find alternative delivery modes (eg. radio, TV documentaries, student participation). This maintains your energy and encourages others to get involved in the course content/experience.
• Marking: Plan to have it happening regularly over the semester to avoid binges. Continuous assessment helps, eg. small tasks to mark in class or during consultation hours.
• Approach marking in relation to your workload. How much does your workload formula give you for marking? Preparation? Supervision? eg. Honours. Stick to it. Tell your students. Keep records.
• Committee work: inevitable, so try to find things relevant to your research. But don’t go every time. Every third meeting, perhaps. And not when it challenges a research deadline.

Offloading: Claiming time for research
Make time to plan what you want to do. Keep that time factored in to each week. Often we avoid scheduling research time because it’s not face to face – other people won’t notice if we don’t show up. Think of your research hours per week in the same way you do face to face teaching.
• Try to write for a short period every day rather than blocks and binges.
• Maximize the best part of the day. PRIME TIME! Tell others when you are writing so they learn to contact you later.
• Write lists. Try to distinguish between things that you must do, should do, or what would be nice to do. Have daily/weekly lists and don’t be hard on yourself if you need more time.
• Learn to say no, and when you do, say why, or suggest alternatives. Recommending other people for a job can save several people time – and help others.

Invoke strategic complacency
Academics, like other professionals, navigate a range of internally and externally imposed pressures to be productive – and to conclude I want to get you to start getting in the habit of asking: to what end? The model of worker that is rewarded today is that which is endlessly, limitlessly productive. The university will take everything from you if you let it. There are minimum performance levels but you’ll note that there are no maximums. You will rarely be told that you are publishing too much.

In universities today, it is also unlikely that you’ll meet anyone who doesn’t feel overworked. In this context, some of the strategies that can be most useful are discursive. To draw on some cultural studies terminology, you can use the hegemonic language – the commonsense of the university – to pursue counter-hegemonic goals. As academics, your goals are probably not even that radical: you want more time to read books and write. Have a weekend now and then. But it is increasingly obvious that these privileges, the ones that motivated many of us to join the profession in the first place, are unevenly distributed, particularly by age, race and gender. You need to understand that to be able to fight for it.

Replace productivity with strategic complacency. Use the discourse of productivity against itself. Start by using the language you hear routinely around you: “I’m just so busy”; “I can’t do it that day, today’s impossible”; “This week/month is crazy, I just can’t”. The best line I’ve ever been told to use is the simple: “I’m sorry, I’m fully committed”. If what people say is true, who will have the time to check what you’re actually doing? Take your own goals seriously, and set boundaries on doing more.

Setting up these strategies will help to see clearly the source for the multiple pressures you encounter – where they come from. Are they intrinsic (part of the make up of being an intellectual) or externally imposed? Are you just being polite when you don’t say no? Can you still be polite and excuse yourself from certain things?

Making time to organize and rationalize your time can mean you maximize the “good” parts of your job and make better decisions about minimizing what takes you away from them. This is also about developing some institutional nous. Learn whose job it is to take responsibility for things, who has the last say, so you don’t take on more responsibility than you will ever be recognized for.

P.S. The phrase “strategic complacency” is a hybrid term that is inspired by both the autonomist “refusal of work” tradition, and some very sound advice offered by my colleague, Chris Gibson, at the State of the Industry conference in 2009. In the closing session of day one, Chris urged us to exercise some “institutional irresponsibility” as an appropriate response to the more ludicrous conditions of our labour. This post is an attempt to bring these different influences to bear.

Simon Marginson (2011) ‘It’s a long way down: The underlying tensions in the education export industry’, Australian Universities’ Review, 53 (2): 21-33.

Evea Bendix Petersen (2011) ‘Staying or going? Australian early career researchers’ narratives of academic work, exit options and coping strategies’ Australian Universities’ Review, 53 (2): 34-42.


17 Responses to “In praise of strategic complacency”

  1. Ann
    April 15th, 2012 @ 11:12 pm

    This is the best piece of common sense framed in sophisticated, mature, logical language that I have reD in years. This also applies to the arts where there is excessive pressure to produce eternally more with fewer and fewer resources.

  2. glen
    April 16th, 2012 @ 11:02 am

    The ontology of ‘opportunity’ is fascinating.

  3. Ben Eltham
    April 16th, 2012 @ 12:48 pm

    Graeme Turner has some interesting things to say along these lines in terms of the practice of academia in his new book on What’s Become of Cultural Studies. But I’m sure you’re all over that

  4. Jason
    April 16th, 2012 @ 1:31 pm

    Lovely post. One thing on the teaching front that I have been thinking about is thinking of it in a more curatorial way. My position is in a journalism and communications discipline, teaching a lot of Political Communications units, so there’s a kind of imperative to get industry folks in. That said, I think that trying to open up units, get outside people in, and thinking about the unit as a platform rather than as a hole that you personally need ot fill with content is useful. Having a number of guest lecturers throughout the semester helps you workload wise, but also the students (who in my experience just love the range of perspectives they encounter), the guests (who get various kinds of value and satisfaction out of it) the university, and the sector as a whole. When the question looming over higher ed as a result of technological change is “what is your’value-add’” for students able to access learning in a number of ways, perhaps the answer is the networks and the range of speakers you can bring students into contact with. Just one idea, anyway.

  5. ana australiana
    April 16th, 2012 @ 3:50 pm

    That all sounds like very wise thinking – and more embedded in the reality of ECR life than some other advice might be!

    I would expect that one of the benefits of the approach you describe could also be: being able to take responsibility for the casuals you might employ (and you probably will if you’re an ECR with a job, or at least feel the pressure to do so b/c of the other demands on your time, perceived or otherwise) – for considering whether you actually need their labour, etc; whether you will have time to supervise them and brief them; and also ensuring (personally or with recourse to the appropriate person/department) that they are contracted on paid on time and appropriately, etc. Given that many ECRs will have spent time as a casual this is particularly poignant!

  6. MC
    April 16th, 2012 @ 7:36 pm

    Thanks, all. It’s like old times around here.

    Ben, you picked it – I wrote most of this just a few days after finishing GT’s book, which left me feeling both sad and recklessly motivated:

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  9. Kate
    April 21st, 2012 @ 6:54 pm

    This is all such good advice, things being as they are in Australian higher education, and I was with you right up to the end.

    But I’m snagged on “strategic complacency”: both ends of it worry me. I think what CG had in mind in 2009 is a little different from refusal of work, and I worried about it then; “just say no” is a recommendation at the scale of the individual that won’t bring about structural change, it just shuffles the problems around.

    My thought is that we can be even more strategic in protecting our time and meeting our own goals when we work together, and make the reclaiming of time for everyone a shared incentive. Obviously, this would mean forgoing the delights of internal competition for a moment … but I think we can do it.

    Call it tactical syndicalism ;)

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  12. melgregg
    April 24th, 2012 @ 5:08 pm

    Hi Kate, I hope you’re right, and it is great to hear these words. I guess I do find it hard to imagine syndicalism of any kind writing day after day from an empty hallway, which is of course one of the reasons why I blog. There is a particular form of togetherness that people are finding online, as blogs, Twitter and Facebook all show. But I have to say that my experience has been the reclaiming of time has a complicated relationship to togetherness – that it can be very difficult in group situations at work to refuse certain impositions that are themselves couched in the language of togetherness – teamwork culture, etc. And I think this is what manifests as a desire for withdrawal from the physical spaces of work, partly out of exhaustion, and the sense of overload that face to face communication now seems to involve. But I digress! That’s another blogpost altogether, I think…

  13. ana australiana
    April 25th, 2012 @ 9:49 am

    I think you’ve just described why I avoid(ed) conferences, seminars and Friday night drinks!

    It’s as though collectivity is exhausted before it can come into being as something that might intervene in exhaustion….hmmm!

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  15. Anne Galloway
    May 14th, 2012 @ 3:22 pm

    Thanks for this Mel! I’ve posted a few thoughts on my blog – please excuse the large excerpts from your piece – but really just wanted to highlight how I see De Certeau’s tactics at work here and that fills me with hope and joy ;)

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