Learning to labour

Posted on | August 1, 2010 | 2 Comments

To anyone who might be interested, there is a brief summary of last year’s State of the Industry conference in this month’s NTEU Advocate. I have no idea how many readers of this blog are union members, and it’s debatable whether the conference would have generated more applications to join, so I thought it might be worth pointing out. Thanks to Jen Kwok for asking me to write something (in lieu of what would have been a far more depressing report about HASS on the Hill last year…)

Chris’s comment prompts me to write a little more about academic labour in the lead up to the anniversary of this event. A number of people have been asking my advice about postdoctoral fellowships at Sydney, and I have been quite honest in offering caution to those thinking of applying. Increasingly I don’t subscribe to the view that smart people should spend untold hours writing proposals for grants with an insanely small success rate, just as I don’t ever want to contribute to delusional ideas about open fields for applications. In the current operating environment, universities only favour particular kinds of work. As one of my correspondents put it – showing a ruthless pragmatism that is itself symptomatic of the state of the industry – there is much to be said for minimising the pyschological damage in desiring opportunities that are actually “out of reach for all sorts of inscrutable reasons”.

I was reminded of this when reading Nina Power’s article, Axiomatic Equality: Rancière and the politics of contemporary education (thanks to edu-factory for the link). Amidst her elegant reading of Rancière, Jacotot, Bourdieu, and others, comes this insight on the British system:

The supposedly elite institutions are still there at the top, the old-boys and girls networks still churning out elite fodder for the same kinds of jobs – politics, diplomacy, high-end culture industry work, etc. At the same time, the expansion of higher education and the re-branding of ex-Polytechnics as universities in the UK has created a situation in which no one need be excluded. It is no longer a question of keeping them out, but of ensuring they go where they are supposed to.

This relates to some other articles I was sifting through this afternoon, which add to Power’s observations about the economic changes affecting university life:

fees have created a kind of split-subject of the university: the “client” who pays for a service and yet is still a subject “supposed to be criticized” or even failed. Endless feedback forms, along the lines of customer satisfaction surveys, entail that students are supposed to know how well that which they don’t yet know is being conveyed. We could call this “the subject supposed to know how it will know what it doesn’t yet know.”

It’s 18 months since I started working full time at the University of Sydney, and 12 months since I began a teaching position. Power’s article, and the further sources I’ve been mulling over the past few hours, slightly minimise my shock – still fresh from a staff meeting announcement on Friday – that my university is now embarking on a cost-benefit analysis of its units. This audit, which asks staff to tally the amount of preparation time for courses offered in 2008, will have who knows what consequences. But it’s another example of the forms of value currently dominant where I work.

This week I have been asked to present at a “Career Planning” workshop for “Early Career Researchers”, which will involve me speaking for 10 minutes about my “career pathway” to a room of my peers. I’m the person speaking as an example of the Postdoc to Tenure path, I suppose; the other two speakers will talk about the challenges of taking on administrative roles immediately post-PhD (X became Chair of his department upon submission of his thesis) and entering academia as a career change following other professional experience (Y was a journo and came to Sydney from a more teaching-intensive university).

The mere fact that this kind of session is conceived – as part of a package of “Learning Solutions” for personal and professional challenges – is a sign that Sydney is a leading university. Career training sessions, indeed the ongoing fantasy that one might have the luxury of planning a career, comes straight out of the management textbook. Yet it’s a major incentive to join the competitive queue to enter research active universities, even when the reality of the training sessions may counteract the intent.

The irony that will need to be downplayed on Friday is that given the competition for Go8 jobs, Sydney University ECRs are already likely to have shown more career productivity than many non-metro “MCRs” and even Professors. For me, this was one of the stand-out lessons from the State of the Industry conference. What we’re dealing with is as much a geographical divide as a generational one.

Well, I’ll report back on the session later in the week.


2 Responses to “Learning to labour”

  1. ana australiana
    August 2nd, 2010 @ 9:28 am

    Thankyou for this! As ever! You’ve crystallised the structure of feeling for many folks contemplating labours going out from the PhD.

    I’m often confused by the difference between what I might want to do with the qualification (as a marker of a whole bunch of things), what I am supposed to want (and all the things I should do in order to possibly-maybe-if-I’m-good-enough make that happen) and what I need to do in order to have enough money to live and enough time to do the things that I believe in.


  2. Tips from an ECR survivor : home cooked theory
    August 19th, 2010 @ 2:22 pm

    […] promised to report back on the career pathways discussion but I got distracted. One reason is that straight after the talk that Friday I went to […]

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