BETWEEN AND BETWIXT: EXPERIENCES OF ACADEMIC PRECARITY AND RESISTANCE DURING COVID-19 PANDEMIC
1University of Glasgow, United Kingdom; 2University of Nottingham, United Kingdom
This paper reflects on our joint gendered experience of precarity in UK Higher Education; a conversation that started during the pandemic as a means of negotiating a joint sense of liminality and disorientation during this period. Academic precariousness impacts women specifically (Zhang, 2018), and through an auto-ethnographic exploration, we argue that we find ourselves constantly betwixt and between in terms of working conditions, career development and research, and this has been exacerbated during the pandemic. Our experiences of liminality are inextricably linked to time, the nature of which shifted during the health crisis. For precarious academics, time is always in short supply. The increased pressure to publish and to develop means that even though research takes time, the desire to take this time is often in direct competition with the ‘publish or perish’ conditions of neoliberal universities (Mountz et al, 2015). Furthermore, precarious academics often experience time running away from them, with a constant feeling that they are running out of time. This is especially so as precarity is often long lasting rather than short term, and a source of anxiety for most early career academics. The pandemic has further intensified this experience of liminality and anxiety for us. Moreover, there has been the imperative that the pandemic, and especially the lockdown, should be seen as a fertile time for research, or for catching up whilst for many academics on fixed term contracts it has also been a time of great uncertainty. Our analysis, therefore, focuses on our experiences of being between and betwixt as women academics, our positionality in the academic field, our strategies, our moments of failure and resistance as well as the strategies have developed against precariousness during the pandemic. It is our view that in order to build effective strategies to support precarious academics we need to understand the impact that the timeframes imposed by academia have. We, therefore, view precarity as a liminal space in which exploitation and resistance coexist. In the context of COVID we will discuss how increasing acceptance of remote working has led to increased networks of support and accessibility. Finally, we place our discussion of precarity in academia within the wider phenomena of precariousness within capitalist societies and the rise of the ‘attention economy’ (Odell, 2020), where, as in academia, time is linked to productive activity.
THE GENDERED CONSTRUCTION OF EXCELLENCE IN ACADEMIA: AN EXPLORATIVE ANALYSIS BETWEEN DIFFERENT DISCIPLINES AND CAREER STAGES
1University of Trento, Italy; 2University of Torino, Italy
Over the last decades, many countries, including Italy, have implemented higher education reforms to enhance universities’ efficiency, effectiveness and performance. This neo-liberal turn, theoretically classified under the concept of New Public Management, has transformed the academic organizational culture with the institutionalization of temporary contracts, the centrality of performance, competition, pressure to publish, and search for funding (Murgia and Poggio, 2019; Ivancheva et al., 2019). The excellence, understood as neutral and quantifiable, is the mainstay of this new organizational culture, and its standard serves as a benchmark for academic evaluation and promotion (Van den Brink and Benschop, 2012). It is defined mainly by scientific productivity, in terms of number of publications, citations, patents and licenses, the amount of funding and the extent and internationalization of research networks.
The literature on the gender inequalities in the academic contexts has highlighted how the focus on the excellence has important and negative consequences on work-family reconciliation and individual life projects, especially for women (Rafnsdóttir and Heijstra, 2013; Weisshaar, 2017), who still have the greatest care responsibilities, particularly in Italy where the availability of childcare facilities is poor (Naldini and Saraceno, 2011). Moreover, women are more often than their male counterpart involved in administrative or service tasks (Guarino and Borden, 2017; Lynch et al., 2020) – the so-called “academic housework” (Heijstra et al., 2017a; 2017b) – that are activities not measurable in terms of scientific productivity and not included in the evaluations for career advancements.
Our abstract aims, on one side, at enlightening the criteria and discourses used to construct academic excellence, how these are embedded in organizational cultures and their gender implications; on the other, at exploring the practices of reproduction or resistance to this model enacted by precarious researchers. To answer these research questions, we will conduct a preliminary content analysis on 30 semi-structured interviews with early career researchers and advanced career professors working both in STEMM and SSH Departments in Northern Italy. The interviews are part of the wider research project of relevant national interest (Progetto di Rilevante Interesse Nazionale – PRIN) “GeA – Gendering Academia” that involves four Italian Universities and aims at exploring gender inequalities in academic careers.
The relevance of the topic lies in two aspects. First, excellence is a widespread concept that has been rarely analyzed in Italy through a gender lens by comparing STEMM and SSH criteria. Second, the effects of the adherence to the model of excellence on gendered lives, in different stages of the career, remains a neglected field of study.
From a preliminary analysis, it emerges that the rhetoric of impartial merit and of academic excellence permeates academic work and that the criteria used to construct excellence do not differ substantially between STEMMs and SSHs. Indeed, the number of publications and citations, and internationalization are the most explicit characteristics mentioned in defining an excellent scholar. All these elements have different implications for men and women, but also for academics in early and advanced positions and their possibilities to negotiate their adhesion to this model.
BECOMING SLOW IN ACADEMIC LIFE. WHY GOING DOWN THIS ROAD?
1University of Padua, Italy; 2Macquarie University, Australia
The academic work, especially research output which is readily quantified, is increasingly subject to the measurement of defined metrics (e.g. specific annual targets for research funding, number of publications and citations, grant income) .The path that research has taken in the last ten years is that of being in all fields only functional to a scientific production and that one wants to be competitive on an international market, which pushes towards the standardization of products, the parameterization and the affirmation of purely quantitative evaluation systems risks, in our opinion, to erode spaces of originality and freedom of thought, to impoverish training processes and to inhibit the production of innovation, which has always been the result of variety, plurality and accidental encounters. On the contrary, the academic profession requires slowness to produce valid and reliable scientific knowledge, but, at the same time, it requires to be to the top of every academic metrics/rates and it’s imply to work incessantly.For women pursuing careers in academic science, the pandemic has imperilled many. Not only are we deal with lost childcare and other family supports but we also continue to face long-standing inequalities and structural barriers within academia. Those processes tend to exacerbate and create new forms of gendered inequalities for Early Career Researchers, first and foremost women – that have been magnified by the COVID-19 crisis. In this scenario, we find a need amid acceleration and cooling down processes to slow –things –down. In this thought-provoking proposal we explore some effects of neoliberalism in the early career stages and we propose a collective form of resistance: strategies to work together to slow down as part of challenging the growing gender inequalities in higher education. Slow academic approach could open up the possibility of practising a certain dissent within the university itself, of having divergent thoughts — and practices — and of making the university a place for sustainable living. Slow academia should not be individual, it requires collective institutional and sectoral focus on the politics and cultures of higher education. The acceleration of academic work is a systemic problem that requires collective work to change to the structure and organisation of higher education.
Berg, M., & Seeber, B. K. (2016). The slow professor: Challenging the culture of speed in the academy. University of Toronto Press.
Gewin V. (2020), The career cost of COVID-19 to female researchers, and how science should respond, Nature 583, 867-869 (2020), doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-020-02183-x
Eurodoc, The European Council of Doctoral Candidates and Junior Researchers, The aftermath of the pandemic for early career researchers in Europe, http://eurodoc.net/news/2020/the-aftermath-of-the-pandemic-for-early-career-researchers-in-europe
Mountz, A., Bonds, A., Mansfield, B., Loyd, J., Hyndman, J., Walton-Roberts, M., ... & Curran, W. (2015). For slow scholarship: A feminist politics of resistance through collective action in the neoliberal university. ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies, 14(4), 1235-1259.
Smyth, J., Smyth, & Christie. (2017). Toxic University. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Stensaker, B., Langfeldt, L., Harvey, L., Huisman, J., & Westerheijden, D. (2011). An in‐depth study on the impact of external quality assurance. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 36(4), 465-478.
ACADEMIC WORK DURING THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC IN ITALY. STRUCTURAL FACTORS AND THE REDEFINITION OF SPATIAL, TIME AND RELATIONAL BOUNDARIES
University of Milan-Bicocca, Italy
The pandemic represents a turning point which affects the micro‐politics of managing productive, reproductive and social life in our new everyday lives. In this paper, we make a contribution to the recent and growing scientific debate by exploring academic researchers’ processes of construction and de-construction of spatial, temporal and relational boundaries that take place in the pandemic work-life stay-at-home style. Particular attention is paid to some macro-structural drivers of work and family life, specifically to the role of gender and class, as well as to the organizational culture of the neoliberal university. We chose an exploratory, qualitative, non-directive methodology in order to grasp the permeability between the public/private and the work/life spheres. The empirical material consists of in-depth narrative video-interviews conducted online with Italian early career researchers and images collected through the native image making technique.
PH.D. RESEARCHERS ENGAGING WITH ACADEMIA: FOUR GENERATIVE METAPHORS
"Sapienza" University of Rome, Italy
CECILIA: All right, the paper’s done. We’re almost finished now. All we need is the abstract.
LEONARDO: Yes. Thank goodness. Let’s get to it. Just a few words – well-chosen, and bold. Let’s not spoil the whole thing though, okay?
CECILIA: Yeah. Let’s make it as bizarre as the rest. After all, an abstract’s like a movie trailer, isn’t it?
LEONARDO: Indeed. Okay. Let’s begin.
An awkward silence falls between CECILIA and LEONARDO.
CECILIA: Okay. Look, let’s make it, like, standard, okay? I don’t really feel like working today. I don’t even have a proper employment.
LEONARDO: You’re right. I’m with you. Let’s make it quick.
A few minutes later…
CECILIA: Okay, that was easy. Let’s reread it for a second:
The doctorate is a critical stage in the lives of subjects and institutions. In this paper, a post-qualitative approach has been used along with metaphorical thinking and 7 interviews with PhD researchers in order to explore this crucial threshold moment. In particular, four types of engagement have been singled out through which doctoral researchers engage academia: i) a first one in which they describe themself as chosen ones accessing the sacred place of knowledge production; ii) a second in which they learn to play the ‘game’ of that knowledge; iii) another in which they engage academia as an endlessly-present safe haven; iv) a last one in which they feel trapped and crushed in an imponderable and irresistible doom. Finally, a further transformative and critical engagement of PhD students with academia has been envisioned based on reflexivity and participation as tools for transforming academia.
LEONARDO: Quite extraordinary. Let’s submit it.