Tag Archives: academia

The best academics

26 Oct

The best academics are the most generous. I have been in this ‘game’ for a long time. I have known a lot of academics types: the fragile (everywhere), the bullies (mainly York), the egotists (everywhere), the shockingly dull and boring (everywhere, but north America is over-blessed with them), the management drones (sadly an increasing bunch), the lazy (everywhere, seriously), and the out-of-their depth.

I am also privileged to know (and to have known) lots of extraordinarily talented academics – those that are effortlessly coherent on a conference panel, those who write with such fluency that I think of great literature (a few even write as clearly as EM Forster), or those that have read so widely that I think they must never sleep. These academics drive us on – they inject our debates with ideas and concepts that make us think. Even those academics whose arguments/interpretations I disagree with do us wonderful service in stimulating debate and causing constructive controversy.

But, by far, the best sorts of academics are the most generous. By generous I mean those who devote time and enthusiasm for others. That is not always easy. We all have our own concerns and think that our own time and our own research agendas are the most important things in the world. The political economy of academia gives no rewards whatsoever in taking an interest in the professional welfare of others.

Looking back over my career (and I hope I have a couple more decades to go!), I can think of many academics who have been encouraging, sympathetic, humane and personable. I can think of very many who have not. I will concentrate on the former category and I will mention names – quite simply because they deserve it, and I hope I do not embarrass anyone.

So, many years ago when I was PhD student (perhaps the loneliest station in life) I remember walking along the Politics Department corridor at Queens in Belfast and Elizabeth Meehan saying ‘hello’ to me. Every time we met she asked how I was and how my work was going. She was not my PhD supervisor, but she took a genuine interest in students. She probably did not realise it, but her interest was invaluable. She made me feel that it was worth it. And then there was David Denver. I was a rookie lecturer at Lancaster (and had the office next to his) and I remember going to a conference with him at Salford University. David – a senior professor – sat directly in front of the podium as a series of grad students gave papers on electoral studies (his specialist subject). It was nerve-wracking for them. But David had words of encouragement for all of them. “Well Done” or “Absolutely” he would say as they gave their papers. I contrast this with the cat torturing mouse dissection of grad student papers that I have seen by other senior academics (who clearly have enormous insecurities that they take out on junior academics). I could names here – many of them are at the top of their game and have no need to be so gratuitous.

And then I remember Andy Williams who came up to York to give a paper when I was a lecturer there. On the morning after his paper I stumbled across him having a bacon sandwich in the college café. There began a friendship and academic partnership. He showed me that it was possible to be an academic and to be (reasonably!) normal. We talked about family histories and how we are a small part of a large machine. The personal is the historical and the political – a really important lesson.

I cannot help but mention John Darby, who gave me my first job. John was a truly inspirational figure (and cannot be discussed in isolation from Marie, his wife). John was a real leader in the field of peace and conflict studies. I was privileged to work with him. One of his many great qualities (apart from his fantastically dry sense of humour – believe me, he cut me down to size every day) was that he did not lavish praise. If you did a good job he would praise it. But if you did a mediocre job he did not. I learned a lot from that.

I also remember an ISA panel in … I forget which city. David Chandler was the chair/discussant on a panel comprised of PhD students. Rather than show off his genius, he took the opportunity to reflect seriously on the papers that had been given. He was genuine in his praise but gave useful critiques of their papers. He could have simply sat back and been a time-keeper, but he chose to be supporter of grad students.

And I remember the very many internal and external examiners I have worked with on PhD vivas. They worked hard to keep students calm and focussed. Vivienne Jabri gave a master-class – a really tough examination but fair and humane. But Roger Zetter, Roberto Belloni and many others showed how to be tough but fair.

We work in an industry in which peer praise is rare (I nearly fell off my chair recently when I received – unsolicited –an email from another academic praising me for a review article I had written). The main currency in contemporary academia is critique: that interpretation is wrong, that conceptualisation is too shallow, that view is a-historical; you have not read enough. Frankly, much of the literature is a whinge “this is wrong, that is wrong”. Obviously we need critique. But I look back and I think we need more encouragement too. We need mentors and encouragers. We need the sage words of wisdom that I was not bright enough to appreciate (Adrian Leftwich, John Darby), we need the inspirational teachers (Frank Wright, Mick Cox), we need the subtle mentors who are too good to give overt advice (Neil Carter, John Anderson), the good chat over the nice pint (or beverage of their choice) (Jim McAuley, Marie Zoelle Zahar, Aaron Edwards, Marie Breen-Smith, Tim Jacoby, Kris Brown, Alp Ozerdem, Landon Hancock, Jon Tonge, Richard English and loads of others), more junior scholars who show us how it is done (Stefanie Kappler, Birte Vogel, Sukanya Podder, Chrissie Steenkamp, Helen Basini, Gezim Vizoka, Laura McLeod and Walt Kilroy (who I hope are not offended by being called “junior”)), the collaborators that really stretch how I think but make allowances for my sloppiness (Oliver Richmond, Pamina Firchow, Alp Ozerdem, Roisin Read, Sandra Pogodda, Madhav Joshi, SungYong Lee, Roddy Brett, Jen Peterson, Birte Vogel), the people I know in person shallowly but are encouraged through their Facebook posts (Kevin Clements, Richard Jackson, Sherrill Stroschein, Lyndsey Harris and many, many more); the huge number of MA students I have taught and are inspired by their work for the UN, INGOs and NGOs; and – of course – those outside of academia that remind me that academics rarely have the answers. Mrs Mac Ginty works very hard to keep me grounded (though ‘floored’ might be a more accurate term). Everyone needs a Mrs Mac Ginty.

I do not claim to be the most encouraging or humane academic out there. I try, but often I am tired, distracted, and (I am sorry to say) not terribly interested. But I do look back and think of all the academics I have met and think: how un-encouraging most (yes, most!) of them have been. I remember at Lancaster as a new lecturer and thinking how spectacularly unfriendly most of my new colleagues were. Surely we can all do better. We do so little to encourage, celebrate, and champion others.

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ISA needs a Fringe

26 Aug

For the past fifty-seven years, Edinburgh has staged an International Arts Festival during August. It is an incredibly well attended and organized spectacle involving theatre, ballet, music, lectures and much more. Edinburgh also plays host to a ‘Fringe Festival’. The Fringe developed as a reaction to the high culture and perceived exclusive nature of the main International Arts Festival. It began as something more irreverent, accessible and less high-brow. Now the Fringe is much larger than the original Festival. It tends to be younger, more edgy and experimental. It attracts big names (mostly comedians) but also lots of amateur theatre companies, wannabe comedians, artists and many more. Both festivals operate simultaneously giving the city a wonderful atmosphere – even in the usual rain. Thousands of talented (and not so talented) people throng the streets in search of entertainment.

Edinburgh’s Festival and its Fringe Festival got me thinking about the annual ISA (International Studies Association) convention. This is the largest international relations academic conference in the world. It is held in the spring of every year and attracts about 6,000 academics (and a few policy makers). Papers are given from 08:15 in the morning until 18:30. There are so many people giving papers that about forty panels sit simultaneously. The ISA annual convention is always held in a North American city. It is always held in a Hilton Hotel. These Hilton Hotels are specifically designed to cater for mega-conferences. There are only a few of them large enough to house the ISA convention. The ISA is always headquartered at a United States university (despite the ‘international’ in the title).

There is much good about ISA. It is an opportunity to meet up with professional acquaintances, to meet with publishers, to network, and to listen to (hopefully) interesting papers. It is also usually well run: the IT works, the conference rooms are clean; friendly staff are on hand. But there is something leaden and dull about a mega-conference tied to a hotel chain and steeped in a corporate environment. The muzak in the lifts, the Starbucks concession stands, the look-alike art on the walls, fact that all the cleaning staff (and many of the catering staff) are from ethnic minorities while most conference goers are white, the stale air, the windowless conference rooms … the whole corporate conference package.

The sheer size of the conference means that ISA tends to take over a district of a city. In every coffee shop, restaurant and bar for a mile radius you will spot people lugging around the telephone directory style convention programme and adorned with an ISA name badge. So the convention is not restricted to Hilton, although all formal events (plenary sessions, panels, receptions, workshops, exhibition by publishers, business meetings and trainings) tend to take place in the conference headquarters. Despite the huge number of delegates, the convention has virtually no connection with the life of the host city. Delegates fly in and fly out. They frequent bars, restaurants and taxis, but that is about it.

The corporate nature of the convention is reflected – to some extent – in the often leaden nature of the convention proceedings. Formulaic papers, the uniform of chinos and blue shirts for men, panels taking the same format, the emphasis – in many sessions – on transmit rather than receive … it becomes any conference, anywhere and in any place (as long as it is a Hilton Hotel).

In thinking about how to inject some life into ISA I thought of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Here the performers take to the city streets. They hand out flyers for their shows and make a lot of noise – giving the city the feel of a festival. Such is the pressure to find space to perform that plays are often staged in the attic rooms of pubs, concerts in school or university buildings, and comedians stage walking shows through the streets. Events often attract tiny audiences (just like ISA) but there is immense variety, fun, and energy.
ISA needs a Fringe. It needs to get out of the corporatized hotel environment and interact with the NGOs of the city, to have a greater variety of presentation formats, to celebrate the food, music and story of the host city. Wouldn’t it be great if, as we walked towards the convention venue, local people (NGO representatives, city officials) and activists (from INGOs) were pressing leaflets in our hands, asking us to come to their workshops or to read their latest report? Wouldn’t it be great if ISA was relevant to the concerns of the host city (as well as the normal academic themes)? Wouldn’t it be great if we could stage events (like teach ins) in city squares (weather permitting)?

Otherwise we fly in, give a paper and leave.

Bullying in Academia

17 Mar

If you get it right, a career in academia offers all sorts of advantages:
– immense autonomy on how you manage your time;
– the opportunity to work on precisely the topics that stimulate you intellectually;
– the opportunity to travel to weird and wonderful places, and to work collaboratively with scholars and others from fascinating backgrounds;
– the opportunity to work with students who stretch your mind and inspire you.
Put simply, if your luck is in, you can be paid to read and talk about the things that interest you. There are, of course, many drawbacks to an academic career. The salaries are not always appealing. A recent Financial Times article called academics ‘cling ons’ – desperately trying to cling onto their middle class status as their salaries are eroded in comparison with other professions. There is also the drudgery associated with work (namely marking) and the creeping and insidious way in which bureaucrats and spreadsheets have taken over universities to the detriment of teaching, research, and ideas. In general though, it can be an enviable career.
One major drawback though, and one that is not discussed as often as it should be, is bullying. This usually takes the form of senior academics wielding power over their more junior colleagues. Most universities have state-of-the-art anti-bullying charters, but bullying still goes on. In fact, it is often hardwired into the organization and culture of universities.
The key to the whole issue is power. Usually, junior academics are in highly dependent positions. They need to stay ‘on side’ with their senior colleagues in order to remain in a job, or to progress in terms of promotion or access to resources. I can talk with some experience on this subject because I was worked in a department where bullying was rife (I am happy to say that it was not St Andrews or the University of Ulster). Some senior academics in the department had their own fiefdoms and academic staff who they saw not as colleagues, but as chattel. The University management saw the senior academics as ‘successful’ as they variously brought in money or were prominent in their research fields. So the University had little incentive to rock the boat by investigating claims of bullying. The Head of Department was weak. And, most of all, the victims of the bullying were reliant on the senior academics to stay in a job, earn promotion or avoid being ‘punished’ by teaching and administrative loads that would render them research inactive.
The bullying was abetted by a culture of secrecy in which decisions were taken among cliques. Discussion, even at Departmental meetings, was frowned upon. The bullies usually had been at the University for well over a decade and so knew everyone in the senior administration. As a result, the bullied felt that their chances of successfully taking a formal case against the bullies were slim. The bullies also had a technique of presenting themselves as the voice of the University, implying that their outlook was in accordance with that of the University. The cards were heavily stacked against the bullied.
The single biggest regret in my career (so far) is that I did not directly take on the bullies. I was not the direct victim of bullying but I saw it go on to colleagues. The psychological and self-esteem costs to the bullied were enormous. Everyone knew about it, and it was discussed in hushed tones. To my shame, I did not intervene. I too was trapped in a situation in which I wanted promotion and other ‘favours’ – crumbs that would be dropped from the table of the bullies. As I look back, I see that the bullies were incredibly vain and insecure individuals who used the bullying as a way of feeling in control. Often they were single dimension people, with little going on their lives apart from work.
There are three things that we can do about workplace bullying in universities. Firstly, we should call bullying by its name. It is not ‘mentorship’, ‘leadership’, ‘the rules of the game’, ‘the way it is’, or ‘that’s just the way XXXX operates, you gotta go with it’. It is bullying. There are plenty of excellent mentors out there who do not resort to silly mind games and who are generous enough to encourage rather than thwart more junior colleagues. Second, we should talk about bullying much more often. Weirdly, there is a stigma attached to being bullied. A chief aim in academia is to maximize one’s own autonomy over research agendas, time and budgets. To be seen as bullied is to be seen as being ‘a loser’ – as someone incapable of maximizing autonomy. Thirdly, we need to think seriously about the working cultures that are being developed. Whether it is the tenure-track system in the US or the research census in the UK, we are creating and validating systems that allow powerholders to flex power over junior colleagues. Often these are deeply flawed individuals who are in positions of power not because of their people skills, but because they were good at playing the game. Universities need to seriously look at their management processes that reward managers of budgets or stewards of arcane university rules but penalize good managers of people.
Bullying often occurs at a key moment of the junior academic’s career. It is precisely the post-PhD time that they should be flourishing, pursuing their own ideas and cutting a path through innovative publication and research. Instead, bullying (whether directly towards them or indirectly occurring to others) encourages conformity, silence, obedience and a lack of creativity.