Tuesday, August 11, 2020

To Win the Academic Hunger Games Don't Play by the Rules

In Rich academic, poor academic? Making an academic living in Covid times (5 August 2020), Dr Inger Mewburn, The Thesis Whisperer, discusses how to craft a career in higher education. With dark humor Dr Mewburn characterizes the challenges of working in the university sector as being the Academic Hunger Games. Many academics are working casual rates, or short contracts, and research work dependent on getting the next grant in competition with their peers. This is at a time when several universities have been found to have systematically underpaid academics for decades and some engaged in unconscionable practices, such as allowing only three minutes to mark an assignment. 

Dr Mewburn points to increased numbers of students without corresponding increases in staff to teach them, due to inadequate public funding. She then discusses what the individual can do: leave academia, supplement income with ‘non-academic’ sources, have a mission focus, provide free material online to promote yourself and be cautious "side hustles" don't damage your reputation.

This is all good advice, but I suggest academics can take a lesson from the Hunger Games by working with their students to reform the system. In The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins, 2008) a dictatorship selects children at random to be trained to fight each other to the death: the one remaining wins. But a small group of contestants, and their teachers, decide to work together to change this and ultimately come out alive. I don't suggest firing flaming arrows at the chancellery, but teachers can help students to be better equipped for academia, and by doing so improve conditions for everyone.

The first way teachers can help their students is by equipping them with skills, knowledge and qualifications suitable for a career outside academia. Otherwise Dr Mewbur's first option: leave academia may not be possible. Only after equipping themselves to work in industry, should students be encouraged to consider additional studies for academia.

To be able to promote themselves, have a focus, and not be burnt by side hustles, I suggest students should be encouraged (or required), to undertake entrepreneurial training. If students aspire to a career in academia they will have to develop entrepreneurial skills of working out what the customer (grant bodies) want, and promoting a product (themselves and their project) to obtain funds. They also need to learn to work cooperatively with others, while looking after their own individual interests.

Also students who aspire to work in academia need to learn to cope with the inevitable failure of most of their projects. Most research proposals are not funded, not because of a lack of funds, but because this is a competitive process. Of those few projects funded, most do not produce a significant result. In the start-up world, entrepreneurs are trained to cope with repeated failure, and to try to turn it to their advantage with techniques such as pivoting

Teachers should also encourage (or require) students who aspire to academia to learn to teach. Teaching is not just giving lectures (in fact this is the least useful form of teaching). It includes how to estimate the resources required to design a course, deliver it and assess students. Along with the entrepreneurial training, this will lessen the risk of falling into the trap of being overloaded with students and assessment. When presented with an offer to teach, the properly trained educator can work if the hours and remuneration offered are adequate. If not, they can propose an alternative, such as different teaching and assessment, present a credible proposal for more resources, or confidently decline the offer, falling back on their in-demand skills outside academia.

This is not to say that efforts should not be made to lobby for increased funding for research and education at universities. Or that the wrongs done, particularly to early career academics, should not be righted. As well as financial compensation to victims of wage theft, senior university executives should be investigated to see if they should be dismissed for improper conduct, and charged with a crime. However, it is not within the power of individual academics to ensure that increased funding, or legal remedies, happen. Academics who are teaching students can, through their own efforts, provide an education which prepares their students for the competitive world in, and outside, academia.

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