Tag Archives: Amazon

Resist, Insist, Persist

One of the things I miss about my life in a university is the recommended reflective feedback sessions with my managers after each staff development training. I’m sure they don’t feel the same. But to continue the habit of a lifetime – and with very sincere gratitude – I want to thank everyone who read this piece I wrote in the Times Higher (2nd March 2017)  Thanks especially to those who commented, retweeted, quoted, DM-ed, emailed or hollered. Reactions fell into largely three categories: congratulation, commiseration and corroboration.

First the congratulations, and there were some lovely QTs which featured adjectives like inspirational, insightful, courageous, powerful, excoriating, remarkable, brilliant. These all made me blush, but these linguistic judgments of esteem and veracity fuelled me with more determination to keep writing.

From the US, a Professor Emerita wrote: “It’s very interesting to read the comments of many here, who speculate on how to rebuild or create a better system, and whether or not that is possible. With such minds as I see among you and your friends, dear Liz, there seems to be a great deal of possibility–and it’s exciting to imagine what very different ways of learning you may bring into being in the coming years”.

From a fellow blogger with a keen critique of university policy and implementation:  “You’ve become a lodestone for us all as an example of the ethic of academia, and how difficult it’s becoming to behave ethical in the current structures. You’ve helped me personally and intellectually Liz – I hope there’s a lot more to come”.

Other colleagues offered commiseration and expressed their own sense of disenchantment.

This was from a union colleague: “It is getting increasingly difficult for me to experience the constant trampling of basic professional ethics. I was disgusted to hear what had happened to you, Liz, after sharing your views on performance management. Sadly so few academics today understand the value of academic freedom, in part because they are not doing work sufficiently controversial as to require its protection”.

It was consoling to hear from a few pro-vice chancellors. One wrote: ” Very sorry to hear about your recent experiences. You seem to have been treated very badly. Your Times Higher article is really effective in keeping these issues on the agenda”.

From another: “When I read your article in the THE this morning I was overwhelmed by a great sadness to think that you had left your university following an absurd ‘disciplinary’ process.  This evening I read it again and I am furious to imagine what nonsense you must have been through.  I am just sorry I did not know about it while the process was in train, to provide solidarity and counsel.  This injustice will remain a running sore as long as it is acceptable to think that the best way to do academic work is outside the academy.  This wrong must be righted.  It is just such a pity that academics and our union (don’t make me laugh) is so bad a mobilising around truly important issues”.

Two readers told me privately that they had broken down in tears after reading my piece. When a person suffers burnout and emotional distress, their own empathic reactions to another’s plight can be overwhelming. This I know from experience.

Others corroborated my analysis by sharing their own experiences of audit culture in universities. The panoptical nature of the surveillance, the punitive actions that accompany it, and the often unattainable targets demanded, all add up to stress, despondency and mental illness. One colleague pointed towards a future of algorithmic performance management of the sort identified at Amazon in the New York Times expose.

“Here at [Russell Group University] we have [XX company] coming in soon which allows real time micro level performance management via ‘dashboards’ recording all data on all staff for the duration of the ‘staff member’s life cycle’…. I guess that means electronic module evaluation feedback to save processing time, being added to H-index etc. data. Although this is denied by managers, part of the purpose with this is to strip out middle management and allow central / senior management to set targets for ‘teams’ and saying they can ‘liaise’ with the ‘core member’ if they need resources to achieve their targets, which really means, ‘we have direct control, total ‘transparency’ and can get rid of teams that ask for too much”.

A colleague in Australia DM-ed: “I’ve just come out of a traumatic couple of weeks in which I was asked to write a self-evaluation report identifying and quantifying my value to the university. I’ve been told that unless I can come up with some ‘low-hanging fruit’ in the short term my days are numbered etc. And I am – by any measure – a highly productive academic with millions of dollars in grant money, a plethora of publications etc”.

A colleague at another Russell Group University wrote: “The problem seems to me to be that the institution’s demands for compliance wreck our intellects (and our resolve and resilience), while stamping on us with disciplinary power whenever we point this out”.

This theme was best summarized in a tweet by one respected commentator (well, I respect him, and if he’s reading, I’d be really chuffed if he’d follow me on Twitter. Like what else do I need to do??):  “Powerful piece by @lizmorrish in THE today; something is going horribly wrong with way academic staff are managed”.

A colleague at yet another Russell Group University which has had its own issues with metrics reflected on the influence of a talk I gave in November 2015: “Thanks too for the mention of our success in [Russell Group University] in resisting a ghastly outcomes-based performance-management system last year. You came and gave an insightful and inspiring critique of it to a UCU branch meeting, which provided us with courage and the intellectual tools to tackle it. I am sure you will continue to play such a role. How can those of us still in universities support you at this time and going forwards?”

After such a show of appreciation, I can honestly say that I do feel supported – anchored, actually – in a community of scholars from which my former employer thought I had been ejected. I am fortunate to be able to continue writing, blogging and reaching out on Twitter and hopefully connecting and influencing that way. So in that sense I am ok. It’s the rest of you left behind that I worry about, so let me make some suggestions.

The people who need our concerted support are those whose academic freedom is compromised because their contracts are temporary or zero hours forcing them into the hire and fire economy of contingent labour. They dread questioning authority and have no real autonomy either in the classroom or outside of it. Thankfully, our union is campaigning on this issue. We must put pressure on universities to take measures for sustainable careers post-PhD.  The University of Birmingham is making a start with its research fellowship scheme – 5 years of research followed by a lectureship. This is a positive development.

We must talk to colleagues and students about the effects that work-related stress is having. When I was still working at a university, I was often sought out by colleagues for these conversations because my research and stance offered reassurance that it was the system and structures which were the problem, not the individual. This remains the case, despite all the wellbeing workshops and employee assistance programs being implemented across the sector. Unless we challenge management-by-metrics, academics will continue to get ill. This recent article in the Guardian Academics Anonymous addresses the embargo on talking about stress and mental health in universities. As my Times Higher piece reveals – there can be penalties for breaking the code of omerta, but we must.

We must resist collapsing our academic identities into a set of data points and spurious proxy metrics for ‘performance’. Let’s not talk about being REFable, or incorporate our h-index into our email signature. Instead, resolve to have conversations about interesting research, and how we add to it or want to integrate it into our teaching.

We can put pressure on our institutional managers to sign up to DORA: the San Fransisco Declaration on Research Assessment. Imperial College has just become a signatory, and several UK research universities have now committed to this pledge not to use journal-based metrics in hiring and promotion decisions.

Universities are held in thrall by the REF, and will presumably be so again with the TEF as long as government uses these mechanisms to control funding. It is sometimes hard to differentiate unavoidable external constraints from gratuitous control of academics’ behaviour. But if we empty academic careers of autonomy, then we risk being left with universities full of dressage ponies.  Let’s resolve to use our own judgement in our ‘self-directed research and scholarship’. We owe that to our students and our disciplines.

We should reject the damaging discourse of ‘excellence’ that has invaded every corner of universities. This is critiqued in an excellent paper by Moore et al. (2017). As the authors point out, excellence is not a discoverable quality. It is, of course, a fiction. At best it is a discursive strategy to normalise the achievements of the most talented and ambitious academics and make everyone else seem deficient by comparison. At worst it is a smokescreen for what Joyce Canaan calls ‘a culture of crappiness’. Moore et al. recommend that we retrain ourselves to evaluate our academic endeavours in terms of soundness and capacity.

And lastly we must ask our union branches to monitor any rise in disciplinary actions against colleagues, and scrutinize the effects on academic freedom, or rise in fear of inappropriate reprisals. There is a perception that there has been more frequent recourse to these procedures, but we need evidence and consistent monitoring.

I am grateful to Agnes Bosanquet who blogs at The Slow Academic. She writes about small targeted acts of resistance (STARS). In a citation she gives these examples: “Individuals were deliberately maintaining their research interests in defiance of perceived [audit]-rewarded tends; departments were actively pursuing collegial rather than competitive practices.”

These are all things we can do individually and collectively to resist the erasure of our academic autonomy by audit and the limits that discourse sets for our sense of achievement.

Some of my colleagues asked me why, unlike Marina Warner in this hard-hitting piece and another,  I refrained from naming the institution I left. The first reason is because my critique has never been intended to single out one institution – the problems are quite manifestly sector-wide. The second reason is more complex. The managers who chose to pursue me with disciplinary action will recognise themselves in the piece. The postmodernists among us would call this interpellation, and in queer theory, individuals are interpellated by shame if they respond to a hailing. They are hardly likely to step forward and claim their ignominy by objecting, in the same way they shut me down the last time. On that occasion they isolated me with a bond of silence. Now I have turned the tables and gagged them. One small targeted act of resistance.

The disciplinary dashboard: from reception class to retirement

The photo above made me start contemplating the intrusion of a repressive disciplinary culture into UK universities. Disciplinary action for tailgating? Whatever happened to having a quiet word with somebody? Just a few years ago, campus security was left in the capable hands of a few retirees from the services and the police. They knew academics and students by name, and exerted a calm authority refined through years of dealing with minor infractions. Now, a mere parking violation incurs a meeting with HR.

Many of us will be aware of new university policies on disciplinary procedures. If we have read them, we will be aware that the policies themselves are often not in the least repressive or out of kilter with professional expectations. It is when these policies intersect with over-zealous performance management procedures that things get troublesome – I have previously blogged about so-called under-performing professors 

So when I read the front page of the New York Times this morning (Sunday 16th August 2015), the portrayal of compulsory overwork and inhumane demands at Amazon in Seattle seemed unsettlingly portentous. When employees ‘hit the wall’ from the unrelenting pace, they are told to ‘climb the wall’. Amazon boasts an approach termed ‘purposeful Darwinism’ which ensures the lowest ranked employees are ‘eliminated’. This is facilitated by an Anytime Feedback Tool – a ‘widget’ which allows co-workers to report each other to management for poor performance or bad attitude. Shockingly, among the victims of this regime, there were employees with long-term serious health problems. According to one interviewee, he had witnessed everybody he worked with breaking down and crying in the office at some point. No wonder.

So this is testosterone-fueled Silicon Valley, not academia. But the future is closer than you think. It is not just a tightening vice around professors and their ‘performance management’, it seems that the panopticon is about to be extended across the whole academic hierarchy with the introduction of ‘faculty dashboards’. These are tools which allow data on each academic to be collated into an individual profile showing publications, citations, research grants and awards won. It can be updated daily by the head of department, dean or vice-chancellor. Norms can be established, and of course, extended year-on-year. They may be changed, according to strategic priorities beyond the control, or indeed the value set, of academics.

This may seem alien and frightening to the current generation of academics. I hope so. What frightens me, is how little resistance this style of management evokes from current undergraduate students. Many universities now have a ‘student dashboard’ apparently aimed at supporting students and increasing retention. It may record VLE logins, door swipes, tutorial attendance, titles of library books borrowed, assignment submissions and grades. When I asked my students if they were comfortable with revealing all this to me, who had just met them, they were nonchalant, and even welcoming of a virtual servo-system which would keep them ‘on track’.

I wonder if this acceptance will be even more enthusiastic among a generation raised with this ‘educational disciplinary system’. Demeritus keeps track of rules, issues penalties, informs parents and, chillingly, discursively inaugurates a new generation of ‘repeat offenders’ – all before they have even learned to ride a bicycle. I rather hope it will inspire sullen resistance if not outright intergenerational retribution.

This disciplinary excess is a sign of a culture which chooses to ‘invest’ in privatized prisons rather than ‘subsidize’ schools and universities. It is certainly familiar in the US to residents of states like Texas, where social justice forums have identified a school-to-prison pipeline.

It is dangerous – immoral – to allow childhood and adolescent transgressions to remain on an electronic rap sheet, to be uncovered when, for what – a job application, adoption process, or even running for President? And when students graduate to college, they face even more repression. Paul Greatrex has written about the routine arming of US university police with military hardware. We have learned this year that such environments may bring about dangerous consequences for students and faculty of color. In the UK too, police have been brought onto campus to quell student protests at the Universities of Birmingham, Warwick and London.

Universities, as I have blogged elsewhere, are unpopular in sections of the media, and with many in the Conservative government. They have come under scrutiny in the US as well, with President Obama and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton both questioning the spiraling cost of higher education. This has occasioned a predictable attack on the easy targets – tenured faculty members. A bill is being considered by the Iowa Senate which purports to relate to the teaching effectiveness and employment of professors. I quote from the first few paragraphs of SF64:

Each institution of higher learning under the board’s control shall develop, and administer at the end of each semester, an evaluation mechanism by which each student enrolled in the institution shall assess the teaching effectiveness of each professor who is providing instruction to the student each semester… Scores are not cumulative. If a professor fails to attain a minimum threshold of performance based on the student evaluations used to assess the professor’s teaching effectiveness, in accordance with the criteria and rating system adopted by the board, the institution shall terminate the professor’s employment regardless of tenure status or contract. (2) The names of the five professors who rank lowest on their institution’s evaluation for the semester, but who scored above the minimum threshold of performance, shall be published on the institution’s internet site and the student body shall be offered an opportunity to vote on the question of whether any of the five professors will be retained as employees of the institution.

Dismissing apparently competent, but unpopular academics starts to look very much like the Amazon ‘purposeful Darwinism’. We can only imagine the consequences for the stability of programs, research and collegiate relations. As we anticipate the arrival of the Teaching Excellence Framework, we must hope that it does not cement a culture of perpetual surveillance and ruinous ‘consumer choice’ by National Student Survey scores. If there is no pause button in academia, if there is no room for slow work, risk, failure and unpopularity, then universities really will have become a disciplinary dystopia.