GenX women in higher ed from around the globe

Posts Tagged ‘Academia’

Presumed Incompetent

In Afshan's Posts on 2013/04/23 at 01:20
Afshan Jafar, writing from New London, Connecticut in the US.

Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia, Utah State University Press, 2012. Edited by Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs, Yolanda Flores Niemann, Carmen G. González, Angela P. Harris.  570 pages.

The 30 essays in Presumed Incompetent expose a nasty truth about Academia: it is not above the realities of everyday American life. It, in fact, reproduces and reinforces society’s inequalities, stereotypes, and hierarchies within its own walls.

That academic women, especially academic women of color, are often presumed incompetent, is probably not surprising to most. The virtue of this book is that it enables the reader to see that these experiences are not individual experiences nor are they the result of individual flaws. Keeping this insight in mind, these essays become more than just “stories” or anecdotes. They point to the larger structural and cultural forces within Academia that make the experience of being presumed incompetent for women of color far too common.

The book is a collection of various types of essays: scholarly literature reviews of the experiences of women of color, personal narratives, and interviews. The content is divided into five parts: “General Campus Climate”, “Faculty/Student Relationships”, “Networks of Allies”, “Social Class in Academia” and “Tenure and Promotion”.  As one can tell readily from the themes, the book isn’t directed at students, nor is it meant primarily for use in a classroom (although there are several chapters that would be a good fit in courses that cover race, class, gender and sexuality issues). The book’s primary audience is faculty and administrators. It not only highlights the cultural and structural obstacles facing women of color in Academia, but proposes strategies and recommendations aimed at faculty and administrators. Several essays do this effectively, but Niemann’s concluding essay provides a particularly valuable summary of strategies and advice.

Several themes cut across the five sections of the book.  One is the discussion of stereotypes and identity work.  For instance, African American women may be seen as “mammies” and expected to be nurturing and caring and when they are not, they face anger and disappointment from students and colleagues (see Douglas’ and Wilson’s essays). Another example is Lugo-Lugo’s chapter, which discusses the stereotypes of the “hot Latina” and how they play out for her in the classroom where she must negotiate her identity as a Latina and a professor.

Lugo-Lugo also touches upon a second, though sometimes less explicit, theme of this book: the corporatization of higher education.  There are several layers to this phenomenon that affect women of color disproportionately. For one, contingent labor now makes up the vast majority of faculty positions in this country.  White women and women of color are disproportionately represented in these contingent ranks. Women of color only make up 7.5% of all full-time faculty positions in Academia (pg. 449). Given this reality, the presumption of incompetence gets reinforced and magnified for women of color. But there is another aspect of corporatization that is considered in the essays in this book. These are the essays that discuss student evaluations of teaching.  Because students increasingly come to the classroom with a consumerist mentality, they feel entitled to a certain experience, a certain grade, a certain “kind” of teacher. Lazos’ chapter, in particular, is a must-read for anybody who wishes to understand the factors that impact students’ evaluations of their professors. Departments chairs and members of committees on tenure and promotion will also find this chapter useful since they are responsible for evaluating a faculty member’s teaching effectiveness and student evaluations are a primary source of that information.

The importance of mentoring is also underscored in many of the essays in this volume as they highlight the need for good mentorship not just in graduate school but throughout the various stages of an academic career. The essay “Lessons From a Portrait: Keep Calm and Carry On,” by Adrien Wing, discusses the need to have a variety of mentors across racial, gender and institutional lines. Wing reminds the reader that she “never put all my eggs in one basket. If one mentor did not work out, that was fine because there were others” (p. 366).

There is one recurring piece of advice in this collection that worries me: many authors exhort women of color to simply do better and do more than what is expected of them.  This includes doing “more than the minimum”, teaching “on a grand scale” (p. 362, 363).  This lesson, which may seem productive from an individual’s perspective, does nothing to address the deeper problem of why women of color feel the need to do this in the first place. It poses a very personal solution to a problem that the editors and authors themselves have identified as a structural issue.

That critique aside, Presumed Incompetent offers valuable lessons and advice for just about everyone in Academia, from contingent faculty, post-docs, and tenured and tenure-track faculty, to administrators and search committees. It is up to us to heed that advice if we hope to erase the dangerous and erroneous belief in academic women’s incompetence.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

What makes an academic leader?

In Anamaria's Posts on 2013/03/13 at 10:57
Anamaria Dutceac Segesten, writing from Lund, Sweden. 

In comparison with business and political leaders, leaders in academia appear different (and I use mostly the Swedish/European case as example for my ideas). At least in Swedish universities, academic leadership is collegial and limited in time.

Collegial leadership means that the administrative responsibilities are taken over by one member of the faculty at a time, who becomes a sort of “primus inter pares”. This has consequences for the job criteria: not only must the proposed leader demonstrate managerial capacities (flexible, adaptable, strategic and most of all effective), but she or he must also be a resourceful scholar with a good publication record and deserving academic performance. One obvious problem is that there is no transfer of merits between research and administration. A very good researcher does not automatically make a good academic leader. But since the principle of collegiality must be enforced, the academic performance criterion must be always included, despite its probable lack of relevance, for the sake of legitimacy in the eyes of the other members of the faculty.

The second feature that is particular to the academic leadership is its time-restricted mandate. None of the positions in the administrative hierarchy is permanent; after usually two mandates, the chair/dean/president returns to her/his original position as university teacher. This poses a challenge typical for all limited positions, namely the difficulty of formulating and implementing long-term goals and far reaching transformations.

Moreover, in combination with the collegial idea, the fact that the administrative mandate is time-limited makes highly unlikely the inclination for dealing with deep-seated problems within the institution as well as long-term change. No one would like to take some unpopular decisions during one’s administrative mandate knowing that someday, sooner or later, they will return and be depending on coworkers’ support and collegiality.

A final component of the academic leadership conundrum is the normative component of the academic culture. Traditionally, a “good academic” is a person whose merits fall primarily in the scientific/research areas. Innovative research resulting in new knowledge is the apogee of academic achievement. Taking on an administrative duty means reducing the time left for research; thus administration and leadership are valued not as high as scientific achievements. Because of the necessity of collegial leadership most Swedish academics accept the leadership role, but often their perception of it is that of a “necessary evil”. They see themselves primarily as scholars who temporarily fulfill an administrative role, as persons who have a leadership position, but who are not academic leaders (Rowley & Sherman, 2003).

So, what is your opinion? Who makes a good academic leader? Is it better to be led by “one of us”, who takes by rotation the steering wheel of the institution or better to have a professional manager? Does it make a difference if we think about the chair of a department or the dean of a faculty? And what are the reasons that motivate you to seek positions of academic leadership.


This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

“Deep Thinking”: If Not At the University, Then Where?

In Guest Blogger on 2013/02/12 at 08:44
Guest blogger, Polina Kroik, writing from Eugene, Oregon in the US.

When I decided to enter graduate school, I was attracted by the prospect of studying topics deeply and having the time and the space in which to do so. I wanted to read Kant, Hegel, Joyce’s Ulysses, and develop a mature and independent understanding of literary and philosophical subjects, an understanding that is so different from the superficial comprehension college students are usually asked to demonstrate at the end of the term.

I have gone through two immigrations and my school and college years were marked by financial insecurity. I studied hard, but found it difficult to focus on humanistic projects that, for me, require sustained attention and some confidence in the future. Though I was reluctant to leave the city where I’d gone to college, a graduate education was the only way to remain on the path that I’d chosen, and to become a mature, independent thinker. Having very little financial support to fall back on, the alternative was a taxing full-time job in the city that would have left me very little time for intellectual pursuits.

During my first few years in graduate school, I was indeed able to read extensively in literature and philosophy, and to develop a deeper understanding of a few of these subjects. Even then, though, I felt that I was somehow going against the grain. Students and some faculty regarded me as too serious, too studious. While I was trying to understand the difference between Benjamin’s and Derrida’s concepts of temporality, more worldly students were already developing their brands of academic criticism and networking with faculty. It took me a while to catch on.

I held on to the idea of developing a serious research project, even as I was learning to play the academic game: to vie for senior faculty’s attention; write conference abstracts that sounded “sexy.” I was never great at it, but I plodded along, keeping pace with most of my peers. The problem was that with all these activities, in addition to the responsibilities of teaching, time was becoming scarce. I was left with only a few hours a week that I could dedicate to research, and those hours were also often consumed by e-mail correspondence or anxiety about an upcoming presentation or application for funding.

In my fourth year, I decided to take my dissertation fellowship and move to Oregon, where my sister lived. I wrote almost all of my dissertation during that year, and remained in Oregon for my protracted job search. I have been teaching at a local community college for the past two years, with working conditions that resemble those of my graduate instruction and of many adjunct instructors. I have been lucky to have health insurance and to maintain a relatively light teaching schedule, leaving some time for research.

I realize that different people enter the academy for different reasons: some love to teach; others might prefer collaborative projects to individual essays; another group welcomes the use of technology in the humanities. I respect all these modes of intellectual work and have enjoyed taking part in them. Yet as I explore alternatives to the mythical tenure-track job—where, so I’d been told, some of the time is dedicated to research and thinking—I find no true alternatives. Apart from (some) graduate programs, there is no institutional framework that supports sustained, independent thinking, thinking that is tied neither to economic nor political considerations.

I would like to emphasize this point in light of a 2010 post by Mary Churchill, suggesting that this type of thinking is the legacy of male privilege. While the association with masculinity unfortunately still exists, there is nothing essentially gendered about sustained, deep thinking. Some of our foremost feminist theorists were and are such thinkers. We would not have the work of Simone de Beauvoir, Luce Irigaray or Julia Kristeva had women summarily rejected deep thinking as a masculine activity.

While I support the struggle for better working conditions for non-tenure track faculty–recognizing also that the current conditions are often more onerous for women than men–I have begun to question my personal investment in an academic career. Despite some doubts, I often believed that one only had to work hard enough to be admitted into that privileged, hallowed space of academic research. Faculty still give me that sort of advice from time to time: publish more; apply for another post-doc; attend another conference. Yet I doubt now that after all the concessions and compromises, after all the competitive grasping, I will find support for anything that resembles the free and ethical academic research that I had hoped to undertake.

Polina Kroik received a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from UC Irvine in 2011. Her interests include gender and work in American literature, transnational literature, cultural studies, and critical theory. Kroik has guest-edited a special issue of WorkingUSA: The Journal of Labor and Society on the topic of “Contemporary Labor and Cultural Exchange.” She also teaches writing part-time at Lane Community College in Eugene, Oregon. 

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

Academic Abbey

In Elizabeth's Posts on 2013/02/06 at 11:14
Elizabeth Lewis Pardoe, writing from Evanston, Illinois in the US.

Earlier this month, the American Historical Association announced the anything-but-shocking discovery that tenured men benefit more from marriage than their female counterparts.  My female friends and I long ago noticed that women at the top of the academic hierarchy rarely have more than one child and a marriage in the present tense.  Scott Jaschik scrutinized the higher statistical propensity for academic women to form endogamous marriages with another Ph.D. Academic men pick partners more willing or better able to fulfill Ruth’s biblical pledge, “whither thou goest, I shall go.”

Such marital politics produce the stuff of domestic dramas played out in every sector and every age. Mr. Darcy tests the waters with Elizabeth Bennet when he asks if she thinks her newly married friend lives a suitable distance from her father’s estate. Ma Ingalls packed up Laura and Mary whenever Pa got the notion to move further afield. Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake captured the isolation centuries of new wives experienced when they set out to cross the Atlantic with husbands they barely knew.

Jaschik’s report appeared the day after Downton Abbey’s third season premier. Julian Fellowes’ reduction sauce of English stereotypes stirs American imaginations with matrimonial ephemera. The lord of the manor married American money but failed to breed profit or sons. The heiress must lower her expectations in order to keep her estate. The Irish chauffeur liberates his aristocratic lover from her hide-bound behaviors and stately home.

Academics, like aristocrats, need certain types of structures in order to survive. A tenured professor needs pupils like an aristocrat needs servants. They exist only in juxtaposition to one another. No stately home to house the servants or no university to engage the undergraduates and the top dog (to steal my tone from 1066 and All That) ceases to have anything to stand atop.

Academics drive their marital moves, but they can only manage chronic migrations if they have a doting partner to herd their progeny towards a new destination. If a tenured academic happens upon their intellectual equivalent of Downton, he (statistically more likely) digs in his heels with a fervor that would make Lady Mary blush. Two PhDs unable to share the same Downton face a marital fate scarier than the Dowager Countess’ disapproving scowl.

If the ‘trailing’ spouse has (as is more likely among trailing wives according to the AHA) a JD, an MD, an MBA, an MSW, an MAT, or anything other than a Ph.D., someone will hire her. If the partner holds a Ph.D. (more likely among trailing husbands), he confronts a choice of adjunct instructorships and administrative positions once held by the wives of the male professoriate in preceding generations. Just as those women railed against their second class citizenship as they held aloft copies of Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique, no one should express surprise that the husbands of tenured wives fall short the Alan Alda ideal of household helpfulness and satisfied subordination.

We all dream of marital equality. I once cringed as a newly arrived, male administrator replied, “yes,” to the patronizing observation, “so you are the trailing spouse.” Back during my tenure-line days, my husband – while fully employed at many multiples of my salary – used to field questions from faculty wives as to his experience as a “stay-at-home dad.” I doubt he liked it any better than I did when a few years later an academic wife told me, “I thought you were just a mom.” My husband and I adore our boys. We wear our parental titles with pride. However, the queries possessed the same, internalized self-loathing that Mr. Carson exudes whenever the middling or lower classes imperil the Downton way. They indicated subordination in what we understand as a marriage of equals.

Academics devalue all other occupations in the way Fellowes’ fictional aristocrats struggle to acknowledge the worth of the world beyond the Abbey. When both partners live within such stilted walls, they can appear insurmountable barriers to professional and marital success.

For those who attempt to administer academic abbeys populated upstairs & down by peculiar personalities, we could have worse role models than the indefatigable Mrs. Hughes of Downton. She neither worships nor resents. Mrs. Hughes merely comprehends and coordinates with an admirable mix of affection and authority.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

A New Set of Questions

In Guest Blogger on 2013/01/29 at 04:21
Guest blogger, Natalie T. J. Tindall, writing from Atlanta, Georgia in the US.

In October, I went to see the Pearl Cleage play, What Happened in Paris. During one scene, Evie, the glamorous globetrotter asks Lena, the savvy political consultant if she had ever been to Paris. When Lena said that she had, Evie asked, “Looking for answers?” Lena, responded, “I don’t know about answers, but I sure was ready for a new set of questions.

At that moment, I felt a chill across my body. Those were the words I needed to hear, the words that explained how I felt about my life post-third year review and post-tenure packet submission.

I am ready for a new set of questions.

What Should I Do With My Life?

I did it the Friday before Labor Day: I turned in my tenure packet–two thick binders of paper and specially numbered dividers–to my department chair. I left the office, giddy. And then reality slapped me in the face. After seven years of scrambling to capture the brass ring, switching jobs and states, and building an impressive (according to others) track record, what was next?

I accomplished and was close to accomplishing what I always said I would do: become a professor and get tenured. I worked hard, so hard up to this point. And now what? And for what?

The quest for tenure sucked the marrow out of my bones. My academic friends called tenure “an emotional vampire”; others had some other choice names that I am too polite to mention. For a long time, I felt cloistered in the cell of my own making. Constrained by the tiny basement apartment that was dark and damp most days of the week. Condensed by my drab office space and my colleague’s expectations. Limited by the research that I believed my mentors, my professors, and my colleagues expected me to do. Cramped into corners that didn’t allow me to embrace some identities that may be seen as contradictory to being a professor. Restricted by the walls I built around myself so that no one was allowed in but my emotions were protected from harm, hurt, danger, and strife. Curbed by the limits I placed on my life of what I could and could not do. Reined in by all the things that other ascribed to my life and who I am.

I was burnt out by my job. I was taxed by the amounts of work I gobbled up for the sake of appearances and the lines they added on my vitae, an increasingly long resume that has charted the progress I made in my research, service, and scholastic endeavors. I was overwhelmed by the heavy investments I made into my career and underwhelmed by my lack of a personal life. As someone told me once at a dark period, you were given 1,000 dollars, and you invested 995 of that in your career.

In other words, I poured myself into my career to the detriment of a lot of other things that make life have meaning. After hearing that, something had to change. I tried shifting the external options in my life before to no avail. I fled from what I believed were toxic work environments, but the toxicity and bitterness remained in my life. I withdrew from the soul-sucking committees and positions that occupied my time and psychic energy, but I kept falling into the same ruts. My personal relationships, built on sand, sank and crumbled consistently. And that something was a person: me.

My academic research on black women and work-life conflict issues made me start thinking about the new questions. I was pulled into this project because the call for papers for a book project intrigued me. I never realized how much this research would alter the way that I think about my career and my life.

The term agency popped up multiple times from the respondents and within the literature.  Tindall and McWilliams (2011) defined agency as the

self-created, self-orchestrated, and intentional method of garnering the “power, will, and desire to create work contexts conducive to the development of their thought over time” (Neumann, Terosky, & Schell, 2006, p. 92-93).

Academics exist at the intersection of privileged existence and forced impositions. We have the privilege and ability to shape our lives and choices, yet we often fall into the expectations of what and who an academic should be, get trapped into believing that the guidelines of the tenure and promotion document define us. The life of a professor can become a “second skin” (p. 70), and the identity of being a professor can become the singular role we play and have in our lives. As a participant in my study said, “here we are in the academy because of the flexibility of time, and yet we so discipline ourselves that we blow it” (p. 70).

In  hoity-toity academic terms, agency is ” the capacity of an agent (a person or other entity) to act in a world.” In the plain-speak terminology that is required outside the ivory tower, agency is your efficacy to do you. Put even more simply, I had to ask the question: what the hell is stopping me from doing what I want, going after what I want, and getting what I need?

Those are all valid questions that never entered my conscious, waking life until I turned in the packet. Now, I have the task of figuring out the answers. Agency is all about choices, and I needed to re-evaluate my choices within the parameters of my work and my life. Luckily, I have some time to figure that out.

The Start of the Journey

This day is moving day. My life is condensed to a 10X10 storage facility. Everything I have accumulated between my lives in Florida, Maryland, Oklahoma, and Georgia is there. My academic books are in the discarded boxes from a local liquor store. My clothes are in haphazard piles stuffed into gray and purple storage bins. I’ve given away a lot in preparation for this day.

I have packed my life into little and big boxes (symbolically, literally, figuratively and realistically) for most of my life, so cramming my crap into actual boxes wasn’t a big deal.

I am taking off for the winter holidays. I have a few weeks where I am free to do some soul searching and engage in reflexive thought. This is not a taxpayer-funded Eat Pray Love expedition. But I need some time and shape to reconfigure my career and my life. Find something like balance. Figure out my research trajectory that is geared to my interests as opposed to the popular research trends, the research that is expedient and easy to place in journals,  the needs of a tenure committee or my department’s expectations. Figure out how to adjust my emotional and physical investment in my institution to match its investment in me.

This research leave is the start of something. It’s fitting that it starts today–the day with a new full moon and an eclipse. The full moon, according to several life coaches and new age thinkers, is the appropriate time to reset, cast new goals and start new projects.  This day, I am starting on a new and very large project that I have forgotten in pursuit of my degree, tenure, and titles: me.

Natalie T. J. Tindall is an assistant professor at Georgia State University, where she teaches courses in strategic communication and public relations. She is a fiction writer, knitter, community volunteer, and occasional half-marathoner between her academic writing, teaching, and service. She can be contacted via Twitter (@dr_tindall) and e-mail (

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

Superstitious Minds

In Sarah's Posts on 2013/01/23 at 04:15
Sarah Emily Duff, writing from Stellenbosch, South Africa.

In a recent interview with Mother Jones, the author Philip Pullman admits: ‘I’m perfectly happy about being superstitious and atheistic.’ Pullman, who has been outspoken about his own lack of faith and has critiqued organised religion in much of his writing, describes a set of rituals he has around his writing: that he writes precisely three pages every day, and that he needs to write on a particular size of paper. He explains:

The state of mind which I put myself when I tell a story is one in which superstition flourishes very easily. And I welcome that because it helps me. A story, to me, has a particular sprite, like the angel of the spirit of that story – and it’s my job to attend to what it wants to do. When I tell the story of ‘Cinderella,’ the sprite does not want me to make it into an allegory of the fall of communism. The sprite would be unhappy if I did that.

Pullman and his ‘story sprites’ reminded me of one of the most reassuring pieces of advice I was given while working on my Ph.D. At one of my department’s annual welcoming drinks for research students, the guest speaker, a distinguished historian of early modern France, urged us to embrace the rituals and superstitions we developed as we worked.

I avoided guide books and lectures about the best way of pursuing a doctorate – they served usually to make me anxious, as my way of researching and writing seemed to contradict all their guidelines and checklists – but this guidance proved to be immensely helpful. I had become aware that my daily routines were becoming increasingly ingrained: that I’d begun to glare at hapless scholars who had taken ‘my’ desk at the British Library; that my day couldn’t really begin unless I’d had coffee in a particular mug; and that I could only use a special kind of notebook for research notes.

These routines weren’t unique either to me, or to my Ph.D. I had written all of my school and university exams with my special, beautiful fountain pen. And from conversations with fellow Ph.D. students, I realised that as we became more stressed, so our routines and superstitions grew more significant to us. There is a link between anxiety and obsessive behaviour – as we use routine to establish order and, seemingly, control over complex and stressful situations – but I wonder if academics more generally are especially superstitious about their work.

At least in my experience, I have had friends and colleagues who have peculiarly strict routines and superstitions around their research and writing. I think this is partly because academia can be a profoundly stressful and competitive environment. For those of us at the beginning of our careers, it is a precarious one too. I develop all sorts of strange rituals when applying for jobs and funding – and these only become worse during the often interminable wait between application submission deadline and the committee’s decision.

We spend so much time on our own, thinking, and caught up in our own, particular research interests that it’s hardly surprising that we begin to believe that the control we exert over our own projects can be extended to other facets of academic life. For historians and anthropologists interested in the shifting symbolic value of the material world, objects can take special meaning too. I was not the only doctoral student in my department who placed particular significance on the fact that my supervisor’s desk used to belong to our hero, Eric Hobsbawm.

I think it’s worth taking closer notice of our routines and superstitions because we work in such overwhelmingly rational environments. We defend our work on the grounds that we attempt dispassionate, logical analysis of problems, and yet many of us indulge in fairly irrational behaviour, specifically around our research. I wonder if – like Pullman – we were to acknowledge that we are both superstitious and rational, much of the anxiety within academic life would begin to reduce.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

Thinking about Academic Tribes

In Anamaria's Posts on 2013/01/20 at 04:36
Anamaria Dutceac Segesten, writing from Lund in Sweden. 
I recently read for the first time a book that for many (most?) is a classic: Academic Tribes and Territories: Intellectual Enquiry and the Culture of Disciplines, in its revised edition (2001). I admit that the idea of an ethnography of academic disciplines and their internal codes is a bit narcissistic in the sense that it belongs to the genre of academics studying and writing about academia, but then so is this blog and all the writing about the theories of pedagogy and the analyses of higher education. We as academics have a duty to critically examine our own practices, so that is enough of an argument to read the book and take part in the discussions about the delimitations we tend to draw between our tribes and territories, the two key terms used by the authors  Tony Becher and Paul R. Trowler.

“Academic tribes”, or “small worlds” or “microcultures” as they are variously called, are groupings that take place based on disciplinary boundaries. They are based on the subject and the method of academic investigation within that discipline. They are supposed to be more or less internally coherent and to be governed, however informally, by norms and values developed and internalized over time.

That these tribes exist is now commonplace. What I find interesting are two questions:

1. How widespread or broad are they?

2. How powerful are they to guard access to and the future development of any given discipline?

Academic Tribes: how broad?

The distinction between disciplines is as old as the attempt to study and think about the world. Becher and Trowler distinguish between several dichotomies based on epistemological dimensions: hard vs soft sciences, theoretical vs. applied knowledge. They also identify differences in the practice of the discipline, with variations in research styles, publishing traditions and career paths.

I find these distinctions applicable in my known universe, but also perhaps, too applicable. For example, the hard vs. soft approach to the nature of knowledge can describe the difference between natural sciences and social sciences, but also the one between ethnography and political science, both fields within the social science discipline. Moreover, political science is also divided between a more quantitative and a more qualitative methodological position. And to go to the microlevel, there are universities where political science departments are known to specialize in either the “harder” or the “softer” variant.

This has the consequence that we cannot generalize very much when we discuss “higher education” as a whole. The discussion on the future of the humanities, or their usefulness that has been quite present in the news on higher ed around the world is based on the assumption that there is a unit defined as the “humanities”. But according to the thinking behind the academic microcultures literature, the field is too fragmented to be described (and governed) as one.

The general and global trend has been towards fragmentation/interdisciplinarity and a flourishing of disciplines. There are now very specific fields of inquiry that did not exist 25 years ago, from my own area of specialization, “European Studies”, to “Queer Studies” or “Visual Cultures” or you name it – whichever specific domain that is entitled to define a territory of knowledge with its own boundaries. So, how can we have a discussion about the social sciences or the humanities or about engineering, when we see the growth of new disciplines that mix and match in a multi- or inter- or transdisciplinary fashion?

Academic Tribes: how powerful?

The other aspect I wanted to bring up here is the power of these academic tribes. Are the rules and values and practices valid within a given academic tribe so clearly implemented so that the boundaries of the tribal territory are safeguarded from “unfitting” guests?

If the ethnographic section of Becher and Trowler’s book is to be taken seriously (and I think that it should), then the answer is yes, academic tribes do guard their territories quite fiercely. The upside of this is that disciplines and various professional environments at a smaller scale are kept updated because of the constant knock at the door from new generations of scholars who want to join the tribe.

The downside of this may be the generation of very unitary departments, where hiring policies implicitly follow the principle of the goodness of fit between prospective candidates and the already existing academic culture. “If you are a qualitative political scientist do not even consider applying for a job at university X because they only do quantitative stuff” – this is the line of reasoning one can hear during a job search. Or even worse, if one’s ideological position does not fit with the tribe’s (if you are a feminist in a conservatives’ den or the other way around), the chances of getting a job there are minimal, despite one’s academic merits.

My final thought on this is that one should get to know (or define) one’s academic tribe quite early. It may help in the job search.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

Various Shades of Digital Literacy: The New Digital Divides

In Ernesto's Posts on 2013/01/17 at 01:03
Ernesto Priego, writing from London, England in the UK.

An initial version of this post was originally published on HASTAC 10/22/2012. 

I’d like to thank my colleague Melonie Fullick for the conversation that led to this post.

As a researcher interested in the digital humanities and as a blogger, editor and academic blogging and social media workshop facilitator, I have observed different shades of digital literacy levels. I have witnessed it not between groups from different countries, disciplines or institutions, but within self-contained groups or communities that are often assumed to have the same skill sets or more or less similar degrees of access to infrastructure, financial means, education, and connectivity amongst others since these groups’ members belong to the same organisation, faculty or department. That members of the same organisation should not be assumed to necessarily have the same digital skills or level of access to said skills, education or resources is precisely one of the motivations for this post.

At the time of writing this, the current “Global Digital Divide” Wikipedia entry reads:

“The global digital divide is a special case of the digital divide, the focus is set on the fact that “Internet has developed unevenly throughout the world”  causing some countries to fall behind in technology, education, labor, democracy, and tourism. The concept of the digital divide was originally popularized in regard to the disparity in Internet access between rural and urban areas of the United States of America; the global digital divide mirrors this disparity on an international scale.The global digital divide also contributes to the inequality of access to goods and services available through technology. Computers and the Internet provide users with improved education, which can lead to higher wages; the people living in nations with limited access are therefore disadvantaged.

This global divide is often characterized as falling along what is sometimes called the north-south divide of “northern” wealthier nations and “southern” poorer ones.”

In this case, I would like to suggest there are other types of digital divides that are not necessarily between those with access and those without. As Howard Besser pointed out,

“Much of the promise of the digital ages is an increase in democratic values and of broadening public participation in the various aspects of society and culture. In order for this promise to be realized, we need to take concerted action to narrow a host of different digital divides and allow everyone an equal opportunity to partake in this democratic promise.”

Besser is right to point out that “The digital divide also includes a gap between those who can be active creators and distributors of information, and those who can only be consumers.” Nevertheless, the other types of digital divides I have been thinking about take place within those who can be both active creators and distributors of information, as well as consumers of that information.

The group I am talking about is graduate students, postdocs and academic staff in higher education institutions, and specifically within the arts and humanities and in developed nations such as the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States. The sometimes exceedingly high standard expected from candidates as specifically detailed in some digital humanities job descriptions announces a new digital divide, between those who can build the digital platforms and those who would only consume them.  Importantly, it may also announce a time in which there might only be funding available for large institutional projects that already involve a great deal of infrastructural support and, very importantly, qualified human resources with advanced levels of humanities resource building –as in coding– and not for those that “only” involve advanced levels of engagement –as in, interpretation and teaching– with those humanities resources.

But there are various shades of complexity before we even get to that divide between those who “build” and those who don’t. New digital divides created by the great diversity of digital skill sets amongst most arts and humanities scholars. The recent popularity of the digital humanities (or rather, of the term “digital humanities”) has meant that many propose that in the near future everyone in the humanities will be a digital humanist, and that the adjective “digital’ will have to be dropped soon. It is more and more common to see job adverts seeking scholars with PhDs in very specialised arts and humanities themes who can also code (for example, PhP, Python, whatever). In general, these are skills that are not formally included in most postgraduate humanities degrees. As an educated guess one might be able to generalise that many if not most humanities scholars who possess some level of coding skills often acquired them through alternative methods, taught themselves or have backgrounds in disciplines that until very recently were not part of the humanities curricula.

The job descriptions out there seem to tell a different story. It is as if suddenly, in some section of the academic world, we were witnessing the rise of a super-humanist, who is not only an expert in Aramean manuscripts but can also develop XML schemas, tweak APIs, design WordPress templates, who is a master of custom CSS design for ebooks and blogs, tweets, curates data sets and visualises online networks and quantifies her open access journal articles webometrics and altmetrics. This prototype scholar seems to be some kind of mutant 21st century super-powered being who simultaneously designs and maintains algorithmic architectures and deconstructs the history of literary theory and textual scholarship by heart.

On the other hand, we have what I think is a more immediate scenario, that of the scholar (please humour me for the sake of argument) who mainly communicates over emails and listservs, who, say, struggles to save a PDF, only recently figured out what a hashtag is and has never used a shared Google Drive document. This scholar knows her/his stuff very well indeed, hates Microsoft, resents having to use a Moodle or PowerPoint (or absolutely loves them), but is not really comfortable with this whole Web 2.0, scholarship-in-the-cloud malarkey.

There’s also an in-between group if you wish, confirmed by scholars who are very fluent (or think of themselves as very fluent) in off-the-shelf Web 2.0 tools, they blog, share what they do, keep track of  who reads them and engages with them, who might know what a MOOC is and might even have facilitated or participated in one, who know what tags and attributes are, who learned what they know in different ways, who may know a lot or who may struggle with some aspects of it but just about manage to get along.

And, of course, there’s always those who will belong to all of the above, to just a couple of them or to neither of them, or any other combination you can possibly imagine. The thing is, all these categories are destined to be caricaturesque generalisations, precisely because there are so many shades of fluency and engagement with technical digital skills, expertise and tools.

Therefore these new digital “disparities” in digital fluency are not necessarily about access (or privilege, or wealth, or technology, or connectivity, or language, etc.)  as it used to be discussed (between the rich and the poor, the north and the south) but about actual varying degrees of skills within the same groups. These disparities have allowed a technically savvy elite to sometimes get hold of a position that depends on a big group not possessing the skills they have, so rarely there are situations in which they are encouraged to teach others. Sometimes those others will not think they have anything to learn, or will resent being told that perhaps it would be a good idea to sit down and learn how to do something. Sometimes those others wish they had the institutional support to count with the time and space and access to training necessary to acquire new digital skills, no matter how “basic” or “advanced” they may seem to others.

Moreover there is the assumption that commercial off-the-shelf web services are simply picked up by intuition and trial and error. This is true in some cases. It’s come to the point though in which the web is not something that only interests technically-minded people, but the platform on which and with which, for better or worse, a great percentage of human communication is increasingly taking place, and as such it is worth considering if it would not be a good idea to stop taking for granted that academics (of any age) do not need structured learning opportunities to master the nuances of the web (in this case not as coders, but as skilled users). Perhaps tool-based learning is doomed to failure as these are likely to change or disappear, but core critical and practical skills applicable to a wide variety of web tool scenarios would be a great thing to have a structured, recognised framework for.

Arguably, as web platforms become the mainstream rather than the underground, not only do those platforms become more complex: their users also cannot be expected to always-already have a great degree of proficiency in their management or use. (It can be argued that unlike mainstream scenarios,  underground scenes are more or used to be more likely to engage in Do It Yourself and self-taught activities and processes). For instance, some knowledge that some social media users might take for granted, such as logging in, updating profiles, uploading files, making hyperlinks, etc. might be unknown to even the most apparently prolific of social media users, as sometimes things happen “as if by magic” without users necessarily understanding the processes behind them or without being able to replicate them when contexts or circumstances change. We must stop taking these skills for granted, and reconsider how we might be contributing to new digital divides amongst groups of peers by assuming everyone has (or even should have!) the same digital skill sets, when perhaps they don’t.

These are just some quick notes seeking to suggest that before all arts and humanities scholars become that mutant 21st century super-powered being we need to first recognise the existence of the great diversity of levels of digital literacy, and second that academia needs to figure out how to ensure that, for example, everyone feels comfortable using a search engine before asking them to code one from scratch.



This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

Crowdsourcing lessons for academics

In Ana's Posts on 2013/01/10 at 11:59
Ana Dinescu, writing from Berlin, Germany

Academics, mainly those from the domain of human sciences, do not like to be reminded too much about various economic and business-like terms. However, some business models and ideas from the world of economics will help not only greatly improve the financial situation, but will also give a new impetus to the quality of the academic work as such.

For instance, one of the first incentives for academics could be towards a more organized system when it comes to writing financial proposals for grants. With the help of a clear plan of objectives, evaluated regularly – weekly or monthly – the scholar(s) will improve to a great extent their chances of getting more funding in the near future. Moreover, it will add quality to new grants and thus create a more successful academic life. As the economic crisis diminished considerably the sources of funding for academic research, mainly in the human sciences, the donors are most likely ready to offer the their support only to those able to cope with the highest standards not only in terms of quality but also those who are able to report as competently as any financial department of a company. Even though it might be a bothersome task – and very often it is the last thing you want to do it after reading thousands of books and reading hundreds of pages of research – doing so it is a message of appreciation for the work behind the funding one receives.

Another important lesson that the academics need to consider when doing their research is the lesson offered by the crowdsourcing methods. The term, introduced relatively recently into business vocabulary, is not such a novelty; even though the core of a book or paper is an original and new angle, it could reveal new aspects of a certain issue. When crowdsourcing, the viability of research is done through a system when the ‘crowds’ (meaning various readerships) give their feedback. This is how the peer review works and this is how dictionaries and encyclopedic works were produced. An example of crowdsourcing is Wikipedia. Even though it is not recommended as an academic source, it involves a multiplicity of sources produced by various contributors. The academics themselves can contribute to increase the accuracy of the information posted there; it is very simple to set up an account and to post information or correct the errors. Some academics may consider such an approach as too futile for their high academic concerns, but being an intellectual means more than being proud of your best achievements and your new book: it means taking stances and sharing your knowledge with the world.

Crowdsourcing your knowledge means also the acknowledgement of the fact that, beyond the hard individual work that each graduate needs to do for his or her academic curriculum vitae, there are other elements that need to be added for a quality work. One of the most important is to rely on the power of the feedback and the need to learn together with others. We do not become scholars overnight, only by going to conferences or participating in different discussions. However, most of the work is done through collaborative efforts and open discussions. Your knowledge does not add any value if not shared, and through sharing, you can help others to have a better understanding. You can also correct and even change your own assumptions. Teaching and sharing knowledge, as a teacher or as a scholar, is more than presenting your conclusions, bibliography and waiting for the others to accept or reject it. It means also understanding that it is important to learn from others and give them the option to share their own opinions.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed