confessions of a worried teacher

critical inquiries into westernised higher education

Tag: Research

Táim ag dul go Béal Feirste – I’m off to Belfast


The library of El Escorial Photo by Xauxa Håkan Svensson  CC BY-SA 3.0

I am off to Belfast/Béal Feirste soon for the Sociological Association of Ireland Annual Conference.  I will write more about the papers and the conference later.

I will be giving two papers this year:

‘Biographies of Internationalisation’: Methodological reflections on using the Biographical Narrative Interpretive Method (BNIM) to capture international student’s discourses and policy narratives – Speaking to Policy Speaking to Institutions (written with my colleague Lisa Moran)

How, as sociologists, do we speak to policy makers, and in this case to institutional leaders in higher education? And how do we do this in a way that troubles dominant discourses? This paper focuses upon a qualitative, Biographical Narrative Interpretive Method (BNIM) study of ‘knowledge cultures’ (Tsouvalis et al. 2000), and narratives of internationalisation that are embedded within international students’ biographies. Drawing upon qualitative materials from a biographical research study of 6 students categorised as ‘international’ in one Irish university, the paper illustrates areas of confluence and convergence in international student narratives about internationalisation and ‘storylines’ that appear in Irish policy on internationalisation. The argument in this paper is threefold; firstly, that the BNIM approach (Wengraf 2001) which elicits participants’ memories, knowledge and everyday ‘life worlds’ goes farther than some ‘conventional’ approaches to interviewing in capturing how international students recreate international identities, ‘negotiate’ insider/outsider distinctions and processes of stereotyping and labelling. Secondly, it is argued that how international students interpret internationalisation as a ‘lived experience’ and express these understandings through narrative is intricately bound to how they negotiate international identities. Thirdly, we argue that the kinds of narrative generated by the BNIM approach enables us to ‘trouble’ dominant discourses of internationalisation by inviting an ethic of openness to the ‘other’ and learn from rather than just learn about the experience of internationalisation students. Such an approach helps us to think higher education ‘otherwise’.

Tsouvalis, J., Seymour, S. and Watkins, C. (2000) ‘Exploring knowledge cultures: Precision Farming, Yield Mapping, and the Expert/Farmer Interface’ Environment and Planning A 32(5): 909-924

Wengraf, T. (2001) Qualitative Research Interviewing Biographic, Narrative and Semi-Structured Approaches London: Sage


Sociology of Irish Higher Education or An Irish Sociology of Higher Education? The Challenge of Southern Theory.

What would happen if we viewed Irish higher education through the lens of southern theory? Southern theory argues that dominant epistemologies appear as if from no particular geohistorical location, so pertaining to be universal. Yet, these epistemologies are reflections of and inherent in the imperialism and colonialism of the metropolitan centres of Western Europe and North America. Universal knowledge is, in fact, the imperialism of Europe’s parochialism1&2 and universities have been implicit in epistemic violence as a basis for colonial power3. We need to ask whether, in interpreting Irish higher education, we have simply imported the thematic concerns of the metropole, accepted a subaltern position, and so neglected to develop a unique perspective that takes seriously Ireland as a post-colony4.

What might an Irish sociology of Higher Education look like?

  • This sociology would acknowledge that it speaks from somewhere, emerges from a particular geohistorical experience of colonialism, settler colonialism, nationalist nation-building, and globalization;
  • It would seek to re-story the history and dynamics of higher education in Ireland from that perspective, working with, beyond, and against the dominant concepts of the metropole;
  • It would speak between epistemologies5, critiquing both the continuing coloniality of power and nationalist ideology – an ecology of knowledge6.

1Mignolo, D. (2000) The Geopolitics of Knowledge and the Colonial Difference, South Atlantic Quarterly 101(1): 57–96.

2Quijano, A. (2007) Coloniality and Modernity/Rationality, Cultural Studies 21(2): 168–78.

3Grosfoguel, R. (2013) The Structure of Knowledge in Westernized Universities: Epistemic Racism/Sexism and the Four Genocides/Epistemicides of the Long 16th Century. Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge 11(1): 73-90.

4Connell, R. (2007) Southern Theory: The Global Dynamics of Knowledge in Social Science. Cambridge: Polity Press.

5Khatibi, A. (1990) Love in Two Languages. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

6Santos, S. (2014) Epistemologies of the South. Justice against Epistemicide. London: Paradigm.





Beautiful Landscape With Bridge, by George Hodan License: CC0 Public Domain

Can students take a lead on managing and promoting their own learning?

Does this have to happen in the confines of institutional virtual learning environments?

Can academics and students take back control of their digital presence?

These were all questions explored yesterday in a workshop facilitated by Jim Groom at the National University of Ireland Galway title: Student As Partner: Enhancing Student Engagement Through a Focus on Assessment As Learning in Digital Spaces.

Let me quote from the advertising text to give you a flavour of what this event sought to deal with

The Student as Producer model advocates a pedagogic approach foregrounding student voice, choice and creativity so that students can recognise themselves in a world of their own design and take responsibility for their own learning. This has broad ramifications across the institution with respect to digital technology, learning spaces, and assessment (Healy et al., 2014; Neary et al., 2015). The Domain of One’s Own initiative emphasises a partnership approach to teaching and learning, and reworks the relationships between research and teaching; producing and consuming; and educators and students (Groom & Lamb, 2014). Partnership with students, not only as learners but as teachers and assessors, can contribute to developing graduate attributes and personal learning networks that can sustain students/graduates well beyond their time in higher education.


Groom, J., & Lamb, B. 2014. Reclaiming innovation. Educause Review (June 2014).

Healey, M., Flint, A., & Harrington, K. 2014. Engagement through partnership: Students as partners in learning and teaching in Higher Education. York: Higher Education Academy.

Neary, M., Saunders, G., Hagyard, A. & Derricott, D. (2015). Student as Producer: Research-engaged teaching, an institutional strategy. York: Higher Education Academy.


It is time for me to own up to the fact that I was co-responsible for this event along with my colleague Catherine Cronin.  I am not an educational technology person so the event was conceived as an exploration of the space between different sets of ideas, specifically those of ‘student as producer’ and ‘open educational practices‘ (OEP), using Domain of Ones Own (DoOO).  Catherine has already written about her hopes for the workshop and will write refections on it shortly.   I want to focus on the elements I was mostly interested in and the thoughts I have had following working with Jim.

I was particularly interested in how ideas of students as producers (SaP) could articulate with technologies associated with open educational practices.  In the workshop I outlined SaP as covering at least three dimensions;

  • Students as researchers: students engaged in different kinds of research like activity, and presenting the outcome of their inquiries.
  • Students devising learning materials: students involved in the development of curricular materials.  For instance a project at the University of Lincoln UK involved undergraduate students producing a range of learning materials for an Introduction to Chemistry course.
  • Students as assessors: biology students at Vanderbilt University USA were engaged in devising laboratory based experiments and the assessment of these as an alternative to the traditional lab practical.

From my perspective students are engaged in assessment as learning in all of these examples.  Students not only need to know what to learn, but why  that knowledge is important (compared to alternatives), and to determine how they can learn.  When further developed students also engage in generating new knowledge and meaning.

But how does this dovetail with OEP?

One way of understanding how approaches such as DoOO align with SaP is articulated by Audrey Waters recently as concerning,

  • Students have lost control of their personal data

  • By working in digital silos specially designed for the classroom (versus those tools that they will encounter in their personal and professional lives) students are not asked to consider how digital technologies work and/or how these technologies impact their lives

  • Education technologies, particularly those that enable “algorithmic decision-making,” need transparency and understanding

(You can substitute the word “scholar” for “student” in all cases above, too, I think.)


Whether it is VLEs, Twitter, LinkedIn, Academia or other platforms, we exchange our personal data and learning outcomes and teaching materials (in the case of VLEs) in exchange for use of these proprietorial services.  DoOO offers the opportunity to control how our personal data is used and to control our digital presence.  Jim shared examples of how academics were able to fashion strong digital identities that were not confined to the institution they happened to work in at any particular moment.  This meant they could construct digital identities that were not confined to corporate priorities and branding.  The same can be done by students.  This relates to an issue raised both by Audrey Waters in her blog post and Catherine Cronin at the workshop – that the nature of VLEs and proprietorial platforms means that students and academics do not really engage with digital literacies such as protection of personal data, privacy, copyright, etc.

DoOO, for me, is attractive because it can be supportive of public and open scholarship.  Similarly, it can support students to be producers of knowledge and meaning rather than consumers.




Primera página de la Biblia del oso, traducción al castellano de Casiodoro de Reyna, basilea, 1569.

Silenced societies are, of course, societies in which talking and writing take place but which are not heard in the planetary production of knowledge managed from the local histories and local languages of the ‘silencing’ [the dominant powers] Walter Mignolo referring to Abdelkebir Khatibi’s “Love in Two Languages


Recently I gave a presentation on “Research Selectivity and the Destruction of Authentic Scholarship”.  An earlier iteration of this was presented at a conference in Dublin and posted here.  Below I present the text of this presentation.  It deals with the way contemporary research performance management practices result in what I and my colleagues call ‘epistemic closure’.  That is we are concerned that these management practices, related as they are to the growing dominance of English as the primary means of scientific communication, and to the determining influence of global higher education rankings and the power of the major academic publishing companies, are closing down what can be considered legitimate knowledge.

My presentation is based on early stage conceptualization for a cross European research project looking at the impact of research performance management on academic practice and identity.

In this sense it approaches the broad theme of mobility in terms of the mobility of academics, and the mobility of knowledge. That is, instead of academics looking at ‘others’ mobilities and migrations, it looks at the observers; it turns the critical gaze upon systems of higher education and academic practice in the context of dominant narratives of internationalisation of higher education.

Specifically, it began life at a conference in Poland where my colleagues Marcin Starnawski and Marcin Gołębniak presented a paper discussing the increasing pressure on Polish academics to publish in ‘international’ academic journals, where international translates as English language. They raised questions about a) the transactional costs of this national and institutional pressure (e.g. the capacity to become proficient in high status academic English – who does this, and who does not, and what are the consequences of this), and b) what impact this might have on internal academic discourse, and the issue of the possible un-translatability of key terms of debate.

This has led to cooperation around developing a research project that has now involved:

  • Exploratory empirical research in Ireland, Poland and Portugal
  • Seminars and conference presentations in Ireland and Poland
  • Work on a number of journal articles
  • Development of a COST Action proposal

Although this presentation draws largely on the Irish material, it resonates closely with that found in both Poland and Portugal.

Because of where I am giving this presentation (Galway, Ireland), it takes academics working largely through the medium of Irish in the humanities as a critical case of the phenomenon of research performance management. While it is not an exploration of the position of Irish in wider Irish society, it does touch on the contested nature of Irish as a public rather than private good.

Fundamentally we are arguing that research performance management as we often experience it is to do with more than workload, but also with knowledge work itself.


So, where to start?

Reading these two documents recently I was struck by what now appears as their naivity.

The first report, “Advancing Humanities and Social Sciences Research in Ireland”, published in 2007, sought to make the case for the humanities and social sciences in the context of dominant discourses of the knowledge economy. There was a kind of strategic accommodation here, of accepting the terms of political debate – that is the very idea of the knowledge based economy, and argue the positive case for the humanities and social sciences within the logic of this discourse.

6 years later, the Higher Education Authority produced a report that seems to have come from a more innocent time, particularly when looked at from post-2008. It argued that there was no need for Irish higher education to emulate the UK and tie performance management to crude indicators of research output. Indeed, it argued that it was and should be possible for the arts and humanities to be judged on the basis of the wide array of outputs and not merely those amenable to simple statistical capture or the algorithms of the major publishing companies.


Yet, what we see is our own institutions, in the absence of clear guidance otherwise, reproducing all the known negative effects of the Research Excellence Framework.

It is as if our institutional leaders are ignorant of, or simply ignore the findings from reviews such as this.

We can view this as a local manifestation of an increasingly globalised model of higher education – of a global political economy of higher education.

Looking across Europe, as with much of the world, we see certain regular systemic features of this political economy:

  • Government support for increased participation in higher education as part of an economic strategy to maximize the stock of human capital in aid of securing economic competitive advantage in a global economy
  • Reduction in direct funding from governments whilst promoting a process of mass higher education in conjunction with competitive funding streams and diversified income streams (e.g student fees)
  • Government steering of research priorities to meet economic needs, specifically prioritising certain STEM areas that are perceived to be close to the market, and using ideas of market readiness to evaluate all research.


slide1We are all fairly familiar with key features of the global higher education landscape as it relates to research selectivity.  We can conceive of research selectivity as a site for struggles over external and internal visibility, particularly for semi-peripheral higher education systems and for more peripheral disciplines.


  • A defining characteristic of the political economy of higher education is that of STATUS COMPETITION – how well are we all doing in the global league tables
  • In other words institutional managers are concerned with visibility within the status economy of higher education. Politicians are concerned about this and gear funding priorities around securing greater visibility in the status economy as well as aligning research to economic requirements.


This largely takes the form of research performance management:

  • Management practices that increasingly seek to align individual CVs and research concerns with institutional objectives, objectives aimed at increasing the institution’s external visibility – this introduces a degree of moral coercion: if I don’t improve my visibility will this impact negatively on my institution and therefore on my colleagues
  • Alignment is enacted through various performance management practices: PMDS – annual reviews – institutional research audits – etc.



I want to present some of our initial reflections through Niamh’s Story. Niamh is a condensation of academics who work predominantly through the medium of Irish and who participated in our pilot study. However, while here I focus on Irish language scholarship, they mirror almost exactly the views expressed by the scholars from academics we have spoken to in Poland and Portugal, in a range of disciplines. It also resonates with evidence found in scholarship in critical translation studies, critical linguistics, and global English.   What I share with you here is obviously tentative, and emergent.

Initial inductive analysis of the pilot project interviews indicates a number of themes/motifs that animate academics’ experiences and concerns:

  • Although the time periods associated with the production process of academic publishing may be stretched out, with delays between submission and final publication, this sits within a context of time-pressure
  • Institutions and individual scholars are increasingly conscious of the desire to improve their relative position in annual university rankings
  • This can be exacerbated by national and institutional systems of research performance management. Improvement in research performance are evaluated over short time frames, generating demands to produce measurable outputs quickly
  • Because the bibliometrics privilege English language publications, and privilege journal articles, this can lead to increase in outputs in English as the PRIMARY language of academic output
  • This may also transform disciplinary ways of producing and disseminating knowledge.
  • Within the intensified environment of academia, scholars largely experience this systemic phenomenon as private troubles rather than public issues.

This is not about language itself, but about how a scholar relates to epistemic communities, including linguistic communities. It is about the link between the generation of knowledge and the people you commune with in order to do that, to push the boundaries of knowledge. In this way of thinking and being decisions about form of output, vehicle for communication, and language of communication are determined by this relationship to epistemic communities. This is posed as potentially different to the institutionally determined way of being, which is driven by publishing companies bibliometrics, and university rankings.

She sought personal, individual strategies to negotiate her way through the tensions of an institutionally managed CV on the one hand and being true to herself on the other. There were no collective or solidaristic spaces where these concerns could be mobilised as public issues. She spoke about how the various systems of performance management and audit undermined the capacity of academics to work collectively, and so either rely on individual strategies, or appear supine,


…the system keeps everybody in a constant state of anxiety,

trying to meet sometimes reasonable, but often

undreasonable targets across so many different

arenas of academic activity…

 As my colleague Marcin Starnawski put it, we are so busy complying with the Regime of Compliance that we don’t pause for critical reflection and so create the conditions for discussing this as a public issue rather than a personal problem.

There was a very real sense that research performance management, and feeling herself under the gaze of performance metrics Niamh managed her efforts so that she was increasing her English language publications. To make herself more visible to the institution meant making herself less visible to the epistemic communities that gave meaning to her work. This is a zero-sum game. To write more in English means to write less in another language; to create “balance” is subtractive. 

If I was to look at the ratio over the last ten years

in my own academic writing life,

the balance between writing in Irish and writing in English,

writing in English for international academic publishers,

and writing and producing material for local publishers,

it’s definitiely the direction of English,

definitely the pull is towards international publishers rather than Irish publishes;

and the presumption there is that it is superior.

This alludes to linguistic hierarchies of knowledge, even of which languages can convey knowledge, be knowledgeable. In a sense, under the dominance of English, all other languages become minor languages

Fundamentally, Niamh felt that research performance management undermined her relationship with epistemic communities, and therefore with both the nature of knowledge and knowledge production. The pressure to publish in certain kinds of English language journals broke the connection between her, meaningful exchange of knowledge, knowledge production, and authentic scholarship.


Clearly, what we are presenting here relates to wider concerns about:

  • The intensification of academic labour
  • About forms of management practice that devalue and undermine ideas of academic freedom
  • And the privatisation of knowledge that are very closely associated with the dominance of major academic publishers in determining what ‘counts’ as valued knowledge. Lets remember that the various ranking systems and metrics are controlled by profit seeking private companies.

 In the guise of technical issues of how best to measure research performance I believe we are actually seeing a transformation in what counts as knowledge and knowledge production. However, this is not being done as a result of public debate, not articulated in the public sphere. Maybe this doesn’t matter, but I believe it does, as it concerns what the role of academic scholarship is in relation to human flourishing, and concerns the values by which we think life should or could be lived. 

But I want to touch on something in my conclusion that relates specifically to academics working with what are often called minority languages, but also makes sense in relation to large language communities that are made peripheral by a zero sum approach to research performance management as it articulates with the dominance of English.


I want to briefly discuss this in relation to concepts used by the Portuguese academic Boaventura de Sousa Santos, specifically the idea that current systems of research performance management act as forms of epistemic dominance and violence, even that the imperialism of certain ideas of what counts as knowledge constitute epistemicide, the death of what Niamh referred to as an ecology of research and Santos calls an ecology of knowledge.


  • Research selectivity, as I have discussed it here, can be seen to be re-ordering Europe (and I will keep my remarks to Europe) in relation to hierarchies of knowledge
  • Clearly certain domains of knowledge, those deemed applied or close to the market, are privileged over more speculative knowledge practices. This is very much why the humanities is under such pressure, but also areas of epistemic practice.
  • The linguistic dimension of this new terrain is illuminating
  • We can see from Niamh’s account that her practice is indeed one of an ecology of research or an ecology of knowledge. She regularly speaks from between Irish and English, both seen as capable of articulating knowledge
  • However, the intense pressure she and her colleagues experience to render their research amenable to only certain audiences and certain forms of publication (where the mode of publication appears to be more important than the rigour of scholarship) works to make invisible Irish as a legitimate language of knowledge, in deed as not being a knowledgeable language in its own right. To different degrees the same can be said of Polish, or Finnish, or Latvian, or Hungarian, or Russian, or possibly French and German.
  • So, the Irish language, literature, artefacts can be objects of scientific inquiry, but Irish cannot be a legitimate medium for thinking.
  • The increasing requirement to produce or reproduce work in English, carries with it the inequality of languages, the suggestion that English has a unique capacity to articulate all meaning adequately. English is presumed to have the robustness to convey meaning originally conceived in a different linguistic and cultural frame.
  • This attitude leads, I believe, to epistemic closure.

This is not an argument against English as a shared language of scientific exchange, but it is an argument against a diminished ecology of research, and a call to think higher education otherwise, and not to collude in epistemicide.

Research Performance Management: linguistic, knowledge, and disciplinary concerns – an Introduction



Research performance management,  such as the UK’s Research Excellence Framework, is becoming a feature of higher education systems worldwide (see Hazelkorn 2011) and often associated with the rise of neoliberal modes of governance (Henkel 2000; Marginson 2000). This is a process that is also driven by the development of a European Research Area committed to aligning higher education research primarily to economic growth and job creation. Higher education is therefore conceptualised by governments in ways that make the return on public investment amenable to calculation, comparison, and programmatic intervention. Through a range of policy instruments, specifically the introduction of market-like activities, academics’ daily practice is caught up between ‘actions at a distance’ and internal management techniques (see Miller & Rose 2008). For instance, ‘quality’ of scholarly activity is assessed against regular audits, such as the REF; core funding differentiates between prestige disciplines such as STEM as against the social sciences and humanities and places an emphasis on market-like behaviours and how institutions market themselves and read their markets. These translate professional decisions into methods of comparison through league tables, and in so doing make those decisions amenable to control at a distance. Internally this is matched by management techniques to align individual practice and sensibilities to those of institutional strategic objectives, which are largely framed by these ‘actions at a distance’ (see also Ball 2012). These include systems of performance management that usually involve annual reviews of performance emphasising research activity and output, and the setting of targets. ‘Research’ in this context is often reconfigured as ‘grant capture’ and publication in ‘high impact’ journals. Consequently, one powerful critique of such selectivity has focused on challenges to academic identity (Billot 2010; Davies 2005; Harley 2001; Harris 2005). However, such critiques often arise from what can be called the centres of higher education.

Drawing heuristically on Wallerstein’s (e.g. 1982 & 2013) World-System Theory we ask what this experience of research performance management and neoliberal governmentality looks like in semi-peripheral systems of European higher education. For instance, Irish higher education reform occurs in the context of public spending being overseen by the European Union, European Bank, and the World Bank following Ireland’s economic collapse in 2008 (e.g. HEA 2013). Similarly, Poland is seeking to reform its higher education system within a context of post-Communist transition, the adoption of neoliberal political rationalities, and the intensification of research selectivity in higher education (Kweik 2012). While Ireland and Poland benefit from being part of the European Union, both are politically and economically peripheral. There is also a linguistic aspect where non-English speakers are required to publish in English-language journals. Therefore, how does this structural location impact on how policy discourses, instruments, and management techniques are mobilised? How is this manifested in the context of semi-peripheral disciplines? The legitimacy of the humanities, for instance, has been increasingly questioned as higher education is more closely aligned with national economic objectives. For instance in Japan an education minister asked its national universities to either close down their humanities and social science faculties or reorganise them to be vocationally oriented.  Adapting Wacquant’s (Wacquant, et. al. 2014) concept of territorial stigmatisation we ask in what ways semi-peripheral systems are governed through regional and global systems of surveillance and measurement; how internal selectivity is arranged at both national and institutional level (e.g. how are the humanities dealt with); and how are different categories of academic managed in relation to research selectivity?

We feel it is important that research looks at three areas in particular:

  • Linguistic impact as a consequence of the prioritisation of publishing in international high impact academic journals, which normally translates as publishing in English,
  • Disciplinary impact in terms of how practices that often define particular disciplines may be transformed due to the pressure to produce particular kinds of knowledge and research outputs. In particular, this would relate to disciplines or subject areas that have become less prestigious as a result of dominant models of research performance,
  • Impact on the kinds of knowledge produced by research activity. This refers to the way certain forms of knowledge may be marginalised through research performance management practices. This can refer to more indigenous concepts that are not easily translated into English idioms without a fundamental loss of meaning, or knowledge that is seen as not amenable to ‘quick hit’ results or market application (including cultural and heritage industries).




Ball, S. J. (2012) Performativity, Commodification and Commitment: An I-Spy Guide to the Neoliberal University, British Journal of Educational Studies,  60(1):17-28.
Billot, J. (2010) The imagined and the real: identifying the tensions for academic identity, Higher Education Research & Development, 29(6):709-721.
Davies, B (2005): The (im)possibility of intellectual work in neoliberal
regimes, Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 26(1):1-14.
Harley, S. (2002) The impact of research selectivity on academic work and identity in UK universities. Studies in Higher Education, 27(2):187–205.
Harris, S. (2005) Rethinking academic identities in neo-liberal times, Teaching in Higher Education, 10(4):421-433.
Henkel, M. (2000) Academic identities and policy change in higher education, London: Jessica Kingsley.

Kwiek, M. (2012) Changing higher education policies: From the deinstitutionalization to the reinstitutionalization of the research mission in Polish universities, Science and Public Policy 39:641-654.
Marginson, S. (2000) Rethinking academic work in the global era. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 22(1):1–12.
Miller, P. & Rose, N. (2008) Governing the Present: Administering Economic, Social and Personal Life, Cambridge: Polity Press
HEA (2013) Towards a Performance evaluation framework: Profiling Irish Higher education a report by the higher education authority. Dublin: HEA.
Wallerstein, I, et. al. (1982) World-Systems Analysis: Theory and Methodology, Beverley Hills: Sage.
Wallerstein I, et. al. (2013) Uncertain Worlds: World-Systems Analysis in Changing Times, New York: Oxford University Press.
Hazelkorn, E. (2011) Ranking and the Reshaping of Higher Education: The battle for world-class excellence. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Wacquant, L. et al. (2014) Territorial Stigmatisation in Action, Environment and Planning A, 46:1270–1280.


Introducing the toxic academy and the broken academic – a too long introduction but much loved

here is a first stab at it, a collation of lots of notes, of passion rendered narrative.  it is too long and in its more developed form will be broken up, moved around, edited up and down.  but i wanted to share it as it is something I like and want to share – because it’s OUR story


Stamens and stigma of Malus florentina – Florentine crabapple – hawthorn-leaf crabapple (

The Toxic Academe and the Broken Academic


The ‘crisis’ came after a busy doctoral study school. In a way it was planned. That might sound strange but I was already aware enough that something was seriously wrong with me, that ‘things’ – relationships, work, thoughts, could not go on as they were, that something had to change. I had already gone through that step, discussed by Karp in his excellent book ‘Speaking of Sadness’, of redefining myself as ‘depressed’. This new, powerful way of defining myself was to be the break with the past, the beginning of a new, frightening, me. It was unstoppable. Volition no longer appeared viable as an idea of how I was in the world. My last, so it felt, act of volition to delay the moment of singularity where one life transformed irrevocably into another could be labeled as ‘admin’, that bugbear of academic life. So, I woke on that fateful Monday morning, tired but not feeling too bad. I drank my coffee in a relaxed state looking forward to an afternoon of relaxation. But first, and isn’t there always a ‘but first…’? But first I wanted (needed?) to go into the office to deal with course administration following the study school. A few emails, a discussion with the course administrator, and then I could chill. The afternoon and evening would, however, escape any pretense at volition, of agency as a reflexive action in the world.

This article is intensely personal, my story, but in being thus it is also intensely objective since personal stories are always in context, and so always also social (Ellis, 1991). It is a story of modern academic life and how it is molded by internal and external dynamics. In particular it is a story of the relationship between exogenous and endogenous conditions that created a personal ‘crisis’. In this narrative I am not blaming anybody, though there were managerial actions that precipitated my decline into radical self- doubt. I hope to convey that a range of external conditions, that is external to my inner world, to consciousness, interacted with habitual ways of being in the world, of responding to certain scenarios, of deeply structured ways of being, what Bourdieu called ‘habitus’. In this narrative I wish to say something about this interaction and therefore contribute more widely to debates about agency and the limits of agency. Specifically though, I want to explore the intensification of academic labour, of how this occurs in the context of discourses of ‘excellence’, the ‘global university’, ‘new public management’, and expansion of higher education. I want to narrate a phenomenology of academic life that captures the lived, embodied experience of how these discourses play out institutionally and personally. In doing so I will meander through a series of related topics.

This is an unashamedly ‘first person’ account. How could it be anything but? I will, as an academic, justify this claim. In preparing for this endeavor I have read numerous papers on autoethnography. I have felt myself touched and warned by the cautionary tales and experiences of others such as Carol Rambo Ronai (1998), Barbara Jago (2002), Brett Smith (1999), Sarah Wall (2008), and Nicholas Holt (2008); of how they struggled for legitimacy of their autoethnographic tales that did not ‘fit’ many accepted academic norms; of the dangers to your credibility amongst peers by either adopting such first-person methodologies or of outing oneself as suffering mental illness. Yet, autoethnography seems perfectly placed to conduct the kind of sociological analysis that follows, of relating the personal self to the academic self (Bochner, 1997, p. 432), particularly when faced with an academe that splits the personal from the academic. The autoethnographic enterprise is not about self-indulgence. If anything it is the opposite. Arthur Frank (2000) argues for the standpoint of the storyteller, that story infers relationship with a listener, that storytelling invites other stories, other listenings, not just analysis from nowhere.  This is the opposite of speaking from nowhere.  It privileges a location (in theory, in methodology).  It is an ethical stance.  But, an ethical stance towards what? I could craft some memorable and clever phrases but I would rather point you towards the wonderful words of Ronald Pelias (2004, p. 10) when he says,

They were teaching students who seemed more interested in grades than learning. They were working for administrators who seemed more concerned with the bottom line than quality education. They were going to endless meetings that didn’t seem to matter, writing meaningless reports that seemed to disappear in the bureaucracy, and learning that service seemed to have little effect on others’ lives. Productivity was the motto of the day, so they published article after article that no one seemed to read, particularly those who were the focus of the study. They wrote piece after piece on social issues, but none seemed to make any difference. They researched topics that got them promotions and tenure but seemed removed from whom they were. They felt empty, despondent, disillusioned.

The ‘they’ he refers to are ‘us’, ‘me’, ‘you’. He is referring to a certain crisis of faith in the purpose of higher education that many feel. He is referring to that splitting off of the personal from the academic self that Bochner notes above and specifically the way the academe appears to want us to subjugate the former for the latter; what Parker Palmer describes as the ‘divided self’ (Palmer, 1993). The study of higher education is filled with debates of questionable faith in the modern academe. This maybe in terms of the academe as Academic Capitalism (Slaughter & Rhoades, 2010) or the rise of the Global University (Marginson, 2004; see 2006). I enjoy and love these academic texts. I refer to them not just because they have taken on the mantle of ‘classics’, but, because they speak powerful truths. I suspect, though, that this very power does not rely on the relaying of ‘facts’, of the scientific quality of the research, but because when we read them we feel what they speak of. Part of what we feel when really engaging with such texts is a sense that the higher education world we are part of could be different. This may be phrased in nostalgic terms that imply a certain loss of purpose, as if the origins of the university in the establishment and sustenance of social elites did not exist. I do not want to join such nostalgia. Rather, the sense of loss may express the desire that attracted many of us to the academe. This could be a love of knowledge, a desire for deeper understanding, and possibly most important a belief that the work we do could make a difference. As is often the case, at this point I come back to my intellectual touchstone, Edward Said, and his discourse on the role of the intellectual (Said, 2005; 2012). If the role of the academic is not to speak truth to power, then what is our social function? That is the question that animates me here and calls upon me to find a style of inquiry that speaks a truth to power through storytelling, by staking a certain ethical standpoint.

This standpoint is grounded in experience. In my reading I was struck by the pained honesty of many writers in the tradition of autoethnography. I was struck by the role that vulnerability plays in their texts, and the wider significance of telling ‘their’ stories as a way of telling ‘our’ stories. This is an echo here of C. Wright Mills’ Sociological Imagination, of the translation of “private troubles into public issues”, of David Karp’s observation (1995) that his depression was indeed his but when so many American’s appeared to suffer depression it was definitely a public issue. In linking his personal and academic selves Karp sought to give a sociological account of his depression in discussion with others. His was an ethical standpoint; a recognition that the voice of those suffering depression was like an absent presence in the academic literature. So, he felt compelled to speak from the position of one who suffered depression, and to speak with others who lived with it (11). There is, then, a degree of ‘remoralisation’ in the telling of such stories. It is a necessary process as depression and illness generally can be so demoralizing (Frank, 2000). And many autoethnographists write of the therapeutic need to convey their stories. But I feel emboldened by Frank’s further discussion of illness stories as acts of ‘care of the self’, a resistance to the power of expert knowledge to define us, resistance to being lost in institutional processes of managing the ill person. Illness stories, my story here, can be seen as ‘technologies of the self’, as practices that privilege the knowledge of those defined as ill in such ways that challenge the hegemony of medical or institutional knowledge’s. I see this resonate in Barbara Jago’s (2002) account of ‘academic depression’ where she states that “I write because my story is, in many respects, the story of the academy”. To tell her story is to tell ‘our’ story; to open up the academe to critical scrutiny, but to do so from somewhere (the ethical stance) rather than nowhere. C. Wright Mill’s articulation of the translation of private troubles into public issues implies a relational world. The authenticity of my story lies in the extent to which it brings me out of an inauthentic ‘being with’ (self, others) that is dominated by ‘self-concern’ and renders others as mere objects, and makes possible a more authentic ‘concern for others’ (Batchelor, 1983). Illness, depression, can face us with the existential reality of being alone and vulnerable in the world. On the worst of days ‘sufferers become swamped by their selves and lost in them’ (Karp, 1995, p. 105). On those days my sense of self was one where an ‘injured, hurting, pained self dominates thought, perception, and action’ (105). Our existential reality, though, is also one of a horizon of possibilities. The current illness is not the only option. And, critically, it is a world of ‘being with others’. It is this ‘being with others’, and the cultivation of a concern for others that brings us closer to an authentic existence.

So, telling this story is an act of ‘remoralisation’ at the personal and social levels.

Writing the my story/our story account (layered accounts)

Much of what constitutes my academic identity, and identity is a central feature of this story, is bound up with an interest in policy and policy effects. Inevitably then I will touch upon policy in terms of text and discourse (Ball, 1994) as part of the exogenous conditions of my crisis. I want to engage in a dialogue with what others have written about the nature of modern academic life, to see the continuities and disruptions with my own story. The question is how to do this while maintaining a connection between my personal and academic self, how to write the my/our story without privileging the abstract minds eye (Palmer, 1993 p.xxiii) and subjugating the heartfelt concern that drives me here.

I am certainly not the first to encounter this question. So, again my inspiration comes from those before me who have endeavoured to speak in a heartfelt manner about the private trouble whilst also attending to the sociological truth of the public issue. And so it is from my reading how other autoethnographers have crafted their texts that I seek to write a layered account, where layered means ‘…a back-and-forth movement between experiencing and examining a vulnerable self and observing and revealing the broader context of that experience’ (Ellis, 2007, p. 14). This approach can work to decentre academic authority (1998, p. 407), of combining ‘a novelistic and scholarly voice’ (behar 114). So, this my/our story utilizes a moving between literary non-fictional accounts (emotional introspection) and more obvious ‘academic’ reflection (see Jago, 2002). This will take on the character of a dialogue or set of discussions between my ‘being there’ (the work of recreating felt states) and ‘being here’ (academic reflections on the autoethnographic work) (Spry, 2001). Consequently I speak to debates on the intensification of academic labour and the performative culture that is overdetermined by changing political economy of higher education. But I do so from a bodily standpoint, of an understanding that my body is inscribed by ‘traces of culture’ (Spry, 2001, p. 711).

Good autoethnography, as Tami Spry has argued, “is a provocative weave of story and theory” (713).  The narrative must be persuasive both affectively and critically.  Revelation is not enough in itself if it does not move the reader to a new place of understanding. In doing this I hope to convince you, the reader, that this story of a damaged academic has wider validity. This is not validity in the positivist sense, but rather of verisimiltude, of how it resonates with your phenomenological understandings (Ellis, 1999, p. 672). In this my/our story I ask the reader to feel the truths contained, to share social truths by engaging with personal stories, engage with public issues through feeling private matters.


Ball, S. J. (1994). Education reform: A critical and post-structural approach.

Batchelor, S. (1983). Alone with others: An existential approach to Buddhism.

Bochner, A. P. (1997). It’s About Time: Narrative and the Divided Self. Qualitative Inquiry, 3(4), 418–438. doi:10.1177/107780049700300404

Ellis, C. (1991). Sociological Introspection and Emotional Experience. Symbolic Interaction, 14(1), 23–50. doi:10.1525/si.1991.14.1.23

Ellis, C. (1999). Heartful Autoethnography. Qualitative Health Research, 9(5), 669–683. doi:10.1177/104973299129122153

Ellis, C. (2007). Telling Secrets, Revealing Lives: Relational Ethics in Research With Intimate Others. Qualitative Inquiry, 13(1), 3–29. doi:10.1177/1077800406294947

Frank, A. W. (2000). The Standpoint of Storyteller. Qualitative Health Research, 10(3), 354–365. doi:10.1177/104973200129118499

Holt, N. L. (2008). Representation, legitimation, and autoethnography: An autoethnographic writing story. International Journal of Qualitative Methods.

Jago, B. J. (2002). Chronicling an Academic Depression. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 31(6), 729–757. doi:10.1177/089124102237823

Karp, D. A. (1995). Speaking of Sadness : Depression, Disconnection, and the Meanings of Illness. Oxford University Press.

Marginson, S. (2004). Competition and Markets in Higher Education: a “glonacal” analysis. Policy Futures in Education, 2(2), 175. doi:10.2304/pfie.2004.2.2.2

Marginson, S. (2006). Dynamics of National and Global Competition in Higher Education. Higher Education, 52(1), 1–39. doi:10.1007/s10734-004-7649-x

Palmer, P. J. (1993). To know as we are known: Education as a spiritual journey.

Pelias, R. J. (2004). A Methodology of the Heart. Rowman Altamira.

Ronai, C. R. (1998). Sketching With Derrida: An Ethnography of a Researcher/Erotic Dancer. Qualitative Inquiry, 4(3), 405–420. doi:10.1177/107780049800400306

Said, E. (2005). The public role of writers and intellectuals. Nation.

Said, E. W. (2012). Representations of the Intellectual. Random House LLC.

Slaughter, S., & Rhoades, G. (2010). Academic Capitalism and the New Economy. JHU Press.

Smith, B. (1999). The Abyss: Exploring Depression Through a Narrative of the Self. Qualitative Inquiry, 5(2), 264–279. doi:10.1177/107780049900500206

Spry, T. (2001). Performing Autoethnography: An Embodied Methodological Praxis. Qualitative Inquiry, 7(6), 706–732. doi:10.1177/107780040100700605

Wall, S. (2008). Easier Said than Done: Writing an Autoethnography. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 7(1), 38–53.

Is the term ‘academic’ now empty in higher education?

I have recently had my annual review.  This is not the annual review we are all becoming familiar with as part of the performance management culture of higher education, but as part of my ‘probation’.  Yes, you read that correctly, I am on probation.

Approaching 20 years in academia to find, on taking this job, that I would be on probation felt, well, insulting.  Obviously, it isn’t enough to meet the requirements of the job and so be employed by the institution.  Neither is it enough to undertake an annual review of performance that asks all the same questions as my probationary review meeting.  No, instead I have to be treated as if all my previous experience (which contributed to me being offered the post in the first place) was worthless.

Many of the questions posed in the meeting continued in this negative vein.  And I am using negative here as in the way much of my academic practice was negated, rendered negative or simply invisible.

The academic networks I was embedded in prior to this job were construed as  hindrances, and viewed as things that held me (back?) to my previous employment.  The fact that one of those associations was a network I had initiated and had organised its first conference appeared to be irrelevant.  I wondered whether the ethical/political focus of that network on migration and racism was just seen as unworthy of my current job specification.

And then there was the inevitable question about research funding.  They did inquire into what writing I was currently working on.  I suppose this passes as an interest in what us academics are supposed to be engaged in – knowledge.  But it is research grants that our institutions are most interested in.

It is worth thinking about this carefully, and about the way valued research is equated with grant capture, that is how knowledge is reduced to money.

If our value is measured less in terms of the quality of our teaching and the way we work with knowledge, and more in terms of grant capture, can we really say we are engaged in academic activity?

Of course probation can work both ways.  As I sat there it was the institution that was on probation.  I have yet to write the report.

I wasn’t going to write about this experience but was prompted by re-reading the blog post by Mark Carrigan on the ‘Accelerated Academy‘ and the article by Ros Gill referred to in Mark’s post.

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