Academic Arrhythmia: Interview with Researchers

Categories: Careers, Other, Research Roles, Research Skills, Supervising and Teaching Research Skills and Roles

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In June and July MethodSpace will focus on research-oriented careers including career purpose and goals, skills, as well as expected and unexpected transitions. Find the whole series here.


June 2019 seems like a million years ago! Remember traveling, going out to dinner, concerts and theater? *sigh* While it seems like many academic and research careers are in a state of upheaval now due to repercussions of the Covid-19, these issues are not new. The June 19 special issue of the Academy of Management’s excellent journal, Learning & Education, focused on the Rhythms of Academic Life. The whole issue is more timely than ever! It is set in the management field but will likely resonate with readers across disciplines. Please note that while this journal is not open access, some of the articles can be found online, so search for titles of interest. If you can find it in your library it is worth a read.

In the profound introduction by the editors, one point stood out for me:

Back in the day, academics published when they had something to say. Now they publish because they have to. If they don’t, negative consequences flow: Increased teaching loads that make publication even more difficult, placement in a development track, or even the threat of losing their jobs. Given these existential pressures, faculty are adopting a wide range of strategies. They discuss the implications for teaching and service

I was also interested in this article, “Academic Arrhythmia: Disruption, Dissonance, and Conflict in the Early-Career Rhythms of CMS Academics” after reading the abstract:

Starting a career on the margins of the neoliberal business school is becoming increasingly challenging. We contribute to the understanding of the problems involved and to potential solutions by developing a theoretically-informed approach to  to the rhythms of academic life and drawing on interviews with 32 critical management studies (CMS) early-career academics (ECAs) in 14 countries. Bringing together Lefebvre’s rhythmanalysis (and his concepts of polyrhythmia, eurhythmia, and arrhythmia); Zerubavel’s sociology of time; and identity construction literature, we examine the rhythm-identity implications of the recent higher education changes. We show how the dynamics between the broader pressures, institutional strategies, and our interviewees’ attempts to reassert themselves are creating a vicious circle of arrhythmia: a debilitating condition characterized by rhythmic disruption, dissonance, and conflict.

I contacted the co-authors for an interview. Here are the responses from Alexandra Bristow, Sarah Robinson, Sarah and Olivier Ratle.


JES. You used various concepts of rhythm to describe academic career life. How would you “take the pulse” of the disrupted and remote career life of academics in the current pandemic era?

Alex

Thank you. Our paper, of course, draws on the notion of arrhythmia, which is originally a medical metaphor (where the heart beats with an irregular rhythm). This is now particularly pertinent in the context of the pandemic and also acquires new shades and meanings. Now we need to not only take the underlying pulse but also examine the current oxygen levels in the lifeblood of contemporary academia. There is an inextricable connection between the heartbeat and the breathing rhythm, with the two affecting and regulating each other, and with corresponding effects on the body. Perhaps the framework we offer can be seen as a kind of metaphorical qualitative oximeter, that helps to examine the relationship between academic working rhythms and the breathing patterns (including the breathing spaces) that are needed to sustain them. In the current ‘disrupted and remote’ pandemic ways of working this relationship can play out in different ways, as some academics have more time to ‘catch their breath’ whereas others (e.g. those with caring responsibilities, or those who have to move all their teaching online very quickly) are rendered constantly ‘breathless’.

Sarah

These are difficult and challenging times which have very suddenly caused us all to question the form and nature of academic work. This crisis create different challenges for each of us from balancing child care home schooling and remote elder care to crafting our work spaces and schedules, to gaining familiarity with many different communication technologies, to the negotiation of work/life boundaries. These is anxiety about family welfare, job security, role identity (e.g. nit being allowed to research) and some people are dealing with their own illness and/or that of family and friends and in some tragic cases their loss. So the plus is not a stable one it quickens with adrenalin rushes, anxiety and challenge but may also slow dramatically with tiredness burnout and grief.

Olivier

On the one hand, all of us are experiencing firsthand how virtual meeting technologies, used more intensively than before, affect us and change our relation to work. On the other, we also see detailed accounts emerging of individuals are affected by it, and how not everyone is affected in the same way. Traditionally underprivileged workers seem, as always, to have it harder.

JES. You discussed what you called “a vicious cycle of arrhythmia.” What factors play into that cycle now?

Alex

The arrhythmic academia, already fundamentally unhealthy as we have argued in the paper, now also has Covid-19! Academic arrhythmia can be seen as an underlying condition that has made the effects of the pandemic particularly severe. The extra burden and pressures of the work created in response to the pandemic, the new and different identity and rhythm pressures emerging are layering onto the pre-existing issues, intensifying them to a breaking point. Academia is now truly in a critical condition – arguably being artificially sustained on a ventilator – in hope of survival.

Sarah

I think they are similar but intensified. We are still trying to balance all the different academic roles/rhythms but in the same time and space as all our domestic and care roles. The more we try to do everything the tider we become and the more difficult it is to achieve eurhythmia. Academic rhythms continue to clash against each other but they are now also clashing more directly with domestic ones.  At every zoom meeting there is always we always wee a colleagues child or dog or partner clamouring for their attention or the doorbell ringing. Rhythms have been re-prioritised now it is reaching rather than research which we are told takes priority so we react to this not by cutting our research activity but doing it ‘by stealth’ in evening and week ends and booking leave to do it – this adding to the vicious circle.

Olivier

I think that the notion of presenteeism is likely to take on much more importance than we acknowledged in the paper. What we see now is people finding all sorts of way of ‘being at work’ even when in reality, they can’t, because they are worried about other things. That cannot do anything to help the problems we described.

JES. How can we use this disrupted time to aim for a more balanced and healthy rhythm?

Alex

There is also a brighter side to the situation, which is that it is sufficiently disruptive to have the potential for radical change (requiring a kind of electric shock, resuscitation treatment). The pandemic and responses to it have made the cracks in the neoliberal HE bodies more visible and public. If we can find a collective breathing space for reflection (going back to the notion of spacemakers in our paper) then there is potential for this moment to trigger a radical reimagining of the way we do things in academia. New spaces and ways of working and thinking are opening up already, it is now a matter of collectively paying enough attention and putting in the effort to make sure that they become used and structured in more balanced and harmonic (i.e. eurhythmic) ways rather than the opportunity being highjacked for the wrong purposes (which would further exacerbate the vicious circle of arrhythmia).

Sarah

I think it has made us think more about all our daily rhythms and how we try to balance them. Routines are important – I have never had so many routines in my life and like having them. It helps to ensure the different health, work, caring, domestic, relationship boxes are ticked.
I’m actually working slightly shorten hours but as I’m paying more attention to exercise rest and eating properly I’m more productive. Perhaps this crisis also makes realise we can’t always do everything at the same time and some things need to be parked for a while. This is about self care too and care of others.  I’ve had many more virtual coffees and drinks with colleagues than I’ve every hd face to face. There is a much stronger discourse emerging in universities (from the top all the way down) about mental health, wellbeing and mutual suppor

Olivier

Personally, when I think about some of the good things that this brought (they are not related to a healthy rhythm – they are things like clean air, quiet streets, beautiful night skies), I’d like to hold on to the memory of it, but that may not carry us very far. In many ways, we are already going back to the old ways

JES. What should today’s doctoral faculty and dissertation supervisors do to develop the next generation of academics? Do doctoral programs need to shift their priorities?

Alex

The onus should not be (just) on the supervisors, and definitely not on the doctoral students and early career faculty themselves. We argue very strongly in the paper that the issues behind the unhealthy state of academia are systemic and structural, and that individual responses, however astute, courageous and perhaps even heroic, cannot reach far enough to address them. Collective, radical action and change are what is needed, and the pandemic has made this much more obvious. And whilst doctoral programs could and should shift their priorities (for example, re-evaluating the time pressure on students to complete within strict deadlines), the shift needs to be broader and deeper than that, reaching to the damaging logic of performance measurement, management and the drive for academic ‘excellence’, narrowly defined in terms of rankings and league tables. To return to the above example, the strict PhD completion deadlines are linked to PhD completion rates being part of university league tables and other evaluation mechanisms – it is the latter that needs to be challenged and changed in order to enable the former

Sarah

I think it is important that the message doctoral students take away is that there is not just one perfect academic career trajectory and that we craft our academic careers according to our own priorities, circumstances and values. There is so much noise and advice given about how to succeed in a narrow metrics driven way that this message has sometimes got lost. The pandemic has perhaps made us realise the need to reflect on what is important to us and what we can realistically achieve.
 
I would suggest shifting the emphasis from succeeding (in narrowly defined terms) to flourishing (in terms of personal achievement and wellbeing)

Olivier

All I want to highlight here is that the greatest danger, which we highlight in the paper, is that most advice given are unhelpful and are only contributing to the problem. We don’t need advice; we need structural changes.

JES. You point to the “audit culture” and “academic capitalism.” It seems likely that these trends will continue, given budgetary constraints and demands coming out of the pandemic. You discussed issues at the “margins.” You did not mention contingent, part-time, and other unstable faculty positions. Have you given any thought to the rhythms in their career lives?

Alex

Indeed we have, and we do think that other groups at the margins are also affected by arrhythmia (in fact we have several new research projects underway that are looking at the experiences of such other groups). It would be interesting to explore the nuances of how arrhythmia plays out and affects different marginal groups, and also how the experiences at the margins compare to more mainstream experiences.

Sarah

We have given much thought to this and we are very worried about the growing precarity of academic work and the way in which probation and the renewal or no renewal of contracts are handled

JES. What are your thoughts and expectations about how the new pressures caused by the pandemic will manifest in colleges and universities?

Alex

They manifest in all kinds of ways, depending on the institutional settings, including their different educational and research foci, their financial positions, their cultures and missions, and their geographies. They also are experienced in many different ways on the ground depending on individual academics’ circumstances. Old divides and inequalities (e.g. gender, the digital divide, the carer/non-carer divide) are exacerbated. But the pressures are also bringing these issues and the old ways of doing things to a tipping point. If this results in more radical and lasting changes, new progressive norms and practices can emerge, offering hope for the future.

Sarah

There will be job losses and redundancies.  There maybe more or less casualisation maybe in the short term less as universities tighten their belts and give more work to existing contracted staff but this may be followed by waves of voluntary and compulsory redundancies to replace expensive contractual staff with more fix term working.
 
Blended and remote teaching approaches may become more widespread with a decline in face to face teaching. 
Some institutions or schools within them may have to become more teaching focused and research time will be reduced.
 
 
I hope that universities will not lose too much focus on research as the role of the universities in researching and supporting Post-Covid recovery is key.
 

Olivier

I think that I would question the premise of the question here. The question to ask is not “given the audit culture and academic capitalism, how are these pressures likely to change?”, but “how can we use this seismic change to undermine the audit culture and academic capitalism?

JES. If you were writing this article today, what practical or theoretical implications would you discuss?

Alex

Difficult to tell for sure without proper data collection and analysis. However, the gut feel says that our vicious circle of arrhythmia framework would still be very relevant, as would our call for a radical collective reimagining of academia. For all its evils, the pandemic offers a unique opportunity for this, as old norms of practices are brought into question and re-evaluated. Let’s not waste this opportunity but use it to rebuild academia as healthy, sustainable and capable of doing what it does best – helping humanity to address complex challenges and imagine better futures.

Sarah

I think our conclusions and recommendations were consistent with the data our research participants generated at the time. If we were to interview them again what would be different?
More concern about managing all the technologies, the transition to remote and blended teaching, managing work/home boundaries.
The role of research in business school moving forward – as the teaching cash cows will they be used more intensively to fill the revenue gaps.

Olivier

Our conclusions were robust and meaningful, and it is difficult to foreground one issue without backgrounding others, but I do feel that whilst presenteeism was always a problem, the intensive use of virtual meeting technologies has exacerbated it as a problem.

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