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Speculative Diction

2014, a look back

Melonie recaps the stories that inspired her blog posts from the last year.


It’s the end of the calendar year, I thought I’d indulge in a bit of a re-cap of some of the things I wrote during the past 12 months, and also some of the best commentaries and articles that inspired my writing or dealt with issues that relate to it. So this post is all about recommended reading, and I’ve organized them here, roughly by theme. As if you didn’t already have enough to look at over the holidays! But so it goes…

The debate about academics as “public intellectuals” kicked off early in 2014; in January, Nick Kristof of the New York Times wrote a column in which he opined that academics are not “engaged” with non-academic publics. Ironically, academics had plenty to say about that – in public, on social media and in blogs, opinion columns, and other venues. I didn’t write anything on this myself, but there were some great posts that emerged from this debate, including Matt Holbrook’s discussion of “the exploitation of the historian’s labour” and Madison Van Oort’s piece about “the work of public work”. Though not part of the same thread of discussion, this post by Ta-Nehisi Coates is also important, addressing the response he got when he described Melissa Harris Perry as a public intellectual.

Must read:Disrupting the higher education content cycle”, by Jonathan Senchyne.

The crisis in academic work had been an ongoing theme, not just in 2014 (or even just this decade). Currently much of it is framed through the critique of adjunct labour in academic institutions, with a focus on the U.S. context; this post from Léo Charbonneau is a good introduction to the situation in Canada. The post I wrote, “Thinking beyond ourselves”, was in response to an online debate about the role of tenured professors in the political struggles of adjuncts. Of course, this year there were also posts criticizing profs who “refuse” to retire, since the long-predicted (and apparently mythical, at this point) wave of Baby Boomer retirements still hasn’t occurred. Speaking of academic careers, I also wrote about the “quit lit” in my post “Fight and flight”, discussing how, as academics leave the university, a genre of online writing has developed that reflects scholarly identities in transition.

Must-reads: Tressie McMillan Cottom discussed how “Many of our most strident debates of highered’s labor system do not speak as eloquently about how that labor system intersects with institutional racism, if they speak about it at all”; and Kate Bowles provides thoughtful commentary from the Australian perspective.

With the debate about the academic job market, the doctoral education process has come under scrutiny. For example, length, structure, and content of doctoral programs were addressed in the MLA report on PhD education. But some issues haven’t made it into the limelight, even though they signal important changes in how doctoral education happens; take a look at this important pair of posts, one from Pat Thomson titled “Are we heading for a DIY PhD?” and the other, “Who is helping your doctoral student write their thesis?” by Claire Aitchison. The questions they raise are directly related to changes to supervision that are not being discussed enough. On the topic of PhDs and career preparation, I also wrote two posts based on a keynote I presented on student engagement and doctoral education (here’s part one, and part two).

While this was a year in which we were treated to some very public displays of misogyny – Elliot Rodger, Jian Ghomeshi, Bill Cosby, and GamerGate, to name a few – we also saw further evidence of the ugliness of sexism on university campuses in Canada, including at St. Mary’s, University of Ottawa (more than once), Dalhousie, Western, McMaster, Queen’s, and Carleton. In November, a Toronto Star investigation revealed that many Canadian universities still lack clear policies on sexual assault. Meanwhile there were plenty of (global and local) examples of women academics experiencing sexism – especially in the sciences and technology – and dealing with harassment and assault at work in academe, including during fieldwork in various disciplines.

Provoked by an irritating blog post, I wrote something about women’s under-representation as experts in the media (and in other areas like academe). I wanted to focus on the fact that women’s lack of representation in certain careers isn’t just about their “choices”. Ignoring the context of their choices prevents us from reaching a real answer about why and how gendered difference is both assumed as normal and ignored as irrelevant.

Must reads: Two pieces that address issues of privilege, gender, and race in academe, “On feeling depleted: Naming, confronting and surviving oppression in the academy”, by Nicole Nguyen and Tina Catania; and “How it feels to be #BlackandSTEM and a woman” by Danielle N. Lee.

This year I’ve been lucky enough to participate in an ongoing conversation about academic work, “productivity”, and health; I began to dig into this in my posts on “Priorities and productivity”, and “By the numbers”. For more on those themes, take a look at Richard Hall’s post on solidarity and the “productive” university; Kate Bowles’ beautiful words on academic over-work, illness, and priorities; and John Warner’s comments on work that “counts” (or doesn’t). In December, the death of UK professor Stefan Grimm of Imperial College London came to the media’s attention, further highlighting the connections between working conditions, “performance”, and mental health. I wrote a post exploring those issues and connecting them to academic bullying, and governance or universities.

Media coverage of mental health issues in the university increased for a period this year with the Guardian’s slew of articles from March, which I discussed in my post about the stereotypes often perpetuated in this coverage. I also took a look at the systemic barriers faced by students seeking help for mental health problems.

Must reads: How colleges flunk mental health (Newsweek, U.S.); and if you missed it the first time around, here’s another shout-out to Miya Tokumitsu’s article from January, on the destructive mantra of “do what you love” – which is so very relevant to academic culture.

I wrote something about my research on organizational and cultural change in universities – as a kind of counter to the constant flow of articles proclaiming how universities cannot, will not, and have not changed for hundreds of years. To go along with it, I want to recommend a couple of pieces on organizational culture: in “Who really found the Higgs Boson”, we get a privileged peek inside the unique governance style of CERN; and in Decoding Organization, the author takes WW2-era Bletchley Park as his case study, looking at it through the lens of organization studies. I haven’t started reading that last one, but I have a copy and it looks excellent.

On a related theme, program prioritization has been implemented at a number of Canadian universities over the past couple of years, including Guelph, Wilfred Laurier, Nipissing, York, and Brock; but the discontent it inspires was never so spectacular as at Saskatchewan. My post on this issue, “Dissecting the USask fiasco”, ended up bouncing around quite a bit.

Must read: For an unhappy but important story about academic freedom and corporate influence, read “A prof debunks standardised testing”.

2014 was the year of student activism in Ferguson, in Hong Kong, and in Mexico; and quietly, the Occupy movement achieved a unique victory against student debt. And it was year in which more layers of the social media onion were peeled back, showing us that sites like Facebook and OKCupid have no trouble with using subscribers as unwitting subjects in online experiments – unsurprising really, since the cost of our participation is our (big) data. Then again, we might ask why we should expect them to be ethical with their research when even Harvard, Dartmouth, and Stanford can’t pull it off.

Must-reads: Dorothy Kim’s article on “Social media and academic surveillance: The ethics of digital bodies”; and Tressie McMillan Cottom on “Democratizing ideologies and inequality regimes”.

That’s all for now; many thanks to everyone who has read, shared, and commented on my blog over the past year, and I wish everyone the best for 2015.

Melonie Fullick
Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate at York University. The topic of her dissertation is Canadian post-secondary education policy and its effects on the institutional environment in universities.
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