Friday, 22 January 2016

Blogging Resolutions: 2016

When I started a blog, I wasn’t exactly sure what I was hoping to achieve, but I did know a few things:
  • I wanted this blog to be about the process of doing a PhD, not about my research output (hence the name);
  • I wanted to use this blog as a platform for building community with other PhD students;
  • I wasn’t averse to using this blog for non-PhD things, when they came up.

As time has gone on, these desires have caused me no end of problems. I’ve often thought that if I’m documenting the process as it happens, that requires me to accept that I’m not an expert. I think, if I’m not an expert why should anyone read what I have to say? And then I think, but surely community-building is about being authentic, so why do I have to be an expert? I'm not! But then, I think isn’t that just self-indulgent? And then I think well what is the point of a blog anyway?

Are you bored of this already? I know I am.
I haven't resolved this pull between being authentic and offering something of value. I still don't know if this blog is 'right' or 'useful.' I certainly don't think it's contributing to my overall academic output. But it does bring me enjoyment, and has introduced me to some very awesome people in the field. So despite the fact I don’t set much store by resolutions, I am going to make some resolutions about  this blog, right now.

  • I resolve to stick with my intended aims when I blog.
  • I resolve to post only when I have something worth saying, and accept that this might mean posting less frequently.
  • I resolve to offer my own experiences, not as though I’m an expert, but just because they’re my experiences.

2015 was an amazing, life-changing year. This blog - imperfect as it is - has already done more than I thought it would. (Not least of all because people have actually read it!) If you're here reading this, thank you. Here's to 2016!

Saturday, 16 January 2016

Laughing at Misogyny

 So. Allen Frantzen. Already, medievalists are responding with fantastic pieces. Peter Buchanan summarises how disheartening this is for new scholars in the field. Lavinia Collins highlights that - like most MRA rhetoric - the post fundamentally boils down gender relations to whether women are willing to offer men sex. Jeffrey Cohen has noted that in using his cachet as an academic to support his rhetoric, Frantzen is doing something that should worry all of us.

And me? Well, I'm sat here, dipping into the #femfog tweets and laughing. I'm aware that it's easier for me to do this because I'm a late medievalist. Sure, I've read Before the Closet, but my work and research isn't directly indebted to Frantzen's work. I won't run into him at conferences, or interact with him professionally.

But also, I'm laughing because 10+ years of being a feminist on the internet means that my first instinct when encountering this sort of rhetoric isn't always to jump in and debate. Sometimes, I do debate. Sometimes - depending on the situation - I get off twitter and do something about the issue. But not in this case.
There are a few reasons for this. Firstly, in certain situations, laughter and mockery are powerful tools. They aren't a substitute for rational debate, or engaged discussion. But they send a powerful message. More than just 'I don't agree with what you think and here are my reasons why,' mockery says something more than this: 'I find your opinions unworthy of academic debate.' 

Historically, the question of whether people agree or disagree would have taken place privately, quietly. This means rhetoric like Frantzen's could be excused, or diminished. Opposition could be dismissed as one person with a personal grudge. But, with such public disagreement, it's clear that this view is not widely-held, and that it's contested.

Secondly, I don't think reasoning is the right approach here because these views are too entrenched. Frantzen has had a long, distinguished career which has brought him into contact with women. He's worked alongside women. He's taught women; he's supervised women's PhDs. He's accepted women's conference papers and heard them speak. In short, he has had a long time, and many examples of women, which might counteract his views. And yet these views persist.
Finally, I want to return to this point: views like this aren't held in a vacuum. Academia is part of society, and society is structurally sexist. Which means most of us are going to come up against the misogyny in our careers in lots of horrible and awful ways. I don't have enough resources (emotional or mental) to engage with every incident of misogyny with the same vehement refusal, argument and debate.
So, alongside debate, we have mockery. And each person who contributes to the  #femfog (whether with a joke, a meme, or with condemnation) is signalling that Frantzen's rhetoric is not part of the future of the academy.

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

TEF and the Missing Metric

My thoughts on the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) have changed a lot over the last twelve months. When the first suggestions of the TEF were raised in late 2014, I was quietly optimistic. As a PhD student who can't wait to teach, I was hopeful that perhaps the TEF would accord my future labour the same prestige as the work being done by research-focused peers. I (although not with much hope) pondered whether this might lead to the establishment of two career tracks in academia, and that each one would be respected equally.

I still quietly hope those things, although with much less certainty. We're still at Green Paper stage, which means that there are precious few details. And, for me, the TEF will be all about the specifics - what is measured, how it's measured, how these measures are used. There is one metric that is missing, which I think is the single most important metric that a TEF could introduce.

The TEF must measure the proportion of teaching that is delivered by staff on part-time, fixed-term contracts. An ideal TEF would require institutions to provide a breakdown of how many staff are employed on part-time, fixed-term contracts. It would also require institutions to outline what proportion of teaching is delivered by staff on these contracts,  alongside an explanation of why this is the case.

 I can't imagine this measure would be popular, but it could benefit for students, for staff, and institutions' reputations. 

Undergraduate students would be better able to read prospectuses critically.
There aren't many instructions that don't promise their students access to 'leaders in the field' or 'world-class experts.' Having worked closely with students, this is often something they cite as being misleading about prospectuses. Incoming students would be better able to question these claims if they see that 90% of undergraduate teaching on their course is actually delivered by short-term, hourly-paid staff. If, as the government claims, the TEF is supposed to offer students the means to make more informed choices, then this data set would be an obvious way to do it.

Staff currently on insecure contracts would benefit. 
For institutions, an obvious way to mitigate any reputation damage (and resulting fall in recruitment this might cause) would be to alter the contracts they offer teaching staff. I'm relying here on the fact institutions generally want the simplest solution to a challenge. I concede that some HEIs need these sorts of contracts to deliver good teaching - the most obvious example I can think of is one-to-one music tuition, which has to be flexible to respond to the number of students who play a given instrument in a given academic year.

But most institutions don't rely on insecure contracts to address their teaching needs: they rely on them address their financial concerns. And for all those staff who currently deliver the full range of teaching on what amounts to less than the minimum wage, a change in contracts could be career-altering. would be fantastic. If you don't have supplement your teaching income with work elsewhere, you have more time to dedicate to teaching.

And this, in turn, would benefit institutions. 
Finally, part-time, fixed-term staff are not in a position to provide teaching excellence. This isn't through lack of dedication, skill or passion. It's simply because humans have finite resources, be they financial, intellectual or emotional. Moving staff off insecure contracts would enable staff to teach better: they could have access to induction, training and support to provide better teaching. They'd have enough money that they don't need to work elsewhere. Their teaching would improve. And students would notice. And this would enhance institutions' standing.


Ultimately, I still have reservations about the TEF. But I'm pragmatic enough to recognise that it is probably going to happen. And I'm also cynical enough to think that it's perfectly possible for institutions to game the system, no matter which metrics are chosen.

However, if the TEF is going to happen, I think we should use metrics that might provide some material benefit to those people within the system.