In praise of academic tactics

Posted on May 14, 2012 in Ordinary Madness of Academia

If you’re an early career research you should read Mel Gregg’s recent post, “In praise of strategic complacency.”

(Seriously, no matter what anyone says–and you’ll hear it even more if you’re a woman–it’s NOT selfish to figure out what you need to do to take care of yourself and your career. I didn’t learn this lesson soon enough, and it’s hard to get back what others got used to you giving up.)

Mel starts by reminding us what’s at stake:

“It’s not enough to have gotten the job. No, landing the job is just the first step in a constant process of planning, assessing and maximizing ‘opportunities’. From now on, there will be little if any time to sit back and acknowledge your achievements, and yet part of what I want to suggest today is that you must fight for this time. And beware of people offering ‘opportunities’! This is because the system is set up to make you feel that you are never doing enough, just as technology has accelerated the amount of things we are expected to be able to do. This results in us all feeling like we are constantly behind, always ‘catching up.’


[M]ostly it presents as a chronic low level internalized suspicion of incompetence, that there just isn’t enough time to do everything you need to do properly. While it feels highly personal, these are in fact the routine affects of organisational life today. It is worth recognizing the extent to which they are also the principal conditions of your labour that you can control – that is, once you appreciate that there is no temporal or spatial limit to the networked information economy that employs you.

The network, which is to say the office, which is to say work and the prospect of doing it, will always follow you home. So part of what we need to imagine collectively is the degree of compensation we want for that new reality, as well as strategies to cope with it.”

And that means that, first, we need to recognise different forms of academic practice and how to make them work for us:

Expand your imagined audience
“In teaching and research jobs, your audience includes your students (undergrad, postgrad) and your colleagues (department peers, committee colleagues, superiors). You probably engage in written communication daily with all of them – but do you count that writing as output? Do you count it as part of your intellectual project? If not, why not? Here I’m trying to offer ways to think about scale: the audience for your work can have local, national, and international reach. It’s a continuum of interaction and it all matters.”

Publishing: realistic outputs, actual numbers
“How many publications is enough? Homework: check your university’s minimum requirements for research output … Also think realistically about how much time you have free to write without interruption, at which times of the year. i.e. without teaching, without meetings, without someone waiting for you to come home for dinner.”

Grants: motivations for them – different types – which one is right for you?
“Time spent working up a collaboration should be weighed against more time spent on your own writing (track record) … Also against how much the focus will change. Assessors will reward something that’s coherent and distinctively yours.”

Teaching and service: making it work for your research goals
“[R]arely will your teaching directly match your research. But even overview courses can help keep you in touch with the field … Committee work: inevitable, so try to find things relevant to your research.”

Offloading: Claiming time for research
“Make time to plan what you want to do. Keep that time factored in to each week … Write lists. Try to distinguish between things that you must do, should do, or what would be nice to do. Have daily/weekly lists and don’t be hard on yourself if you need more time. Learn to say no, and when you do, say why, or suggest alternatives.”

There is some solid advice here and it never hurts to remind ourselves of these things. But it’s the next part of Mel’s post that I find most intriguing, and promising: Invoke strategic complacency.

“Academics, like other professionals, navigate a range of internally and externally imposed pressures to be productive – and to conclude I want to get you to start getting in the habit of asking: to what end? The model of worker that is rewarded today is that which is endlessly, limitlessly productive. The university will take everything from you if you let it. There are minimum performance levels but you’ll note that there are no maximums.

Replace productivity with strategic complacency. Use the discourse of productivity against itself. Start by using the language you hear routinely around you: ‘I’m just so busy’; ‘I can’t do it that day, today’s impossible‘; ‘This week/month is crazy, I just can’t’. The best line I’ve ever been told to use is the simple: ‘I’m sorry, I’m fully committed’ … Take your own goals seriously, and set boundaries on doing more. Setting up these strategies will help to see clearly the source for the multiple pressures you encounter – where they come from. Are they intrinsic (part of the make up of being an intellectual) or externally imposed? Are you just being polite when you don’t say no? Can you still be polite and excuse yourself from certain things?

Making time to organize and rationalize your time can mean you maximize the ‘good’ parts of your job and make better decisions about minimizing what takes you away from them … Learn whose job it is to take responsibility for things, who has the last say, so you don’t take on more responsibility than you will ever be recognized for.”

Alex Burns replied to Mel’s post by suggesting that emerging researchers need to follow the university’s unwritten rules and learn to “tame, rather than game, the administrative systems” at hand, but her approach is much more compatible with my personal politics. I can see strategic complacency operating as a tactic in De Certeau’s sense, something that must “make use of the cracks that particular conjunctions open in the surveillance of the proprietary powers. It poaches in them. It creates surprises in them. It can be where it is least expected. It is a guileful ruse” (The Practice of Everyday Life, p. 37). It is, as I read it, not entirely unlike “la perruque” or a worker’s ability to get her own work down while appearing to be working for her employer.

Along these lines, Glen Fuller offers further insights into the matter of career “opportunities”. Here, I find his identification of three kinds of opportunity to be particularly helpful: first, opportunities can be offered by those in power; second, an opportunity can present itself; and third, we can create opportunities. This last one interests me the most:

“If a worker creates ‘opportunity’, then it is because he or she has critically appreciated the mechanics of labour relations and relations between worker productivity and the market in its virtuality (an example of what Deleuze called the ‘fourth-person singular’ and the practice of counter-effectuation); that is, the worker does not perceive the situation though the identity and horizon of experience of a ‘worker’ per se. The worker actively differentiates a new set of relations that can only be apprehended through action. This is a tactical relation to opportunity.”

Put a bit differently, even though it may be the most difficult path to take, it’s still in my best interests to create my own opportunities. The challenge is how to actually do this without passively accepting the imperative to perform, or else, and without capitulating to organisational expectations to maintain the status quo–and I think Mel’s suggestions go a long way in that regard. Thanks Mel!

Update 21 Jan 2013: Ben Kraal kindly linked to this post on Twitter, and it’s really good to be reminded of Mel’s work and my reflections on it. (I hadn’t realised how quickly I had effectively forgotten this!) We’re at that point in the southern hemisphere’s academic year when the end of summer is sooner rather than later, and pressure is mounting to finish the research projects we started during the break. Added to that, school meetings are starting to fill the calendar again, next term’s course outlines are being finalised, and Very Important Research Grant proposals are being readied for submission. And yet here I am, perhaps for the first time in my academic career, feeling quite good about all this. So what’s changed? The answer, I think, is simple if a bit dramatic: serious health problems over the last year or so have forced me to rethink how I do my job (and generally live my life, but that’s another story).

Basically, I just can’t heal and work as much as I have in the past; my body simply isn’t strong enough to do what I–and dare I say others–have come to expect me to do. (Don’t get me started on the oppressiveness of expectations or the relationship between overwork and health problems.) Consequently, I’ve become a bit ruthless in deciding what I can, and cannot take on, and I’ve had no choice but to say “no” to a host of interesting opportunities. I often wish I could have said “yes” to people I like and projects that excite me, but I’ve also learned to pay attention to–no, to actually appreciate–the part of me that feels a sense of relief at not having to do Yet Another Thing. (Why did I want to say “yes” in the first place?) This relief has taught me that I really don’t want to primarily consider myself, or be remembered by others, as a “productive” and “efficient” professional. You see, I want to be–no, I already am–much more, and thankfully much less, than that. And I like myself best that way.

It’s good to re-read this post with this new found awareness. I don’t want to compete with my colleagues over who is busier; I don’t want to find pride in being stressed out. I want to do less and get more out of my work. I’ve recognised that my primary focus for this year has to be finishing my Marsden research project. I’ve determined 2-3 journal articles that need to be written and I’ve chosen one major conference at which to present my research and forge new networks. I’ve also identified the best research grant for what I want to do next, and have put all my efforts into one proposal. And last, but certainly not least, I tried out some of Matt Ward’s excellent teaching and learning advice last term and I know that I want–and my students deserve–more of it this year.

As a final thought, I read a few things this year that have stuck with me. I think they’re related to this post and worth sharing.

Tim Kreider’s The ‘Busy’ Trap:

“Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day. […] Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice…The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration — it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.”

Oliver Burkeman’s The Positive Power of Negative Thinking:

“What if we’re trying too hard to think positive and might do better to reconsider our relationship to ‘negative’ emotions and situations? […] From this perspective, the relentless cheer of positive thinking begins to seem less like an expression of joy and more like a stressful effort to stamp out any trace of negativity…A positive thinker can never relax, lest an awareness of sadness or failure creep in. And telling yourself that everything must work out is poor preparation for those times when they don’t.”

And rather than reading yet another list of ways to be more productive, I appreciated many of Kerry Ann Rockquemore’s suggestions in her Inside Higher Ed series on how to accept being less than perfect and still do what you love. After all, what’s the worst thing that can happen?

The Costs of Perfectionism
Breaking the Cycle
Writing and Procrastination
Are You Over-Functioning?
Do You Measure Up?