Style vs substance Friday, Dec 22 2006 

I just need to say one thing about the presentations I saw from the high-level candidates, and the responses from the audience when the selection panel took feedback. Why is it that if someone presents a grand and inspiring vision for how they are going to transform the institution, nobody raises concerns about their knowledge of practical and financial realities, yet if someone presents a plan that is lighter on metaphors and has proposals for specific funding initiatives, etc., folks get concerned that they are not going to be able to make it work? I was a bit dismayed at how easily a bunch of vague and sometimes contradictory notions of how we can be innovative swept a room full of senior academics off their feet and drove any thoughts of reality from their mind.

The cost of an education Monday, Dec 11 2006 

Okay, I’m going to talk a bit about my family in this entry, even though I (still) have an unfinished draft entry introducing them sitting here waiting for me to get around to completing and publishing it*.

My wife (who shall be known as The Better Half) is a student who is about to enter the final year of her undergrad degree. She is studying at TLU – hardly surprising, since it’s the only game in town. Today, she started doing some work for the department she is studying with. Her job involves calling school-leavers who have applied to do one of their courses to advise them. Working from a script, she gives them some basic information (including ensuring that they do not interpret the call as a sign that they are going to receive an offer from TLU), checks whether they have any questions, and then responds to their questions or arranges contact from an appropriate staff member of the university.

I just picked TBH up from doing the after-dinner calls and she has found it rewarding yet demoralising. The kids (her word – I should mention that my wife has returned to study after having four children, the oldest being born 22 years ago) she has been speaking to are sweet, naive, and hopeful. However, what’s getting her (and, consequently, me) down is that even if they receive an offer, half of them won’t be coming to TLU next year.

Now, let me start by saying that in the grand scheme of things, I know that social welfare in Australia is better than many places in the world and that I am thankful to be raising my family in this country. At the same time, I feel there are problems with the way we look after our young people, and particularly our students, that make education less accessible than it should be.

The way our social security system (administered by Centrelink, a government agency) works, people under 25 may be eligible to receive a payment called Youth Allowance, subject to rules about other income and provided they are either seeking full-time work or undertaking full-time study.

Among young people, Centrelink distinguishes between those who are dependent (i.e., those receiving support from their families) and independent. The Youth Allowance payment rate for independents is higher. So far, everything is fine.

The problem comes through the way that independence is defined. There are several ways in which a person can be declared independent. These include being married, having children, or being unable to live at home. It is also possible to be declared independent through earning sufficient income or working sufficient hours over a period of at least 18 months – in other words, by demonstrating that you are working to support yourself.

Unfortunately, these rules do not take into account the situation of students who live away from home for most of the year but are still dependent on their parents. At TLU, most of our school-leaving students live on-campus while they study. A small proportion are locals, but most come from surrounding areas, or may come from major cities (which usually means that they did not gain a place at one of their local universities).

This means that they have considerable costs for accommodation and food compared to students who are living at home. But the rules mean that if they enter university directly after leaving school, they will be considered dependent and will receive less support than most people who have to pay for their own lodgings.

So what happens in reality? For some families, the cost of sending a child away to university is out of reach. The child can’t begin studying if they will be treated as a dependent. So, students are forced to put study on hold and work in an unskilled job for two years to “earn” their independence. Once they reach that point, they can apply to study again.

It’s a hinky system, and it affects TLU and similar universities, as well as the communities we serve, to a greater extent than those in the big cities studying at the major institutions. City kids who get into a city university can live at home. On the other hand, rural kids generally have to leave home to study, and city kids who receive places at rural universities also have to travel. Those rural kids who gain a place at a city university may be in the worst situation, as the accommodation charges at city universities are normally higher. Each of these groups is disadvantaged by a system that defines independence based on history (by the way, the timeframe was once 12 months but has grown longer, assing an extra year to the interval between high school and uni).

So, TBH is aggravated that many of the applicants she has been speaking to will be forced to defer their studies. We can add to that a personal factor – we have a daughter (to be named later) who will be finishing high school next year. She may end up at TLU, but we want to encourage her to find the programme that best suits her, even if that is interstate. If she does that, we’re going to have to find some cash to help out, or she risks being left in the same situation.

Wouldn’t it be nice if the most important thing that determines whether someone studies at university was their academic potential? I know that many of these kids will make it in the end, but they waste two years of their life earning a low wage when they could be getting on with their degree, and in that time some of them may end up moving away from a plan that involves further study. And the sooner they graduate, the sooner they start earning graduate-level salaries and paying graduate-level taxes to offset any extra assistance they received. It seems to me that the best thing a society can do is to invest in the education of its population to maximise their potential. But maybe I’m just wacky.

* You want to know the reason for the delay? I am hopeless at coming up with pseudonyms. As will become clear, I have a reasonably large and complex family structure, and I just can’t finish off the list of names-that-are-not-names. Seriously, that’s the weak excuse I have for not talking about my family. It’s not that I don’t love them, that my life doesn’t revolve around them, and that I don’t think of them as I go through every day. I just don’t know what to call them.

Night shift Wednesday, Dec 6 2006 

Is it strange that I finding working through the night so invigorating? A couple of days ago, theses needed to be marked and the examiner’s reports written by 9 a.m. So, I napped from 9:30 the previous evening for an hour and a half, and then I got the work done between midnight and 7 o’clock.

Admittedly, I ran out of steam by mid-morning and went home shortly after lunch to have a nap, but while I was doing the job I didn’t feel fatigue at all. Even the next day, while I was aware that I wasn’t as efficient as usual, I still felt pretty good.

Contrast that with today, where I’ve been sitting in my office through the regular working day and I’m procrastinating, easily distracted, wandering the hallways, and generally failing to get as much done as I feel I could.

Maybe it’s the lack of any other available activity that lets me plunge headlong into work in the wee hours of the morning? I honestly don’t know, but it seems that whenever I am pressed to stay up all night I manage to get more done than I would have otherwise. Unfortunately, I can’t switch to a nocturnal pattern because we’re expected to be in the office during the day – to a greater extent than I like anyway, because I also feel that staying home often improves efficiency as well. But I’ll save that for another entry.

Choosing what’s important Wednesday, Nov 29 2006 

Tomorrow morning we have a committee meeting, at which a document I wrote is scheduled for discussion and, hopefully, approval. At the same time, a nationwide rally about the state of Australian industrial relations is going to take place. Our kids’ school schedules will also be affected by the rally, as many teachers will attend. So, I’m going to need to juggle three priorities and try to do what’s best for my family, myself and my principles. I think I have a plan – I should be able to attend the rally and make appropriate arrangements for the kids to be looked after. I’ll get to the work meeting when I can, and if anyone has a problem with my document I’ll straighten it out later. Of course, the fact that we didn’t get confirmation of the work meeting until an hour ago hasn’t helped with planning.

Requesting assistance by e-mail Wednesday, Nov 29 2006 

Eszter Hargittai has written a “Primer for Electronic Communication” for Inside Higher Ed. Make sure you read the whole article, but eszter’s proposed template for such a message is:

  • Descriptive subject line
  • Polite point-of-contact
  • Succinct statement of the message‚Äôs purpose
  • Brief introduction of yourself
  • Acknowledging other attempts at finding an answer or solution
  • Restatement of question
  • Gratitude for assistance

While I think this would be a great read for students, who often manage to appear discourteous when asking for help by e-mail (including those who I know are polite and appreciative in person), it also captures the approach I take when contacting colleagues and superiors with requests.

More discussion of the piece can be found at Crooked Timber.

Identity and community Sunday, Nov 26 2006 

Oso Raro’s essay at Slaves of Academe develops an interesting perspective on the nature and functions of academic blogging, and it has brought me back to thinking about why I wantyed to start a blog in the first place and what this blog will do for me.

When I began to think about creating a blog, the decisions about the blog’s identity and my own identity had to be made together. The way I looked at it, I could blog under my own name and limit the blog’s content to the same things I’d be happy talking about in a lecture room. I would not discuss my family, problems with co-workers, religion, etc. I think I would have even felt a bit awkward about discussing things like TV shows and hobbies. In short, I think if I was blogging under my own name then my blog’s content and identity would be oriented purely around my professional identity.

On the other hand, adopting a pseudonym – or perhaps, having an anonymous blog (since I realise I haven’t adopted a decent pseudonym yet) allows me to write about things that I would never discuss in any other public forum. Part of this is about avoiding real risks that I can see – the reality is that my workplace has been a difficult one to navigate in recent years, and I could not openly speak about those issues as myself without putting my livelihood in danger. But there is also a level of comfort associated with the anonymity of this form of blogging that does not relate to direct consequences. Even if it did not risk direct consequences for my job or any other aspect of my life, I would still be less comfortable writing openly about many issues if I knew that I was identifiable.

I suspect part of my reason for feeling this way is the same social anxiety that affects my ordinary life. I don’t like to be the focus of attention. When I participate in a discussion, to some extent I always worry about how others are evaluating me based on what I say or don’t say. When I write on a blog, without my personal identity available to the reader, you can only evaluate the content and I feel safer.

Of course, given that I work in a career path where megalomania and self-promotion can be useful tools for success, I am aware that I need to overcome these issues in my everyday life. But I still think blogging, and in particular adopting a “blog identity”, is (and will continute to be) a useful way to develop and share ideas that could not be replaced by other types of communication.

Live to fight another year Wednesday, Nov 15 2006 

My performance review meeting was this morning. While I didn’t expect any problems, I always find it a little unsettling to go into a meeting where the focus is how good (or bad) I am at what I do. This year we have the added joy of dealing with a new set of policies and procedures that has been brought about by the government’s HEWRRs initiative, although TLU has really taken to this “punish the bad, reward the good” framework with gusto. Anyway, I can now spend the next year trying to make sure I can check off everything on my stated list of goals. Does that mean I get to ignore anything that falls outside that list, including all the bits of administedium that are bound to come up? Probably not.

Illness and academia Wednesday, Nov 8 2006 

My lovely viral adventure last week has got me thinking about how illness affects academic work. It seems to me that, as a university lecturer, I simply can’t afford to be sick, because my workload is tied to me personally and almost all of it cannot be taken over by other people. If I look at the tasks that were delayed and the deadlines that became much more tight because I was lost five days to illness, there are few things I can identify that someone else could have helped with:

  • Writing and revising the materials for two subjects I teach: Even if someone else had the time and expertise to work on these subjects, I am the one who will end up teaching them next year, and therefore I want to set the readings, plan the assignments and organise the structure of the learning materials. So, these had to sit there until I felt better and could finish them off (which left me with one working day between recovery and the deadline).
  • Providing feedback to research students on their draft theses: I have been working with these students since January, I know the projects, I know the students, and I know what has been discussed previously in terms of how to present the thesis. Somebody else might have been able to give general feedback on the writing style and structure, but I don’t know that anyone could have brought as much relevant background knowledge to reading the drafts as me.
  • Writing referee’s reports for students who are applying to postgraduate courses: The students chose me for a reason – because I have had extensive contact with them and can provide an informed (and, presumably, positive) opinion of their attributes. They might be able to arrange somebody else, but they selected me as the most appropriate person to approach. Moreover, because I would only agree to give references to students who I felt I could say something positive about, I want to provide students’ with the best opportunity to be considered for further study based on their performance.
  • Filling out administrative documentation for my performance evaluation: The paperwork I need to generate at the moment relates directly to justifying my own contribution, so I think I am the best-informed person to do this task.
  • Conducting research and writing papers: OK, I can send some things out to research assistants, but beyond that, this is my work.

One blessing is that I do not have any classes to teach at the moment. However, even if I did have classes, in many cases they would not be something that somebody else could cover. I know the activities I will use in class and what the primary learning goals are, but I don’t write complete, detailed directions for classes that I am going to teach myself.

Even if I did have a task that someone else would be capable of covering, who would be able to do it? Everyone has their own full teaching load plus research and administration to deal with, so I’d be reluctant to try to hand work off to someone else. The people who would help me out would be the ones who are most overloaded because they possess the fatal flaw of willingness to help out.

So, I (and all of my colleagues) can take comfort in the knowledge that we are irreplaceable.

“I think I can, I think I can” Thursday, Oct 12 2006 

As a companion to the name I have chosen for this blog, I am going to refer to the institution I inhabit as “The Little University That Could” – TLU for short. The name comes not because it is especially small in terms of student numbers, but because of its place in relation to the Australian University hierarchy.

In Australia, there are reasonably distinct classes of universities – in fact, in recent years there have been some suggestions that these classes should be made explicit by assigning universities to specific roles (e.g., teaching-only) or groupings. The story starts with the “sandstones”, universities that were formed around the beginning of the 20th century. This group consists of not more than one or two in each capital city. There are then institutions that have been around for a reasonable period (four or more decades as a university), often being converted from a technology institute. Again, most of these are based in the heart of the capital cities.

Then there are the “young” universities. These are institutions that were established in recent decades, usually with the aim of improving access to university education. Many of these have been formed by converting one or more Colleges of Advanced Education, teachers’ colleges, or other tertiary education services into a university. Generally, they are located in the outer suburbs of the capital cities or in regional centres.

TLU falls into this latter group. It is a university that is based outside the capital cities in one of the Eastern states of Australia. As a young university that has grown out of non-university heritage, it tends not to attract large amounts of research funding or the cream of the student crop. In my view it also struggles to find a meaningful identity – it wants to be a university but does not quite know how to manage it. Part of this probably stems from the fact that at least some of those who are in senior positions have been here since before it was a university and may not have experience of how other universities operate. Part of it is a result of a history, geography, and economics. But it all means that things never seem to run quite smoothly.

What this place does well is serve its geographical region. Students who might never have gone to university before, because it would have involved moving from a small town to the middle of a major city, are now getting a chance to earn a degree. We serve our community quite well.

So, that is a brief introduction to where I work. I expect I will be saying a lot more about it on this blog as times marches on.