Miskatonic University Press

The best paper I read this year: Polster, Reconfiguring the Academic Dance

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The best paper I read this year is Reconfiguring the Academic Dance: A Critique of Faculty’s Responses to Administrative Practices in Canadian Universities by Claire Polster, a sociologist at the University of Regina, in Topia 28 (Fall 2012). It’s aimed at professors but public and academic librarians should read it.

Unfortunately, it’s not gold open access. There’s a two year rolling wall and it’s not out of it yet (but I will ask—it should have expired by now). If you don’t have access to it, try asking a friend or following the usual channels. Or wait. Or pay six bucks. (Six bucks? What good does that do, I wonder.)

Update on 04 January 2015: Good news! The paper is now out from the paywall, so it’s freely available to everyone.

Here’s the abstract:

This article explores and critiques Canadian academics’ responses to new administrative practices in a variety of areas, including resource allocation, performance assessment and the regulation of academic work. The main argument is that, for the most part, faculty are responding to what administrative practices appear to be, rather than to what they do or accomplish institutionally. That is, academics are seeing and responding to these practices as isolated developments that interfere with or add to their work, rather than as reorganizers of social relations that fundamentally transform what academics do and are. As a result, their responses often serve to entrench and advance these practices’ harmful effects. This problem can be remedied by attending to how new administrative practices reconfigure institutional relations in ways that erode the academic mission, and by establishing new relations that better serve academics’—and the public’s—interests and needs. Drawing on the work of various academic and other activists, this article offers a broad range of possible strategies to achieve the latter goal. These include creating faculty-run “banks” to transform the allocation of institutional resources, producing new means and processes to assess—and support—academic performance, and establishing alternative policy-making bodies that operate outside of, and variously interrupt, traditional policy-making channels.

This is the dance metaphor:

To offer a simplified analogy, if we imagine the university as a dance floor, academics tend to view new administrative practices as burdensome weights or shackles that are placed upon them, impeding their ability to perform. In contrast, I propose we see these practices as obstacles that are placed on the dance floor and reconfigure the dance itself by reorganizing the patterns of activity in and through which it is constituted. I further argue that because most academics do not see how administrative practices reorganize the social relations within which they themselves are implicated, their reactions to these practices help to perpetuate and intensify these transformations and the difficulties they produce. Put differently, most faculty do not realize that they can and should resist how the academic dance is changing, but instead concentrate on ways and means to keep on dancing as best they can.

Poussin's Dance to the Music of Time
A Dance to the Music of Time, by Nicolas Poussin (from Wikipedia)

About the constant struggle for resources:

Instead of asking administrators for the resources they need and explaining why they need them, faculty are acting more as entrepreneurs, trying to convince administrators to invest resources in them and not others. One means to this end is by publicizing and promoting ways they comply with administrators’ desires in an ever growing number of newsletters, blogs, magazines and the like. Academics are also developing and trying to “sell” to administrators new ideas that meet their needs (or make them aware of needs they didn’t realize they had), often with the assistance of expensive external consultants. Ironically, these efforts to protect or acquire resources often consume substantial resources, intensifying the very shortages they are designed to alleviate. More importantly, these responses further transform institutional relations, fundamentally altering, not merely adding to, what academics do and what they are.

About performance assessment:

Another academic strategy is to respect one’s public-serving priorities but to translate accomplishments into terms that satisfy administrators. Accordingly, one might reframe work for a local organization as “research” rather than community service, or submit a private note of appreciation from a student as evidence of high-quality teaching. This approach extends and normalizes the adoption of a performative calculus. It also feeds the compulsion to prove one’s value to superiors, rather than to engage freely in activities one values.

Later, when she covers the many ways people try to deal with or work around the problems on their own:

There are few institutional inducements for faculty to think and act as compliant workers rather than autonomous professionals. However, the greater ease that comes from not struggling against a growing number of rules, and perhaps the additional time and resources that are freed up, may indirectly encourage compliance.

Back to the dance metaphor:

If we return to the analogy provided earlier, we may envision academics as dancers who are continually confronted with new obstacles on the floor where they move. As they come up to each obstacle, they react—dodging around it, leaping over it, moving under it—all the while trying to keep pace, appear graceful and avoid bumping into others doing the same. It would be more effective for them to collectively pause, step off the floor, observe the new terrain and decide how to resist changes in the dance, but their furtive engagement with each obstacle keeps them too distracted to contemplate this option. And so they keep on moving, employing their energies and creativity in ways that further entangle them in an increasingly difficult and frustrating dance, rather than trying to move in ways that better serve their own—and others’ —needs.

Henri Matisse, Dance II
Dance II, by Henri Matisse (from Wikipedia)

She with a number of useful suggestions about how to change things, and introduces this by saying:

Because so many academic articles are long on critique but short on solutions, I present a wide range of options, based on the reflections and actions of many academic activists both in the past and in the present, which can challenge and transform university relations in positive ways.

Every paragraph hit home. At York University, where I work, we’re going through a prioritization process using the method set out by Robert Dickeson. It’s being used at many universities, and everything about it is covered by Polster’s article. Every reaction she lists, we’ve had. Also, the university is moving to activity-based costing, a sort of internal market system, where some units (faculties) bring in money (from tuition) and all the other units (including the libraries) don’t, and so are cost centres. Cost centres! This has got people in the libraries thinking about how we can generate revenue. Becoming a profit centre! A university library! If thinking like that gets set in us deep the effects will be very damaging.