The Academic Star

I’m writing this post in response to the recent Times Higher Education piece ‘Is ‘academic citizenship’ under strain?’ by John Morgan and Chris Havergal. I found this to be an interesting and thought provoking article. They discussed how academic citizenship concealed a host of activities that were necessary but largely undervalued by the sector. They noted

An academic’s work is often described in terms of teaching and research – but talk to anyone working in the profession and they will be quick to point to a host of other roles and functions that are far less well known or understood outside the academy but are nonetheless integral to academic life.

Their article went onto discuss how academic citizenship is built around the following ‘invisible’ activities; organising academic events, external examining, evaluating funding bodies, peer reviewing, committee meetings and appointment panels, academic organisations, writing references, curriculum and qualification design, public engagement and outreach, supporting junior academics, and pastoral care.

Their article emerges at a time when, as Morgan and Havergral rightly point out, academic citizenship ‘is under increasing pressure in the rush for publications, promotions and research funding’. Morgan and Havergal’s piece is interesting because it is responding to a feeling that has recently been growing about academic work loads and what is expected of us. Personally, I really hope that this is going to led to some really interesting discussions regarding future roles and expectations of being an academic.

Yet, I found it strange that they did not list administration as an ‘“invisible” duty. The oversight of university administration was intriguing to me because, on the one hand, it implied that academic citizenship is largely outward facing and, on the other hand, it ignores how important administration is for our departments and careers. Up until now, administration has played a fundamental part in my academic career. In the last three years I have been assessment officer, induction co-ordinator and History and English link tutor and I still retain the latter two roles.

Part of me wonders if their oversight rests on how Morgan and Havergal have defined the ‘academic’ in this piece. As the quote above suggests, the academic’s role is largely understood to be predicated on teaching and research. But I don’t know of any academic who would not acknowledge administration.

Of course, their oversight of admin might also reflect how as a sector we value admin more generally. As I noted elsewhere on my blog, Maggie Andrews has argued that greater recognition needs to be given to university admin. She asserted that ‘academic housewifery’, as she called university admin, is devalued by the sector and this is in some ways confirmed by this piece.

Morgan and Havergal are right to note that pastoral care and writing student references are an important side of academic citizenship. But they overlook how university and departmental administration is so much larger than this and not exclusively tied to simply working for your peers outside of your own institution. Academics who take on university and departmental admin roles do so at the expense of their own research time or worse they complete these administration tasks in their own time. As the recent RHS survey on gender and the workplace noted, 80% of us regularly work evenings and weekends. But we also need to remember that for every external examiner there is an assessment officer who has had to work hard to make sure that marks are correct, uploaded, samples sent, and exam papers proof read.

Moreover we need to acknowledge that universities would stall if admin wasn’t done by their own rank and file academics. We are not just teachers and researchers. For me this means we need to find a new way to visualise what it means to be an academic. I think being an academic nowadays means being a five pointed star. The academic star is someone who is a teacher, researcher, administrator, citizen of the academic world and interested in public engagement. What needs to be recognised is that some points of an academic star shine brighter than others for different academics and at different stages of our career. But, one of these points will always be administration. It plays an important and necessary role in the academy because behind every good department is a team of academic administers.

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