Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Academic Abelism

If you've been following my tweeting this week you will have seen me using the Academic Abelism hashtag and RTing and talking with the @phdisabled account. I decided to get some of my thoughts down and try to explain why I think this conversation is so important. 

As regular readers of my blog (or twitter followers) will be aware I suffer from a chronic illness. This illness is debilitating and severe. As you will also know, I'm a PhD student. I'm hoping that it's apparent how much I love my research, and my institution (most of the time). But this intersection of graduate study and ill health is HARD. It's hard for many reasons and all of them need to be talked about, because in truth what is needed in academia is a culture shift. A paradigm change. And for those you need pressure. You need evidence and you need someone to make the noise. 

The acadmeic lifestyle nowadays is predicated upon this ideal of the "superhero worker". Someone who works 12 hours a day, 7 days a week minimum. You are supposed to live, eat, breathe and sleep academia. It is not enough now to be a good researcher, you must publish, publish, publish in respectable journals. You must be an exceptional teacher (I mean, students are paying £9K), but you have to do all your prep for this teaching in "your own time" because all of your working hours are taken up with research and grant proposals. 

This lifestyle is unhealthy.  As is evidenced by the high insidence of mental health problems and depression amongst PhD students and academics. God help you if you come to the academy with existing health problems. If you come to the academy unable to put in all the "extra" hours because doing so will exaccerbate your pre-existing condition. In this case, the blame is put on you. You are weak, and cannot cope with the high pressure academic environment. You are found wanting. NO-ONE considers that actually it's academia that has the problem. 

At least no-one did until a few small voices started to make noise: Thesis Whisperer, @JessicaRdctd, @nadinemuller and then @Phdisabled. And suddenly all of those in academia with chronic illness/ disability realised that we are not alone. We started to talk, and realised that our experiences were similar. And we began to join the dots. Realising that the problem isn't us, it's the system. 

Any system that purportes to be built on an intellectual meritocrary, that excludes some intellects because of disability is a broken system. Our intellect is not wanting. We are not lesser minds. We have bodies that betray us: That mean we cannot and SHOULD NOT work ourselves to illness. 

The changes we would make, the issues that we see as needing to be addressed, will not only benefit us. All of academia is exhausted. Isn't it about time we started talking about changing this?! 

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Do you wanna know what UCLan Psychology is REALLY like?

So, you may have seen on Social Media and in the press that my Univeristy is making redundancies. You may have seen the protest accounts and the specific uproar from the School of Psychology in particular. I've been part of the School of Psychology at the University of Central Lancashire since 2007; let me tell you what it's REALLY LIKE. And what impact these redundancies are gonna have. 

We have AMAZING and passionate staff. Our lecturers are student focussed and I will be sad to see ANY of them go. They are like family to me, I've been here FOREVER and worked with them for a long time. These people are important to me and I will no doubt cry when I hear who has gone. But this is the reality that we are faced with and whilst I support some protest against this I don't support the trashing of my schools reputation. Yes, we will lose good staff and we will feel their loss. But it won't destroy the school. 

There's been a few points raised in connection with the lay offs. The main one being that the quality of teaching will suffer, because undergrads will be taught by newly qualified (or Heaven forbid), current PhD researchers. Wanna know what I think of this? It's horseshit!! And it makes me furious. For a few reasons:

1) I was taught by PhD researchers at undergrad level! Back in 2007 UCLan was using Associate Lecturer positions to do the majority of the first year undergrad teaching. Those tutors were EXCELLENT. They were passionate, informed and engaging. They taught well, and I can assure you my degree DID NOT suffer becasue of it: I got First class honours! 

2) This point is obvious now, but the use of term-time only contract Associate lecturers is not new or unique to UCLan. Many universities across the country (in fact internationally too) use these types of staff to do some teaching at first year level. For various reasons: Lecturers are highly paid and their time is valuable, the best use of their time is not delivering the same lab class 5 times in a week; teaching at this early stage is broad and covers a wide range of topics, all experienced Lecturers have research specialities and it could be 20 years since they actually did any work on the topic they're being asked to teach; PhD researchers are fresh and less specialised; these classes provide a great opportunity for teaching experience for newer lecturing staff.

3) These Associsate Lecturers do not teach in isolation! We have a fantastic school spirit, staff are supportive and encouraging. If an AL needs help and advice there are numerous doors to knock on. Likewise all ALs have access to training in teaching practice provided by UCLan. 

4) The people who take these posts are not all going to be strangers to the school. I am currently on an AL contract at UCLan. I have done this for the last 3 years now. I have taught lab classes, stats classes, workshops etc. And so have many of the people I know. We work hard to ensure that our teaching is of an excellent standard. We work evenings and weekends (for which we don't get paid) preparing our sessions and rehersing our classes. We talk to other staff and get pointers for how to make our presentations more engaging; for how to "work the room" better. WE CARE DEEPLY about the experience of the students. EVERY ONE of the ALs that I know has attended the Universities Teaching toolkit training course. And we work HARD, 

5) Having been a student, let me tell you: years of teaching + PhD =/= GOOD teaching. Likewise:
No PhD + little teaching =/= BAD teaching. And this is the claim that makes me angriest in all this. 

OK, now I've got that little rant out of the way. What else can I say about UCLan Psychology?

Well, a UCLan Psychology degree is about so much more than just the staffing in the school. We have a wonderfully diverse student body; mature students, students with children, students with disabilities, students from BAME backgrounds, working class students..... our school is a wonderfully multi-cultural place. And the staff deal fantastically with this diversity. I say this as a working class, mature student, with a chronic illness and a husband and kid at home, who struggled financially throughout my degree. I had all kinds of other pressures going on behind the scences when I was studying. And I can tell you I have cried on the shoulders of more than one member of staff in our School. I feel at home in that School. Darwin building is a safe space for me. A space filled with happy memories. And as I've already said - I got a First Class Degree. 

UCLan was one of the first UK institutions to introduce an Undergraduate Research scheme. We've paved the way and a couple of years back held the FIRST EVER UK conference of Undergraduate Research. The School of Psychology has from the very beginning been a major contributor to this scheme and our students do very well from it. Likewise, our school has excellent links with outside agencies: our sports psychology staff (and students) work with local professional teams. We have links to business, education, prisons; all there for students to take advantage of for work experience or research purposes. 

UCLan as an institution has so much to offer. During my degree I won awards, took part in real research (from which I have a published paper), travelled the world, attended and presented at conferences, have been involved in public engagement work and so much more. 

PLEASE, please, please, if you are a student currently considering where to go; don't write UCLan Psychology off. Come to our open day. See the campus. Meet our AMAZING staff. Say hi to me, coz I'll be there (wearing my cat ears). Come see for yourself what we're like, coz I guarantee what you've read in the press or on twitter is NOT it.  

An email was sent early this week, stating that thanks to staff voluntarily coming forward for redundancy there will be no compulsory redundancies. As a consequence of this all further strike action has been cancelled. I've heard "through the grapevine" that Psychology are losing 3 staff members, but I don't know who they are yet (and I'm not looking forward to finding out).

My hope now is that we can get on with rebuilding the school's reputation and supporting each other through these changes. I know this staff, and I know that pretty soon UCLan Psychology will be the same supportive and fun place it has always been.