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Inger Mewburn: The sessional generation’s nostalgia for the Australian university of the past

Posted 12 March 2015 by Paul Clifton (NTEU National Office)

Inger Mewburn: The Thesis Whisperer

To riff on a Douglas Adams’ famous quote: ‘To academics, time is an illusion – and in the case of the due date for a book chapter, doubly so’.

Putting together an edited book is a relatively thankless task with a degree of difficulty of at least 10. Marshalling authors, hassling them to submit, editing, polishing, typesetting ... it’s such a labour intensive process that it’s no wonder by the time the book actually arrives on your desk you may well not remember even writing the chapter.

Such is the case with Through a glass darkly: The Social Sciences Look at the Neoliberal University, a collection of essays put together by Margaret Thornton after an Australian Academy of Social Science workshop on the ‘marketisation of the university’ held in 2012 (you can download a free copy here).

I might not remember writing the chapter I contributed to, but I do remember the workshop run by the Australian Academy of Social Science that led to the book. Some excellent papers were given about the state of universities today and what might happen in the future. A lot of the talk at the workshop turned on the changes in the academic workforce over the last 20 years: the increase in performance metrics, the push for academics to get more and more funding and the increasing casualisation of the academic workforce. Themes that will no doubt be quite familiar to you.

In the book itself all this talk is distilled into sharp academic arguments and couched in sophisticated language, which is an interesting contrast with the event itself. What surprised me most about the day was how emotional it was, especially the reaction to one of the papers, which concerned a faculty torn apart by restructures. The author, with tears in her eyes, expressed her deep disillusionment with the university to whom she, and many others, had given so many years of loyal service. As the academic told her story, the grey heads around the table nodded in sympathy and started sharing similar stories. The grief around the table for academia lost was palpable.

Later, in the tearoom, I discussed the paper, and our older colleague’s reactions to it, with my fellow 40-somethings – all members of the so-called ‘sessional generation’. We didn’t quite know how we should feel about this outpouring of grief. Our older colleagues had memories of an academia we had only ever read about in books: the Australian university in the 50s, 60s and 70s which, so the story goes, well funded and well respected by the government and community alike.

It’s impossible to feel genuinely nostalgic about something you have never experienced. It was like being at a funeral for your friend’s great aunt; someone you’d heard a lot about, but never met in person. Your friend is grieving. You know you should be sad, but you can’t really feel what they are feeling. So you just pat your friend awkwardly on the shoulder and say: ‘Well, she had a good innings didn’t she?’

Those of us who have entered academia this century have learned that loyalty to an institution is something you can’t afford to feel. The upside to this, if there is one, is not experiencing grief and loss when you leave. So far I’ve survived four restructures at three different universities. I’m not naive enough to think redundancy won’t happen to me too. The prospect doesn’t fill me with joy, but I’m not that afraid of it either. I always have a back up plan – that’s just what the sessional generation has to do.

You see, the sessional generation has been bred to be self-interested. But working in your own best interest should not always be conflated with selfishness. This was the essence of my talk at the workshop and the chapter I helped write in the book. Sharing – a principle on which unionism is built – just makes sense. 

Sharing makes us stronger in the face of government self interest and declining university budgets. For example, I give away my ideas via freely available slide decks, podcasts, cheat sheets, blog posts and the like. Sharing helps me build my own reputation – a vital career asset.

Self interest means actively looking for opportunities to experience collegiality. Sadly, our universities pay our wages, but they don’t really provide our academic home anymore. We have to build those for ourselves. I am grateful to be surrounded by many academic sisters and brothers doing it for themselves on Twitter. I actively look for role models there; people who know how to survive and thrive. 

My friend Megan is a standout inspiration in this respect. At the moment Megan mostly does research project management work, but she has taught casually for years, makes art, sells it and is in the process of finishing her PhD part time. When I was in a similar situation, working casual jobs at three different universities and trying to do a research degree, I was completely demoralised. But where I only saw lemons, Megan sees lemonade. She has even managed to get a mortgage from a bank.

Degree of difficulty on that? Surely an 11. 

Dr Inger Mewburn does research on research and blogs about it. 


This column appears in the March 2015 edition of Advocate:

(46 MB) - PDF

Advocate, March 2015

'On the higher education merry-go-round'




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