On “Good” Academic Work: Practicing Respect at Close Range
Helsinki School of Economics
This study investigates academic work – what kind of tasks and duties constitute this particular type of work and how it is experienced, enacted, and felt in the present-day university. By focusing on local stories, personal accounts, and the concrete details of working in five Finnish universities, the study brings the voice of “ordinary” academics to the fore: how do researchers and teachers account for what is happening to the work that they do on a daily basis? What enables academics to become inspired and experience their work as good, meaningful and morally rewarding in a situation that critical higher education researchers describe as fiercely competitive and fused with an increase in workload, distress and external control, diminishing autonomy, lower social status and salary?
The thesis is based on a view, where the university is understood as a societal space where people come together with the prime purpose of learning. In a series of four studies academics’ every-day realities are studied from several different perspectives and at close range. The studies are in many ways based on critical studies and I share a deep skepticism regarding the moral defensibility and the socially divisive patterns involved in neo-liberal forms of university management. Investigating the local diversity of academic work in particular units contributes to an understanding of what “good” academic work may consist of and rest on, and how different tasks can be combined in meaningful ways. Exploring shame in academia opens up fresh perspectives to reconsider bold claims about the standards of the “good”, the “right” and the “excellent” performance in universities. An understanding of different time perspectives in academic work demonstrates that the challenge here is not to rationalize or standardize academics’ use of time, but to develop academic practices to allow a more balanced coexistence of a variety of times. Creating space for dialogues about hope and despair in academia serves as yet another example of anchoring the moral discussion about the meaning of academic work closer to the every-day realities that academics struggle with in their disciplinary units.
The studies look for insights into the special characteristics of academic work by raising questions of both personal and public concern. Drawing on the participatory action research traditions, studies on emotions in organizations, narrative research, and virtue ethics, the thesis contributes to both organization and higher education research. It provides enriching accounts of this particular work and offers ways beyond a mere critique of an “irrational madness” which increasingly seems to distract academics from pursuing their work. The close-range research practices employed in the studies serve as examples of how to include participation and personal experiences into an open, experimental and engaged approach to research.
The series of studies indicate clearly that academics are both motivated and obliged to search for the nature of the “goods” in their work and for local ways of realizing these. Hence, coercive managerialistic measures aimed at motivating academics to perform their own work according to external standards do not necessarily help academics to do a good job. From the working academics’ perspective these measures stand in stark contrast to the autonomous nature of this particular type of work. Hence, supporting academics’ own attempts at renewing the work from within deserves more attention and support when developing academic work and universities. Academics’ resistance towards coercive and normalizing change may, on the other hand, teach us to recognize and respect certain aspects of local cultures that are valuable, meaningful and worth maintaining. Hence, privileging diversity in academic work is a matter of practicing respect, which has a bearing on all parties involved in keeping academia alive.
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