Recently Read (3 – 9 March)

This week’s collection of readings discusses the league tables, expresses concern about mental health in the higher education, and offers examples of how such pressure can bring out the worst and  the best in academics.

The Reading Room at the British Museum
© ceridwen CC BY-SA Source:

The University World Reputation Rankings

I guess the top story in the week that passed was the publication of the Times Higher Education league tables. Coverage has focused on the dominant position of US Higher Education Institutes, and on the observation that the position of the UK is gradually being eroded. The latter is perhaps not surprising, given the shift of the balance from academic excellence to ‘enhancing the student experience’, reduced funding, and the increasingly restrictive academic environment. The Telegraph reports some reactions by leading academics:

“At a time when despite economic problems others have sought to protect their research investment, we have seen a real-terms decline.” [Bahram Bekhradnia, president of the Higher Education Policy Institute]

“What is clear, however, is that if we want to maintain this leading position, we must start matching our competitors’ increased investment in higher education.”  [Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK]

More to read: University rankings are highly volatile, and it is hard to make inferences from few data points. However, many reports seem to indicate a downward trend for most UK universities (2013, 2012). On the other hand, scepticism has been expressed over ‘alarmist’ rhetoric. 

Mental health overlooked?

Amid the preoccupation with how Higher Education is doing collectively, it may be easy to lose sight of individual welfare. However, there seem to be worrying signs that mental health issues are on the rise among academics, the Guardian reports. This discussion builds on the Kinman report, which found high levels of psychological distress among academics, and a widely-shared blog post by a Research Development Officer who described “a culture of acceptance around mental health issues in academia”. Here’s what one lecturer describes the situation:

Nadine Muller, lecturer in English literature and cultural history at Liverpool John Moores University, suggests that academia promotes the blurring of lines between the personal and the professional – often described as “doing what you love”. “This means that doctoral and early-career scholars are seldom trained in how to firmly draw that line and value themselves beyond their work,” says Muller.

More to read: Concerns over mental health in Higher Education have been expressed at least as early as 2000, and students seem to be affected as well. Recognising the warning signs may be hard, the Chronicle cautions. This is a site with information about coping with depressive thinking.

Coping with stress: the wrong way

Given the above, it’s perhaps not surprising that sometimes intelligent people vent out in remarkably unintelligent ways. This seems to be the case with a lecturer from the University of Nottingham who got into some real trouble for a series of over-candid remarks about his students and the university administration, which were publicly posted on Facebook. A description of the incident, along with the lecturer’s apology and the university’s reaction can be found  here, but what I found even more interesting was this post by Erika Dariks, who places the incident in context, and notes that:

We all have concurrent identities for different audiences and perhaps that is the problem. […] We “perform” them to specific audiences and behave as accepted or required by the role. We talk the way we are expected to talk about the topics that are validated and relevant to a particular audience. The problem, however, is that very often these roles, these identities, are conflicting: topics, words and ways of saying things could be accepted or even required in one situation and in one community, but they might well be incomprehensible or even offensive in another.

Recovering from disaster

It may seem that incidents such as the one reported above break careers, and I suppose that they often do. But perhaps that is also because stories of recovery are under-reported. Terry McGlynn’s story, reported in Small Pond Science, is a rare example of such a story, and one that I found remarkably encouraging. The post titled Coming out of the Closet, Tenure Denial Edition, describes how Terry was denied tenure, and then blogged anonymously about an agonising job search, before finding a much more satisfying new job. Here’s part of his introduction:

Volunteering [the fact that I was denied tenure] comes with some serious baggage. It’s not like I was denied at Harvard, where denial is the default expectation. In my last job, tenure denial was a rarity. You had to really botch it to get denied. While I had some high-performing colleagues, I also had one colleague who was tenured despite not publishing anything after getting hired. Others moved successfully through the system even though they were notably ineffective in the classroom. Even though the bar was low, I didn’t make it over.

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