Thursday, 19 November 2015

International Men’s Day

This post falls very much into the category of “things I am not an expert in”. So I tread somewhat wearily. The post reflects on the Athena SWAN process and it is inspired by my colleague Paul Cairney who wrote this excellent post reflecting on the process too.

So, today is International Men’s Day, which just loosely frames this post. And now to immediately go off on a slight tangent, my colleagues Vikki McCall, Jane Smithson and I are leading on an Athena SWAN application. Athena SWAN emerged from the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines as a process to encourage women into these subject and once they were in, to progress to the highest levels on a par with their male colleagues. This recognised the long-standing issue that far more men than women enter these subjects and women tended to drop out before reaching Professorial level. If you don’t think this should be an issue, I shall point you in the direction of new Canadian PM Justin Trudeau’s comments on gender equality.

The ECU have broadened Athena SWAN to cover the ASSHBL (Arts, Social Science, Humanities, Business and Law [I prefer SSHABL myself]) subjects. This makes perfect sense to me – the world’s population is 51% women and 49% men, if we’re going to increase women’s representation in STEM to 51% we need to (possibly) increase men’s representation to 49% in the ASSHBL subjects.

Now, I’m not saying the social sciences are not sexist. I have heard many horribly stories of everyday sexism from women colleagues in the social sciences; I have seen horrifically sexist behaviour in seminar or conferences; I have seen the massive differential expectations on men and women academics in the social sciences; and I have blogged about the awful macho working hours culture that pervades the social sciences as much as any other area of academe. 

But – and here is where it gets tricky – one of the main challenges we have found in evidence gathering for our Athena SWAN plan is what I refer to as the “feminisation” of our subjects: sociology, social policy, criminology, social work and education, particularly at an undergraduate level. The term “feminisation” I’ve borrowed from colleagues in Biology where it is used to describe how their subject, fairly rapidly, changed from being one men would do to being one women would do. It seems to us that when people are choosing what subjects to study at university, they look at us and think "that's a woman's degree subject".

If we look nationally, 60% of graduates from Scottish universities are now women. Whereas around three-quarters of the students on our programmes are women. This is a particular problem in programmes like Primary Education and Social Work because in broader workforce terms there are long-standing recognised issues with a lack of men in these professions. Even more concerning for us, is that there is some evidence (with a million-and-one caveats attached to it) that these men might not do as well as the women on our programmes – again this reflects broader societal changes.

The question is, what can we do about this? It seems talking about it has been a brilliant start actually – there’s been really useful input from colleagues over the past few months as we’ve been discussing these issues. One of the better Tweets about International Men’s Day I saw was this one which links to broader debates about the “crisis of masculinity”. One of our own undergraduates, off their own back, responded to our data by asking what the gender breakdown of students accessing student support services was – it was overwhelmingly women. As touched on in those stats on men’s mental health and suicide, I ruminated whether we’re in this situation:

Little girls are taught at school to be super-bright, work really hard and always ask for help. Little boys are taught at school to be boisterous and self-reliant, and if they have a problem it’s their own. There might not even be a male role-model around for them to ask for help from. At university this means women get incredibly stressed and anxious about assessment, but then ask for help and support and ultimately do very well. Men, meanwhile, sit back and do nothing and just go with the flow.

There is also the role of assessment methods in here, although a quick search for this journal for the term “gender” didn’t inspire me with confidence that I’d find answers. So, there’s more research and work for my colleagues and I to get at here. But, if you can suggest things to help us on our way, I would welcome any comments.

I am to be an assessor for a number of Athena SWAN submissions from ASSHBL departments in the New Year and I'll be really interested to see how they tackle their issue, but also how they tackle the issue I tentatively mentioned above: I think in the ASSHBL subjects, and particularly social science, men very easily presume that because they're left-liberal and feminist they are not sexist, and there is not a greater reflection on culture and behaviour. If Athena SWAN is going to make an impact in the ASSHBL subjects then, as my colleague Prof. Cairney highlights, we will need buy-in from all academic staff and also probably greater culture change than seen in the STEM subjects. 

/edit: if you want to read something much better about International Men's Day, read First Dog on the Moon's amazing cartoon here.

Friday, 13 November 2015

I did a social media bad

Today was my essay deadline day for my large undergraduate module – 296 essays flowing into Turnitin. In the run-up I was getting the usual emails that can drive you up the wall – this PhD comics. This year, for the first time, I received three emails asking “was there a minimum word limit?”; the final one also stated that “people were asking about it on Facebook”. This frustrated and angered me and I did my first stupid thing which was to send a very angry Announcement to all the students on the VLE. My second stupid thing was to tweet a screenshot of the announcement.

It quickly garnered favorites and retweets and clearly resonated with a number of academics who follow me who want to do the best for their students but get frustrated when it appears students are not applying themselves. At the time of writing it got 13 retweets and 26 favorites. I also foolishly checked YikYak on campus; more of that later. And, I’ll be honest, as with all social media, the social confirmation of those RTs and favs felt good.

However, I awoke to an email from one of the students complaining that the announcement had led them to be publicly embarrassed on the Facebook page. They then emailed in reply to my apology pointing out I had also mocked them by tweeting about it. In both respects, they were largely right. What is frustrating, is from my own research, I should have known they were right before I did all this.

Nancy Baym and danah boyd talk about the idea of socially mediated publicness – that is that new technologies have given us myriad new ways to be “public” and in doing so we have to actually socially mediate this. While you might post something publicly on Twitter, you may not actually consider it to be “public” as you doubt it will go further than your immediate smaller number of followers. If you are more public, this mediation gets trickier.

I should have been aware of this in two ways. Firstly, I should have considered that the original Facebook comment from the student was public and I had not seen it – therefore they could be publicly identified. Secondly, I should have considered the wider public audience of my tweet and how individual students concerned would link this public shaming to their own behaviour. I agree with those who consider tweeting the “hilarious” mistakes students make in their essays as inappropriate and unethical. In this case I was unprofessional in my actions.

There’s a broader point here as well, that I think we need to reflect on as a profession – I know the tweets linking to the blog-post will get far less attention than the tweet that is the subject of this post. Why is this? Why do we always think it’s good to be frustrated and angry with students? Why can’t we focus more on the good and the positive about teaching students – I had some amazing discussions with students this semester about their attainment. I should have publicly shared this, not one minor, negative moment.

So, if you’ve got this far, please go and read my other, more positive, posts on teaching.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Professor Stefan Grimm is not our martyr

I’m a member of the somewhat infamous “crit-geog” JISC academic mailing list. I remain a member primarily for comedy value. It's infamous because over a year it basically does this:
  • Endless CFPs for AAG and RGS-IBG panels, endlessly repeated because “the panel is so popular” with numerous apologies for cross-posting.
  • People asking for journal articles.
  • The responding endless debate about whether this is an abuse of the list, the rights and wrongs of open access publication and the nature of the academic publishing industry.
  • Then a swarm of people asking to be removed from the list (not realising you have to do this yourself as it has no admins).
  • And a good dose of “death of academia”/”woe is me” moaning.

Now, regular readers will know how much I enjoy the latter.

In the latest batch of such navel-gazing someone brought up the horrible case of Professor Stefan Grimm – a lecturer at Imperial College who committed suicide. The email said something like “And it’s literally publish or perish” and then a link to an article about his death.

This is not the first time I’ve seen the tragic death of Prof. Grimm used in this way and as someone who has experienced mental illness I find it deeply troubling. Effectively, this tragic incident is used to argue that some management and audit exercises in modern universities are driving people to their deaths. Effectively, Prof. Grimm is being used as a martyr for attacks by academics on "management" or "administration".

I find it deeply troubling for two reasons. Firstly, using Prof. Grimm's suicide in this way – and indeed most of the reporting (including details of the email he sent to colleagues) – is contrary to advice provided by The Samaritans on how to publicly discuss suicide. I would advise readers to note point 3 of this guidance – avoid “over-simplification”:
“Over-simplification of the causes or perceived ‘triggers’ for a suicide can be misleading and is unlikely to reflect accurately the complexity of suicide.”
[emphasis in the original guidance online]

We cannot ever know what was going on in Prof. Grimm’s head when he tragically took his own life and we should not pretend we do.

Secondly, there is a touch of hypocrisy too this. Many of the people who make use of Prof. Grimm’s suicide in this way will happily vilify Britain First at the drop of a hat when they use the death of Fusilier Lee Rigby to stir up racial hatred. Now, I am in no way justifying what Britain First do. But if we are going to criticise them for using this death as a martyrdom to the emotional hurt of his family, then we should be much more careful what we do ourselves.

So, I implore you. Think of poor Prof. Grimm’s family, friends and colleagues who will still be dealing with grief the next time you use his tragic death to vilify the fact you failed to get a grant, or you’re irked you have to publish four journal articles for the REF. And, please note why The Samaritans have their guidelines – it is to prevent further suicides:
“Remember that there is a risk of copycat behaviour due to ‘over-identification’.”
[emphasis in original]

We should not be even contemplating suicide as a way to escape the pressures of a working environment.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Futures of Social Policy

Playing around with teaching, last year I delivered a lecture without PowerPoint, with an actual written lecture on 'Futures of Social Policy'. I made the essay available to my students and also on here.

The feedback on the lack of PowerPoint was interesting - the students who commented said it made them concentrate more in the lecture, but it wasn't very good when they were revising from the recorded lecture on Listen Again(st). The students used the slides as bookmarks in the video to get to exactly the point they wanted to listen to again. I had no idea students even used Listen Again(st) in this way - I thought they just used it when they'd slept-in until 4pm and missed the lecture. So that was useful to know.

Anyway, I've done the same again this year - download it and have a look yourself here. It's not journal-submission quality; it's like a #longread blog post really where I pontificate on where we are and what we might be doing. A big shout out to Peter Taylor-Goodby who's excellent paper on the welfare state heavily inspired this lecture, as you'll see. His paper is part of the illustrious company our own paper on Bourdieu and the Big Society keeps in the latest Policy and Politics.

I'm also making this lecture a wee bit whizz-bang with some PowerPoint idiocy. You can vote on whether I should broadcast it on Periscope via this tweet.

If you like this, then I'm thinking of making SPCU913 an online module over the next two years with most of the material delivered through a WordPress site. So you too can learn my somewhat idiosyncratic take on social policy.