Business as Usual: A Response to Forbes and Mary Beard

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Even the flurry of live tweeting from MLA 2013 has not been enough to distract the academic community from Susan Adams’ recent article in Forbes.  In a largely tongue-in-cheek featurette with a veneer of statistical clout and some grand proclamations, Adams declared university professors to have ‘The Least Stressful Job of 2013′.    The backlash was swift, with over 150 academics quickly pointing out precisely why and how the life of a university educator is surely not lacking in stress.

I have no other points to add these comments, but I can’t help but think of an almost identical article from August of last year.  In her popular blog ‘A Don’s Life’, Professor Mary Beard lamented the absurd job postings for university comms and PR positions.  As she sees it, the job listings were a mess of ridiculous collocations and nonsensical phraseology, a feature that she subtly suggests is indicative of confused and perhaps entirely unnecessary positions within the marketing department of the university.    Professor Beard’s article is certainly worth a read.  But in the context of the recent Forbes article, I want to reproduce here my own comment to Beard, which sparked some discussion of its own:

As a humanities academic who spent a year working in the brand/design/communications sector while writing a book on the topic, I read this post with interest. In the same way that most people will view academic job postings as completely meaningless (e.g. ‘the successful candidate will contribute to the department’s international profile for research and teaching….’), many academics lack an understanding of what it is that many professionals actually do on a day-to-day basis. It’s no one’s fault, but perhaps suggests that ideal of knowledge transfer, as an ‘activity’ rather than simply a matter of course, is still maintaining a certain uncomfortable distance between academics and those in ‘hard business’. A job listing for, let’s say, a Senior Lecturer in Art History will contain loads of discipline-specific jargon that doesn’t reveal what it actually is that the person will do with their time–instead, it gestures toward the force of personality required of the successful candidate. Precisely the same is true in the communications, PR, and brand worlds. The people who get these jobs at the OU will be undertaking challenges that not many academics could face, and to consider that the funding for these posts might be more profitably channeled toward research seems to undermine the very premise of the modern university: to begin breaking down the barriers between the ivory tower, public policy, and hard business. We as academics have heard many times the complaints that we work only a handful of weeks a year and do very little, all on a hugely inflated salary. Yet we recognize that people who make these complaints simply don’t understand what it is that we do. In turn, perhaps we should make an effort to understand what it is that other people do as well.

The comments to Adams’ Forbes article are precisely the type of response that I discussed: the academic community’s backlash against unfair portrayals of working conditions in higher education.  Adams has since issued a gracious addendum to her article which takes these responses into account.  But with the recent discussion surrounding her findings, it seems an ideal time to re-evaluate how academics view those in positions outside of academia.

I am sure that Beard’s certain distrust of professional roles in media and communications is not unique in the academy.  Indeed, the many comments to her post show that there are an awful lot of academics who fear that a Barnum-esque American business lexicon has entered the British university system.  But as my comments to Beard’s post maintain, it’s entirely unfair to take issue with charges leveled against our profession whilst still distrusting the business world to the point of repulsion.  In the twenty first century it is essential for academics to speak freely with and work well alongside their business compatriots.  And the inverse, of course, is true as well.

Does academia bring with it the sort of acute stress an account manager or marketing director might feel when faced with a project deadline, a slack team, and an impossible brief?  Perhaps not.  But academia certainly does bring stress of its own.  There is, for example, the 8-15 year period of training and apprenticeship, during which pay is negligible and prospects are slim.  There is the extraordinary student loan debt which must be addressed during this very same period of penury.   After all of that, there are the 80-hour weeks and endless nights of marking.  And there are, as a bonus, the publishing requirements that can leave even the most confident and productive writers blanching.

Of course it is unfair to call university professors the least stressed workers of 2013.  Though perhaps it is also unfair to call tailors or hairdressers–two other finalists on the list–similarly free of stress.  Every profession brings with it its own challenges, pleasures, and disappointments.  Many academics value the unique privileges of their position, while never forgetting the stress that these pleasures bring.  And in just the same way, more academics should seek to understand what it is, exactly, other professionals do that make them valuable and unique.

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9 thoughts on “Business as Usual: A Response to Forbes and Mary Beard

  1. I had the same response to Mary’s post at the time and have written a couple of articles for THE on university branding – the first defending the money spent on UCL’s new identity.

    I’m from a marketing background myself (before succumbing to the academic dream) and see this sort of thing all the time. It’s worth pointing out that any good marketing plan would see money spent on “PR” as investment rather than expenditure. It’s like employing an accountant – the general rule of thumb is that they should pay for themselves either in your time saved, or money saved you would otherwise have wrongly paid in taxes.
    The same with academic staff – the money spent on them (salaries, staff development, nice furniture etc) isn’t “lost”, it’s regained either through research income or teaching income.

    The trouble is, like the UCL branding exercise, at a time of financial constraint (I think UCL had just announced redundancies) it seems like money wasted or wrongly diverted. It usually isn’t.

    (It’s worth pointing out that if a university didn’t employ someone to do their PR, it would fall to academics to do it. And they are often neither qualified, nor particularly inclined to do it. If asked, they’d be the first to suggest paying someone to do it for them!

    Anyway, as much as I admire Mary Beard (probably one of my dream dinner party invites), it does strike me as ironic that she (and her discipline) is a canny utiliser and beneficiary of exactly the sort of services the ads were soliciting people to carry out… Good on her too.

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  3. I think one reason for Beard’s original assertion and the backlash is that it’s easier to determine the value and stress level of these other positions while harder to pinpoint the same characteristics in academics. While many of the responsibilities of a faculty member are the same, there are various approaches and sundry other responsibilities that each individual faculty member takes on according to his/her particular position, department, college, or university. Thus, those outside of academia (and even us inside at times) are befuddled at the order that comes from the chaos of faculty work, and we feel like we have to defend it because it’s not all laid out in a guide to faculty life and it’s not easy to generalize the life of a faculty person. Hopefully, it’s just that we (faculty) recognize that other occupations are just as valuable but don’t need as much defending–although I recognize there are some outliers who engage in perpetual denigration, whether purposely or not.

    • I agree with your assessment of the “chaos of faculty work” and the difficulties of quantifying what we do. Even fellow faculty members who comprise tenure and merit committees have difficulties assessing and comparing the work we do, so it’s no surprise that people outside of academia do too. I’m sure we all agree that the study conducted by Careercast.com is deeply flawed and embarrassingly under-researched. It perpetuates the stereotype that professors are lazy, carefree, and unmotivated after tenure. Adams’s resort to anecdotal evidence of “a tenured professor” she “happens to know” deployed to support this stereotype shatters any credibility she may have tried to reclaim in the addendum.

      However, I do want to push back against the idea that it’s easier to determine the value and stress levels of other positions listed in this (or any) study. I, for one, find it at least as shocking to include tailors/seamstresses and hair stylists along with (tenured) professors on a list of “least stressful jobs.” Earning $23,000 per year before income taxes creates a significant amount of stress in most households, particularly households with multiple dependents. Relatedly, Beard’s point is, in part, that the value and work of these PR positions is also mystified in/by the job postings.

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  5. I appreciated your approach to the stress issue. I am an academic and I have also worked in the private sector is (shudder) in sales (!) The stress is comparable in terms of intensity but the length of the stress, when it happens and how are very different indeed. I think it would be interesting to follow up with when academics feel stress and at what points in their careers. I think non-academics might be surprised!

  6. As someone who has worked both outside and inside academia, I know well that most outsiders do not understand what we do and, as you point out, a great deal of that fault is our own. We do a terrible job presenting ourselves beyond our “ivory tower” and often even within it. However, as someone who studies organizational communication I also know that the limited self-governance that gives us so much “freedom” in academia (which is being steadily eroded but that is another blog post entirely) can also be extremely stressful. Anyone who has ever sat on a hiring committee or curricular revision committee knows that these can go from entertaining circus to horror show in a heartbeat. My last experience was enough stress to push me to violence and forever impacted my opinion and relationships with certain co-workers.

    I also find it very curious (at my institution) that those charged with branding our university do not seem interested at all in working to help the image of higher education, the professoriate, or the disciplines – all these things can either enhance or detract from a university image but apparently they do not look beneath the surface.

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