Saturday, 23 January 2016

Athena SWAN, academic practices and regimes of audit

As I’ve previously blogged about, I’m involved in the Athena SWAN process. I’m co-leading the process at my School and I’ve now been a panellist assessing departmental Athena SWAN submissions. Both activities are a lot of hard work (and not quite fully acknowledged in workload allocations) but excellent, interesting and rewarding. It has made me consider my own practices as an academic in a different light and also made me quite angry at a lot of the unquestioned practices and behaviours in academic practice.

I’ve begun to talk about academic practice and practices a lot. It started from my work on the AHRC Connected Communities project Connecting Epistemologies where I worked with an artist for the summer who would discuss their arts practice. I understand academic practices to be things like: lecturing, supervision, facilitating group discussion, marking, various writing practices, resource coordination and management etc.

One thing I like about thinking through academic work as practices in this way is it helps me focus on what it is in a particular context that means that a practice is carried out in a certain way, and whether that is a question of individual agency, or a wider structural issue. For example, when I think through academic practices (such as the list above) I’m always amazed at how many you can be trained to do better, but how rarely that training is systematically offered to academics. Take lecturing (I now disownthis blog post to an extent): it takes certain skills to talk persuasively through a topic for a set period of time and engage an audience. There are some pretty basic skills here: breathing techniques; ensuring your voice is well-supported by your diaphragm; using modulation and pauses to keep the audience engaged. An actor would expect this as part of this training. If we are lecturing to large classes, we should be given this training (luckily I did get it, from the Edinburgh Beltane).

Athena SWAN focuses me on the wider structural issues. For example, producing papers for academic journals is one of the key academic practices. In the social sciences, single-authored pieces are seen to be more likely to be highly-ranked in the Research Excellence Framework. There is subsequently, among some bits of social science, to push early-career researchers to get individual fellowships, to build up this REF-worthy track record. This particularly negatively impacts on women: they are more likely to take career breaks at this stage of their career for maternity leave and caring, so group projects might make more sense; across many fellowship schemes they are also less likely to be awarded the fellowships.

Another example comes from my role as an editor and peer-review. An academic practice is citation, we are expected to cite the latest literature in support of an argument we are making. This is a shared cultural practice. Yet, it is often quite striking that due to global structural barriers, many scholars in the majority world simply cannot access these resources.

Athena SWAN is interesting because it puts a lot of these practices to work to a positive end – challenging gender divides within academia and encouraging women’s progression. Specifically it uses the skills that academics and associated professionals have in making complex judgement based on set criteria, and also peer review. These were the skills I used when I assessed applications and that were used in the Athena SWAN panel I was a member of.

These academic practices take place in contexts with specific incentive structures. I’ve already mentioned the REF and this is probably one of the key incentive structures: it shapes the ways universities are organised and their strategic priorities; it affects the way academics adjust their communication practices to deliver “impact” – more prosaically, to get their research findings understood and used by a wider audience. They mean our writing practices are focused at the four 4* papers. Like Athena SWAN, the REF uses academic practices, particularly peer review.

Athena SWAN has also benefited from similar incentive mechanisms. Recognising the widespread problems that women faced in STEM subjects, the research councils adjusted their criteria to be more favourable to departments that had Athena SWAN awards – the award stopped being something that a few forward-thinking departments had, to something all departments worked positively towards.

I’m a bit of an evangelist for Athena SWAN – I know it’s not perfect, but it’s certainly better than nothing, and when it’s done properly (as my main experience has been) it does lead to dramatic change. But thinking about it in terms of how I’ve laid out this post before, I could not have ruminate as I was assessing applications: what if Athena SWAN became part of the criteria that were assessed in the REF? I imagine we’d see a lot of change fairly quickly. I imagine the Equality Challenge Unit would be fairly busy in the run-up to 2020 as well. Of course, we’d no doubt end-up with the double-bind that I think Athena SWAN accidentally creates – in trying to do good, it just adds another task to academic’s overflowing to-do lists and puts women under pressure. To anyone pulling together an Athena SWAN application, note that the criteria state that workload models should give a time allocation to being a member of the Self-Assessment Team!

When I mentioned this idea to one of the staff at the ECU they mentioned that HEFCE had done some work, that remains unpublished, that demonstrated that departments with greater collegiality and gender diversity achieved better in research metrics. They added that it would be interesting, also, to see how Athena SWAN also related to this.

There’s a widespread view in academic that metrics and audit are bad things. But from a perspective of policy analysis, and also from my experience governing an organisation, I can also see the positive sides of these regimes: audit is design to make issues transparent and make people accountable. In the case of Athena SWAN it makes institutions accountable for the processes and behaviours that systematically stop women advancing in their academic careers and reaching their potential.

So, to come to some sort of conclusion, the raging resistance to regimes of audit is, I think, sometimes misguided. These processes have the effects (and affects) they do because they are powerful tools. But that means they can be used powerfully to positive ends. This might make me a sell-out to global Neil Librulism. I think it makes me someone who wants to deliver positive change for the marginalised and disadvantaged in society now. 

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