On academic life: collaborations and active engagement

My current academic passions are creating a better understanding of the role of language in international business (and academia), improving research evaluation in the Social Sciences, and helping (young female) academics find their way in an increasingly competitive academic world.

It is therefore not surprising that I am a big fan of Martyna Śliwa's work which touches upon many of these themes, sometimes even in one and the same project. Here I am discussing two of her recent articles. Incidentally, Martyna is also an active member of CYGNA (= SWAN, Supporting Women in Academia Network) and has provided us with two well-researched and highly engaging presentations:


On collaborations

As someone who has moved from almost exclusively single-authored articles in the first half of her career to almost exclusively co-authored articles in the second half of her career, I found Martyna's forthcoming article with Emma Jeanes and Bernadette Locker on the four different rationalities of research collaborations [full reference and partial conclusion below] illuminating.

  • Jeanes, E.; Loacker, B. & Śliwa, M. (2018) Complexities, challenges and implications of collaborative work within a regime of performance measurement: the case of management and organisation studies, Studies in Higher Education, DOI: 10.1080/03075079.2018.1453793

Through analysing the narratives of management scholars across seniority based in different institutional contexts in Western Europe, it has considered the effects of performance management, and in particular research productivity pressures, on researcher collaborations. The findings demonstrate the multi-faceted consequences of the contemporary ‘publish or perish’ regime and the discourses it promotes, which inform both the choices behind the formation of collaborative relations and the practices of researcher collaborations. The study identifies four, often intertwined, rationalities, namely: strategic-instrumental, traditional-hierarchical, scholarly-professional and relationship-oriented rationalities, and the dominance of strategic-instrumental rationalities. (Jeanes, Loacker and Śliwa, 2018: 12)

The traditional-hierarchical rationality emphasizes the seniority and institutional position of collaborators. The strategic-rational rationality is mainly driven by institutional demands for performance- and output-orientation and strategic thinking and practice. In the scholarly-professional rationality collaborative practices and relations are driven by scholarly curiosity and the development of common interests and understandings. Finally, collaborations based on the relationship-oriented rationality are underpinned by an aspiration and desire for a ‘culture of friendship’ and ‘ethics of care’. They are characterised by mutual support and help and challenge purely instrumental collaborative rationalities.

As my early work was all single-authored I have been fortunate enough to never experience the "dark side" of the traditional-hierarchical rationality. However, I do recognize the - hopefully positive - side of it in my current work with junior academics. In these research projects, I try to share my experience in publishing with my junior co-authors to cooperatively create a better product either as a co-author for articles or books (see our latest project on Managing Expatriates in China), or simply as a friendly reviewer, as I am doing my mentoring and research capability development work at Middesex University

The strategic-rational rationality certainly rings a bell too, both for myself - especially in the earlier part of my career - and for colleagues. As far as I am concerned there is nothing wrong with being strategic in the sense of seeking out academics with complementary skills and knowledge. However, this can descend into practices that the article describes as "name dropping" and "trophy hunting collaborations", which evoke the excesses of the traditional-hierarchical rationality.

Personally, I see a certain level of compliance with the strategic-rational rationality mainly as an instrument to "buy yourself" more flexibility to engage in collaborations that are of the last two types: scholarly-professional and relationship-oriented. I consider myself fortunate that many of my collaborations are now in this category. These days I often start a project mainly as a vehicle to work more closely with people I like on a personal level. Very often these are also the kind of academics who are likely to engage me in exciting scholarly debates.

On active engagement

Martyna Śliwa's second article is a personal narrative of academic work published as part of an editorial in ephemera last year. The full issue on The Labour of Academia can be downloaded here. It is an even more interesting read than the collaboration article, but I do not have sufficient time to write a full reflection on it. So below I simply highlight the part I liked best, probably because it is exactly what I am trying to do in my role at Middlesex University. Martyna is one of a very rare breed of critical management scholars who doesn't just talk the talk, but also walks the walk!
Wherever possible, I would recommend academics to get involved in managing and organizing in their universities – be it through taking up formal management roles or through participating in initiatives where we can create something meaningful, and shape what is done, and the way things are done in our institutions. To quote Berg and Seeber (2016: ix) again: ‘Those of us in tenured positions, given the privileges we enjoy, have an obligation to try to improve in our own ways the working climate for all of us’. From the perspective of my own discipline of management and organization studies, we might want to add here: those of us aware of the origin, content and oftentimes problematic implications and consequences of management, given the knowledge we have built within our academic field, have an obligation to contribute to the running of universities.
Those of us in tenured positions, let us not be tempted to engage in a brand of critique of contemporary academia that permits us to enjoy an above-average level of job security and income while at the same time strengthening the same system of neoliberal oppression with which we claim to disagree. The risk, after all, is that we may more or less unreflexively perpetuate the problematic aspects of the corporatized university by articulating our discontent with it within the pages of commercially-oriented outlets – one highly ranked publication at a time – for the benefit of research assessment audits, publishers’ profits and our own careers. Instead of settling into self-denial about our role in this system, let us take responsibility for it. Back (2016: 11) explains that ‘to carry on with an intellectual vocation…entails the cultivation of judicious speech and crafted attentiveness’. Our own employing organizations are spaces that we can transform by putting our knowledge to good use through judicious speech and crafted attentiveness exercised in order to shape and influence decision-making.
  • Butler, N., Delaney, H., & Śliwa, M. (2017). The labour of academia. ephemera, 17(3), 467-480. Freely available online.