[Update: This post was based on Tanya Filer's article as published on the Guardian Higher Education Network. You can view the unedited (and more balanced) version of Tanya's article here, along with an essay on which the article was based. If I had read the longer, unedited version first, I probably would have given a different response. But, I think the Guardian piece was still a great starting point for this important debate.]
This post is primarily a response to Tanya Filer’s recent article on the Guardian’s Higher Education Network. In her article, Filer argues that early career researchers (ECRs) should not hide “under cloak of anonymity” in order to contribute to policy debate. While I don’t, in principle, disagree with this conclusion, I do have a number of concerns. I started to get into some debate on Twitter, but I felt stifled by the 140 character limit, which I worried might not allow me to convey a nuanced argument and would instead come across as an attack. I needed more space, both in word count and in time, to digest the article and to explore my thoughts on it in more detail. The overall purpose here is to contribute to a debate that, regardless of any difference of opinion, is extremely valuable to have in the open.
My first concern links back to my previous blog post on my fears surrounding being an online academic venturing out into the job search. As a generation of new PhDs and postdocs, we are more connected than any generation before us. There is constant encouragement and at times pressure to create an online identity spanning the many available social and professional online networks; with the lines between social and professional seeming to become increasingly blurred. But, there is a lack of research into the potential impact of this. I am not suggesting that I think it is a bad idea for academics to have an online identity and to participate in online debate; if I thought that, I wouldn’t be blogging. What I worry about is that the information available to potential employers about job candidates is much more than the candidate chooses to present in their application, and the true risks and benefits of this are largely unknown. The question Filer poses, but leaves unanswered, is “what might the career consequences be?”
Filer also acknowledges that ECRs are on a journey with an unknown destination. Being a contract researcher is a very uncertain and unstable position, with many unknown and unpredictable variables. When Filer states that ECRs should “open ourselves up to the risks that putting our opinions and names out into the world can engender”, I think she is taking too lightly the sense of confidence and security that it takes to enable someone to take these unknown risks. I think the challenge should be directed at institutions and the wider academic community to first alleviate the feeling of vulnerability, in order to stimulate open participation at all levels, rather than directing the challenge towards some of the most vulnerable of the academic world.
I do take Filers point that it is hypocritical of academics (including ECRs) not to value and encourage a productive critique of academic culture, when our academic principles encourage exactly this kind of unbiased and accountable rigour in the rest of our academic life. But the author herself admits to being guilty of self-censorship on academic culture. Therefore, I think it is a shame that the author decided to put her name to an article that mainly places blame and highlights risks, rather than offering solutions, and does more to undermine the confidence of ECRs than to empower them to let their voices be heard.
A more empowering approach would be to congratulate those who are already letting their opinions be heard, even if there is no name or face to go with it. I think that instead of creating a culture where participation can only take place anonymously, this anonymous debate is actually an important first step in realising that others share the same concerns. Another way to grow this critical mass of ECRs needed to tip the balance in favour of participating publicly is to make use of advocates to take concerns forward, without fear of risk to an individual. Organisations such as the UK Research Staff Association and Vitae are already opening up the dialogue between ECRs, policy makers, and employers. They, along with the Careers Research and Advisory Centre, are already conducting research into the experiences and outcomes of PhD students and researchers. I think that this is the solid foundation that will provide the opportunity for ECRs voices (collectively and individually) to be heard; not the few loud voices needed to take on a disproportionate amount of risk by revealing their names and faces first. Then the foundation for debate becomes not anonymity and opinion but evidence that change is necessary and that ECRs are not waiting silently and patiently for change to happen, they are making their own changes by leaving academia altogether.
My solution (which I am happy to be challenged on) is not to shame those who participate anonymously, but to encourage more to participate in whatever format they comfortable. The most important thing is break the silence, not to put a name and face to the voice. Participating in research staff associations, responding to surveys, commenting on articles and forums, tweeting, blogging, and researching, are all important ways of making noise and rocking a boat that needs to be rocked. And this foundation of many diverse voices will provide the security and climate needed for ECRs to start to take ownership of their thoughts and opinions in a way that benefits the many, without penalizing the few.