What it means to be a ‘Good Academic’ in the University today

Document prepared by members of the Sociology of Development and Change group, Wageningen University


The purpose of this document is to outline a general vision of what we expect from ourselves and our academic colleagues in terms of scholarly performance in the context of an overall healthy ‘work-life balance’. This document has been developed in specific response to recent debates concerning the future of ‘the University’ in a variety of contexts in the face of ever-increasing quantitative performance standards subject to intensified administrative oversight. Many of our colleagues elsewhere have highlighted this as a growing and disconcerting trend.[1]

Ethics of Care

First and foremost, faculty members should practice an ethic of care towards the people with whom we conduct research, the people we teach and supervise, the people we work with, as well as with ourselves.

A supportive working environment

We advocate a good balance between individual ambitions and collective tasks and responsibilities. We wish to cooperate in the creation of a vibrant academic environment, with exciting seminars, conferences and engagement with networks of visiting scholars. The attitude of the good academic is generally one of enthusiastic, critical, and constructive engagement. S/he should support a culture of mentoring, meaning that s/he feels responsibility towards helping others grow as well as asking for help from others when needed.

Encouraging diversity

On the other hand, we definitely do not support expecting all colleagues to conform to the same strict ‘mould’ concerning how to comport oneself in the university. By contrast, we support an environment that supports diversity, understood in gender, ethnic, and cultural dimensions most centrally, but also in terms of personality characteristics and styles of interpersonal relations. In addition, it is important to support a diversity of different disciplinary perspectives, particularly in terms of the time that must be devoted to research and publications and the implications of this for standardized advancement criteria. For instance, laboratory and field research are very different things and both have important contributions, yet field research can take much longer to complete and therefore require more time between significant publications.[2]This type of diversity should be considered in career advancement criteria.

Quantified performances and space for qualitative tasks

SDC staff members combine measurable, quantified tasks – on the basis of which we are formally evaluated – with many other (sometimes anonymous, often social, and other) tasks that are recognized as important elements of our overall performance. We believe that a plea for an appreciation of the many tasks not taken into account in current measurement frameworks is needed, which has practical implications concerning the types of standardized measures by which academics’ performance is currently assessed. We strive for a balance between the quantified achievements on which we are increasingly judged and the multiple non-quantified professional activities that we believe are equally important to our professional development and contribution even though the latter are not highly valued within the current evaluation system that has been developed to evaluate Tenure Trackers, but is also used to evaluate the work of staff members who are not in the Tenure Track.

Such non-quantified, professional activities include: editorship of journals, publication of book reviews, peer reviews of submissions to academic journals, non-academic publications intended for the people we study, academic publications in other languages than English, public talks, conference presentations, the organisation of events such as seminars and/or conferences, (board) memberships of (international) academic and other networks, evaluation of research proposals, membership of (grant) committees, and writing of research proposals. We do not necessarily want these to be included in quantitative measures; rather we believe a space should be reserved for appreciation of activities such as these in our overall professional assessments.

Publications: single authored and multiple-authored

A good academic should pursue a balance between single authored and multi-authored publications, even though these are valued equally within certain evaluation structures, such as in Wageningen. While multiple authored publications are valuable opportunities for collaboration and capitalizing on collective academic engagement, we feel that single-authored publications also remain important as the basis for one’s independent intellectual development and building of a career-long oeuvre.

Books, edited volumes and book chapters

Apart from the publication of journal articles, whether single- or multi-authored, we also value publication of books, edited volumes and book chapters. In many academic fields single-authored monographs are still highly valued, helping to establish one as an authoritative expert in the international arena, and this significance should be acknowledged in evaluation criteria. In addition, editing and contributing to book-length collections, while little valued within current measures, is also an important contribution to the development of certain research fields and should therefore be given more consideration than it is at present.

PhD supervision and co-authorship

Academic supervisors should publish with PhD students in the awareness that the relationship is an unequal one that needs to be tended carefully. The responsibility of a supervisor is first of all to coach PhD students to develop and grow as good academics; this is a supervisor’s primary role and does not in and of itself warrant co-authorship, which should require substantial collaboration in research, analysis, and/or writing. This must be taken into account in university assessment, which currently pressures advisors to assume co-authorship of the majority of PhD work. PhD students are allowed to write a monograph as well as article-based dissertations, and both modalities have their value to the profession and one’s professional development. A PhD monograph is generally single-authored and journal articles can also be single-authored, depending on the level of engagement of the supervisor.

Teaching and Research

In our vision, the good academic pursues a balance between teaching and research investment. S/he enjoys teaching and uses her/his research experiences in class, viewing this as a space both to discuss and develop ideas and to thereby introduce students to cutting-edge developments in the field. S/he cares about the quality of teaching and takes part in discussions about improvements and innovations in education. All SDC academics participate in both teaching and research but we believe there should be space for individuals to choose to emphasize one or other of these pursuits and have this taken into account in performance assessment, in consideration of the overall group workload which can be aided by balancing faculty ‘specializing’ to a degree in one or the other path.

Professional and Private Life

Academics in the SDC department of Wageningen University are expected to establish a healthy balance between their private and professional life and to prioritize taking good care of themselves. The SDC department recognizes that life comes with ups and downs, including periods of illness and intensified care for partners, children, parents, etc. This means that during some periods academics might be less productive and need a life-work balance in favour of the former. For these reasons, faculty should not be expected to have the same productivity year in year out, nor to always show an ascending publication curve throughout their career.

Institutional authority structure

Many universities retain relatively rigid hierarchical governance structures and we would like to see these levelled to create more space for shared and self-governance in accordance with democratic principles. Hierarchy and centralized decision-making are particularly problematic when they allow for the exercise of arbitrary authority by administrators and senior faculty members with no checks and balances on potential abuse of power by subordinate colleagues.

PhDs as ‘apprentice’ academics

This last point has particular implications for the place of PhDs within the institutional structure. PhDs are a vital source of academic reproduction and intellectual renewal yet are frequently not properly valued since they are commonly considered apprentices who must ‘pay their dues’ before gaining a legitimate voice in shaping their own working environments. We believe this perspective is outdated and should be dismantled so that PhDs can claim rights as bonafide academics as well as the responsibilities – in terms of contributing to shared governance, teaching, administration, etc. – that such rights carry.

In sum

We suggest more space be provided for qualitative tasks within a working environment that is based on an ethics of care. The acknowledgement of different styles in publishing, as well as engaging in socially and politically (and not only academically) relevant activities, is an important part of this. The same goes for a more flexible balance between teaching and research.  This would have consequences for the way of evaluating staff members with the aim to produce ‘good academics’ with a healthy balance between their professional and private lives.

[1]See e.g., Halffman, W., & Radder, H. (2015). The academic manifesto: From an occupied to a public university. Minerva53(2), 165-187; Mountz, A., et al. (2015). For slow scholarship: A feminist politics of resistance through collective action in the neoliberal university. ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies14(4), 1235-1259.

[2]This is recognized by, amongst others, the NWO, in their assessment of Veni, Vidi, Vici proposals.

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