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Hiding in plain sight: changing the unwritten rules of academe

By MELONIE FULLICK | September 25, 2015

A few months ago on Twitter I got into a conversation that I’ve been meaning to come back to, based on a post by Pat Thomson, “don’t be a BAW—Badly-behaved Academic Writer.” This list of “don’ts” for academic publishing was compiled after a session with graduate students, and included such pointers as avoiding “tantrums” (after a paper rejection), falsifying data and self-plagiarism.

When I responded to Pat on Twitter, I pointed out how some of the advice on the list contradicted what I’d been told by profs over the years. Our discussion led to how a lack of awareness of acceptable yet not necessarily formal or “taught” academic practices could lead grad students to make many of the mistakes she had listed, without realizing they were violating the “unwritten rules” of professional practice.

For example, item 9 on the list is “sends the paper off even though they know there are multiple things wrong with it.” But I’ve actually heard advice that amounted to “just send out that paper as is, so you can get feedback,” instead of trying to get others to read it and give advice first. This is inconsiderate practice—not only does it take time to prepare a draft for publication and find an appropriate journal to send it to; reviewers also need to take time to read and comment on it with the assumption that you’ve sent them something that’s already as good as you can make it. If you’re new to the process, you also might not know that there are “things wrong” if your supervisor or other proofreader has told you to “just send it.”

Reading, too, requires skills that aren’t as obvious as they might seem. In Pat Thomson’s list, “cherry-picking” (other people’s) arguments is listed as a problem. But doctoral students are also pushed to read large amounts by “skimming.” What then is the right method for reading quickly enough, while also gaining enough understanding that you don’t end up misusing an argument? When it comes to negotiating this conundrum, it turns out that “just skim it” is pretty much (widespread) non-advice.

This kind of learning is often framed in terms of “tacit knowledge” (cf. Polanyi), i.e., what is informal or unwritten and difficult to pass along to others, but nevertheless necessary to know. While this concept helps highlight the less visible dimensions of important professional learning, it doesn’t push us to examine critically the messages that students receive about how academic culture and practice “works.” It positions students as having a knowledge gap that needs to be filled, but doesn’t push us to question problematic aspects of the work academics are expected to do. Additionally, students’ differing degrees of access to (and experiences of) such tacit knowledge, through mentorship and social and professional exposure, are a part of what needs to be addressed.

To be clear, I’m not arguing that no one gets mentorship or professional advice or that supervisors never strive to provide it. Nor do I believe the answer lies in policies designed to further formalize these relationships. But it’s still a significant issue that students have radically different experiences of mentorship in different institutions and departments. Sometimes this is the case even between students with the same supervisor, because the relationship’s dynamic is shaped by non-academic factors such as gender, race, class and disability. These experiences, through their influence on students’ professionalization, contribute to the formation of a hierarchy in a competitive environment—a process that is more likely to have a lasting negative effect on students who had fewer advantages to begin with.

This is why in the conversation I had with Pat, I referred to the “stratification of access to tacit knowledge”; it’s also why I think the concept of the “hidden curriculum”—the unexamined re-production of norms and values in academic culture and institutions, and the messages these send about education—helps to frame this more helpfully in terms of the politics of advantage (e.g. Jackson, Margolis). At the graduate level, these issues affect social and academic integration and access to the academic profession.

The assumption by many faculty that students “just know”—and students’ acceptance of their individual responsibility for knowing—is exacerbated by the pluralistic ignorance that’s an element of many PhDs’ experiences. Each student can easily assume they’re the only one experiencing a particular “lack” or difficulty, while feeling that this needs to be hidden so that others don’t see it as a weakness. This profound silence around what might be perceived as “weakness” is another part of the hidden curriculum of graduate education.

It’s certainly true that students who get less mentorship can “fill in the gaps” themselves. But there are at least two problems with assuming that students can and will be able to do this. Firstly, students may not know what they don’t know, and it’s irresponsible to assume we can always rely on peer culture and independent learning (as important as these are). Another issue is that this makes additional work for the student, more so than having guidance from someone who knows the way. To develop professional autonomy, we require a level of support—and this shouldn’t be dismissed as “spoon-feeding.”

What’s the big picture in terms of the cumulative effects of these experiences? Even the fuzzy numbers we have on PhD employment in Canada tell us fairly clearly that there aren’t enough tenure-track positions opening up for the number of PhDs who want them. And yet a foundational element in academic culture, one that drives many people’s interpretations of their own performance, is the assumption of meritocracy. Whatever the outcome, students who “failed” ultimately lacked merit, and they must have (consciously or unconsciously) been responsible for their lack of success.

But doctoral students’ professional development, and broader decisions about post-PhD pathways, cannot be primarily about “merit” and good “choices” when some students have more knowledge than others and can act accordingly; and when students face contextual differences in their lives, which affect the choices that are available (and their outcomes). Those two issues are mutually reinforcing, and they are exacerbated—or mitigated—by the way mentoring relationships develop and play out.

Rather than framing the problem in terms of students’ lack of merit or their unwillingness to professionalize themselves appropriately, we need to take a closer look at how academic culture encourages us to emphasize the responsibility of students while downplaying the factors affecting their ability to be “responsible.” At the very least, we should be doing research that can help us understand how students learn what they need to know and how they make professional decisions. A look at the advice literature written for PhDs, for example, or at the services offered to them by coaches and editors, might also tell us something about what students need from doctoral supervisors or other academic and professional mentors.

A lack of necessary skills and connections is a tangible result of how some students can end up positioned as less successful before they even graduate, which in turn affects their experience in the academic job market and elsewhere. Paying attention to this gap—and trying to “fill” it—is practical and important, but it won’t change the existing problematic dynamics in PhD education and academic culture more generally. For that to happen, the the hidden curriculum needs to be addressed more openly, directly and critically.

One part of the answer is that students should be able give input by discussing their experiences of the doctoral process, both during and after their period of enrolment. For example, whether or not a student completes their program, they should have the opportunity to provide feedback in an exit interview. Because one of the implicit messages doctoral students receive is that they can’t be openly critical of their experiences without damaging their future chances for a job, it’s important that there’s clear support for these discussions.

In a job market that’s increasingly competitive (not just in academe), issues of access to both formal and informal professional development resources have become more important, and they should be foregrounded when we consider how best to support doctoral students, particularly those from groups traditionally marginalised in academe. Many programs could do better at making sure PhDs know what they need to know—not just to “make it” in the current system but also to make changes to the way it works, for the better.

Melonie Fullick
Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate at York University. The topic of her dissertation is Canadian post-secondary education policy and its effects on the institutional environment in universities.
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  1. Craig Monk / September 25, 2015 at 10:38 am

    One of the strongest reactions I had when reading Karen Kelsky’s The Professor Is In had to do with her advice to Ph.D.s and other job candidates to be able to map (and explain) their planned activities for the next five years. It is one of these things that both seems very reasonable and represents a practical task that, I suspect, I could not have accomplished in the late 1990s. (It feeds the common “If I Was Starting Now, I Would Not Be Competitive” narrative.)

    Ph.D. programs are often five years (or more) and tenure tracks may be five years; some places recommend five years at rank before seeking application. While there is nothing canonical about a five-year professional plan, it makes some kind of intuitive sense and represents for me the kind of thing that an unsuccessful job seeker might, upon reading Kelsky, use to explain lack of success. (“If I had only answered better the trajectory question!”)

    My response to The Professor Is In was to talk to the Chairs in my Faculty about some of Kelsky’s advice, her attempts to make transparent some of the expectations that are hiding in plain sight. Do we expect these things? If so, why? And, if we do, what do we do to make transparent our expectations? After all, if it is important for us, just as an example, to work with people who are pursuing very detailed and tangible short- and medium-term programs of teaching and research, it is more important for us to find people whose programs are most compatible – and not those who figured out, somehow, that they needed a polished response when asked about it. I am troubled when our reaction when confronted with fifty manuscripts (from which we may publish one) or a hundred job candidates (amongst whom we may hire one) is first to look to see if some secret code has been properly manipulated.

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