Reimagining the contemporary academic career: resisting categorisation of academia as a vocation

Kathleen Smithers (Presenter), Jess Harris (Presenter), Nerida Spina

Research output: Other contribution to conferencePresentation onlypeer-review


Funding losses and organisational restructures in Australia have led to increasing precarity and workloads for academics. Despite negative impacts on academics and institutions, the dramatic upheavals in 2020 and 2021 provide an opportune moment to reimagine universities and the roles of those who work therein. 

Universities in Australia and internationally increasingly rely on casualisation, with up to 70% of staff precariously employed at some universities. In recent years, movements such as the ‘slow professor’ have worked to promote ‘work/life balance’ and resist institutional metrics and rankings. We argue that such movements promote the responsibilisation of individuals and do not allow the reimagining of academic labour for most within the institution. 

Drawing on data from interviews with 27 precariously employed academics from the United Kingdom and Australia, this paper aims to make visible how descriptions used and shared in everyday settings carry particular inferences and accomplish moral work (Jayuusi, 1984). To achieve this, we use Membership Categorisation Analysis to examine how people use categories to demonstrate their understanding of the world around them. Categories provide a form of interactional shorthand (Stokoe, 2012) that has specific implications for how people understand the person or thing being described. The category of ‘academic work’, for example, carries particular inferences and expectations that are implicitly shared about the person. Membership Categorisation Analysis works to make visible the inferences, expectations and moral implications of categories in use. 

Our interviewees produced and reproduced the category of academic work as a vocation. Their descriptions of work in higher education identified a willingness to accept precarious work conditions due to their passion for research. The category of ‘being an academic’ was predicated by commitments to research that blurred the lines of the personal and professional. These categories suggest their view of work as a passion that can be leveraged in ways that result in poor employment positions for a payoff in their imagined futures. We argue that the reimagining of the future of academic work needs to make visible these categorisations in order to challenge the subjugation of those in precarious work. As such, transformations of the academy require a focus on building equity and challenging categories that individualise the responsibility and passion of individual academics. 

Stokoe, E. (2012). Moving forward with membership categorization analysis: Methods for systematic analysis. Discourse studies, 14(3), 277-303.

Jayyusi, L. (1984). Categorization and the moral order. London: Routledge.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2022
EventAustralian Association for Research in Education (AARE) 2022: National Conference - University of South Australia, Adelaide, Australia
Duration: 27 Nov 202201 Dec 2022


ConferenceAustralian Association for Research in Education (AARE) 2022
Abbreviated titleTransforming the future of education: The role of research
OtherThe Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE) is excited to announce its first face-to-face conference in two years. It will take place on Sunday 27 November – Thursday 1 December (Pre-Conference: 27 November) at the University of South Australia, City West Campus. 

The AARE 2022 Conference is SOLD OUT! Please contact ConferenceNational via email if you would like to join the wait list.

Taken-for-granted ways of thinking and working in early learning settings, schools, universities and other sites of formal and informal education have been disrupted in the context of the global COVID-19 pandemic, urgent climate change challenges, the policy drive towards technological solutions and increasing social and economic ruptures. One of the most urgent ongoing questions in these times is how to live with others in a world of plurality and difference? This year’s conference theme invites education researchers to reimagine their ways of thinking and working to interrupt or disrupt the taken-for-granted and to be research informing. We invite papers to consider different ways to engage with the conference theme of ‘Transforming the Future of Education – the Role of Research’.

Following AARE’s first virtual conference in 2021, this year’s event will be co-hosted with the University of South Australia and celebrate the return to a face-to-face forum. The conference will offer delegates the opportunity to connect, network, share and learn in the delightful city of Adelaide.
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