Mar 042013

I was privileged to attend a presentation by Inger Mewburn, more popularly known as the thesis whisperer, at Griffith University on Friday night1.  A self-described “product” of the neo-liberal university2, she offered her story of coming to terms with the circumstances in which she found herself. At a time of increasing disruptions in and around universities, I think Inger’s story is valuable reminder to those working in the academy and particularly those on its edges, that complying, accepting your lot in life is not the best game plan. As she put it, to survive she had to learn to become entrepreneurial.

Her presentation was an open and delightfully frank account of the origins and history of the blog she developed to help PhD students in their endeavours. The account was interwoven with the lessons she learned along the way3 and the personal hurdles she had to overcome4. The thesis whisperer blog is now a regular read for many who are undertaking a PhD.  The highly popular blog offers blunt, useful and, more often than not, entertaining advice and insights about all things PhDish.

Inger told her story in the same style she writes her blog. We heard about the beginnings via a conversation with Mark Nottingham and the advice he gave her: be clear about what you do; publish regularly5, keep it short6, and make it useful7. We heard about the now of the blog: the site currently attracts a readership in the thousands from all over the world. We heard about ANU calling her and offering her a job based on her blog. Yes, that’s right, her blog. Not her CV. Not a job application. Not a mate who knew a mate. Not a CV-hunting PVC. But purely and simply on the quality of and generosity in the way she has supported countless PhD folk over many years now. This is not to suggest the the old CV plus interview model will go away anytime soon but it is always at the edges where you first see interesting shifts.

It is easy to read this experience as just another academic blogger who lucked into a job.  That is how the A4 mindset8 would read it. I have a different take.  While keeping her “day job”, however unreliable work was, Inger effectively set up a personal skunk works9. For Inger, it was a space or place totally free of the oversight of bean-counting university managers10.  Yes, she invested a large amount of her time and intellectual capital into it. Yes, it, like all blogging done well, was hard work. The important thing is that if she had tried to do this within a university frame it would have been subject to controls, maybe even a bit of policing (how dare you give away our intellectual property, the IP we are paying you to produce).

Having a plan B or a skunk works project, or many of them, is a characteristic of people who are judged to be successful and creative. Frans Johansson makes this argument is his recent book11. I’m of the view that this way of working, of building and testing lots of little skunk works projects will eventually come to be recognised as an important part of doing useful, productive knowledge work12.

But back to the talk, to briefly point to some of the ideas she offered in the seminar.  She spoke of new forms of publishing, drawing on Gabriel Tarde’s work, of metrics as soft power, of the CV being replaced by Google and her work as edupunk. She pointed to Martin Weller’s pedagogy of abundance, the absolute importance of a digital presence13, and the role of blog posts and tweets in multiplying the number of downloads of papers and citations.

While many of these notions circulate in the academic blogosphere and beyond, it was a powerful experience to have all of these notions14 drawn together as Inger recounted her story. At one point, Inger spoke briefly of MOOCs as an indicator of some of the disruptions Higher Education is experiencing.  It is on this point that I want to leave Inger’s excellent self disclosure of DIY academia and contrast her approach with the typical approach of the modern Australian university.

MOOC panic is now commonplace in many Australian universities15. To the A4’s the MOOC is a mysterious phenomenon. It is a fuzzy kind of threat or perhaps it isn’t. It seems familiar16 but the business model seems not to add up. What is missed in the panic is that the universities and academics who set up the first MOOCs did so by building a skunk works. MOOCs were not part of the vision or plan of any university. They began as experiments, probes, something to try.

What have Australian universities done? They have played the lemming card.

Me too. We can do that. We want one of those. We can be MOOC-savvy. We’ll have five servings of MOOC please.

The lemming card is not new when it comes to thinking about the role and place of IT in Australian higher education. Many years ago, I was puzzled by a sudden change in IT policy in the university in which I was working. Over a beer with an IT-savvy mate, I asked about the shift. He pointed out that there had been a recent meeting of VCs and what is likely to have transpired was that our VC had to put up with another VC bragging about what “his” computer system could now do. Our VC unsure and embarrassed about what “his” system could do came back to discover that his didn’t. He’d then want to know why it didn’t. He would then demand “his” system do what the other VC’s system could do but to go one better so that it did more than the other VC’s system17. Playing the lemming card, at least with respect to IT policy in universities goes back some way it appears. So what can we expect as MOOC panic becomes MOOC me-too-ness?

Expect to see more lemming cards played over the coming months and years. Expect to see no skunk works at a university. Expect to see more academics adapt better to the changing conditions than the institutions to which they are attached. Expect the continuing emergence of the punk academic18, maybe punk academies. Expect, perhaps, the emergence of the fully neoliberal university consisting entirely of managers, a management-intensive university19. This is a university which runs like clockwork. There are no students, no academic staff to make life complicated. There is though, a wonderfully efficient hierarchy for decision making, policy promulgation, reporting and lemming card playing20.

Academics like the thesis whisperer don’t play the lemming card. They understand that replicating what others do is not very clever in this hyper-networked knowledge environment. It was heartening to see so many PhD students listen to Inger and engage her in conversation about her way of working. I hope the odd A4 person there learned a little also.




  1. The presentation was recorded. I don’t know if it is to be made publicly available. []
  2. 11 years as a casual academic. []
  3. To me, it was good example of what I have been calling public learning or, better, learning in public, that is making the messy details of what she learned and how it happened, public. This is in contrast to the usual way in which advice is offered, that is, as a neat, tidy account of what to do and what not to do. []
  4. She spoke, for example, about the difficulty of learning that she had to, as she put it, give her stuff away. []
  5. Memo to self. []
  6. 2nd memo to self []
  7. Many memos to self []
  8. Folk who use digital stuff but still think in terms of paper []
  9. The term skunk works is commonly used to describe projects set up by companies conscious of the conservative/conforming logic that controls the running of most enterprises. Projects are set up completely removed from the oversight of routine management. The oversight of managers limits what can and cannot be done and thought about. If it does not fit the strategic plan or mission statement it does not happen. Note to strategic planners and mission statement writers this is a pre-condition to playing the lemming card-see below []
  10. Not all managers count beans. The good ones manage the beans and manage up, not the people notionally working for them. I’ve been lucky to work with some wonderfully supportive folk. To me, the perfect manager is a kind of cross between Dee Hock and Ricardo Semler []
  11. Johansson, F. (2012). The click moment : seizing opportunity in an unpredictable world. New York: Portfolio/Penguin. []
  12. It’s how Google and businesses of that ilk work. Sadly, in the “modern” Australian university most “innovation” is planned, controlled and managed. []
  13. As Joi Ito recently put it in an interview for Wired, “In the old days, being relevant was writing academic papers. Today, if people can’t find you on the internet, if they’re not talking about you in Rwanda, you’re irrelevant.” []
  14. Notions that find little resonance among those of the A4 mindset. []
  15. It is not represented as panic but, in the best traditions of corporate managerial spin, it is represented as “we know what is going on, we are prepared; we have it under control. []
  16. It looks like distance education but on a huge scale []
  17. The image of little boys having a competition to see who could pee higher up a wall comes to mind. []
  18. For the A4’s, freelance academic with attitude. []
  19. There are a number of institutions that have these attributes: we can’t afford more staff, we need more managers! []
  20. Apologies to Yes Minister for the blatant steal. []
 Posted by at 11:22 am