Academic resilience podcast

Host Fiona Allison speaks with the editors of the latest book in the Surviving and Thriving in Academia series: Academic Resilience, where together they examine what resilience is, what it can do and how it can be worked upon.

Speaker profile(s)

Marian Mahat, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne, Australia.

Joanne Blannin, Senior Lecturer in Digital Transformations at Monash University, Australia.

Caroline Cohrssen, Associate Professor in Teacher Education and Learning Leadership at The University of Hong Kong.

Elizer Jay de los Reyes, Postdoctoral Fellow at the National University of Singapore.

In this episode:

  • What can institutions and academic leaders do to instil resilience?
  • Examination of the Academic Resilience Model
  • Each interviewee offers 1 piece of advice on building resilience

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Academic resilience – transcript

Fiona Allison (FA):

Welcome to the Emerald Podcast Series. I'm pleased to be joined today by four great guests. Marian Mahat, senior research fellow at the University of Melbourne, Australia. Joanne Blannin, a senior lecturer in digital transformation at Monash University Australia. Caroline Cohrssen, associate professor in teacher education and learning leadership at University of Hong Kong, and Eliza J. de los Reyes postdoctoral fellow at the National University of Singapore. Together Marian, Jo, Caroline and Jay are the editors of a new book, Academic Resilience: personal stories and lessons learned from the COVID-19 experience published in the Surviving and Thriving in Academia series, of which Marian is series editor. The book relates perspectives across disciplines, career stages and global contexts on how to develop resilience in academia, based on the contributors reflections of working throughout the Coronavirus pandemic. The COVID 19 pandemic undoubtedly tested the resilience of academics in higher education, many universities were severely affected by reduced student enrollment, with widespread job losses reported across universities. For many academics, the impact of the pandemic has been worrying, financially crippling and overwhelming. The viruses also exposed academic inequalities impacted heavily on vulnerable people, the individual and collective heroic spirit in many academics has been nothing short of extraordinary. Overcoming initial hurdles of COVID-19 takes a certain kind of energy. The resiliency to remain engaged despite the continuing changes and uncertainties is quite another challenge. It is one that demands sustained resilience.

Hi, everyone, I'm really pleased that you've joined me today. I'm just going to jump straight in here. So Jay, this is for you. So can you start by introducing us to your conceptualization of resilience, particularly an individual academics resilience in the face of the pandemic and the other challenges that are faced by higher education today?

Eliza J. de los Reyes (Jay):

I'm going to quickly walk you through how the focus on academics, particularly those in higher education, became our route in thinking about resilience and then describe what we think of it as a concept. In the book, we argue that the idea of Resilience in Education, specifically higher education has almost always been looked at through the perspective of students or learners. On the one hand, organisations such as the PISA, OECD and UNESCO, often look at resilience as a student quality. On the other hand, if you look at scholarship written about resilience in higher education, during the five major pandemics of the 21st century, namely SARS, H1N1 MERS, Ebola and COVID, it is obvious that resilience among higher education academics is rarely talked about in the earlier four major pandemics. It is only when COVID-19 happened that a considerable amount of work started to engage with it. So going back to your question on what resilience is, from the vantage point of an academic, we offer in our edited book, the view that it is, and we call it and I quote, “the dynamic process and interaction between an academic and their ever-changing environment that uses available internal and external resources to produce positive outcomes in response to different contextual and developmental challenges.” So while we acknowledge that resilience has been conceptualised previously, as related to personality, for example, those characteristics of individuals that help overcome adversity, and at the same time, also related to outcomes, for example, approaches or strategies that individuals develop to turn the tide of adversity, like the pandemic. And of course, we offer this in our book with an acknowledgement that it is also influenced by academics, environments, such as the availability and accessibility of resources to support them to bounce back.


Thank you, Jay. That's a really good introduction there to the concept of resilience. Appreciate that. My next question that I want to direct that to you, Caroline, if that's okay, so, the pandemics have exacerbated, academic inequalities has been highlighted alongside broader social inequalities. So what have the stories of resilience that have been shared in this book shown you about how academics have resolved themselves against these increasing pressures?

Caroline Cohrseen (CC):

Fiona that's such a great question, because it's really getting to the heart of what we're talking about in the book, what our authors are talking about in the book, and one of the academics who spoke with during this project said and I'm going to probably misquote her a little bit, but she said the resilience is something you don't just have or get is something that you build. It's like a muscle, we have to keep working on it to build it over time. And she actually said that, from her perspective, that's the elephant in the room. Many, many early career researchers, and she's an early career researcher, see the road that lies ahead, they see the trailblazers, they see the success that more senior academics have achieved. But there's no real induction to the life of an academic. And I think once once the pandemic hit, what we saw was that there had been no systematic processes in place to support individuals to build and exercise their resilience to develop and and exercise that muscle, to the degree that we needed. And this has been clear over the last couple of years, and it's something that comes through quite strongly in the different stories in the book. Our readers will see that there are stories of academics a different career stages and from all around the world. And what we see coming through these chapters as as pressures evolved, these social contextual pressures evolved during the pandemic, their responses to them, and the level of their resilience did as well. So I guess there's an overall comment, you know, people that have demonstrated resilience have, they've had to use intellectual flexibility in bucketloads. But they've also had to be quite pragmatic about their research in order to keep the research wheel turning. And I guess one of the other key themes that's woven itself through the chapters in the book is just the degree to which University's provision of effective support to their academic staff has varied quite a lot from institution to institution. And I guess that's one of the things that really stands out most clearly from our conversations with academics and from the chapters in the in the book is the variability of individual experiences. There's no one size fits all everybody approached it in a different way, and demonstrated or achieved and demonstrated their resilience in completely different ways. And so the pandemic had differing implications for their work as they went about performing well and Masten and said, like two decades ago, and performing their ordinary magic, which which we do in our day to day lives as academics, universities. And so you know, one of the things that I'm mindful at the moment, whilst many countries as we were just saying earlier on, many countries have decided that COVID is endemic, and we're going to just live with it. We see videos and social media coming out, for example, from Shanghai, which shows just how profound the impact of the pandemic continues to be for many people, many academics in different parts of the world. And I guess one of the things that we've seen coming through loud and clear from the authors in this book is how the there's been a lot of thinking about the connection between people's academic work and their broader life purpose, what they actually want to achieve in their lives, what their priorities are. And this has really led to quite a significant recalibration really a re rejigging of priorities for for lots of people.


Thanks for your answer, I really appreciate you know, you highlighted that, you know, it has been a different experience for everyone, depending on where they are in their academic lives is really good point that. So my next one actually is going to be for you, Jo. So what do you think needs to change at an institutional or even at a sector level to better support academics? Both, you know, in times of, you know, a global pandemic, which is, you know, in our lifetimes has been unprecedented, but also more more generally?

Joanne Blannin (JB):

Yeah, it's a really good question. And I think a lot of what I want to say in response to that question is going to overlap with what Caroline's mentioned as being significant to the individual and the themes that came through in the book and the different chapters. And we heard quite a few different stories in in the interviews that we undertook as part of the research that we carried out, and also in the stories that we heard through other people's research in their chapters as well. And it gave us some ideas of how institutions and sectors could prepare for challenges. And these are the unknown, right? So we it's hard to prepare for the unknown as we can always prepare for things in hindsight, but the future is trickier. So I think one of the one example of how one institutions going about it is one chapter in the book is from some academics at a Brazilian University, where their academics went out into the community at the beginning of the pandemic, and they sought to blend the resources of their institution with the resources of the local government. And they brought people into higher education during the pandemic. So they they sought out and they found education opportunities for people, but they also gave back and they reached out and they provide a business support business expertise. He's to small businesses in their area. And it all started with the Business and Economics faculty. But it grew. And it grew because the leaders and the institutional leaders could see that there was a great potential for ongoing growth and connections. And they were actually open to these new models of practice. And now, the academics at that Brazilian University are seeing that their model is being taken on by other faculties that the institutional leaders are supporting them to do things differently. And we want to encourage institutional leaders to see adversity as something to grow through, rather than something to go through and struggle to maintain some kind of normality that we're just going to revert back to afterwards. But in that example, the understanding that things can change, and we can learn from and through challenge, I think, is something that we want institutional and sector leaders to really focus on and engage. And as we as Caroline mentioned, we've learned through putting this book together that academic resilience is learned, and it must be practised, continually practised. And so we hope that leaders at the highest levels will continue to support academics even after the global pandemic is passed. Let's hope it is the one and only event in our lifetimes. But who knows, in bringing together all of the research that we explored through the chapters, when we were putting our final chapter together in the book, there were kind of three areas that came through as strong concepts and ideas that we think institutions could take away and use for the future. That idea of future proofing, I think, is really difficult, because I don't think you can future proof, but I think you could be future aware. And one of the first things that we think institutions can do is to value meaningful relationships. As Caroline mentioned, a lot of the people who demonstrated strong academic resiliencies had really excellent relationships with staff members at all levels and in all different roles. And they appeared to have stronger and more resilient staff bodies overall, and institutions that provided ways to do that appeared to have an overall more resilient staff and resilient programmes as well. As also, as Caroline mentioned, the individuals in the studies in the book noted that they were rethinking their personal priorities. And this has implications for institutional leaders too. That means that they need to reflect on these shifting priorities in their staff, and how that might affect their plans as well. And I think we've probably all heard of or read the studies that say reduced working hours actually sees the same or perhaps even more work output that we see you the Scandinavian countries going to four day work weeks, and yet the same work output or increased work output but we're not seeing any of those kind of rebalancing of work commitments or admin requirements are anything for academics. And I think that's something that institutions could be looking at in a post pandemic world and other related areas that academics are telling us they're more likely now to question the significance or importance of a research study before they begin the research, not just because it's an interesting study. But actually, what is the importance of it, and I think this is where institutions might need to focus next, ensuring that they're scoping academics, workload to balance a healthy life with a purposeful, yet streamlined career. And finally, academics told us they want to have impact. But of course, that's not new. We know many academics do research to bring light to complex or misunderstood or difficult situations. And we often want to raise awareness or make a difference in the world. That's why we love research. That's why we do research. But large number of people in the book and people in our own research told us that the pandemic lockdowns gave them time to reflect on their own impact, and that they're feeling much more strategic about what they want to publish and how quickly they want to share their emerging knowledge in different formats. And I think for institutional leaders, this means considering how they measure success, how they measure impact, and of course, what we count as academic contributions. How are we closing the loop on creating research opportunities, gathering data, making sense of data and bringing that data back to the people involved in the research and I think in a post pandemic world, academia needs to be increasingly relevant and timely, as one participant said to us, it's about telling people’s stories, because if we don't tell the stories, people will forget, referring, I think, to the idea that there is such a short attention span in the world. And I think institutions need to facilitate this shift in expectations that we need feedback in different ways, at different levels to a huge range of people and audiences. So I think there's a there's a few things there for the institutions, to think about, they may not be massively life changing. But I think little tweaks in what we do and how we think about academics could really help with academic institutional resilience and academic resilience at a personal level, too.


Thank you, Jo. That was that was a really great answer. You raised some really, really good points. And you know, appreciate you say, you know, we can't future proof, but we can be more future aware. I think that's what a lot of places are looking at right now. Hopefully, this wouldn't situation won't happen again. But we just don't know do we know really appreciate that great answer. Thank you so much. And you also alluded to, you know, the final chapter of the book. So this leads me on to my next question for Marian. So in the final chapter, you've put forward an academic resilience model. So can you just explain the main elements of this model, please.

Marian Mahat (MM):

So the impact of the COVID 19 pandemic on academic resilience can be thought of as two pronged. The first is related to what Jay mentioned earlier about how COVID-19 has shifted academic resilience conceptually. And the second is related to more material and practical experiences of academics who have experienced adversity and their ways of overcoming it, which Jo mentioned just prior to this. So in thinking about these two points, we developed a model that could describe this more coherently. The academic resilience model focuses on protective strength with factors that are associated with doing well during adversity. Through a review of the literature on resilience in the last 20 years. We identified 10 strength based factors including recalibration, encouragement, structure, identity, loyalty, instrumentality, exchange at work, transformation and knowledge, although I'm not gonna go into all of them right now, but you can read the book and find out what each of those factors mean. Additionally, in a project funded by universities to researcher Resilience Fund, we gather data from 214 academic staff across different career stages from Australia, Hong Kong, Mexico, Singapore, South Africa, Sweden, United Kingdom and United States. Through this project, we also identified an additional three factors, which is prior experiences of academics, their career stage, and also the culture of the organisation and the country that they are in, which are all stuff that we've mentioned before by Caroline by Jay and by by Joe. So the model emphasises a strength based perspective and are acknowledging that academic resilience is not only an individual quality, but also an organisational quality. Resilience is achieved in connection with fellow academics in an enabling environment. And it's very important here and in an ongoing continuous fashion, but it will vary greatly between individual academics and institutions. The model also implicitly sets thresholds for benchmarking and should guide the purposeful development of professional learning opportunities to support academic resilience. Look, Fiona, academics around the world have shown great strength and energy to overcome the adversities of COVID-19, but a resilient academic show sustained engagement with the continuing changes and uncertainties, uncertainties during these ongoing challenging times, Surviving and Thriving in a post pandemic world will required authentic and transformational leadership. And such a model can help academics and institutions navigate the continued challenges in academia.


Thank you, Marian, I am fully aware of how hard academics work and have worked during the past couple of years. Absolutely. My hat goes off to each and every academic around the world. So you know, my final question I'd just like a little bit of input from from all of you if that's okay, you know, if you just have one piece of advice for an academic who you know, wants to build their resilience, so what what would you say to them, Marian, I'm going to start with you if that's okay.


If there was one piece of advice I could give to an academic building their resilience, it would be to focus on the things that you can do and change, rather than the things that you cannot. When you focus on what you can control, you're far more likely to experience success even during times of adversity. By putting effort on what you can impact can make a difference no matter how small.


Hmm, that's that's a good question too. I totally agree with Marian. But I guess I would then stay connected and staying connected is an active process. It means actually reaching out to people, whether it's personal people, your professional networks. I really feel like this hasn't been the time to hesitate because you know at the risk of sounding cliched because you've heard this said so many times we've all been in it together and in My experience, people have really welcomed opportunities to connect. So whether it's just been to have that virtual coffee with a friend or to reach out to somebody and ask them to introduce you to somebody that they’re keen on networking with or whose work you admire, I think that idea of staying connected has been really important. That's probably what I would suggest.


I agree, obviously, with Marian and Caroline think those are really important strategies, I would say that what academic resilience looks like for you as an individual is as diverse as we are as humans. So it looks different to absolutely everyone. But I would encourage people to reflect on what works for you or what worked for you during the height of the pandemic, and seek to embed that practice whatever it might be into your new normal. And for some of us, we're still going through lock downs, and some of us are a little bit more free, but really focus on identifying what helped you with your resilience building. It might have been daily walks, or lunchtime zoom chats with your colleagues or closing your home office door each morning and sitting down to work at the same time. But there are so many strategies we came across. But I encourage you to find the one or the ones that worked for you and consciously build a habit from there. So that if we do face another challenge on this scale in the future, or even small scale challenges in your day to day, you will have some strategies ready to go in place to help you manifest that resilience.


Thank you, Jo. Jay last but not least,


I'm going to piggyback on Caroline's advice about staying connected. But I would add some few qualifiers. And this is really close to my heart because as an early academic who finished his PhD and started a postdoc, during the peak of the pandemic, I realised that staying connected with the right people who will inspire and motivate you to be productive in a joyful and healthy way matters. This is something that I share in chapter one of the book which four of us actually wrote together. Without Marian and Caroline and Jo around, I don't think I would have been as productive as I have been during the pandemic if I were with a different crowd. So my advice would be choose your crowd wisely, and be intentional or purposeful in learning from them.


That's lovely. Jay, thank you, all of you. Thank you so much for your contributions. It's a really important and timely book. And I suggest to our listeners to definitely go and get themselves a copy again. So thank you for joining me. Today. I'm aware we are of sort of all around the world. So appreciate you taking the time with this fun with time zones thank you.


Thanks, Fiona. Thank you.


Thanks for your Thank you. Thank you for having us.


There is a link to the resilient website in the transcript and the book as well. I'd like to thank my guests for joining me today. And to you listener and to Alex at This is Distorted studios for editing this episode.

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