I’ve heard a number of stories, in the last couple of weeks, which suggest that the academy is hurting people. Some of these stories have been in the mainstream media, e.g. the Guardian article on the inability of universities to support students who are the victims of sexual violence. Some have been on social media, e.g. this blog post on the experiences of people with disabilities in academia or the comments on this blog ‘About Me’ page, whose author describes himself as having run ‘the whole gamut of the academic track (degree-postgrad-PhD-postdoc-despair)’. And some have been in person, mostly stories of managers who are unsympathetic at best, discriminatory or bullying at worst, and staff who are at serious risk of buckling under the strain.
The Para-Academic Handbook, edited by Alex Wardrop and Deborah Withers, tells more of these stories. Its subtitle is A Toolkit for Making, Learning, Creating, Acting, which sounds positive, but much of the text uses strong language to bemoan the state of higher education today. Staff are ’emotionally drained’, students are ‘burdened by extortionate debt’, para-academics are ‘subjected to the callous mediocrity of temporary contracts that offer absolutely nothing in terms of “career development”, or any kind of rung on the ruthless academic ladder’. This is a ‘landscape where ideals and values are devastated’.
This is fighting talk, though I’m not entirely sure where the battle lies, because I hear other stories too. For example, in the last couple of months alone, one academic has told me of promotion, pleased at the likelihood of being able to use their increased seniority to lever better outcomes for students. I spent time with another academic celebrating their successful research funding bid, and heard about the social problems that research team will now be able to investigate and address. And a young friend found a job just before she graduated with a good degree and a manageable amount of debt; she is happily embarking on her new life this very week.
These stories paint a picture of a landscape where ideals and values are alive, well, and possibly even flourishing. So why are there such opposing experiences? And why do we hear so much more about the negative than the positive?
I wonder whether some people may have a particular set of expectations about academia, which it no longer lives up to – if it ever did. I’m sure there are people who have similar experiences in other professional fields: who want to work on a cruise ship, say, or in a hospital, but when they get there, they find it’s not what they thought it would be and they have to move on. Also, those who interact with academia have specific skills. In particular, they tend to be articulate and good at writing, which may explain why we hear more from those unhappy with academia than we might from those unhappy with cruise ships or hospitals. And, of course, misery is regarded as newsworthy, whereas people doing their work well or getting good results is never going to make the headlines.
Most of the unhappy stories seem to be presented in terms of people struggling with academia. Yet it seems to me that what matters is not the relationship between person and institution, but the relationships between people. For sure, there are real problems caused by the managerialist, corporate, performance assessment culture that has developed in academia. But from the stories I have heard and read, it looks to me as though part of the trouble lies with some managers who dump these difficulties onto junior academics, offloading the problems without providing commensurate support. Conversely, other managers shield junior academics from those difficulties as far as they are able, and help them to navigate the rest.
Again, I’m sure this is not the whole story – but it is a story I don’t see in the mainstream or social media. I hope the negative press that academia is getting at present doesn’t damage the morale of the good managers, as has happened in other professions such as social work. There are a lot of good managers, working hard, mostly unseen, to make their small corner of academia function as well as possible for students, colleagues, para-academics, research participants, and all the people they come into contact with. I know this because I’m lucky enough to work with some of them, and ‘callous mediocrity’ has never been my experience. They are resilient and creative, and they don’t cause harm, they help people. Let’s tell their stories, too.