Untold Stories of Academia

Para-cover-v07-resizeI’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.

9 thoughts on “Untold Stories of Academia

  1. Helen, your post reflects how I’ve felt as I’ve read about PhD experiences. Mine has been resoundingly positive, but most of what I read and hear are dramatic stories of angst, neglect, and miscommunication. I feel sometimes that in telling my story I am seen as dishonouring others’ experiences. When I went to share where I was at with my thesis last week I was told to ‘please not talk about my PhD’ with that person as their experience had not been good. I hope the good stories get told and celebrated! Deb

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    • Deb, thank you for your comment; that is so interesting. I felt worried, as I wrote this post, that if I wasn’t very careful it could be read as if I were belittling the experiences of people who had, or are having, a bad time. Which is not my intention at all. Surely there’s room for all of us? It’s odd that people who have had bad experiences are sometimes so unwilling to hear others’ good experiences; I’ve known that too. At least one friend, who had a difficult time with her PhD and took nearly 10 years to finish, was clearly very unhappy with me when I enjoyed mine and got it done within three years. It seems a real shame to let good experiences divide us. I think we all need to be willing to listen and respect others’ stories of difficulty, and to help where we can. But silencing positive stories seems to me too high a price to pay.

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  2. Great post Helen and like Deb, I seem to only have had encouraging and nurturing experiences during my fledgling academic life. Yet I have heard the stories of other PhD students who have struggled with difficult supervisors and the like (these are very sensible and talented students too). It almost makes me a bit apprehensive as though my time too will come after such halcyon days! Yet I am determined to remain optimistic about academia, on the whole.
    I wonder, as I write the discussion chapter of my thesis on the differences between anecdotal experience and more rigorous clinical research, if studies have been done (surely there have been!) on this, ie the satisfaction level across a broad range of academics? If not, then perhaps we are in danger of being unduly influenced by powerful and memorable negative anecdotes.
    Cheers Carolyn

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    • Carolyn, I don’t know of any such studies but like you, I expect there probably are some somewhere. I think it would also be interest to research the potential influence of ‘powerful and memorable negative anecdotes’ – it seems to me that most of the mainstream news is made up of these!

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  3. I like how you have started a conversation about the good things in academic life, not just the bad. There is a lot of discomfort out there and I really think that it is because academia is going through a transition. Transitions are very uncomfortable because people are uncomfortable with change and steering a giant culture takes time. I think it is a very important institution, it just needs to get better and find its relevance again. I think it is dangerous to criticise without solutions. In my field (education) the criticisms are taken seriously and politicians are beginning to find solutions outside of the academy. Solutions need to be found, or an institution that is dedicated to finding new knowledge and new ways of doing things will disappear. When and if that happens it will be a tragic day.

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    • In some ways I wonder whether the whole world is going through a transition. Somebody famous, I can’t remember who, once said words to the effect of: ‘Change has never happened so fast before, and it will never happen so slowly again.’ – that resonates with me. It’s hard to find a steady place on shifting sands, particularly for a system that is used to more stable ground, but I think it can be done. Maybe, in some respects, people committed to #altac are actually leading the way!

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      • In my #altac position, I spend a lot of time coaching academics to use social media. Yesterday in a session, I got the comment signing up to WP “This is so much pressure to make a decision!” I find this very telling. Social edia is also a transition which academia is experiencing. The whole concept of publish or perish (which is only a phenomenon since WW2) has suddenly been replaced by Be visible or vanish. That’s a lot to cope with. Just as educators look to transition programs for children moving between primary and high school or high school to work or PhD to ECR/ALTAC, experienced academics are experiencing a transition. ALTACs have the skills to guide that transition.

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