Monday, 18 June 2012

Academia, stressful? You bet! A response to Katie Beswick

This is my response to an article that appeared on the Guardian's 'Blogging Students' pages today putting forward the case for a more positive discourse on working in academia by Katie Beswick. While I sympathise with the intent of the article - the only thing that keeps me rolling out of bed on a daily basis is the underlying (if not always immediatly evident) knowledge that I do, in fact, love my job - some of the content was eye-wateringly simplistic. This would not concern me so much if it hadn't gained such traction. The accusation that students and/or those working in academia have it 'easy' is deliberately provocative, but also largely based on an ignorance of what these people do on a daily basis (in the same way that I honestly have no idea what a City Trader 'does', and i mean that in actual terms, not just as a metaphor for their 'contribution' to society). Nonetheless, here is a brief response to remind Katie Beswick why some of us in academia get a bit stressed out from time to time...

1. 'Making Knowledge'

She says that 'making knowledge' is an inherently exciting activity and that "whatever it is, you'll actually be changing the world". This is a dubious claim for a number of reasons. Firstly, what the heck is 'making knowledge' (or for that matter 'producing ideas')? I make arguments, I do my best to present a convincing theoretical and/or empirical basis for them, and then I throw them out into the academic ether to see what the response is. This is a terribly, hideously, painfully stressful thing to do at times. Firstly, there is the prospect of no-one (and sometimes, it really does seem to be no-one) agreeing with you (if it was a simple case of 'making' or 'producing' knowledge this wouldn't be such a problem - people would just look at what you've 'made' and walk on). Secondly, this 'production' is in your name only. If people hate it, they don't just hate the work, they hate the work you have done, and you alone are responsible for. That is an unbelievably stressful prospect. Unlike some other jobs there is often no 'team', no 'manager', no 'other' to share or shift the blame to. It is you; alone. Furthermore, in an academic setting, this work is often the product of many years of hard, rigorous, long, often quite mundane study. If it is then panned, you either have to do it again, work very hard indeed to change perceptions of it, or accept this and move on (and none of those options are particularly attractive). 

Finally, to say that it'll change the world is idealistic nonsense. The average number of times an academic work is referenced by another work (i'm fairly sure) is zero. So, worst of all, you've done all this and got no recognition for it at all; very often not externally, sometimes not even internally within your own institution. If extremely lucky, then it might catch on and you make make some headway and some people will love it and you'll be asked to film your own six-part BBC Series. But this is astronomically unlikely, and selling academic work on this basis to students or budding researchers is as unwise as it is untrue as it leads to doing work that you think 'people' will like, rather than work which could be world-changing but which will probably be ignored. Which leads me on to point 2...

2. "Vibrant workplace"

Even in a department where colleagues are friendly, peers are supportive, and students engaged, academic environments are rarely 'vibrant'. 'Scholarly' sometimes, yes, even intellectually engaging from time to time. But 'vibrant', not often (in my experience, anyway). The problem is that most academics are so specialised that conversations with anyone outside of that specialism is very hard; it's simply a different language. While the concept of academic authority is (not wrongly) being chipped-away so that students and peers question and critique on any manner of subjects that they may have little grounding in, ultimately the person who has spent 20 years reading and immersing themselves in the subject is likely to come out on top in any real intellectual sparring. To be honest, most of the time, they win by default, because no-one (other than their 'true' peers - specialists in the same extremely small field who are nowadays often based in various outposts across the world) has any idea what they're talking about anymore.

3. 'No clockwatching'

The problem with having no boss telling you to sit there until 5pm is that you are your own boss. This - and this may come as a surprise - is just as bad. In my experience, the greatest stress that can behold an academic or student is the feeling that they are doing or achieving nothing. Taking time out and going to get a coffee, or buy some milk from the cornershop, or visit an Apple store (as some would have it) rarely overcomes the overwhelming feeling of uselessness. Like Katie, I am also coming to the end of a four year PhD process and I can't tell you how many hours of that i've spent feeling guilty - i'd guess at least three-quarters of the time. Of course, the way to overcome this (in practical terms) is often to try to work as close to 'normal' hours as possible (something I do fairly religiously). But this means that you end up in this ridiculous situation where you are clockwatching because the little boss in your head won't let you finish yet. Facebook, The Onion, and (lets be honest) The Guardian, are just as likely to be seen on screens across academia at a quarter to five as they are in any other workplace. The clock is just as much a source of stress for students and academics alike as anywhere else, make no mistake.

4. 'Inspirational Colleagues'

Again, I have a lot of sympathy for this point. Many of my peers are indeed inspirational, and i've enjoyed many an hour listening to them talk about things that I have little or no knowledge of (sometimes at the end of the talk as much as at the beginning). But this point returns to the one above; academia is a hyper-specialised environment. While I thoroughly enjoy these little detours from my own work, that is precisely what they are; a long way round to returning to my own work. Occasionally in going to a free lecture or public event you'll find something that will help directly. Almost universally, you won't. These events are most useful as a way of disengaging your brain from the subject matter of your own work, while keeping it engaged in a mode that will allow you to return refreshed. While this is valuable and enjoyable, it also means that come the final twenty minutes of whatever event it is that you're at, you're normally thinking (rather stressfully) about the large, empty void where your thesis should be and how you're going to fill it anywhere near as convincingly as the speaker you've just enjoyed watching for the last forty minutes has. Knowing you're in the presence of greatness is often stifling  as much as it is invigorating (just ask the Irish football team).

And all of these above points haven't even come near the moist obvious, most significant, and most stressful point of all: the increasing managerialisation of the university sector and the huge growth in non-research and non-teaching responsibilities that go with it. 

So, yes Katie, I agree that "we need to move away from the narrative of stress and instead focus on the opportunities academia has to offer". However, we need to do it in a way that doesn't suggest to the outside world that all we're doing is having a ball. Academics and (good) students alike work tremendously hard, often for little reward or recognition. This, unfortunately, is the same for most people in gainful employment (academic or not). So maybe we should all just agree work is hard and instead of moving away from a 'narrative of stress', set about actually dealing with the inevitable stress that becomes all of us, much of the time.

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