We’re lucky to do this job, but…

 

A recent article in The Guardian brings up a good point with regards to acknowledging how lucky we are to work in academia, however many of the finer points in the article actually perpetuate many of the harmless attitudes that make up the culture of academia. Accepting harmful behaviour does perpetuate it, and if one does not speak out against it, one is, by default, supporting it. I will break down what I mean below. Keep in mind, I am not criticising the general sentiment of the article, or attacking the (anonymous) author, purely adding to the discussion surrounding academic work-place culture.

“As a tribe, we academics enjoy complaining. There’s too much teaching, too many committees, not enough funding. The reviewers are too mean, the houses too expensive, the wages too low. But I would like to stick my head above the parapet (anonymously) and propose a new idea for 2016: let’s celebrate academia for a change.

We need to remember that this profession is fun. We need to rekindle the fires that got us here in the first place. Yes, there are some rubbish bits. But when I take a break from complaining and reflect, there are lots of things that make me happy – and should make you happy too. Here are nine of them:”

 

Even the first paragraph brings up some points which I would like to dissect. First off, the implication that complaining is unique to academics isn’t really such a great point. I have never, in my life, met a single person who does not complain about something. It is not a mark of academia, and it does not make us special. As a side-note (which will come up again and again), “complaining” is not necessarily a bad thing. Many of the “complaints” mentioned even in this first paragraph (eg. relating to money) are actual, legitimate concerns which may keep people out of academia. So, is it really a bad thing to discuss these things? If it leads to awareness of the problem, ideas for solutions, and an improvement in the system, why is it framed as a bad quality? I agree, a positive outlook, and a recognition of how lucky (aka how privileged) we are is very important, but why not strive to be better?

Many of the points in the article are great to reflect on, and a few I cannot comment on because I just don’t have the experience, but some of the nine “good” points this author mentions are actually anything but.

“6 Time is on my Side

As an academic, you are more or less your own boss. That means you can find the things you enjoy and do them: I get deep joy from taking a break to play football during the working day, for example.

There are disagreeable tasks: admin, marking, grant-writing. But the bad bits shouldn’t take all of your day – if they do, drop some. It is acceptable to say no. And where it is not, it is normally possible to shape courses and committees to reflect your research interests.”

While we do generally have flexible working hours, this often comes with the expectation to work MORE HOURS. I really love the fact that I can choose when I work, and that if it is a really sunny day I can get out and go hiking, or if the snow is good, I can try and avoid the crowds by hitting the slopes mid-week, but I have also been pressured to work extreme over-time and been denied holidays. I’d argue that this is a much bigger problem for junior represented academics, we are much more likely to experience pressure from our superiors than someone who has tenure. There is often the implication that if you are not at work every single day of the week for at least a few hours, you are not serious enough about your work. You can be productive in a more-or-less 40 hour work week. Some weeks you may need to work more, and sometimes you may also need to do the work at odd hours (especially in biology), but when discussing work hours of academics, one needs to consider both sides of the “flexibility” argument.

“7 Under Pressure

Remember, there are far more stressful jobs out there – some involve people shooting at you (soldier), shouting at you (police) or dying on you (doctor).

There are others that involve horrible hours, terrible working conditions and repetitive tasks, but luckily I stopped being a post-doc.”

See above points about working hours and expectations. I also take issue here with the “joke” about post-doc positions. In my view, this shows how little respect the author has for their juniors. Yes, science has repetitive tasks, and nobody should shy away from that, but horrible hours and terrible working conditions are not to be passed on to your juniors at all. I really can’t stand the “my journey in academia was horrible like this, so it must be like this for you too” attitude. We can all work together to make academic culture more welcoming for everyone, and this starts by respecting your juniors.

“8 The Kids are Alright

If my relentless optimism isn’t enough for you, think of the children/students.

Complaining about the stress of an academic job may be a cunning plan by established faculty to stop newer, smarter people snapping at their heels. But it isn’t fair on the next generation and it is a waste of the time, energy and money we have invested in getting them across the line.”

Yeah, but the students also need to know what awaits them when they embark on a PhD. Having unrealistic expectations about your future plans or your dream career helps no-one, and only pushes people out of academia.

 

“9 Don’t Worry, Be Happy

In conclusion (and for the sake of balance), I do accept that there are problems with the system. There are fewer entry-level posts, and those that do exist come with considerably less job security than they used to. The demands of the career have changed significantly and it is much harder to get that critical break-in grant than it was 20 years ago. But dwelling on the negative doesn’t actually help anyone.”

 

These are not the only problems in academia, and overall the author seems to be advising “just smile and be happy” as a way to fix all the problems. Maybe, instead of dismissing meaningful discussions by people who experience the issues of modern-day academia as “complaining”, it would be more useful to listen, really listen to what they are saying and try to use your position of power (or luck, privilege, whatever you want to call it) as a means of change. So, dear author, try and listen more to your colleagues who are experiencing these issues, and maybe their “negativity” WILL actually help someone.

 

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