Why the “whining” about Academia is a productive step forward.

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The past few months have seen a huge online and traditional media barrage of all the ways in which academia, as an institution, is fucked. We’ve seen professors, lecturers and grad students start to speak up on why they left, reports on depression, eating disorders and anxiety as a cultural academic norm, reports of the norms of 55-80-near 100 hour work weeks, reports of exploitation, reports of bullying, reports of emotional and sexual abuse. The suicides of graduate students have begun to be treated not in isolation and as individual circumstances but as part of a trend, and these stories are being told not just on the day to day blogs of people who do an awesome job of continuing to tell their stories, but have had a section of the Guardian created for them, have been covered in glossy magazines, and the twitter hashtags may not be trending but they’re becoming well known and populated.

The inevitable backlash to this is that people, especially those who have had a good time in academia, or have jobs with similar pressures outside of the institution, have been publicly telling everyone to quit their whining and suck it up – that’s just the way the world works now. Fair enough. Well, no it isn’t.

You see, the reason why it’s taken a few high profile and tragic stories to bring this all to light is because it is that narrative of ‘suck it up, everyone has to do this, it’s normal, if you can’t stand the heat get out of the ontological kitchen’ is so very ingrained into the way that academia as an institution and as a business, works. It is that precise narrative which has allowed the working conditions for individuals to plummet to inoperable levels, and has been a part of a wider discourse that hides huge workloads under a multitude of small menial tasks, and contributes to a type of victim blaming (and I don’t use that word lightly) whereby ability to cope becomes re-articulated not as a structural problem, but as individual weakness.

There are some incredibly supportive blog posts coming out, not just the ones that manage to articulate experience in such a way that it starts to break down the deeply ingrained feelings of isolation and self-blame that come along with having a structural problem individualised, but also show how people are ‘getting out’ and providing options and support for those on the edge, whether they intend to stay or whether they really just cannot hack it any more.

This individualisation of structural problems is itself produced by and maintained by a wider cultural way of thinking deeply embedded in the neoliberal turn, and which has itself been reflected in sociological theory. The backlash against the ‘determinism’ that was read into poststructural theory, which equated he intense levels of socialisation and enculturation with the ‘death of the subject’, was met with a dramatic increase in the dominance of personal agency as the driving factor of change. This is the crux of self-determination, of the ways in which we now understand resistance, and the ways in which we are able to conceive of ourselves as active subjects in an extremely complex world. However, it is also the crucial centre which holds together the individualisation inherent to consumerism, capitalism, and makes possible the slide into a predominance of third sector work that hinges on personal creativity, self-fulfilment and passion. In the process however, using those buzzwords as a way to endorse and naturalise ridiculous hours of work, much of it unpaid, and the dissolution of the division between leisure time and work, and, who you are as a person and work.

While this is framed in the opposite terms: that you ‘do what you love’ and ‘it doesn’t feel like work’, that you should ‘want to think about it all the time’, be driven, passionate and individual, what it does is create a social environment where what you do as a living is becoming seen as an indicator of who you are. This means that extra training is taken to be fun, not part of the job, working unpaid to develop ideas is seen as fun, not part of the job, supervising, teaching, writing, creating, planning, and the numerous other things that go into making the whole damn business work are taken to be optional (but not if you want to keep you job or improve your position in any way), fun, leisure-time, and a measure of your worth. What this means, is that the ground work of what the business needs to succeed, improve, or even just fundamentally keep running, is progressively becoming dependent on hours and hours of unpaid labour. Here, I’m not just talking about academia, but the host of independent ‘creative’ businesses which are coming to dominate certain spheres of available employment sectors.

It’s a never ending cycle, where you feel you should love it, you feel like you should ‘make it your own’, you get praise and feel good when you do put in the extra hours, and you get subtly (maybe even not intentionally or consciously) penalised when you don’t. In academia in particular, this part of the the narrative of ‘passion’ is heavily applied to teaching and to research/writing. There’s a lot out here on the internet that talks about how this narrative of passion is abused, so here, I’m merely going to say that this process is leading to massive consequences in terms of mental health, anxiety, depression, lack of sleep, and a huge amount of non-negotiable work that is unpaid (there are also spaces where I’ve seen the E-Time system criticised, and it’s true – we’re physically not allowed to enter more hours into it than we’re contracted for – no matter how long the work actually took. I’ve seen professors work out the amount of hours they’ve actually done, and then have to halve it or more, just to get the E-Time system to send off their pay request form).

This may be construed as whining, but whining is a politically important activity now. It is only through the aggregation of erosional experiences being shared on a day to day basis over time and across departments that we begin to see a pattern that is otherwise heavily masked in terms of personal failure and ineptitude. Breaking the power of isolation and individualisation of these problems is the only way we have to be able to recognise that this is a structural, not an individual problem, regardless of whether neoliberal agency-centric narratives would encourage us to think so. Telling academics to quit whining merely amounts to telling them that it shouldn’t matter what conditions they work under, as long as undergrads are taught and the vice-chancellor receives his bonus, we’re all good.

Gold

The writing isn’t coming so easily at the moment. At the moment it’s all sketches and poetry, and I’m sorry to say, I went back on my promise about the gin. So, here, an old friend, from a long time ago, who has since become an incredible poet. I still have the poem she wrote to me once, a long time ago, called Look At That Moon. Remembering history and where you come from is sometimes a big part of remembering that time is constitutive, not linear. Have a poem by them.

http://katherinemcmahon.bandcamp.com/track/gold

Academia is killing my friends.

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Charles Bukowski wrote of poetry:

if it doesn’t come bursting out of you
in spite of everything,
don’t do it.
unless it comes unasked out of your
heart and your mind and your mouth
and your gut,
don’t do it. […]
unless it comes out of your soul like a rocket,
unless being still would drive you to madness or suicide or murder,
don’t do it.
unless the sun inside you is burning your gut,
don’t do it.”
(excerpt from ‘So you want to be a writer’)

When I first read this, it stayed with me, but I am always reminded too late. In academia we’re taught, with good reason, to think before we speak, before we write. to think of every possible counterargument, consider and ask ourselves before we produce, so that the work we create will be better rounded, more integrated, as intersectional as it can be. This is obviously a good thing to get into the habit of doing, and I never quite mastered it. What I did master, however, was internalising the perpetual fear of releasing any thought or feeling into the world that was undoctored, un-proofread, un-deconstrcuted, re-constructed, drafted and passed peer-review. Thank god for the edit function on Facebook, and thank god for being able to delete posts. Well, not really.

Recently a friend of mine died under horrific circumstances, and the media portrayed her death in terms varying from her relationship breakup to the abuse she received in her department as a grad student. No one ever talked about how the things she went through in university were part of a wider culture, a broader normalised system that is ingrained into how the university system works both meritocratically and economically, and how we only see things in the paper when someone on the inside, a friend or family member, fights for an inquest.

The reason this is relevant is because when this hit the paper, many more stories came out. It resulted in protests and petitions to remove the responsible parties from their positions as teachers that they were still holding (more about the normalised standard of abuse in academia and the process of silencing and inadequate internal proceedings that go along with it later). Along with this came an uproar in philosophy, hitting out against students coming forward with complaints of sexism and abuse in their institutions, the internet provided space for philosophy lecturers to ‘hit back’ publicly humiliating students who rightly expressed their disgust at how it was finally coming to light that this was a problem much bigger than a few sleazy professors, that the problem couldn’t be shunted off to individualised blame on a few ‘monsters’ that weren’t really people, weren’t really philosophers. They were people, fully rounded, contextualised people, one of them had been a friend of my sister and I long before the incidents.

Amidst all of this, with the philosophers on my Facebook (yep, geek, but it’s called networking m’kay – i’ve since left the site) re-posting and sharing these horrifying posts, I became suddenly sickeningly aware that these people, the people I’d admired and wanted to be like, truly did not see the problem. Perhaps they hadn’t had their ‘feminist’ or ‘political awakening’, but for me that was no excuse. While all this stuff got banded around the pressure of isolation and frustration and grief for my lost friend built up, physically it felt like ice in my stomach in veins, it’s weird how metaphors can sometimes so accurately reflect how something actually feels.

Eventually it got too much for my (at least adequately) trained ‘don’t speak!’ section of my brain, and, like Bukowski says, a huge barrage of writing streamed out describing the systematic sexism within graduate schools, how the system of academia is based on a process of cultivating isolation, glorifying depression, normalising breakdowns and working yourself into the ground, how it actively depends on crushing self-esteem and self-worth to achieve that ridiculous hours, commitment and voluntary teaching and research positions that it could not survive without. Furthermore, how this process creates and perpetuates not just victims of abuse, but actively creates abusers. I ask readers not to jump on and destroy these statements quite yet, hopefully I’ll get back to arguing this point clearly and with as much evidence as possible at a later point, but that is not the point of this particular post.

Despite being quite long and detailed, it generally put my point across without quite reflecting the sheer amount of weird mix of desperation, rage and grief that led to its uncontrollable expression. However, I panicked and deleted it, and I’ve regretted it ever since. Those comments and re-posts and defences went on, and instead of watching them progress and congratulate each other and patronise women trying to express the actuality of what it is like, for some people, in grad school, I left Facebook. I wussed out and decided that for my own sanity, I needed to finish my PhD and get the fuck out of there and that I couldn’t fall in to that hole. But those posts remained unchallenged greatly in a place where a rebuttal may have made a difference, and that surely I owed to the memory of a friend.

So, here we go, sometimes I will try to write. It may not be as effective as blurting out to everyone who has ever known you that there is something seriously fucking wrong and everyone needs to listen, but it’s something. I’ll try to write things down instead of pushing back that terrifying stream of writing with a blockade of gin, as a few of us down this end have gotten too good at doing. It may not be any good, and it may not be well supported or well thought out. I might not even proof read it. But it’s more for of a project for me, and I’m going to stop apologising and stop editing and stop deleting. So it’s a start.

Also, another friend has started this site to compile experiences of abuse in grad school, give it a look, and if you can, do share, it’s an effort to break the silence.

http://academiaiskillingmyfriends.tumblr.com

“For a social theorist you sure don’t seem to like people much…”

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There’s a lot of truth (if you are to subscribe to such a thing) in the comparison of the subcultural division between goths and ’emo’s to the philosophical divide between Wittgenstein and Sartre. Wittgenstein’s well known retort to Sartre, stating “Hell isn’t other people. Hell is yourself” is characteristic of the individualistic turn which follows in the wake of neo-liberalism and consumerism in the Euro-American world.

Creativity is a tumultuous affair, spiralling between inspiration of the outside world, reliant upon other people and other people’s endeavours, upon interaction and observation. At the same time creation relies upon a certain element of destruction, of a rupturing of the multiple ways our social worlds and the assumptions they are based upon allow us to go about our everyday lives without drowning in the endless stream of information that structure our environment. To a great extent we rely on not being able to see the ways that social systems structure the very way in which we are able to think about the world and think about ourselves, if we could, even making a cup of tea would become a crippling endeavour.

This destruction is tightly bound to creativity but it comes at a price. In some ways creativity can be seen as a band-aid to the social narratives that just don’t make sense anymore once they become visible. The best poets, artists and musicians either offer a solution, a better way of doing things, another way to see the world, or, they point out those ruptures, making elements of the social world visible to those who (at least in that particular area) had not yet questioned it, and providing comfort to those who had. Art serves an important job in this way, while things remain invisible they remain unquestioned, when they are unquestioned they either do not change or they change in ways that remain unchallenged.

“Good fiction’s job is to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” David Foster Wallace 

But this process of making-visible relies itself on a whole other system of systems and narratives that remain unchallenged, and often on a paradox between content and medium. How can someone tell the world about the intrinsic meaningless-ness of words without using them to communicate at least in some way, even it is by their notable absence? (see Trinh T Minh-ha’s documentaries for an interesting attempt at this in the perspective of the political consequences of the process of translation).

More often, though, these ruptures in the social narratives become formulated into a hostility either against the self and the inability to escape from those structures which are at least now partially visible in their problematisation, or to others, to whom these things are still invisible, with good cause. Whether the resentment, frustration, isolation and apathy is directed externally or internally, the underlying problematisation of the world is broadly the same. The social impact however, can be quite different.