As always, these are simply my views now. I had a career outside of academia for 16 years (professional and academia adjacent) and then entered the academia at age 42 with trepidation and a >40% pay cut. My wife said, “It’s okay if you don’t get tenure. Because then we can go back to making real money again.” My business partner and great friend yelled at me for over an hour about how I was abandoning children who need me, so I can write papers for other people who write papers simply to grow my ego (yep, that hurt). But I like academia. After 13 years in academia, I have been assimilated. After much resistance, I acknowledge that I am an academic. With this identity, it is important to consider whether I have gone over to the dark side and embraced a profession that is evil (or at least fundamentally flawed).
On Twitter, most of my timeline consists of folks whose experience in grad school and academia has ranged from suboptimal to traumatic. Racism, misogyny, ableism, and classism seem to be the norm. Exploitation, harassment, and assault are common. Unfair, arbitrary, capricious, and unethical decision making are the rule. Mentoring ranges from neglectful to indentured servitude to worse. Funding is low, poor, and unevenly distributed. The currency of academic success is a publication model more conducive to publisher profit than science curation. There are also the endlessly humourless tone enforcers, grammar pendants, and formatting fops. Hard and high-quality work receives lean intermittent and delayed reinforcement that can crush motivation to continue. And so many people are cripplingly insecure, have mental health issues, or are just plain mean and horrible that developing and maintaining relationships are challenging. There is also the fun realization that everything I spent many hard years learning in graduate school is now wrong, so starting over is the norm. Sounds kinda like an evil system to enter willingly.
Academia has Value
My view is that academia is overrepresented in the vanguard of advances in civilization for science, art, philosophy, engineering, drama, medicine, economics, and many other fields. To step out and away from the known to discover new ideas necessarily means that being wrong, facing ridicule, aggressively breaking from the old, repeated failure, and offending the status quo go with the territory. Moreover, communicating and implementing novel and challenging ideas with stakeholders is extraordinarily difficult and likely to result in rejection, accidental misunderstanding, and willful misconstruing of the new ideas. When academia is at its best, these features can grind normal humans down intellectually, physically, and emotionally.
There are systemic protections to protect academics: sabbaticals, tenure, and peer supports. All these protections are under external assault from society and policy makers who are either invested in continuing the status quo of society, do not see the long-term value of advancing society, or believe that there are better mechanisms for advancing a dynamic society than universities (i.e., private sector). These external pressures have resulted in increased teaching loads, cutting sabbatical leaves, reducing government funding for arts and science, reducing tenure track positions in favour of sessional and adjunct positions, and instilling a capitalist model of competition over cooperation. Rather than pulling together as professionals, we are fracturing as academic communities under these external pressures and the subsequent erosion of protections. Obtaining and maintaining power, excluding outsiders, gaming the system, cutting corners, financial gain, reputation management, and quantifiable metrics of evaluation have replaced communities of discovery in academia.
Other professions and work environments are also difficult, face challenges, and advance civilization. The primary differences are that reinforcements in other professions are shorter term, more clearly defined, and competition is often more explicit. Evaluations, and supervision are equally, if not more, abusive and of lower quality than academia. Peers are often competitors more so than partners. The primary difference is that working for a corporation usually involves more short-term accountability and structure. There is nothing inherently less free or less scientific about working in the private or non-academic government sectors when compared to academia. Opportunities to make discoveries, advancements, and be creative are just as available in non-academic jobs as in academia. The major advantage is that there are more non-academic employment opportunities than tenure-track academic positions.
Academia is a system that is inherently challenging to individual ego. The structural, emotional, and reward system supports are eroding. Graduate students and academics are now to the point that one must wonder if the entire enterprise is hopelessly spoiled or possibly evil. Promoting approaches to adding supports and supporting academic communities is one approach to making academia sustainable as a system and for its members.
Academia is too heterogeneous as a system and the goals of individuals and higher education institutions vary, but there are four themes of activities to assist in making the profession personally and systemically sustainable.
Identify system valued units and do a lot of them. System valued units are the activities and products that each system most values. Often SVUs are grants, publications, supervising graduating students, publishing books, awards, high teaching evaluations, and such. Identifying the appropriate SVUs for each system are critical. Everyone works hard and accomplishes a lot, but many fail because their efforts are placed in activities that are not high level SVUs in their current environment. And do a lot. Submitting a single paper for publication, a job application, or a grant proposal is incredibly stressful due to the low probability and near randomness of success for each unit. Do a lot and the odds will eventually rise to generally your level of merit.
Be generous, but reserve time. Give heavily to your system, support your colleagues and students, and share expertise and data. Selfishness tends to lead to short-term advantage, but long-term problems. Moreover, academia is supported when there is a togetherness about the work. Much of open science involves assumptions of sharing and supporting, so I have become a supporter of this movement. That said, some time in the weekly schedule must be zealously reserved for individual work that is necessary to develop large numbers of SVUs.
Building communities large and small is important for building academia. Communities range from a supportive research lab, inter-university research or teaching consortia, productive social media communities, supporting and building unions, supporting adjuncts and sessional instructors, promoting professional associations, making conferences more effective and equitable, building advocacy communities for self and others (e.g., #MeTooSTEM), journal clubs, and creating any other formal and informal system to create peer and student support. With systemic supports eroding, building communities from within academia is important.
Fighting evil is a priority. SVUs are necessary, but not sufficient to protect the light side of academia. Make a difference through broad level advocacy, humane administration, kindness, public outreach, equity, justice, government lobbying, and using your skills and knowledge to make differences in the advancement and improvement of civilization. I had a judo instructor who was becoming frustrated with a student’s attitude*. He quoted the legendary Sensei Hatsumi, who said, “I’m not teaching you how to fight. I am teaching you how to control evil. That’s what we are really doing here.” Yeah, I know that sounds bizarre and grandiose. But I truly believe that stuff and it helps me make decisions. Will this activity promote good and contain evil or is the activity entirely self serving? This is how my activities are prioritized. Through the work of every individual academic, the system can be saved from evil.
I do not believe that academia is evil or fatally flawed. Certainly, academia is no more evil than other professions that value power, concentration of resources, or conflate expertise with influence. We have a lot of problems and always have had them (especially racism, abuses of power, and sexism). But as business efficiencies, market forces, and other factors that make academia more like other professions expand, the work environment is getting worse. External pressures have eroded the supports that make the best and most sustainable work possible. External pressures require academics to come together rather than turn against each other. Find your best ways to improve your little part of the world—it adds up and affects us all.
*No. The student was not me.
Bonus: See this great Twitter rant from @chuckwendig for more: https://twitter.com/ChuckWendig/status/1062341964631326720