Making it in academia: holding the tension between vulnerability and imperviousness

*You can listen to this post as a podcast.*

I was reading a piece on Medium last week about the mysteries of packaging and writing academic job applications, especially for scholars from contexts very different from those they are applying into. In amongst all of the very true and useful points in the piece, I was struck by one sentence that has stayed with me: “Making yourself vulnerable to critique is a central part of academic life”. Vulnerable. That’s a scary word for many people. Especially, if you have had experiences of making yourself so and feeling trampled on by harsh feedback, neglect or even overt unkindness. Academia is not the same boat for everyone; it may be the same sea but there are many different boats and also different kinds and sizes of crews that we are sailing with. For some, being vulnerable is much more scary than it is for others and I think that needs to be recognised and talked about. In many cases, we may feel that we need to rather be impervious, invest our energies in developing that thick skin people are always telling us is vital to survive in an academic career.

This has got me thinking about all the ways in which academics are made vulnerable or have to make themselves vulnerable and what happens when they do. What do we do about the tensions and contradictions inherent in all these processes and acts that ask us to be vulnerable but at the same time tell us to pull it together, be tough, be impervious to the feelings of hurt, frustration and sadness that the different forms of feedback can cause? Can we make this act of making ourselves vulnerable less scary for those already in more precarious positions, like early career researchers, casual staff, women, scholars in minority groups on campus?

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One of the main ways we are asked to, and have to make ourselves vulnerable is through asking for and getting critique, as suggested in the quotation. We write thesis chapters for supervisors and a final thesis for examiners, we write papers for journal editors and reviewers, we stand up in front of peers at conferences (or sit down at our screens in front of peers, these days). We also, if we are teaching academics, have to ask students and sometimes peers to evaluate our teaching, our course materials, our knowledge of what we are teaching. We may also write funding applications for committees internal and external to the university. We apply for jobs and submit ourselves to committees of strangers for evaluation. There are many ways, then, in which we are made to be vulnerable, open to rejection, to criticism and judgement, to both kind and unkind feedback responses.

But, we are also told that, at the same time as we have to make ourselves vulnerable and open in so many ways and to people we know and do not know – often people relatively more powerful than we are – we must be tough, impervious to being hurt and feeling rejected and sad. We need to have a thick skin and be resilient, make peace with rejection and head back out again to ask for more critique, feedback and possibly more rejection. Over and over this seems to be the cycle. I ask for feedback, it’s not good, the paper needs more work, the grant or the job is going to someone else, the opportunity is lost. And instead of wallowing and feeling sad and sorry for myself, I have to pick myself up, be philosophical about the whole thing (Ah, academia, such is the life), and move forward as if I’m not all that bothered. This imperviousness makes me seem successful and strong; it may even be admired, especially if I don’t share my failures or feelings openly.

But I am bothered, and not just for myself. I am bothered for the casual staff for whom one bad course evaluation or loudly unhappy student can mean no more contracts. I am bothered for the early career scholar for whom one harsh and unhelpful peer review can mean giving up on a paper that could be useful for readers in their field. I am bothered for all the postgraduate students studying outside of their more familiar ‘home’ contexts and feeling misunderstood, misheard, misrecognised by homogenous systems that reward conformity in various ways. I am bothered for non-mother tongue writers of English for whom not-so-subtle comments about needing to have an English speaker ‘fix’ their paper may mean feeling pushed aside or put down by an institution that finds many ways to create us and them groups, insiders and outsiders. I am bothered for every academic who is asked, in obvious and not-so-obvious ways to conform to an elusive way of being, speaking, reading, writing, dressing that somehow marks out belonging and not-belonging in academia. And more and more in this cycle it is the individuals doing this difficult emotional labour who are asked to shoulder the responsibility for responding “appropriately” to this system. Individuals who have relatively less power to set the rules or change the state of play. Don’t cry when your supervisor is unnecessarily cutting in a meeting or in their written feedback. Crying is not appropriate. Don’t talk back to peer reviewers or journal editors who use their power to break down instead of building up or helping. That’s disrespectful. The unequal ways in which the system itself works thereby become normalised and when individuals or groups break with this system to try and push back, ask for more or different or better, they are the ones who are the problem, rather than this system itself.

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I think this makes for a pretty unfair and biased game, myself. It’s becomes quite clear, over time, that academia is not a game created by everyone, for everyone. It’s a game that a few people created for themselves and a few select others a long time ago, and while they have over the years allowed others to join in, they have been pretty slow in sharing all the rules and sharing the field. Even more so in being open to making real and meaningful changes to the rules so that the game isn’t quite so uneven, opaque and frustrating for so many people to play.

There are very big changes that need to be made – many of these beyond ordinary people like you and me, perhaps – at the levels of funding policy and allocations, challenging biased ranking systems, creating more just policy and governance environments and practices. But there are smaller, meaningful changes we can start making, us ordinary folk. One clear change is in how and how often we give feedback and to whom we offer it. I have seen several Twitter threads about grant applications that take so much time and work and when they are rejected have no feedback attached that can help applicants be more successful next time. Perhaps that’s a starting point: offer some feedback on unsuccessful grant and job applications on issues that can be worked on, like how the project is framed, the extent to which the criteria were and were not met, writing style & jargon use, etc. Even a few clear lines can make a big difference to the applicant and their chances (and confidence) on the next try. Another change is peer review and how editors manage this process. I see far too many threads on social media about unkind peer review and editors just letting the unkindness happen. As an editor myself I know we have the agency and the knowledge to both encourage and guide better peer review and to mediate (or even choose not to share) poor, unhelpful and even spiteful reviews.

These may seem like too-small changes, but they may begin to make a meaningful impact if we commit, more collectively, to two things, at least. The first is to commit to creating openings for new voices, new scholars, different knowledges, different bodies, rather than making efforts to diversify seem more cosmetic than truly transformative. But to do this, we need to make a second simultaneous commitment: we need to look long and hard at what we make legitimate and reward or reproduce – what knowledges, what ways of being, speaking, writing and acting, what bodies and histories, whose stories. And then we need to start thinking about how we use critique to punish some forms of vulnerability and reward others, and in so doing, continue to set up the game to favour those who already know how to play it or have the means to somehow figure it out. We continue to make vulnerability core to academic life, but this act is not rewarded for everyone who undertakes it. That’s a problem we need to address, together. And we can. This is not utopian thinking. I think that undertaking the kinds of work, individually and collectively, that make genuine steps towards transformed ways of being an academic and working in this space is crucial to keeping university connected and relevant to the communities and societies it is part of, and to taking the academic project forward with and for the many, rather than the few.

Coping with rejection, criticism and self-doubt: making academia kinder

*You can now listen to this post on the podcast player.

I have read a few threads recently on Twitter and in academic Facebook groups I am part of about rejection and criticism, especially how to cope with both and not become beaten down, sad and hopeless. I was directed to a lovely article by Evelyne Deplazes on LinkedIn about this, which started me thinking about this issue. Also, I have a book coming out next month and I can already feel myself tensing for the critique and criticism, for the people who don’t like what I have to say. I am half terrified and half excited to share this book.

Generally, I don’t deal with criticism of my writing well. I am much better, now, at actually opening emails from editors and reading feedback at least a few days after they arrive (rather than avoiding these emails for a week or more), and after the initial shock of the more negative issues or big changes, I can make myself step back, look afresh at the paper, and see how and how much the feedback can improve my thinking and often my actual writing, too (all those commas and long sentences!). But, I have a tendency to obsess about the meaner things that are said about my writing, especially when they are not said with care or concern for helping me be better. One reviewer, several years ago now, commented that my long sentences felt “hectoring” and even counted the words in one. (There were a lot, let’s not go into that now). But, even though we revised that paper and the revisions were not huge or very hard to do in the end, that comment, and others like it over the years, stayed with me. They are part of the story I tell myself about who I am as a writer and a thinker.

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In Evelyne’s article, she argues that taking this step back and seeing that you are not your ideas is a crucial part of managing criticism and rejection in academia and supporting your own mental wellness and resilience. This is a hard one, though, for many researchers. My ideas, my arguments are what I believe and what I think. I am, like so many researchers, deeply invested in and passionate about what I write. Why else would I spend so much time on it? So, when my ideas are critiqued and even rejected, I feel personally criticised and also rejected. I feel, in that initial read of the reviewer reports, like they are saying: ‘You are not (yet) good enough’, rather than ‘Your ideas and arguments are not (yet) good enough’. Managing this and not getting swept up in spirals of negative self-talk means that learning to separate your self from your ideas is important. You are not your ideas. They are part of you, but not the whole, and there are always ways to make your writing and thinking sharper, clearer, deeper, better expressed. Hearing that your ideas need some work is not the same as hearing that you are not good enough.

Another thing Evelyne mentions is that old adage in academia about the fact that rejection and criticism is part of the ‘game’ so you’d better grow a thicker skin. She comments – and I am with her on this one – that being vulnerable and kind is part of how she is an academic, so the idea of ‘growing a thicker skin’ doesn’t feel like her or something she would want to do. I, too, prefer (as you can probably tell if you are a regular reader of this blog) to choose kindness over indifference and vulnerability over a stiff upper lip. I don’t have a very thick skin, which is something I regard as a strength in my work, rather than a weakness. It enables me to connect with a greater diversity of students and peers with empathy, rather than moving through my career impervious to the needs and struggles of others. I don’t want to be impervious. Even though the hurt of rejection and criticism is hard to feel and work through, I would rather feel that than not. I think academia as a whole is far too indifferent and impervious, and has forgotten how to be kind, empathetic and vulnerable. I think this is a problem, seen in large part in the significant increases in stress, burnout, mental health crises, and the general unhappiness of many students, lecturers and university leaders across the global North and South. We don’t need thicker skins to cope with academia; academia needs to become more mindful, kinder, more just and fair.

My part in this, as a teacher/reviewer/assessor/supervisor of diverse groups of postgraduate, postdoctoral and early career writers, is to be mindful and kind. Kindness, as I have reflected on here, is not the same as niceness. My feedback may be tough at times, but it is not mean. In my mind, mean feedback does not try to help the writer see a way to a better idea, a sharper focus, a clearer way of expressing their arguments. Mean feedback is cutting, unconstructive, brusque. It may be easier to write and take less time and emotional or mental energy, but its effect on writers is usually negative, hurtful and demotivating. What’s the point of that? To weed out the ‘weak’ who probably should not be part of academia? When did this become a version of Survivor? I have no interest in being part of that mindset. I try, even as I sometimes get it wrong, to be kind and honest, to offer advice, choices and opportunities for improvement. Even when a paper is not ready for publication or a chapter needs a lot more work, the aim has to be to offer the kinds of advice and feedback that a writer can use to get to that goal – a published paper, a completed thesis chapter (and thesis, eventually) – in the process learning to become a better writer and thinker. This has been my model, from my own supervisor, from colleagues I teach and supervise with, from many of the peer reviewers who are part of journals I have worked on. These inputs have made – are making – me a better teacher, researcher, person and I am so grateful for it.

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So, my job, as I see it, is to pay it forward; I think this is a job for all of us. If you struggled, why not use what you have learned to make someone else’s struggle less awful? If you had it really tough, does that mean your students have to walk that same road? Wouldn’t you have liked someone to come along and make the tough road smoother or at least be a supportive companion? We may feel like academia is too big to make any meaningful changes. The system, structures and cultures need to change, for sure, and this requires much more than just individual efforts. But, I believe that in the lives of students, grant applicants, article or book/chapter writers, offering a kinder, more constructive, considerate approach to giving feedback and issuing rejection letters, which are not unavoidable, can go a long way, over time, to creating a more just, fair, kinder version of academia that we can all be a meaningful part of.

Creating bigger rooms for different bodies and beings in academia

In a small break from writing a very scary application for something I really, really want, I saw this tweet on friend’s Facebook wall:

This was pretty much exactly what I needed to hear, but it got me thinking a bit about all the rooms I have earned the right to be in over the years (and how I have felt like I should apologise for my presence in too many of them) and also rooms I have been allowed into not yet having really earned the right to be there, because of ugly things like structural privilege and systemic hierarchies (but this is for a different post).

As a woman (in academia, and in the world), I have learned over the years to take up just the right amount of space, or maybe a bit less than that. I have learned to be clever, but not so much so that the men in the room get uncomfortable (and some of the women too!); I have learned to be assertive, but not so much so that I am accused of being pushy and aggressive; I have learned to be ambitious, but not so much so that colleagues are threatened by me and don’t want to work with me; I have learned to dress so that people take me seriously, but not too seriously because then I’m not feminine enough, or fun enough. It’s #$%&ing exhausting. And it never ends.

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I enter many rooms because I really feel I have earned the right to be there, because of my years of study, my writing, my patience and endurance through poorly paid and not-very-inspiring contract work, tolerating obnoxious colleagues and public put-downs, surviving obscure bureaucratic mess-ups with contracts, salaries, student issues, and so many other things. But, and this is the thing that got to me about that tweet, I almost never really feel like I can just be, in many of those rooms. There are a few rooms where I can expand and grow and just take up the space I take up, and those spaces are all too rare, and wonderful. I protect them fiercely, and never take them for granted, because there are way more rooms in which I am taking the temperature, reading the crowd, judging how much space I can take up, and whether I will be allowed to even stay in the room.

Imposter syndrome is part of this perhaps – that sense that you really don’t have the right to be there, and that you’re faking it by even trying, and someone will know that and call you out and expose you for the fraud you are. But this is also what this tweet speaks to, for me: to speak back to that imposter syndrome, and argue that you actually are not a fraud. You have worked hard, and paid your dues, and you actually do have a valid voice that should be part of the conversation. This is not easy, because the Imposter voice can be loud, mean, and quite insistent. It’s harder to push back against that, and just walk into the room and stay there, and be just you. Especially if you are not someone who is already ‘in’ by virtue of being part of the dominant and overtly valued ways of being in the academy (i.e. if you are black or queer or a woman or a trans person or disabled or working class or non-mother tongue, etc. – and many different combinations of these things too).

I know too many younger scholars and academics just disillusioned by the ways in which academia continues to try – apparently quite hard – to gatekeep and police who gets to enter which rooms, when and for how long. There are too many people in my extended circle – in person and on Twitter and Facebook – who are just tired of having to fight to take up space they have earned the right to take up, many times over. It’s exhausting, and it flattens you the longer it goes on. We have to change the story, meaningfully, and open academia and the work it does – research, teaching, publishing, supervision, and so on – to new bodies, voices, knowledges, ways of knowing and being.

We can’t say ‘socially just education is vital’ and then keep pushing out people who would actually be able to enact that in new, interesting, challenging and meaningful ways. We can’t say ‘we value social inclusion’ and then shut out people who don’t conform to some tacit, unexamined notion of what the ‘right’ kind of scholar or academic is. That’s not meaningful, and that’s not change. This change has to come from all sides – from university management that has to actively enact policy change (see here for an interesting take on this broader issue); from academics already in the system who have the power to make changes in their practices, contexts and departments; and from us – the scholars bravely walking into rooms and refusing to apologise for taking up space in them, and for being who we are. It cannot all be on those already fighting to just be part of the conversation, and this happens all too often.

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For me, I am reminded that I have a voice, I have something to say and offer, and I need to just keep working on walking into the rooms I want and need to be in, and staying the course. And, as I do that and move through the system and accumulate relative power and freedom, to follow Toni Morrison’s exhortation to all of us who have measures of power and freedom within structures and systems: to use that which you have to empower and free others, to enable them to pay it forward too, and slowly but surely dismantle the systems that reinforce rather than challenge the status quo. It may sound idealistic, but in our current global moment, I don’t think a little pragmatic idealism is such a bad thing.

Grappling with complexity in a world gone mad

I’m not sure how to write this post. I have not posted on the blog for a while. I don’t really want to write any more ‘I’m so tired I can’t write posts’, but I need to write something, if only for my own sanity.

The past two months have been a weird, crazy, anxious and difficult time in South Africa, and globally. Here, apart from the ongoing awful behaviour of our president, we have seen violent, angry protests by students in our universities. At the heart of these protests have been calls for higher education to be free for students, especially poor, academically deserving students and middle class students whose family income is less than R600,000 a year (about $42000). There have also been calls for changes to the curriculum – mostly expressed as ‘decolonising’ or ‘Africanising’ the curriculum, and for changes to the ways in which teaching and assessment are constructed and effected. Too many students are disadvantaged by a system that has for too long gone unchanged and unreflected upon. Many universities have had to shut to keep their students safe, and have struggled to finish the academic year. People have been hurt, buildings vandalised, ugly things have been said in the name of progress and change, and many of us who work in education are feeling disheartened and sad. Where do we go from here?

There are significant problems in my country and globally that need to be addressed, and change must happen, but moving from that realisation to making the change stick will take time. And time is a tricky thing in a situation like this, where some students are claiming they will work to keep universities closed until their demands for change are met. This is, I believe, because we live in a world where things happen so fast that slow research, slow thinking, slow changes are less tolerated, or even seen as resistant or lazy. Academics who are under pressure to publish know this well, as do PhD students who take longer than 3 or 4 years to produce a thesis. We should all be able to teach and research and churn out papers, and present at conferences and tweet and blog and Facebook and still make it home on time for dinner. This is obviously a somewhat cheeky comment, but I know many people who feel overwhelmed by the growing pace that seems to surround our work. Reports about mental health issues on the rise among academics and graduate students are becoming more common, as are calls for a recognition of the value of slower thinking, and research, and deeper engagement with complex issues.

I recently facilitated a workshop with lecturers who were trying to work out a set of priorities for their curriculum, as part of a review process. What did they really want their teaching and learning to achieve, for themselves and their students, and their disciplines? What was striking was that one of the most important issues that came out was a desire to have students become more able to grapple with complexity. To not be so stuck on trying to find one single answer to a question, but to see and grapple with multiple perspectives, and learn to build considered arguments. This is a huge challenge for undergraduate teaching, because the average undergrad degree is so short – 3 or 4 years only – and this is a big thing to learn, especially when you consider that many students have spent 12 years in a schooling system that teaches them to learn the answers, rather than to appreciate the nature of working with problems.  I’m wondering how much of what we have been seeing in recent weeks in #feesmustfall protests here, in Brexit and its aftermath in the UK, in the election of Donald Trump and that polarising, ugly election campaign in the US, is many people’s inability or unwillingness to see, and grapple with, complexity in the issues we are confronted with. Climate change, globalisation, immigration, different versions of neo-liberal capitalism, state funding for social change – these are such big issues, and they connect into other complexities around race, class, gender, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, and all of these issues are just overwhelming.

Grappling with this much complexity is a full-time job, and it’s exhausting. And if you don’t have an educational or home background that has encouraged or taught you to stop, and think, and listen and try to consider or empathise with perspectives other than your own, it is commonsense to try and find one answer that feels okay for you, and stick with that. Inviting other people’s reasoning and opinions to challenge your own seems like too much to deal with, so you shut that out and find opinions and ideas that shore up rather than challenge your own. And you mistrust ‘intellectuals’ like your lecturers who would ask you to read books you don’t like, or think about ideas that make you uncomfortable, or engage with theory that threatens to unseat your beliefs. All of this makes it far less likely that we will learn to listen to and talk to one another with compassion and kindness, which we so desperately need to do if these issues are going to be addressed constructively.

I have been struggling to think and write and concentrate in the midst of all of this, as I am sure has been the case for many of you. Globally we seem to be floundering on the edge of something, and we don’t know which way this pendulum will swing us. My research feels silly in the face of all of this. Why even bother? But, then I think about the argument I have tentatively made here, and I think about my kids and my students, and I think ‘No. Stop’. There is value in slower thinking, in deep engagement, and in research that genuinely seeks to build knowledge, and create space for change. Your research matters, and so does mine. Words and ideas that can inspire change matter. We must continue to work on grappling with complexities, and finding answers and ways forward that don’t oversimplify and divide, but create richer understandings of difficult issues from multiple perspectives. There is much to be done, and I think perhaps it is time to get back to work. Who’s with me?