Three-D Issue 24: Oh, that sounds straight forward

Karen BoyleKaren Boyle
University of Sterling



Speaking at the opening plenary of MeCCSA 2015 on “my brilliant career” was one of those gigs I accepted thinking, “oh that sounds straight forward”. I quickly realised that talking about my own career to a roomful of my peers was anything but.

I am a mid-career academic and relatively new Chair, with a job I love (most of the time), that is well paid, in a field I’m passionate about. Yet, so many of my academic friends and colleagues are struggling to get permanent posts or be promoted within their institutions. Most of us are overworked. Stress levels are high. And, if I’m honest, the last three years have included the worst days of my academic career, as well as the best. I wanted to acknowledge that I was speaking from a privileged position – not least as a mid-career academic who entered the profession in a rather different climate and benefited from access to free Higher Education. But I also wanted to talk about the challenges of contemporary academic life – particularly for those of us in this mid-career stage – without becoming self-indulgent.

In the months before the conference, I was involved in a range of discussions about working cultures in academia. One of my colleagues pulled me up on the fact that I kept referring to my position as a “lucky” one. Her point was that in framing my career in relation to “luck” I was playing down my own agency and achievements. I resisted her critique. I kept thinking of academic colleagues who have achieved the same, if not more, but have been refused promotion to better-paid roles within their institutions. In that context, I felt I had been extremely “lucky” to have been in the right place at the right time to be able to take advantage of certain opportunities and to have had the family support to do so.

Thinking this through as I tried to pull together my comments for the conference, I realised that the “luck” narrative sat uneasily with the other points I wanted to make about academic work cultures. After all, luck is something we have no control over, no responsibility for. Notwithstanding the serendipity which shapes many academic careers, by framing my career through a discourse of “luck” was I not abnegating a responsibility to myself and others to create an equitable working environment?

In the weeks following the conference, the debate about the ways we talk about – and experience – academic labour continued on the Critical Studies in Television blog, sparked by Cathy Johnston’s excellent piece on discourses of attachment and overwork.1 Johnston’s focus was on how our emotional investments in our disciplines – loving what we do – becomes a justification for overwork and the self-exploitation that Ros Gill, among others, has identified as endemic in both the creative industries and academia.2 In a follow-up piece, I suggested that there is a danger that, for those of us in tenured positions, self-exploitation becomes a justification for our exploitation of others, specifically hourly-paid and early-career colleagues.3I want to revisit, and expand upon, the arguments I made in that blog here.

After my MeCCSA talk, one senior colleague “confessed” that she had been guilty of using her own – difficult – experiences as a PhD student as a yardstick against which to measure students’ complaints. Their accounts of overwork, stress, exhaustion rang hollow when compared to the juggling feats she had managed, so their entreaties left her relatively unmoved. For PhD graduates in the current climate, juggling often appallingly-paid temporary teaching “opportunities” in the hope of securing that increasingly allusive permanent post has simply become normalised – it’s what you have to do to secure an academic job. Too few of us who do have those secure posts, it seems, are prepared to stick our necks out on this one: after all, if we don’t get the teaching cover, how on earth will we write that grant application or finish that article? Our own busy-ness legitimates our carelessness towards colleagues.

But this process is circular, not linear. So as junior colleagues do more and more for less and less – often, though by no means exclusively, at a life stage when they have no external responsibilities – those of us in more senior posts come under additional pressure (from ourselves as well as from promotions boards and in appraisal systems) to prove our worth. Add to this mix the external caring and financial obligations that typically (though, again, by no means exclusively) become more intense mid-career – something which is itself profoundly gendered. Not to mention the internal administrative responsibilities which tend to accumulate from mid-career. And so the cycle continues.

All of this sits alongside an almost mandatory parading of self achievement. Part of the marketisation of HE seems to be the increasing marketisation of the academic. No longer is it enough to include your address and phone number in your email signature it seems. Increasingly, colleagues provide links to their social media accounts, blogs, latest publications, current funded projects. Rarely do these links have anything to do with the subject of the email exchange. The visibility and volume of what we do has become more important than its quality. This increases the pressure that we are always “on”, always available, and now accessible on multiple platforms.

However, maybe it is no longer reasonable to assume that someone interested in your field will be able to find your published work without this kind of self promotion. There is simply so much out there that none of us can ever genuinely be on top of our fields anymore. Whilst I regularly hear that distortions in publishing are a REF-effect, REF isn’t the whole problem here. Rather, the problem is the way in which REF tariff has – in many parts of the sector – become the minimum we have to reach to keep our jobs, thus requiring ever more if we want to be promoted within them – which in turn creates an ever-expanded field of academic publishing of, at times, dubious merit. How many of us would really stand by the import of everything we have ever written as academics?

As Doris Eikhof argued in Times Higher towards the end of last year, there is a strata of “further achievers” in HE, colleagues who “live to work” and set the bar unfeasibly high for the rest of us.4 So long as our institutions keep reaping the rewards of overwork and, in turn, rewarding further achievers, it is no surprise that we become caught in a sort of competitive busy-ness to prove our own worth.

I see your marking mountain and raise you a book due by Monday.

For some of the fields MeCCSA represents, this is having consequences which are shaping the nature of our fields. I am writing this during the Glasgow Film Festival, the one week of the year when I go and watch films at the cinema during working hours. Yet I teach and research in film studies. If film viewing is something that increasingly has to be squeezed in to my “spare” time – shared with loved ones – then of course there is a temptation to focus my scholarship around what I know and like? This is not necessarily a bad thing on an individual level, but there are whole swathes of popular (and unpopular) culture – as well as varied modes of engagement – which are not being investigated as regularly or rigorously as we might reasonably expect as a result. Those of us who are stubborn enough to insist on studying things we don’t, necessarily, “like”, find that this both disrupts our leisure time and runs the risk of placing us at odds with fields in which pleasure has become increasingly privileged.

But the costs are not just “academic”. A recent anonymously-authored article for The Guardian Higher Education network about mental health in academia talked about “the erosion of self esteem that results from overwork”.5 In a context of ever-spiralling demands and an ever-expanding “field”, we are never on top of any aspect of our work anymore. Understandably, it leads to despair, self-doubt and far more serious consequences for our health.

Precisely because of the discourses of attachment which Johnston outlines, how we think about our career choices can be bound up with how we think about ourselves. In a culture in which overwork and self-exploitation is the norm, those who make different choices can be an uncomfortable reminder of our own complicity: that we could, perhaps, do things differently. Some of these choices are more loaded than others. I’ve heard from colleagues returning from maternity leave or after bereavement, for example, that others with ostensibly similar experiences have been the least supportive and the most demanding. I did it – and in worse/ more challenging circumstances, with a heavier workload – so why can’t you?

Without denying the very real powerlessness that all of us experience at different times within our working lives, in discussions of contemporary academic life there is at times a perverse investment in denying the agency we do have – however contingent it might be. This point was beautifully made in a discussion at the Feminist & Women’s Studies Association conference in 2013. Following a paper by Maria Do Mar Pereria,6 about the work experiences of feminist academics – for whom, activism becomes another thing we’re not doing “well enough” – women were sharing experiences of being overworked, overstretched, overlooked, exhausted. But then a member of the audience noted that, for those of us in tenured positions and any degree of seniority, we are our universities.

This is a powerful reminder that there is (feminist) work to be done not only in our teaching and research, but in the discursive framing and organisation of our working practices and relationships. Of course, feminists (& others) have been, and continue to be, involved in this kind of work at all levels. As someone relatively newly promoted to a position where I can – maybe – begin to do something about this, I want to be part of the solution, not the problem. But how do I – do we – do this without it becoming yet another piece of unfinished work gnawing at my (our) conscience?

Somewhat contentiously, I have found Audre Lorde’s words useful in trying to think myself out of this impasse – “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare”. These words were gifted to me by a colleague in a discussion about workload and burn-out for feminist academics in the gender-based violence field. I am aware that it may seem disingenuous for a white, tenured, middle-class British academic to appropriate Lorde’s words to discuss working conditions in a profession so saturated in privilege, even if that privilege is giving way to precarity, intensification of workload and surveillance. There is also the danger of Lorde’s words being appropriated to a neo-liberal, individualist model of academic labour, in which looking after ourselves is an individual responsibility – something else we’re not quite doing well enough – and so becomes a source of personal guilt, abnegating the need for structural analysis.

My intent here is certainly not to let our institutions (or governments) off the hook – nor to minimise the importance of collective action, through unions, for example – but rather to acknowledge the ways in which by not taking care of ourselves we not only do damage to our own health and wellbeing, but can also (at times unwittingly) facilitate the exploitation of others. This is not something which is evenly experienced across the fault-lines of gender, race, class, sexuality, dis/ability or generation: and this is true of academia as elsewhere. To speak out about how the current system oppresses even the more-or-less privileged among us is not to negate relative privilege. But to ignore the systems of (self-)exploitation at any level, facilitates their perpetuation at all levels. My rather old-fashioned argument is that this is a crucial moment for academics to put care for the self back on the agenda, not only for our own wellbeing, but as a means of facilitating the kinds of change many of us want to see in our institutions.

Let me expand on this. I am now in a position where I mentor colleagues and am frequently encouraging people to do less: echoing the best advice I was ever given, by my wonderful colleague and mentor Christine Geraghty: and which I did – for a too-short, but very productive, period – manage to live by. No-one listens to me. But why should they? They hear my stories about workload in the corridor. They receive emails from me late at night. They hear me saying “yes” to an impossible demand and a ridiculous timescale. My “do less” must seem like I am trying to pull the ladder up after me, rather than encourage my colleagues’ success.

By looking after myself might I not also become a better mentor, more capable of affecting the kind of change I’ve been advocating above? This is the politics of self-care which I find most enabling: not self-care in the service of a neo-liberal university, but self-care as a building block for change. It’s starting with something I do have power over (myself and the way I talk about my job) and trying to think about how this might be a first step towards creating meaningful change at a broader level.

This is only part of the picture, and lobbying for institutional and structural change – through unions, subject associations like MeCCSA, and other collectives within our institutions – remains crucial. But as a first and very immediate step, we can all think about the ways in which we perpetuate the overwork “norm” not only in how we do our jobs, but also how we talk about them. This doesn’t mean we should be silent about overwork, but when we share our stories can we do this as a means of building change or asking for support, not as a weary statement of fact, or some kind of badge of honour? Mentoring – at all levels – is an important part of this process. It can provide a space where we work through these issues with an interested (but ideally not invested) colleague. It can allow us to share good practice (as well as bad) and offer alternative ways of coming at problems. It should not be about learning how to cope with the system, but keeping ourselves sane and well enough to challenge it, and to be responsible for colleagues at all levels.

That MeCCSA and CST are providing spaces for the airing of these issues is an important move. I certainly don’t have the answers, but in finding time to discuss these issues with colleagues in a non-competitive, honest and open manner, maybe we’ll begin to find some.



1 Catherine Johnson, “Working ourselves to death: discourses of attachment and overwork in the economy of academic labour”, CST Online, 23 January 2015.

2 Rosalind Gill, “Academics, cultural workers and critical labour studies”, Journal of Cultural Economy, 7 (1): 12-30. 2014.

3 Karen Boyle, “Working others to death: discourses of attachment, and overwork in the economy of academic labour (Part 2)”, CST Online, 6 February 2015.

4 Doris Eikhof, “The academic ‘further achievers’ who live to work”, Times Higher Education, 13 November 2014.

5 “I can never get university HR teams to take mental health seriously”, Academics Anonymous, The Guardian (Higher Education Network), 20 February 2015.

6 Maria do Mar Pereira, “Prostesting within and outside the ‘academia without walls’: contemporary transformations in Higher Education and the (im)possibilities of articulating activism and academic work”, FWSA National Conference, University of Nottingham, June 2013.

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