An opinion piece about climate change reporting attracted my attention recently. It reminded me of some important elements of the theory of change that informs my work.
Table of Contents
The (scary) reality
There are a lot of negative stories about academic careers out there. Like the scary stories about climate change, they are mainly true. Governments pursuing a neoliberal political agenda have reduced funding for higher education. They have changed the public narrative from one of education as a public good to education as a private good, primarily measured in terms of the instrumental use of education qualifications and scholarly research for the economy. That neoliberal political agenda also privileges private employers over the public sector, both in terms of how student outcomes are valued and in terms of funding for higher education and the pay and conditions of those who work in higher education. A core tenet of neoliberalism is that excellence is scarce and competition is a good way to allocate resources.
That political context has influenced institutions who have had to respond to policies (including accountability regimes) that encourage them to become more like private corporations, to appoint people with experience in the private sector to their boards of trustees, and to embed competitive values in their processes. While those pressures play out in different ways in different countries, and different institutions within the same country, there is a general trend away from values of cooperation in pursuit of knowledge as a public good. And there has been downward pressure on academic salaries, a worsening of the conditions of academic labour, and an increase in casualization in almost all countries.
There is also a lot to not like about academic culture. Sometimes those negative organizational cultures are influenced by this wider political and institutional context. Sometimes they are the result of individual assholes being employed by your institution and their asshole behavior not being dealt with. Sometimes it’s the personalities of the individuals involved. Sometimes it is a combination of those things. National cultures, disciplinary cultures, and subcultures of various sorts (including political and cultural sub-cultures) intersect in various ways to create variation in academic cultures within institutions and among different institutions.
This is reality. It sucks.
Hopelessness and fear are demotivating
It can be fun to joke about the negatives. There are some good jokes out there as comics, as Twitter accounts, and as tales told in social situations online and face to face. I have made an active decision to severely limit how much I share those jokes. (This is also why I have not linked to specific examples.) I do have a sense of humour. And I think it’s pretty easy to slide into hopelessness and despair. Joking can make it hard to name the things you think should change and (perhaps unintentionally) reinforce the sense that negative trends are inevitable.
There may be limits to what you can do to change the current reality of academic labour. The change you seek may require collective action and take a long time. You are not required to burn yourself out seeking to change things that you cannot change alone.
You can, however, control the stories you tell and which stories you amplify. You can choose to focus on hope instead of fear. I choose to find glimmers of hope and amplify them. I choose to tell hopeful stories. I choose to encourage. I choose to cheer. I choose #AcademicKindness. I encourage you to do the same.
The (hopeful) reality
Without dismissing or discounting everything I said above about the current reality, it is only a partial picture. The following is also true.
Full-time, open contract positions (these may be called tenure-track, permanent, or something else) do still exist in higher education. Those jobs are relatively well paid compared to national median salaries in many countries. Working conditions for those in open positions are generally good. In many countries, academic work is unionized and unions have been able to resist some of the worst effects of the neoliberal agenda. Unionization has also helped to improve pay and conditions for some of those in casual and temporary academic positions in some institutions in some countries.
Those employed as academics have considerable autonomy compared to similar professionals in other sectors. There is considerable scope to organize your own time, to choose what you work on, and to choose how you do your work. Many aspects of academic work are meaningful and rewarding. Creating new knowledge. Seeing your students grasp difficult concepts. Seeing students develop and grow in their knowledge, skills, and just generally over the course of a degree program and knowing you played a part in that. Playing a part in enabling students to work with, work around, or overcome those challenges to benefit from a university education. Playing a part in creating knowledge that (eventually) has some real impact on policy or professional practice. Or even just seeing your work have an impact on how someone else understands something. Many academics find the mere fact of engaging in intellectual labour meaningful and rewarding.
The neoliberal agenda for higher education has vocal critics and active resistance. The nature and purpose of the work academics do is actively debated. Although there is still a long way to go, universities and colleges are much more inclusive and diverse in both their academic staff (which you may refer to as faculty) and students.
Do not lose sight of (or worse, dismiss) these positive things. Avoid the tendency to binary thinking in which things are either bad or good. Recognize the positive and build from there. Hopeful stories about the future are built on recognizing the positive in the present.
Hopeful stories require a vision of the future
Building a hopeful story on the positive elements of the present requires a vision for the future. I recommend that you describe your vision in terms of the qualities that it has rather than using specific job titles, institutional names, political parties, or legislative measures. You might derive those qualities from specific jobs, institutions, legislative measures, or even historical examples but do draw out the qualities and separate them from the specifics. Knowing some of the qualities of your vision will enable you to see those elements even when they appear in places you do not expect them. It will also enable you to argue for them in ways that do not trigger unhelpful reactions that focus on the specifics rather than your main points.
Your vision may be vague. It may be a long way away. Don’t worry if it feels impossible.
Robert Fisk, in The Path of Least Resistance, reminds us that the creative tension between where we want to be (your vision) and where we are now (reality) generates forward momentum. You may have a vision of how you would like the broader context to be. You should also have a vision of where you would like to be personally. Your vision is the basis of the stories you tell yourself and others, and enables you to identify concrete actions you can take, individually or collectively, to move towards that vision.
Joy and Meaningfulness
The path forward is often difficult. The glimmers of hope provided by your vision are the lights that show you the way. Important elements of your vision (collective or individual) are joy and meaningfulness.
It is much easier to travel that difficult path if there are things about the journey that you enjoy and find meaningful. It is much easier to travel the parts that are not joyful or meaningful if you know there will be joy and meaning soon. Joy and meaningfulness ARE the glimmers of hope. Figuring out what qualities of the work are meaningful and bring you joy is a really good method for figuring out the vision and identifying the opportunities that will take you there.
Joy and meaning are almost impossible if you don’t have a living wage and decent conditions. I am assuming that your vision includes basic things like a living wage and decent working conditions. Even if those seem like a lot to ask compared to your current situation, they are not really what makes your vision hopeful. Hum that Rolling Stones tune while you add joy and meaning to your vision. You deserve to be paid well for work that gives you joy and meaning.
The elements you identify as joyful or meaningful can be personal to you. You are not looking for big transcendent meaning or joy here. And it’s okay if what you find meaningful or joyful is different from what your colleagues or friends find meaningful or joyful. It is helpful to identify small things as well as a bigger things. You can look for ways to bring meaning and joy into this part of the path, rather than endlessly deferring those things for some mythical (or possibly magical) future date.
How this influences my work
I approach everything I do here in this hopeful frame of mind. Yes, I am angry and frustrated with the general context and with specific things that affect you and others like you. I choose to focus on the positive and work to enlarge the scope of the positive.
That means that on social media I try to be encouraging, cheering your small and large victories, encouraging you to find the joy and meaning in your work, and commiserating when things are not going well. (You can find me on Twitter or Facebook.) The Library on the website provides resources and information you can use to clarify your vision and practical strategies to move forward towards it.
The Academic Writing Studio is imbued with this hopeful ethos. Because writing is often the place where you find meaning (and even joy) in your academic life, but also the hardest thing to protect time for, the studio is focused on helping you do more writing. As a corollary it also helps you put limits on other things, make tough decisions, and use joy and meaning in your decisions about which things you prioritize.
Individual services like Wayfinding and Confidence Boost directly focus on this hopeful thing. Wayfinding is about helping you identify and clarify your vision and then figure out what the next bit of the path looks like. Confidence Boosts are for all the places along the way where you wobble a bit. I believe you can do this. And I’m here to help you believe that, too. It’s okay to wobble. It’s okay to need reassurance. It’s okay to want help to figure out how to navigate the next stretch.
And yes, it’s going to be hard work. And sometimes there is a lot that’s out of your control and not meaningful or joyful at all, possibly even the opposite. I am here to help you see the glimmers of hope and find the small things that give you joy and meaning even if that hope, joy, and meaning seem to require leaving academia altogether.