Ten years ago, when I decided to return to academia after a short stint in the legal profession, I imagined learning from Great Minds. I fantasized of daring and innovative thinkers sitting in the shade of a large Karee tree and discussing ideas, designing experiments and eating apples.
I imagined ass-kissing students competing for the attention of professors and tweed-jacket-wearing professors competing for the Nobel prize in something-something.
I laugh! I snort! I ridicule my own preconceived stupidity.
As I sat around a table today, looking on as a well-loved colleague was slaughtered by her doctoral assessors who became personal in their attacks and tried to advance their own expertise, I lamented this milieu that once saved my life…
When I just started university at 19 years old, I was dull and shapeless from being moulded into a figure that was acceptable and almost unseen at a posh school for girls where a lower working class cherrie needed to fit in among the daughters of lawyers and doctors. But at varsity, there are a endless number of different shapes and they are all welcome. No matter what box you fit into in your own mind, that box was somewhere on campus. I loved every minute of my time at university.
But as lecturer, it’s not so much ‘publish or perish’ as it is ‘kill or be killed’. I’ve sat in multiple conferences, listening to questions and comments by renowned academics trying to humiliate, mock or discredit speakers. I’ve seen postgraduate assessors (like today) crush the hopes and enthusiasm of young researchers instead of motivating and inspiring and guiding.
Of course, I’m not saying let’s all hold hands and sing kumbaya around the gas heater. Some students are lazier than cat in a window sill. Some academics can’t find their ass even if it’s a button on Candy Crush. But no-one deserves to feel like they are not good enough and never will be.
When I had to defend my postgrad degree, one of my assessors wrote in my report: this work is of such low quality, you should cancel her defence to save her the humiliation. I was devastated. I cried for days. It didn’t matter that my other assessors were full of praize. I only remembered that report.
To this day, almost a decade after that experience, whenever I start writing up research there is this vivid voice in my head saying: you’re not good enough. Stop now to save yourself the humiliation.
I took my colleague aside after her defence and offered my very best version of: you were great, don’t let them dim your passion. But it was too late. She started crying and this sweet, gentle person adopted into her mind a vivid voice that spoke mean things to her.
There is this saying: the politics in academia is so fierce because the stakes are so low. I thought today of the times I worked in law enforcement…the times I worked with police officers who put their lives at risk and see daily the worst of humanity. I thought of my mother and other nurses and paramedics and teachers and single parents and those fighting cancer…the places where the stakes are high…and I thought: are people so mean about their own little place in the sun there?
I wish academia was more like my fantasies. Where even the moderately intelligent (like me!) could be inspired to heights. Where great minds sat under trees and shared their ideas and helped others develop theirs. I mean, they don’t have to eat apples, but it would be nice.
Anyway, I better get back to grading these 600 papers…I’ve already been threatened with disciplinary action…
But first, chococino…