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Adventures in Academe

Heed the uncomfortable truth-tellers in academia

In her final column for University Affairs, Dr. Riddell asks, how do we restore balance in higher education? We need to listen.


As we pass the six-month mark of this global pandemic, our ability to live and work under duress is starting to wane. We are getting “COVID cranky” as the adrenaline that has enabled us to operate in an intensely stressful situation – what American psychologist Ann Masten calls our “surge capacities” – wears off and fatigue sets in.

Recently, one of my colleagues shared that her institution sends out weekly “wellness” emails: the standard self-care tips (sleep, exercise, breathe – and repeat!) accompanied by advertisements for mental-health courses, all with a substantial registration fee. “Why is it,” she lamented, “that the very institution that is making me unwell is charging me for the cure?”

Her question demands a larger conversation about what our institutions are doing to create working environments that are safe, sustainable and sane.

Shakespeare – my favourite guide for navigating wicked problems – offers some advice on how to manage trauma in the final lines of King Lear:

The weight of this sad time we must obey;

Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.

I’ve always struggled with this overly tidy moral at the end of a play that stages the collapse of an individual and a society, the deterioration of decorum and decency, and the radical decentering of justice and truth. Shakespeare seems to wrap it all up with a bow even as bodies litter the stage.

These lines resonate differently for me in the midst of our current “sad time” and I am left wondering how we even begin to “speak what we feel” when we are constantly pressured to be resilient and “build back better”? (This new catch phrase makes me want to run screaming into the storm).

Resilience is a strength worthy of cultivating; however, when systems of power use “resilience” as a means to avoid making systemic changes to better support people, we are in big trouble. American writer Andrew Zolli puts it another way: “Where sustainability aims to put the world back into balance, resilience looks for ways to manage in an imbalanced world.”

Do we continue to cope in deteriorating conditions or are we willing to do the work necessary to change the systems that make us unwell? How do we put the world back into balance when we are in a state of constant disequilibrium? King Lear provides us with one strategy if we are willing to listen.

The most important lesson this play offers is that good leaders surround themselves with people who speak uncomfortable truths and challenge us to see and think differently. At the outset of the play, Lear’s court is a safe space for his subjects to be brave. He has a licensed fool whose primary role is to speak truth to power; his most trusted advisor challenges his decisions; and his favorite daughter is preferred because she refuses to flatter.

As soon as Lear banishes his truth-tellers, his descent is rapid and inevitable. His world – and his mind – becomes unbalanced.

Truth-tellers held a special place in Shakespeare’s time: royal courts and noble households employed licensed jesters to speak plainly – to expose excess, greed and corruption – without fear of reprisal. Henry VIII’s fool Will Sommers was scathing in his condemnations of greed and yet so beloved he appears in royal family portraits. Renaissance fools were socially marginalized but highly valued because they presented differing perspectives and gave voices to those who were otherwise unrepresented in the centres of power.

If institutions are making us unwell, what is the cure? For Lear, the best medicine is for leaders to “Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel”: those in power must work harder to understand how the poor and disenfranchised are weathering the storm. Lear’s revelation – that marginalized voices must be given permission to speak uncomfortable truths and we must listen – comes too late for him to heal the body politic. But it isn’t too late for us.

COVID-19 is not the “great equalizer” as many imagined in the early days of the global shut down. However, COVID is the great “truth-teller,” exposing the structural inequalities and systemic racism that have been with us the whole time. If we want to build sustainable, safe and sane spaces, we must confront the underlying causes of our imbalance; we can only do so if we make spaces for truth-tellers to challenge hegemonic assumptions without fear of reprisal.

How do we restore balance in higher-ed? We must listen to our students, especially those who have historically been left out of conversations. We must listen to contingent and precarious faculty who are shouldering a disproportionate amount of the labour. We must listen to, and value, differing perspectives at our boards and senates as a fundamental principle of collaborative governance.

After five years, this is my final column for University Affairs. I step aside to make space for truth-tellers who might use this licensed space to hold us accountable as we strive towards a hopeful – and balanced – future.

Jessica Riddell
Jessica Riddell is a full professor in the English department at Bishop’s University, holder of the Stephen A. Jarislowsky Chair of Undergraduate Teaching Excellence, executive director of the Maple League of Universities and a 3M National Teaching Fellow. Her column appears in every second issue of the print magazine.
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  1. Kathleen Provost / October 20, 2020 at 19:08

    Great article Jessica. Thank you for reminding us to take a moment and breath. Let’s be honest about where we are – each of us – in this pandemic journey.

  2. John Vernon / October 21, 2020 at 14:33

    Thank you Jessica, this is a very thoughtful essay. I do find myself saying “I have to toughen up on this matter” (my call for more resilience) when I could as fairly say “Why is this so tough”? And i don’t very often think to myself “If I find this difficult, think how bad it must be for someone without my resources”.
    “COVID – the great equalizer…”. Really? Look at how the stock market has performed for investors compared to those who work in restaurants serving food. Or how renters are under pressure to pay up compared to a housing market than continues to increase in value.
    You’ve reminded me to think again and I appreciate it.

  3. Helen / March 9, 2021 at 22:21

    As someone who has dealt with precarious employment and packing up to move to yet another city at the end of every school year, chasing after the contracts, I have to say that what you’re experiencing is basically the bread and butter of the contract professors. Actually, COVID lockdown is better because at least I don’t have to fork over a pile of money for parking, to be on campus for lectures, then park myself in some communal non-office for my office hours.