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Speculative Diction

Bursting a bubble: privilege & access to the academic life


Yesterday, as I was taking a short break between grading assignments and exams and working on my dissertation, I found myself amazed to be reading an article from the Guardian UK wherein the author argued that in spite of what others might say, academe is not a stressful place — in fact it’s the best possible place to work.

This article, which is obnoxiously entitled  “Academia, stressful? Not for me!”, is by graduate student (postgraduate, in the UK) Katie Beswick. Ms. Beswick writes, after a cursory nod to the legitimacy of other people’s stress, “I’m familiar with the problem. But, personally speaking, I still don’t get it.” She then proceeds to list the reasons why academe — or rather, a very idealized version of it — is the ideal work environment.

I want to make it clear that I do not see the university in a wholly negative light — of course not. There’s a reason I’m there. Indeed, I want to understand the way the university itself functions, and why, and how we can make it better. But I know the research and reading I’ve done about higher education suggests that this post’s author has been shielded from some harsh realities. This is why, when I read about her “instinctive inner eyeroll” at the “complaints” of others, I’m afraid my own physical reaction was something more akin to gagging.

Yes, everyone experiences something different in graduate school and in the academic job market and workplace. But what’s deeply offensive here is the imperious tone expressed, the personalization of the problem and the suggestion (assumption?) that those who criticize are merely whiners. All these are familiar means of dismissing the legitimacy of (well-documented) experiences of others. It’s impossible to take seriously an argument that describes “an onslaught of moans” from fellow students and professors and wishes they would “stop bloody whinging!”, given the context of the comments and the vast body of research literature that contradicts these superficial statements.

So if you’re a graduate student and you’re enjoying life, then let’s talk about some of the conditions of that enjoyment. Firstly, you made it in. That means you’re less likely to be from a low-income background, or to have suffered discrimination as part of a racialized group. You’re less likely to have been persecuted for being gay, lesbian, trans, or otherwise queer-identified. You probably don’t come from a “second-class” nation in the global hierarchy, one without the research infrastructure to support your endeavours, or lacking the kind of education system required to propel you into university in the first place.

It’s less likely that you’ve had family troubles that distract you from getting work done. In fact, your family probably provides you support — moral and emotional, financial, and perhaps even academic (you might also have a partner who now supports you in similar ways — particularly if you’re male). Partly because of this, you don’t work more hours at your outside job than you do on your studies — and your job is more likely to be related to your career goals.

You’re likely to be free from health problems that could prevent you from getting academic work done and from earning a living. You’re free of significant debts, or perhaps you don’t have to worry about tuition payments, rent, or costs of upkeep for any dependents. You’re not a single parent. You don’t suffer from anxiety or from any mental heath issues that might impede your academic performance or social integration in the academic environment. You probably don’t have a disability; you’ve probably never lived on food stamps or other forms of social assistance.

In a Master’s or PhD program, to do well you need a good relationship with your supervisor, as well as appropriate mentorship and an academic environment that’s supportive and integrative, and some degree of financial stability. These supports help students finish their studies within appropriate time limits.

And if you’re not at all worried about finding an academic job, is there something you know that the rest of us don’t? It seems more appropriate to consider what information one would have to lack, in these times, to pose the question: “what’s everyone so stressed about [in academe]?” As one commenter responded, “I think once you finish your PhD and start looking for an actual job, you’ll be able to answer your own question quite easily.” Or perhaps a quick read-through of the comments on my article about PhDs and mental health.

Do the contextual factors described above necessarily prevent us from achieving our goals in academic careers — or from being happy? No, definitely not. But we must acknowledge that these factors contribute to people’s experiences, and that they make academe harder for some than for others. While universities are indeed admitting more students who don’t fit the “ideal” model, there’s an underlying model that persists. The university is a changing environment, and the demands of an academic career are changing too. This has increased the pressure on early-career academics, not the least in the UK, and it must be taken seriously as a cause of re-stratification and increased gatekeeping.

Is there a productive way to make the point Ms. Beswick is getting at? Of course there is. How about “I’ve had a great experience in academe, and I’m thankful for that because I know it’s not that way for everyone. These are the things that made it good.” That would be a better way of “framing” the truth, and it might even lead to consideration of what makes life “better” for some of us and less enjoyable for others.

Melonie Fullick
Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate at York University. The topic of her dissertation is Canadian post-secondary education policy and its effects on the institutional environment in universities.
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  1. William Pannapacker / June 22, 2012 at 14:17

    An outstanding response!

  2. Tressie / June 23, 2012 at 13:28

    This just about nails it, Melonie. I feel almost sorry for the woman who wrote the original article. It reeked of one who is not particularly self-reflexive or reflective — both skills one might find useful for a career in academe. She struck me as simply out of her depth.

    In contrast, you speak eloquently to the many larger social, political, cultural, and economic processes that can and do alter one’s engagement with their academic experience. Kudos.

  3. Mihaela Albu / June 25, 2012 at 11:25

    Dear Melonie,
    Well said. My experience with the academe in one of the top Canadian universities, though wonderful and stimulating for the most part, has been tainted in the last “100 meters” before graduation because “I wanted a graduate degree”. Great GPA, good professional rapport with various university members, volunteering experience, hard work and discipline in spite of single motherhood and working schedule did not matter. What mattered were the assumptions and prejudice on which academic decisions were based on coupled with economic means which prevent one from challenging the academic decision. Is this what academic freedom means?

  4. Hossein Vafai / June 27, 2012 at 12:29

    I liked your response. As someone on student visa in Canada, I would also add the problems associated with temporary residency which only an international student might face … problems that are sometimes so intense that one would think of discontinuing the whole thing.

  5. Tania / June 27, 2012 at 13:29

    Excellent article. I so relate to this topic! I come from a very low-income family, never had any kind of support from my family, have had a hard time getting in the graduate program because of a depression, when I finally got in, my father was killed during the first semester of my MA, I had my share of family problems slowing me down, another depression, and tons of emotions to deal with because of stress, school, anxiety, the trial of the young guy who accidentally killed my father, and I could go on and on and on… I so wanted to study at the graduate level I persisted, almost gave up more than once, but here I am, doing my last semester of writing! Four years and 50 000$ in debt later! I never whined or complained about my situation. Sometime I still wonder if I should have persisted… Well, everybody has a different experience, in grad school as in life, and and avoiding judgement is of prime importance in both!

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