We can’t turn the tides by promoting a change of attitude on the individual level

Ethics of care (for yourself and for others).
Ethics of care (for yourself and for others).

Many of my academic friends on Facebook have shared the blogpost “How to get rid of your academic fake-self?”, and I can see why. I as well sympathise with its message. Honestly, I wish more of my colleagues would be like its author. Their view of what academic work is really about, and what a university worthy of its name should look like, is compelling.

At the same time, however, something is bugging me about this blogpost.

The problem is: if I, as a young academic, would follow its advice and fully adhere to the principles laid out in this piece, I would soon be left out of a job. Take the first recommendation: to “substitute a politics of competition by an ethics of care.” Young, untenured academics spend a good deal of their time applying for jobs and research grants – which are competitive processes, to say the least. I would not recommend any of my colleagues to see academic work *merely* as a competition (those who do, evidently are not much fun to work with). But the fact is that, in an academic working environment, everyone and everything constantly reminds us that, at the end of the day, it IS a competition – whether we like it or not.

Similar things could be said about some other principles presented in this blogpost. It would be brilliant if I could be comfortable enough to focus just on teaching, and leave research for another day. Or if I could laugh away evaluations. But the point is: someone in my position simply would not be able to stay in academica for long without having a decent publication record and good teaching evaluations. Let’s be honest about it: these tips for how to get rid of your “academic fake-self” only work for the shrinking group of academics who are privileged enough to have tenure. (And before anyone brings this up: yeah, I as well have a friend whose neighbour’s colleague managed to become assistant professor without having published a single PR journal article. But those are exceptions, really.)

In fact, I think that these well-intended guidelines and principles may have a counter-productive effect. It is tough, especially for young academics, to work in such a super-competitive environment. But it can get even tougher when there is an additional pressure from supervisors and senior colleagues (some of whom never had to deal with the same rate of competitiveness and precarity when they were young) to foster an “ethics of (self-)care” in the meantime. Not only do we have to make sure to get good teaching evaluations, publish excellent peer reviewed journal articles, attend conferences, write grant applications and prepare job interviews; we also need to keep smiling – and stay the authentic, caring, “non-fake selves” that we apparently are. Yet *another* responsibility that we have to ourselves and to our working environment: “if it doesn’t work, double the dose and try again.”

As said before, I do share the author’s ideal of what academia should look like. I fully endorse the critique of neoliberalism that is implied in this piece. But I don’t think that we will be able to turn the tides simply by raising more critical awareness or by promoting a change of attitude on the individual level. This is a collective process, and it requires political engagement, not merely a different ethics of (self-)care. It means that academics – and senior academics in particular – should stop telling their (younger) peers how to behave, and start demanding structural change from university management and policy makers.

Here’s what we should do: reduce publication pressure, and evaluate research output on the basis of quality, rather than quantity. Negotiate more permanent contracts for young academics. Make sure that teaching is appreciated as an elementary aspect of academic work – and not merely as a “necessary evil”. Don’t laugh away “metrics and other tricks of neoliberal evaluations” [sic], but openly question their value and relevance. And, while I’m at it: do something about the gender imbalance at our universities, and make sure that everyone – women and men – actually have the time and energy to take care of themselves and their loved ones. Encourage job-sharing and part-time contracts. Get rid of the “once-you’re-out-you’re-out-principle”, and make sure that people with alternative career paths can apply for academic positions as well (it would make our departments a lot more diverse, and a lot less incestuous).

Oh, and: join a labour union! Or at least, that’s what I am going to do this week. I think it’s more fruitful as a form of self-care than any individual change of attitude.

Mathijs van de Sande