The angst inside

My most recent book chapter, “The right kind of ambition,” was published in September 2018. It was part of a book edited by Narelle Lemon and Sharon McDonough titled Mindfulness in the Academy: Practices and Perspectives from Scholars (Springer).

It is a chapter I grappled with, both in terms of struggling to find the time to give it proper attention (i.e. to write it!) and in angsting about whether I should even publish something like it. In essence, I say that I have found a way to have a happy balance while working in academia, but the price is my pace of career progression and the risk of being thought ‘less’ because of this. The feedback I’ve had from colleagues has been very positive and empathetic, with many commenting that they related to much of it.

Still.

Even though I believe it’s more important than ever that we don’t just toe the line of drone-careerist university progression in an unsustainable system that demands ever higher benchmarks that are, for most, unrealistic;

even though we know our hyper-metricised and narrow, audit-based system is flawed and actively doing us – and the quality of our work – harm;

it was hard to write something that made me feel so exposed, professionally.

You would think I’d had enough practice with my writing for Research Whisperer about career ups and downs and the issues in our higher education research sector, but no.

It’s one thing to name issues over there in ‘the sector’, and quite another to say the issue comes home to me in these particular, personal ways. It was difficult to acknowledge more openly, though I’ve been thinking it for years, that people probably have made assumptions about me because of my apparent lack of upward career trajectory. Comparison is a toxic mug’s game, though, and I know that. And yet.

Telling the truth publicly can be hard.

This week, I found that the thoughtful ‘slow scholarship’ scholar Agnes Bosanquet had written a post about reading my chapter. It was a lovely surprise, and gratifying to read.

Most of the time, I read too much about the inane, unsustainable, and often punitive ways our institutions try to force productive performance. It can very easily leave a person jaundiced and perpetually simmering about the sector we’re in and yet…there is so much that’s exciting, kind, and socially good about the work we get to do, our activist and community-minded academic spaces, and our particular found-tribe colleagues. I feel I can do good in this sector, and that’s a lot of the reason why I stay.

I know there are a lot of ‘and yets’ in this post. It reflects my constantly ambivalent reflections on contemporary academia and what we think we’re doing. While I know my overthinking can reach Olympic levels, I believe that anyone who is working in academia needs to think critically about our institutions and profession more broadly. Not just about our particular topics of research. Are we part of a good and healthy thing? If not, what can we do to make it better? If we know we’re part of a not-good thing, and we do nothing to make it better, then…?

Final note: The editorial experience with this book chapter is a great exemplar of collegiality and professionalism that I can only hope to emulate in the future. Thank you, Narelle and Sharon, for being warm, responsive, incredibly efficient, and rigorous. I’m grateful to be a part of the book.

2 comments

  1. Hi Tseen, I comment your bravery and independent spirit! Congratulations on getting this published. I think about ‘productive ambivalence’ in my creative writing, and I think I’ve managed to use my most negative and doubt-ridden concerns as fuel to burn. Still, I find myself simmering with resentment when I think about my career in academia, which is not much!

    • Thanks for reading, Adam! I must learn your technique of transforming negative and doubt-ridden concerns into fuel – I can only imagine the energy this would create for me…! Writing the chapter forced me to sit down and think through what a successful career actually means to me. It was a valuable exercise, and I’m not completely wised up but at least have some good insight now.

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