‘Bind me—I still can sing—’ 2 of 3

By Andrea Brady

   

2. We are the University

There are of course compensations and defences against the slow violences of the university, and I’m aware I am one of the lucky ones: I’ve got a permanent job, and am a professor in a department which offers tremendous solidarity and compassion.  The health risks for the legions of scholars now spending years if not their entire careers as precarious and exploited hourly-paid or temporary contract staff (often underpaid, lacking long-term job security or support for their research, and liable to be fired and rehired over holidays or summer break) are extreme.[1]

As this crisis took hold of me, I was beside myself – dissociated, but occasionally also ecstatic. The symptoms of panic seemed to be pointing me towards the possibility of a different kind of life. I was so wrong that I couldn’t hope to hide it, so I spoke to colleagues, who told me of their own struggles: insomnia, depression, anxiety, OCDs, imposter syndrome, failed relationships, tremendous guilt about family, bitterness, self-loathing.  It started to become clear just how ill we are as a profession.  I began to understand how I was also modelling manic competence for others, and in some ways contributing to the structure of the university as a mechanism for enforcing competition rather than solidarity.  As Richard Hall has written,

My culturally acceptable self-harming activities militate against solidarity and co-operation that is beyond value. The defining, status-driven impulse is to increase my value as an entrepreneur, and to demonstrate that through the traces I leave in publications, or managing a team, or in leading research bids, or in blogging and emailing at all hours. And the toxicity reduces my/our immunity and leaves us addicted to our status as all that we have. And all that we have is a reified, anxiety-infused identity… The defence of the scarcity of power and status amplifies and transmits anxiety; it projects anxiety throughout the academic peloton, reinforced through signalisation and dressage.[2]

And yet each person feels these struggles as indictments of themselves, as individuals who are uniquely wrong.

The individuation of suffering as a shameful secret began to change for me during the winter, a time of widespread strikes in higher education.  Over the course of a month of stoppages, academics and professional staff stood on picket lines buffeted by the ‘Beast from the East’, a howling and freezing blast of Siberian air.  We were battling to save our pensions (a struggle which I suspect has now been lost).  But I can’t forget the spirit of solidarity which emerged from conversations with colleagues across the university.  We debated university governance structures, participated in teach-outs around trade union organising and precarity in HE, and shared stories about our traumatic birth injuries.  We sang détourned Cher songs and got a hearse with a coffin in it to honk in support.  We decided that we’d had enough; we remembered that we were the university.

That feeling of solidarity was inspiring, and restored our investment in the institution whose soul we were trying to save on the picket line.  Now we are back to work and trying to hold onto some of that energy, fighting as much against our own union leadership as against management.  But the strikes persuaded me that the work of revolutionising the university must involve a commitment to care, for ourselves, for our students and each other.  And I’m beginning to believe that making the classroom or the office a space of care would require a complete change not only to what we teach, but how.

The hierarchical structures of academia are exclusive and often discriminatory; they also make the admission of vulnerability very difficult.  Standing up in the lecture hall requires an attitude of confidence and a well-polished character armour.  That lone individual, the possessor of knowledge, selects what is worth knowing, and gives it to the multitude.  He or she pretends to be the voice of disembodied reason, when it is the body in all its complexity which is the primary vehicle of work.  To perform mastery is to forbid the admission of vulnerability.  What these panic attacks had shown me was that my intellectual strength, the knowledge and attitudes I used to fend off critical attack, were surprisingly brittle. Many of us are dogged with the feeling that we are imposters; that we must be fleetfooted to avoid our audience, students, supervisors, senior management discovering that we don’t know something we are supposed to know, that we don’t feel entirely comfortable managing a seminar, that putting forward a controversial view in a faculty meeting gives us the shakes.  Surely everyone else is coping, what is wrong with me?  And that is not only harmful to the self, but also the students, by modelling for them a refusal of the fragile body or mind.

For me, anxiety is the fear of being seen to be out of control.  I describe panic as feeling like the emergency brake has snapped: there is nothing to prevent common nerves from racing me straight over the cliff edge.  This year, I’ve lost my assurance that anxiety won’t harm me or render me speechless.  But as I work to recover my equanimity, I recognise that this anxiety has been part of my education.  As I learn vulnerability I am also learning compassion; I’m developing a better understanding of the way the university as anxiety machine affects the people who work there, including my students.  The panic was many things, including an assertion of all the things I couldn’t speak.  It drew my attention, in the most dramatic way possible, to the fact that I had been drifting farther and farther from the shore of what I value: the kinds of open, honest and caring exchanges about our shared work that we could have outside in the driving snow, but somehow seem to slip away from the daily business of the faculty meeting.

 

 You can read part 1 here

and part 3 here. 

Notes 

[1] There are numerous accounts of these risks; for an empirical study of the consequences of precarity on mental health, see for example F.Mosconea, E.Tosettia, G.Vittadini, ‘The impact of precarious employment on mental health: The case of Italy’, Social Science & Medicine 158 (June 2016): 86-95.

 

[2] Richard Hall, ‘Notes on the University as anxiety machine’, 10 July 2014

http://www.richard-hall.org/2014/07/10/notes-on-the-university-as-anxiety-machine/

 

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