confessions of a worried teacher

critical inquiries into westernised higher education

Category: The Broken Academic

The Managed Academic Self – Existential Dislocation and Academic Performance #mentalhealth #highered

existential

 

The text below is part of the development of an autoethnographic paper that gives this blog it’s name.  It follows on the previous post where I shared an initial draft introduction (unfinished and too long).  This text constitutes the first main section of the paper where I draw on my recollections and diary entries related to the lead up to my ‘nervous breakdown’ in 2012.  Specifically, it deals with the relationship between personal experiences of stress (as existential dislocation) and ‘technologies of self’ aimed at producing visible and auditable performances of academic practice.

 The Managed (Academic) Self

Beginnings

The ‘crisis’ came after a busy doctoral study school. In a way it was planned. That might sound strange but I was already aware enough that something was seriously wrong with me, that ‘things’ – relationships, work, thoughts, could not go on as they were, that something had to change. I had already gone through that step, discussed by David Karp (Karp, 1995) in his excellent book ‘Speaking of Sadness’, of redefining myself as ‘depressed’. This new, powerful way of defining myself was to be the break with the past, the beginning of a new, frightening, me. It was unstoppable. Volition no longer appeared viable as an idea of how I was in the world. My last, so it felt, act of volition to delay the moment of singularity where one life transformed irrevocably into another could be labelled as ‘administration’, that bugbear of academic life. So, I woke on that fateful Monday morning, tired but not feeling too bad. I drank my coffee in a relaxed state looking forward to an afternoon of social distraction, some actual ‘time in lieu’ for teaching over the weekend. But first (and isn’t there always a ‘but first…’?) I wanted (needed?) to go into the office to deal with course administration following the study school. A few emails, a discussion with the course administrator, and then I could relax. The afternoon and evening would, however, escape any pretence at volition, of agency as a reflexive action in the world.

Karp notes that while there might be crisis moments where the reality that you are in need of help, depression creeps up on you. Thich Naht Hahn, the noted Zen Buddhist teacher, commenting on his own experience of ‘crisis’ said it approached him as if ‘wearing silk slippers’. I am not sure my crisis quite wore silk slippers for that wasn’t the experience faced by my family and friends. But slow, almost imperceptible change over a period of time, was how my depression emerged as ‘depression’, as a social category. In this section I want to recount some ‘beginnings’. Edward Said, whose academic work and personal story has had a profound impact on me, states that there is no one beginning, no originary point from which all else can be traced (Said, 2012). As I reconstruct my story of depression I can turn a light on particular moments that I see as pivotal in making sense of how things turned out for me. But in what sense can I say this is ‘where it started’, this ‘is what CAUSED it’? The world does not present itself to our consciousness in such in such neat packages. We experience a world already interpreted. So, in the spirit of ‘returning to the things themselves’, I will attempt to describe a cluster of ‘beginnings’ that explicitly impacted upon my mental health and the ensuing disintegration of ‘self’. Here, and elsewhere in this article, there will be a hermeneutic at play. As the story unfolds I will relate each part, in this immediate case some ‘beginnings’, to the whole story as it unfolds.

The Day Of Reckoning

Monday 13th February 2012

But, as with every day last week, and all through the conference and study school, I get up. I wash and dress. I have breakfast – well, a coffee and a piece of fruit – something resembling breakfast. I put on the mask and perform the competent academic and adult. Inside, though, I am dissolving. Each moment it is harder to maintain this fiction of calmness; of ‘togetherness’…I am finding it harder and harder to rise out of bed. I want to disappear. I don’t just want to hide from the world. I want to disappear.

Apparently, I was a statistic, a number on a graph enumerating the rise of stress among academics. The rise of stress and stress related illness amongst academics has been noted in the UK and Australia (Gillespie, Walsh, Winefield, Dua, & Stough, 2001; Kinman & Wray, 2013; Tytherleigh, Webb, Cooper, & Ricketts, 2005), with this phenomena paralleling the intensification of academic labour (Marginson, 2000). The research on academic stress identifies certain factors that appear to contribute to making academics unwell, including fiscal constraints, work overload, poor management practices, the rise of precarious employment, and insufficient recognition and reward. Given that academic identities can be experienced as complex and fragmented (Fanghanel & Trowler, 2008) it is, perhaps, no surprise that the emergence of the neoliberal university should bring with it the experience of carelessness (Lynch, 2010). I will go into more detail on the management of academic practice in the next part of this paper, but for now will simply state how caring responsibilities and ill health can convey a sense of unreliability and personal weakness in the masculinist performative culture of our universities.

As well as a statistic I was also an example of the many academics who seek to present a self that is competent, coping, and productive whilst all the time privately in anguish. Art Bochner (Bochner, 1997) captures this well in his account of experiencing a divided self, of an opposition between the academic self who presents papers at conferences, has professional commitments, is a man of the mind (as noted by Lynch); and his private self who is caught up in deep sadness at hearing of his father’s death whilst attending a conference. He recounts how he struggled with these two senses of self in the moment of receiving the bad news, and how for a few moments he wasn’t sure which self would leave the room – the one who didn’t want to let down his academic colleagues or the son who needed to go home. Art is clear about the awfulness of this divided self. Ruth Behar (Behar, 1996) provides a similar account of being caught between different commitments, different investments in identify, her professional one and her deep love for her grandfather. She had hesitated to go away on fieldwork when faced with her grandfather’s ill health. On hearing of her grandfather’s death whilst Ruth was conducting she is struck by the awful irony involved in her enactment of an academic persona inquiring into the meaning of death in a Spanish village whilst her Cuban grandfather died in Miami.

The accounts provided by Art Bochner and Ruth Behar index a lived reality of academic stress that the numbers only hint at. As powerful as the statistics are they need to be accompanied by narratives that spell out the true costs of trying to deal with the divided self of academic life, of the personal impact of the careless academy. While this involves processes of trying to present oneself as competent, as an academic, I want to turn to the way my own struggle between the academic and personal ‘self’ produced altered existential feelings, an altered relation to the world.

Stress as existential dislocation

 Sunday 15th January 2012

I feel a bit overwhelmed by the maelstrom of emotions rushing through me. What are my priorities? What might this mean for work? What might this mean for life with the family? Not for the first time I feel myself welling up, tears and desperate feelings of despair filling me. I struggle to prevent myself from jerking into a darkness that threatens to engulf me. This feeling is debilitating.

As the weeks progressed I often felt at odds with the world around me. I would be in a room for a meeting or a seminar and struggle to feel connected to the people, objects, and events around me. The simple act of walking across the carpeted floor to sit in a chair became a feat of endurance. My limbs would feel leaden, resistant to my desire to move them, as if nerves no longer connected muscle or joint to brain. So as my feet made contact with the floor it appeared to struggle to take purchase, the floor’s surface trying to escape, shift, bend. I would feel my whole body jerk, and thrust its way toward the chair. I say ‘my body’ rather than ‘I’ because I did not feel I had any real control over it. My body commanded itself, not me. Similarly, the chair I was aiming to reach no longer possessed its object-like features. It appeared to me as something far less solid than I remembered. I feared that it would simply dissolve on touch. As I saw my arm reach out towards it I feared I would fall, pass through the spaces between atoms. Of course, my walk and gestures were not as awkward as I felt them to be. There were no stares from colleagues or students. This did not stop me though from feeling utterly exposed, a spectacle (as discussed by Ratcliffe, 2008: 121-130). This exposure enveloped me on the bus to and from work. As well as the exhaustion of struggling with a body that commanded itself, I had intense feelings of being gazed at. It was as if ‘madness’ was literally inscribed on my forehead for all to see. I would sweat; feel the temperature rise through the pores of my skin. Eyes and judgement bore down on me, my breathing became erratic. Sometimes the palpitations would be such that I often felt I would feint, and so I would depart the bus and stand in the street, not really knowing where I was, waiting for this fear to disperse with the breeze, till I was capable of moving again, till I felt the gaze lift.

These were not a disjuncture between me and the floor, or me and the chair, or me and other people, nor even me and my limbs. Rather, this was a disjuncture, a miss-attunement, between my sense of ‘me’ and my sense of the world. Things had shifted from being ‘to hand’ to ‘present-at-hand’, as if I was apprehending them anew. This was quite literally an existential disjuncture (Ratcliffe, 2008). I had shifted from having bodily feelings ‘in the world’ to feeling as if I no longer belonged in the world (Ratcliffe, 2008: 63). Normally, if I can use such a term, neither my body nor the floor or the chair would be objects of perception in any obvious way. They would simply be there, indistinguishable from the actions of walking or sitting. My limbs, the floor, the chair would be ‘to hand’ in the same way the keyboard I use to type these words is ‘to hand’, indistinguishable for the most part from the act of typing, captured along with my fingers, my arms, and my eyes as they flitter across the screen, the screen itself, and the algorithms that enact their magic. It is usually only when I misspell a word or the communication between keyboard and computer breakdown that the separateness of the various elements present themselves to me. But these are temporary disruptions to the flow of events that make up our living in the world. They do not disrupt our sense of belonging to the world. The trouble I had walking across the floor or sitting in the chair were not normal disruptions to the flow of events, or momentary disruptions that are easily corrected and so almost imperceptibly re-enter the flow. This was instead a radical sense of not being quite sure that the limbs were mine at all, that floors were no longer compliant surfaces, that chairs may be liquid.

My body had moved from being inconspicuous to being a ‘conspicuous body’ that represented a “change in the sense of belonging” (Ratcliffe, 2008: 112). I was caught up in a hyper-reflexivity where my body became an object in the world whereby,

“the object-like consciousness of bodily feelings, thoughts and the like” was a change in my “existential orientation as a whole” (Ratcliffe, 2008: 192).

I became, in a sense, detached from my own existence, observing myself as if from outside. Over time, in pursuit of recognition as an academic, I had moved from being oblivious to how I was attuned to the world to a hyper-awareness of the novelty and sometimes awkwardness of my presence in the world. Obliviousness was gradually and fundamentally replaced by distance, a chasm between me and the world. I was left with a constant feeling of being lost-to-the-world. This propelled me into an insistent attempt to consciously attune myself to the world, and to academia specifically, to orchestrate my conduct, to manage my ‘self’. And so it is now to matters of accounting for oneself and of managing conduct that I turn.

Conducting Myself as an Academic

To introduce these personal stories is actually to deal with how I conducted myself in relation to both the inner turmoil and the public face, between private troubles and public problems as Mills would phrase it (Mills, 2000). So, this is a concern with the conduct of the self. Looking back over this period of time leading up to my moment of crisis I can see two ways in which I was moulding my conduct, two particular kinds of ‘technologies of the self’ (Foucault, Martin, Gutman, & Hutton, 1988). One was of longer duration and concerned my attempt to work upon myself in order to be recognisably an academic. The second focused on how I sought to manage my conduct in order to delay the moment of crisis, the moment of singularity. The first will be dealt with in more detail in the next section of the paper. The second type is the focus of this current section.

The ‘crisis’ came after a busy doctoral study school. This is how the moment when I could not any longer deny what was happening to me began. In fact the whole week had been busy, busier than usual. It was a week that saw me in performative mode, of enacting a competent academic. Earlier in the week I had welcomed a colleague from a continental European university as part of an academic exchange programme. I was beginning teaching on another doctoral programme as well as preparing for a doctoral study school and a student conference preceding that. This final week of work captures all the elements of the contrast between the inner turmoil as described above and the performance of a self that sought recognition as recognisably an ‘academic’.

Monday 6 February 2012

Bad day.

Functioned – had to. (Doctoral training) started today so had to do that…of course have the student conference to organise – whole new programme (again) but it looks sorted now…My anxiety levels are sky high and not just because of all on this week. I know the weekend is fine. I know the conference will be fine – especially once final arrangements complete tomorrow. Would be better if didn’t have [doctoral training] – stupid planning. But once away from people my heart is palpitating. On way home nearly couldn’t keep tears back. Feeling shit. But have promised myself to get these next few weeks done.

I promised myself to control the overwhelming existential crisis in order to ‘get these next few weeks done’, that is to perform as a competent academic. That is, I sought to manage my conduct so that it did not convey crisis or vulnerability or pain. The academic exchange, forthcoming study school and student conference required me to display myself as ‘organised’, busying myself with lists of presenters, coordinating the production of conference packs and delegates badges, sending out reminder emails, liaising with the study school and conference venue about rooms and equipment, meeting with my European colleague and ensuring her visit was productive. While mundane, this is the stuff of performativity. This is the enactment of responsibility and efficiency. I turned up on time each morning despite the growing sense of existential disruption. This required propelling myself out of bed even though every atom resisted; going through the morning routine as if it was an act of validation – washing, dressing, a cup of coffee but food left untouched as my stomach cramped at the prospect of facing the continuous evaluative gaze that constituted my sense of each day. This was my agency. I would arrive at work with that sense of a body out of synch with my volition, of the liquid nature of once familiar objects. This was effort; intense, exhausting effort. I would present a smiling confident face to my colleagues, aiming to ensure they saw me as competent, as organised, as productive, as responsible. I smiled, I chatted, I conveyed (I hoped) authority. And then I would close my office door, curl up in the corner, and cry silently, only to get up again and present a competent self. Day after day this would happen.

This conduct, this management of my public ‘self’ can be viewed as a way of me giving an account of myself as an academic. But as Judith Butler remarks “ An account of oneself is always given to another” (Butler, 2005 21). Who is this ‘other’? My family, my colleagues, my institution as represented in its structures, processes and management? The ‘other’ to whom I was giving an account can be defined as academic normativity. I will give a fuller description of this in the next section of the paper. For the moment we can understand it to be comprised of the network of inter and intrapersonal relations to individual colleagues, epistemic communities, students, and norms of academic practice that include both locally negotiated practices and the performative demands of auditing and metrics that characterise the neo-liberal university. This means, according to Butler, that accounting for myself places me in a relation of responsibility (88). This sense of responsibility to my colleagues and students featured in my diary entries,

Tuesday 7th February 2012

I do need time off. I don’t think I can function anymore. I am just about keeping up with the most immediate things but other stuff is suffering. I know that this (going off) will cause my colleagues some hassle, but I need to get well. I worry about my students.

Despite the self-realisation that I was approaching a moment of crisis my concern was directed at maintaining an external confidence in my capacity to perform competently, to not let people down, to live up to my responsibilities. Academic normativity, in this sense, makes an ethical demand on me to conduct myself in particular ways (Butler, 2005: 90). Faced by the impending moment of singularity my conduct of self takes on a new urgency in order to avoid being (ir)responsible. Responsibility entails an ontological risk for the possibility of being recognised as a legitimate academic. The management of my conduct, and the performance of myself as a recognisable academic works, Stephen Ball notes (Ball, 2010: 216), as a display of quality. But as Ball goes on to state, these struggles to perform our ‘selves’ as worthwhile are individualised in the context of neoliberal reforms. My management of my conduct not only sought to make me visible but to be visibly auditable, a ‘self, whose performance could be measured (225).

Even as the moment of singularity arrived, my concern was still to perform adequately as a measurably competent academic. In the following extract we see me struggle between knowledge that I cannot go on and a residual desire to sustain visibility as an academic,

Monday 13th February 2012

I am gripped by anxiety but (obviously) cognisant enough to know what is happening to me. I cooked my dinner. I wrote this diary entry. But in between I rock back and forth as the flood of energy rushes though my body. I pace up and down the living room unable to sit. As I eat my dinner I rocked back and forth. Yet. I plan to read in preparation for my [conference] paper. I probably will [read]. I don’t want to give in completely to this depression…I am caught between anxiety and normality. Normality is increasingly unreal. Anxiety is increasingly normal. The idea of facing all of my colleagues tomorrow…God, I don’t know. I MUST. I MUST. Just get through this week.

I didn’t get through the week. I didn’t get through the evening. No amount of management of conduct could allay the final moment of existential dislocation.

While I sought to manage my conduct of self as a recognisable, and recognisably measurable academic as a form of personal or private worry, this was always in relation to an ‘other’, that is academic normativity. The gap between the values of academic normativity and those that animated me subjectively contributed powerfully to a growing sense of existential dislocation, and eventually dissolution. To individualise stress or existential disruption is to locate the ‘problem’ in the pathological brain of the individual. Instead, I propose a socialised view of (dis)stress and will argue in the next section that it arises from pathogenic experience – we are literally made mad.

References

Ball, S. J. (2010). The teacher’s soul and the terrors of performativity. Journal of Education Policy, 18(2), 215–228. http://doi.org/10.1080/0268093022000043065

Behar, R. (1996). The Vulnerable observer: Anthropology that breaks your heart. Boston: Beacon.

Bochner, A. P. (1997). It’s About Time: Narrative and the Divided Self. Qualitative Inquiry, 3(4), 418–438. http://doi.org/10.1177/107780049700300404

Butler, J. (2005). Giving an Account of Oneself. Fordham Univ Press. http://doi.org/10.5422/fso/9780823225033.001.0001

Fanghanel, J., & Trowler, P. (2008). Exploring Academic Identities and Practices in a Competitive Enhancement Context: a UK‐based case study. European Journal of Education, 43(3), 301–313. http://doi.org/10.1111/j.1465-3435.2008.00356.x

Foucault, M., Martin, L. H., Gutman, H., & Hutton, P. H. (1988). Technologies of the Self. Univ of Massachusetts Press.

Gillespie, N. A., Walsh, M., Winefield, A. H., Dua, J., & Stough, C. (2001). Occupational stress in universities: staff perceptions of the causes, consequences and moderators of stress. Work & Stress, 15(1), 53–72. http://doi.org/10.1080/02678370110062449

Karp, D. A. (1995). Speaking of Sadness : Depression, Disconnection, and the Meanings of Illness. Oxford University Press.

Kinman, G., & Wray, S. (2013). Higher Stress: A Survey of Stress and Well-Being Among Staff in Higher Education (pp. 1–52). London: University and College Union.

Lynch, K. (2010). Carelessness: A hidden doxa of higher education. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, 9(1), 54–67. http://doi.org/10.1177/1474022209350104

Marginson, S. (2000). Rethinking academic work in the global era. Journal of Higher Education Policy and ….

Mills, C. W. (2000). The Sociological Imagination. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ratcliffe, M. (2008). Feelings of being. Oxford University Press, USA.

Said, E. W. (2012). Beginnings. Granta.

Tytherleigh, M. Y., Webb, C., Cooper, C. L., & Ricketts, C. (2005). Occupational stress in UK higher education institutions: a comparative study of all staff categories. Higher Education Research & Development, 24(1), 41–61. http://doi.org/10.1080/0729436052000318569

 

Introducing the toxic academy and the broken academic – a too long introduction but much loved

here is a first stab at it, a collation of lots of notes, of passion rendered narrative.  it is too long and in its more developed form will be broken up, moved around, edited up and down.  but i wanted to share it as it is something I like and want to share – because it’s OUR story

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Stamens and stigma of Malus florentina – Florentine crabapple – hawthorn-leaf crabapple (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Malus_Florentina_stamens_stigma_Italienischer_Zierapfel_Stamina_Karpelle.jpg)

The Toxic Academe and the Broken Academic

INTRODUCTION

The ‘crisis’ came after a busy doctoral study school. In a way it was planned. That might sound strange but I was already aware enough that something was seriously wrong with me, that ‘things’ – relationships, work, thoughts, could not go on as they were, that something had to change. I had already gone through that step, discussed by Karp in his excellent book ‘Speaking of Sadness’, of redefining myself as ‘depressed’. This new, powerful way of defining myself was to be the break with the past, the beginning of a new, frightening, me. It was unstoppable. Volition no longer appeared viable as an idea of how I was in the world. My last, so it felt, act of volition to delay the moment of singularity where one life transformed irrevocably into another could be labeled as ‘admin’, that bugbear of academic life. So, I woke on that fateful Monday morning, tired but not feeling too bad. I drank my coffee in a relaxed state looking forward to an afternoon of relaxation. But first, and isn’t there always a ‘but first…’? But first I wanted (needed?) to go into the office to deal with course administration following the study school. A few emails, a discussion with the course administrator, and then I could chill. The afternoon and evening would, however, escape any pretense at volition, of agency as a reflexive action in the world.

This article is intensely personal, my story, but in being thus it is also intensely objective since personal stories are always in context, and so always also social (Ellis, 1991). It is a story of modern academic life and how it is molded by internal and external dynamics. In particular it is a story of the relationship between exogenous and endogenous conditions that created a personal ‘crisis’. In this narrative I am not blaming anybody, though there were managerial actions that precipitated my decline into radical self- doubt. I hope to convey that a range of external conditions, that is external to my inner world, to consciousness, interacted with habitual ways of being in the world, of responding to certain scenarios, of deeply structured ways of being, what Bourdieu called ‘habitus’. In this narrative I wish to say something about this interaction and therefore contribute more widely to debates about agency and the limits of agency. Specifically though, I want to explore the intensification of academic labour, of how this occurs in the context of discourses of ‘excellence’, the ‘global university’, ‘new public management’, and expansion of higher education. I want to narrate a phenomenology of academic life that captures the lived, embodied experience of how these discourses play out institutionally and personally. In doing so I will meander through a series of related topics.

This is an unashamedly ‘first person’ account. How could it be anything but? I will, as an academic, justify this claim. In preparing for this endeavor I have read numerous papers on autoethnography. I have felt myself touched and warned by the cautionary tales and experiences of others such as Carol Rambo Ronai (1998), Barbara Jago (2002), Brett Smith (1999), Sarah Wall (2008), and Nicholas Holt (2008); of how they struggled for legitimacy of their autoethnographic tales that did not ‘fit’ many accepted academic norms; of the dangers to your credibility amongst peers by either adopting such first-person methodologies or of outing oneself as suffering mental illness. Yet, autoethnography seems perfectly placed to conduct the kind of sociological analysis that follows, of relating the personal self to the academic self (Bochner, 1997, p. 432), particularly when faced with an academe that splits the personal from the academic. The autoethnographic enterprise is not about self-indulgence. If anything it is the opposite. Arthur Frank (2000) argues for the standpoint of the storyteller, that story infers relationship with a listener, that storytelling invites other stories, other listenings, not just analysis from nowhere.  This is the opposite of speaking from nowhere.  It privileges a location (in theory, in methodology).  It is an ethical stance.  But, an ethical stance towards what? I could craft some memorable and clever phrases but I would rather point you towards the wonderful words of Ronald Pelias (2004, p. 10) when he says,

They were teaching students who seemed more interested in grades than learning. They were working for administrators who seemed more concerned with the bottom line than quality education. They were going to endless meetings that didn’t seem to matter, writing meaningless reports that seemed to disappear in the bureaucracy, and learning that service seemed to have little effect on others’ lives. Productivity was the motto of the day, so they published article after article that no one seemed to read, particularly those who were the focus of the study. They wrote piece after piece on social issues, but none seemed to make any difference. They researched topics that got them promotions and tenure but seemed removed from whom they were. They felt empty, despondent, disillusioned.

The ‘they’ he refers to are ‘us’, ‘me’, ‘you’. He is referring to a certain crisis of faith in the purpose of higher education that many feel. He is referring to that splitting off of the personal from the academic self that Bochner notes above and specifically the way the academe appears to want us to subjugate the former for the latter; what Parker Palmer describes as the ‘divided self’ (Palmer, 1993). The study of higher education is filled with debates of questionable faith in the modern academe. This maybe in terms of the academe as Academic Capitalism (Slaughter & Rhoades, 2010) or the rise of the Global University (Marginson, 2004; see 2006). I enjoy and love these academic texts. I refer to them not just because they have taken on the mantle of ‘classics’, but, because they speak powerful truths. I suspect, though, that this very power does not rely on the relaying of ‘facts’, of the scientific quality of the research, but because when we read them we feel what they speak of. Part of what we feel when really engaging with such texts is a sense that the higher education world we are part of could be different. This may be phrased in nostalgic terms that imply a certain loss of purpose, as if the origins of the university in the establishment and sustenance of social elites did not exist. I do not want to join such nostalgia. Rather, the sense of loss may express the desire that attracted many of us to the academe. This could be a love of knowledge, a desire for deeper understanding, and possibly most important a belief that the work we do could make a difference. As is often the case, at this point I come back to my intellectual touchstone, Edward Said, and his discourse on the role of the intellectual (Said, 2005; 2012). If the role of the academic is not to speak truth to power, then what is our social function? That is the question that animates me here and calls upon me to find a style of inquiry that speaks a truth to power through storytelling, by staking a certain ethical standpoint.

This standpoint is grounded in experience. In my reading I was struck by the pained honesty of many writers in the tradition of autoethnography. I was struck by the role that vulnerability plays in their texts, and the wider significance of telling ‘their’ stories as a way of telling ‘our’ stories. This is an echo here of C. Wright Mills’ Sociological Imagination, of the translation of “private troubles into public issues”, of David Karp’s observation (1995) that his depression was indeed his but when so many American’s appeared to suffer depression it was definitely a public issue. In linking his personal and academic selves Karp sought to give a sociological account of his depression in discussion with others. His was an ethical standpoint; a recognition that the voice of those suffering depression was like an absent presence in the academic literature. So, he felt compelled to speak from the position of one who suffered depression, and to speak with others who lived with it (11). There is, then, a degree of ‘remoralisation’ in the telling of such stories. It is a necessary process as depression and illness generally can be so demoralizing (Frank, 2000). And many autoethnographists write of the therapeutic need to convey their stories. But I feel emboldened by Frank’s further discussion of illness stories as acts of ‘care of the self’, a resistance to the power of expert knowledge to define us, resistance to being lost in institutional processes of managing the ill person. Illness stories, my story here, can be seen as ‘technologies of the self’, as practices that privilege the knowledge of those defined as ill in such ways that challenge the hegemony of medical or institutional knowledge’s. I see this resonate in Barbara Jago’s (2002) account of ‘academic depression’ where she states that “I write because my story is, in many respects, the story of the academy”. To tell her story is to tell ‘our’ story; to open up the academe to critical scrutiny, but to do so from somewhere (the ethical stance) rather than nowhere. C. Wright Mill’s articulation of the translation of private troubles into public issues implies a relational world. The authenticity of my story lies in the extent to which it brings me out of an inauthentic ‘being with’ (self, others) that is dominated by ‘self-concern’ and renders others as mere objects, and makes possible a more authentic ‘concern for others’ (Batchelor, 1983). Illness, depression, can face us with the existential reality of being alone and vulnerable in the world. On the worst of days ‘sufferers become swamped by their selves and lost in them’ (Karp, 1995, p. 105). On those days my sense of self was one where an ‘injured, hurting, pained self dominates thought, perception, and action’ (105). Our existential reality, though, is also one of a horizon of possibilities. The current illness is not the only option. And, critically, it is a world of ‘being with others’. It is this ‘being with others’, and the cultivation of a concern for others that brings us closer to an authentic existence.

So, telling this story is an act of ‘remoralisation’ at the personal and social levels.

Writing the my story/our story account (layered accounts)

Much of what constitutes my academic identity, and identity is a central feature of this story, is bound up with an interest in policy and policy effects. Inevitably then I will touch upon policy in terms of text and discourse (Ball, 1994) as part of the exogenous conditions of my crisis. I want to engage in a dialogue with what others have written about the nature of modern academic life, to see the continuities and disruptions with my own story. The question is how to do this while maintaining a connection between my personal and academic self, how to write the my/our story without privileging the abstract minds eye (Palmer, 1993 p.xxiii) and subjugating the heartfelt concern that drives me here.

I am certainly not the first to encounter this question. So, again my inspiration comes from those before me who have endeavoured to speak in a heartfelt manner about the private trouble whilst also attending to the sociological truth of the public issue. And so it is from my reading how other autoethnographers have crafted their texts that I seek to write a layered account, where layered means ‘…a back-and-forth movement between experiencing and examining a vulnerable self and observing and revealing the broader context of that experience’ (Ellis, 2007, p. 14). This approach can work to decentre academic authority (1998, p. 407), of combining ‘a novelistic and scholarly voice’ (behar 114). So, this my/our story utilizes a moving between literary non-fictional accounts (emotional introspection) and more obvious ‘academic’ reflection (see Jago, 2002). This will take on the character of a dialogue or set of discussions between my ‘being there’ (the work of recreating felt states) and ‘being here’ (academic reflections on the autoethnographic work) (Spry, 2001). Consequently I speak to debates on the intensification of academic labour and the performative culture that is overdetermined by changing political economy of higher education. But I do so from a bodily standpoint, of an understanding that my body is inscribed by ‘traces of culture’ (Spry, 2001, p. 711).

Good autoethnography, as Tami Spry has argued, “is a provocative weave of story and theory” (713).  The narrative must be persuasive both affectively and critically.  Revelation is not enough in itself if it does not move the reader to a new place of understanding. In doing this I hope to convince you, the reader, that this story of a damaged academic has wider validity. This is not validity in the positivist sense, but rather of verisimiltude, of how it resonates with your phenomenological understandings (Ellis, 1999, p. 672). In this my/our story I ask the reader to feel the truths contained, to share social truths by engaging with personal stories, engage with public issues through feeling private matters.

References

Ball, S. J. (1994). Education reform: A critical and post-structural approach.

Batchelor, S. (1983). Alone with others: An existential approach to Buddhism.

Bochner, A. P. (1997). It’s About Time: Narrative and the Divided Self. Qualitative Inquiry, 3(4), 418–438. doi:10.1177/107780049700300404

Ellis, C. (1991). Sociological Introspection and Emotional Experience. Symbolic Interaction, 14(1), 23–50. doi:10.1525/si.1991.14.1.23

Ellis, C. (1999). Heartful Autoethnography. Qualitative Health Research, 9(5), 669–683. doi:10.1177/104973299129122153

Ellis, C. (2007). Telling Secrets, Revealing Lives: Relational Ethics in Research With Intimate Others. Qualitative Inquiry, 13(1), 3–29. doi:10.1177/1077800406294947

Frank, A. W. (2000). The Standpoint of Storyteller. Qualitative Health Research, 10(3), 354–365. doi:10.1177/104973200129118499

Holt, N. L. (2008). Representation, legitimation, and autoethnography: An autoethnographic writing story. International Journal of Qualitative Methods.

Jago, B. J. (2002). Chronicling an Academic Depression. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 31(6), 729–757. doi:10.1177/089124102237823

Karp, D. A. (1995). Speaking of Sadness : Depression, Disconnection, and the Meanings of Illness. Oxford University Press.

Marginson, S. (2004). Competition and Markets in Higher Education: a “glonacal” analysis. Policy Futures in Education, 2(2), 175. doi:10.2304/pfie.2004.2.2.2

Marginson, S. (2006). Dynamics of National and Global Competition in Higher Education. Higher Education, 52(1), 1–39. doi:10.1007/s10734-004-7649-x

Palmer, P. J. (1993). To know as we are known: Education as a spiritual journey.

Pelias, R. J. (2004). A Methodology of the Heart. Rowman Altamira.

Ronai, C. R. (1998). Sketching With Derrida: An Ethnography of a Researcher/Erotic Dancer. Qualitative Inquiry, 4(3), 405–420. doi:10.1177/107780049800400306

Said, E. (2005). The public role of writers and intellectuals. Nation.

Said, E. W. (2012). Representations of the Intellectual. Random House LLC.

Slaughter, S., & Rhoades, G. (2010). Academic Capitalism and the New Economy. JHU Press.

Smith, B. (1999). The Abyss: Exploring Depression Through a Narrative of the Self. Qualitative Inquiry, 5(2), 264–279. doi:10.1177/107780049900500206

Spry, T. (2001). Performing Autoethnography: An Embodied Methodological Praxis. Qualitative Inquiry, 7(6), 706–732. doi:10.1177/107780040100700605

Wall, S. (2008). Easier Said than Done: Writing an Autoethnography. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 7(1), 38–53.

Returning to heartfelt concerns – returning to passionate writing

I have been rather quiet on this blog recently.  My attention has been elsewhere, pursuing an intellectual interest in posthuman approaches to teaching and learning.  While that project moves into a different pattern (less intense) I can return to something very close to my soul.  I haven’t neglected it completely since I have dome some final edits to my book chapter/spoken word contribution to a book on academic identities that is being published by Sense publishers (see an early draft here).  

So I am returning to my autoethnography.

This means I will be building on the notes I have made already here and here.  As with my work on posthuman approaches to teaching and learning these will be public notes that capture my developing thinking and will form the basis for more extended text.  I will also use this space to rehearse my central narrative, the personal experience of brokenness.  To write this in such a public fashion will be important because it will discipline me to consider what is important in terms of the publics I feel myself speaking to/with.  It will require me to analyse what is primarily personal and private and what is pertinent to a collective experience.

I am looking forward to this even though I also know it will demand much emotionally.

Are We All Indolent Academics in Need of a Good Kick Up the Arse?

It is clear the conversation’s at an end.  He is maddened by our way of life.  He is exacerbated by the disarray he has discovered in our village.  He sighs dramatically, to leave us in no doubt.  

Harvest by Jim Crace (2013), p. 122

It has become familiar to feel that the conversation on the purpose of higher education is now closed, that politicians and university managers are exacerbated by what they see as our disarray.  We are, in their eyes, indolent, unproductive, and in need of husbandry.

However, Jim Crace’s story refers to the dispossession of common land from England’s peasantry and the conglomeration of those once shared lands into larger, private estates.  Yet, academics face the same kind of misappropriation (of academic labour) and privatisation (of knowledge).  

As with the enclosure acts of the 16th century the change in entitlement serves to increase the standing of an elite.

And it is this process of aggrandisement that forms the focus of Mats Alvesson’s book “The Triumph of Emptiness: Consumption, Higher Education, and Work Organization“.  In the preface to the book Alvesson notes:

In today’s society, a strong emphasis on ‘it must look good’, and preferably even shine, is vital for the success of individuals, occupational groups, and organizations. (p. ix)

So, in the modern university we all have to shine?  Seems like it.

Alvesson argues that the modern university is characterised by three elements:

  • zero-sum game
  • grandiosity
  • illusion tricks.

Zero-sum game

In a time of mass higher education the ‘positional value’ of higher education institutions becomes even more important.  At an institutional level this can mean the close management of personal academic careers/performance.  Contributions to the field or to knowledge or to learning are increasingly occupied and appropriated in the service of institutional ambition.  Academic freedom as the desire to follow the line of an idea or inquiry is not enough; and can be seen as detrimental to both the institution and personal career prospects.

As individuals we are caught up in the zero-sum game where our ‘choices’ (types of knowledge, types of research, our values) are seen to be potentially damaging to institutional ambition.  The accomplishment of higher rankings (accruing of positional value) is at the expense of the lower ranking institutions, so increasing the risks involved in the zero-sum game.  Internally, institutions are resorting to different forms of ‘internal selectivity’ – distinguishing between those deemed research excellent from those who ‘only teach’.

At the personal level we can feel a fundamental disconnect between the institutionally defined identity and those values and ideas that animate us as educators and researchers.

Grandiosity

In the modern university we are all expected to be ambitious.

But this is not the ambition to incrementally improve our teaching, to enhance our understanding of learning, to deepen our grounding in an area of knowledge, to explore new intellectual vistas.  Ambition is caught up in the spectacle of producing so many academic articles for high ranking journals (but be less concerned with the public articulation of research); and to do this regardless of the kinds of scholarly conversations we want to conduct or who we want to have those conversations with (or rather to disregard those who do not feed the zero-sum game and grandiose desire).  Academic communities of practice can be re-engineered to fit the grandiose institutional ambitions to gain greater and greater positional value.

This is a world where substance does not appear to matter.  It is a world where parochial networks proclaim themselves to be ‘national centres’, where ‘excellence’, ‘world leading’ adorn the titles of organisational units.

Illusion Tricks

In part this reflects a shift not just from ‘being’ to ‘having’ (Fromm) but from ‘having’ to ‘appearing‘ (Debord). 

This refers to various equality or quality assurance policies that remain illusory, having little purchase on the reality of student or academic daily life.  It also manifests in the plethora of what Alvesson calls ‘pseudo-events’.  The periodic development of university strategic plans are good examples, as are the quality assurance processes such as research assessment exercises.  The ‘consultation’ with stakeholders that can accompany such ‘events’ are often clear examples of empty containers.

Is it any wonder then that we become sick, that ill-health and mental distress are on the increase.  


These are notes towards an autoethnographic study of academic wellbeing in the neoliberal university.

How can we write of ‘academic depression’? Part 2 – words

Below is the text of my ‘academic performance’ in durham recently

This is best read in conjunction with the slides in Part 1.

 

Writing of the Heart: Auto-ethnographic Writing as Subversive Story Telling

 

 

1 – a(n) (un) kind [of] introduction

 

 

13th February 2012

…as with every day last week, and all through the conference and study school, I get up, I wash and dress. I have breakfast –– something resembling breakfast. I put on the mask and perform the competent academic and adult. Inside, though, I am dissolving. Each moment it is harder to maintain this fiction of calmness, of ‘togetherness’…I am caught between anxiety and normality. Normality is increasingly unreal. Anxiety is increasingly normal. The idea of facing all my colleagues tomorrow at the staff meeting…God, I don’t know…I MUST. I MUST…just get through this week…GET THROUGH THIS WEEK.

 

“A 2012 survey on occupational stress carried out by the University and College Union found that staff in British universities are more stressed now than in 2008, and experience considerably higher average levels of stress relating to the demands made on them at work than the British working population as a whole.”

 

I have moved here from a ‘me’ story to an ‘us’ story;

from a personal biographical account to a scholastic account.

The first is an extract from my personal diary 

the night before I finally succumbed to….clinical depression.

The second is a report of a survey in the British Guardian newspaper.

They both speak of the same phenomena,

but in different ways.

 

The energy produced

by placing these two different texts next to each other –

the first pathic, the second gnostic –

is the kind of energy that is produced by a ‘layered account’

as found in much autoethnographic work.

And this approach to speaking of academic life and practice is the content of this presentation.

 

The writing is about my experience of a particular context –

of the impossibly competing demands between teaching,

research

and administration.

Increasing student numbers

with fewer resources

whilst also increasing research productivity

and ‘grant capture’

in a culture of measurement and surveillance.

 

This is a context where the very institutions we work in and for create what what Barabara Jago has called ‘academic depression’,

and what Art Bochner refers to as

‘…institutional depression, a pattern of anxiety, hopelessness, demoralization, isolation, and disharmony that circulates through university life.”,

the way we succumb to performative institutional culture,

especially the ways we are conditioned to split our academic and personal lives,

to privilege the former and suppress the latter.

 

Academic depression, as discussed here,

is then both a disenchantment with the romance of a scholarly life

and psychological trauma.

 

BUT – How do we write…how do we write

of ‘academic depression’ without emptying the experience of its visceral reality?

In this presentation I draw on a number of personal,

intellectual,

and cultural resources

to tell a story about how I am trying to write of academic depression, of writing a:

 

MY/YOU/US STORY of life in the modern university.

 

In particular I speak to the capacity of autoethnographic writing to be transformative,

to remoralise us in a context of demoralisation;

and of the pause [……..]

the pause that such writing and reading can create,

within which

different ways of being an academic can emerge.

 

But there is a craft to this

and I speak also to this craft-work.

I speak to a kind of playful writing,

of autoethnographic writing as a sampling and remixing of introspection, memory, anecdote and scholarly work

to create an evocative text.

 

 

 

2 – confronting the SPECTACLE

 

This presentation rehearses the ideas

that I hope will become a paper published in an academic journal:

This represents something I want to term ‘authentic’.

That is,

my experience of academic depression, I feel,

says something not just about me personally

but about a wider experience of academic life in neo-liberal times.

In reading the many texts of academic capitalism

or new public management

sometimes I feel as if I cannot see the human experience,

the panic attacks,

the joy at being published,

the dark night of the day.

While eloquent in their analysis

I cannot FEEL myself in them.

 

I am involved in a project of redefining my academic purpose.

And in writing I want to enter into dialogue with others.

And because of the mode of engagement –

autoethnography –

I am signaling which kinds of folk I want to talk with,

what kinds of conversation I want to have.

There is an ethical dimension to this.

Autoethnography is an ethical choosing,

a political position.

 

BUT –

but,

at the same time, my efforts,

my existential choosing,

is caught up in what Guy Debord referred to as the SPECTACLE.

That is,

the substance of my authentic and choiceful activity is also taken up in the knowledge factory of the modern university,

emptied of meaningful content,

transformed into a commodity,

and utilized in the pursuit of institutional ambition.

Imagine the modern world of global higher education as being like a fashion show.

What is important is the glamour,

the style,

the posturing.

What we are not invited to see is the ecological damage of a culture that persuades us that we MUST

keep going out to buy more and newer clothes

so that we end up with wardrobes bursting with unused items

while the majority of the world’s population struggle to secure the basics.

We are not invited to think about the child labour that will underpin the cheapness of the latest fashions we purchase.

In other words,

image and illusion come to dominate.

We don’t experience the world directly,

Debord argued,

instead

we increasingly meet the world through images of the world.

 

 

 

3 – academic life as sadomasochism

 

And so,

my article will be denuded of meaning,

it will be taken up by the production of writing plans,

it will be linked to performance indicators and professional development meetings,

it will become a commodity that is accumulated by the university,

and will eventually be reflected back to me as an item on my CV,

as part of an institutional submission

to a research assessment exercise –

as something emptied of its choicefulness,

of its ethical claim,

of its authenticity.

 

And this is perhaps why so many of us feel demoralised.

And so this is why it is important to write in ways that remoralise,

that can open up the possibility of imagining what an authentic academic might be –

to give moral purpose to what we do.

4 – and so the dérive

 

The ‘managed’ academic CV is one that increasingly must be cohesive,

must be linear.

BUT –but –

Cohesiveness and linearity is a product of RETROSPECTION –

an afterthought.

Yet we are asked to write plans AS IF intellectual thought was linear,

tidy,

bullet points.

 

This is a world that cannot entertain the idea of “dérive”,

of wandering of meandering through intellectual landscapes.

 

Imagine drawing a straight line on a map and attempting to follow that path regardless of what obstacles might be in the way;

of having to negotiate those obstacles as best we can;

of having to encounter people;

and to encounter the space without GPS or smartphone or Google Maps.

 

Or psychogeography where you might be given a set of simple instructions

(2nd left, 1st right, 2nd left, repeat)

and use this to navigate an urban space

and to observe what you see and experience –

experience it directly without the concepts provided by a map.

 

Or,

choosing a familiar space

(work building, journey to work, etc.)

you are asked to travel in silence.

The silence immediately forces

a pause,

a reflection,

where we might start to notice certain aspects of the ‘familiar’ environment in different ways,

where we might find ourselves drawn to certain objects, feelings, anticipations

 

As well as this mode of academic practice being contrary to the managed CV

it is also how I am imagining the writing I am talking about.

It is much more akin to psychogeography –

a methodology that enables me to walk through my experience of academic depression in a structured way

but which makes possible new observations.

 

 

5 – the aim of an aimless walk

 

A dérive is a methodology that poses this question –

what if there is no point B?

 

It is a methodology that invites the researcher

(me)

to begin in a particular place

–     now –

looking back at my experience of academic depression

– and to traverse this recovered experience with no specific destination in mind.

 

The derive…

Is Disruptive –

like the walk following an arbitrary straight line

it is a methodology that is disruptive of traditional social scientific practice.

It disregards the arbitrary distinction between public and private –

so my person

and personal feelings

are viewed as important,

it plays with creative and scientific writing,

 

It is

An embodied methodology:

it places emphasis on capturing the emotive experience without rushing to abstraction….

it tries to speak of the bodily response

and not to give undue weight to the cognitive.

It places the pathic as equal to the gnostic…

 

part of the aim of an aimless walk

is to identify the way everyday life,

the mundane,

is ordered or structured.

But this requires something like the phenomenological reduction,

the bracketing of our normal understandings,

and the cultivation of a open attitude.

Similarly,

the wandering through cycles of introspection and analysis can,

it is hoped,

produce a kind of disorientation.

And disoriented

we identify what we find ourselves attracted to

(what incidents, emotions, ideas induce us towards them)

and what discourages us, repels us

(what feels uncomfortable, distasteful).

 

IN OTHER WORDS

WHAT IS IT THAT PRESENTS ITSELF TO OUR CONSCIOUSNESS AND WHAT SENSE CAN WE MAKE OF IT?

 

 

 

 

6 – ethics

 

And so the dérive is also an ethical intervention to encourage a deep reflection on the nature of academic life as we live it.

A political intervention.

 

  

7 – a layered account

 

One way of doing this in the craft of writing

is the use of the Layered account

used to produce disruptive and evocative texts.

 

This can involve the varied use of memoir or diary,

as well as academic analysis

in order to reconnect the private and academic self –

as in my opening quotes.

 

It is Ruth Bihar’s combination of ‘a novelistic and scholarly voice’ ;

or Carolyn Ellis’ invitation

to write in a way that moves back and forth between personal introspection and academic reflection,

methods that are simultaneously social and psychological.

 

This is similar to the Situationist method of détournement.

 

  

8-10 – seeing détournement

 

 

11 – Marx as ‘culture hacker’

 

Détournement is ‘culture jamming’ or ‘culture hacking’.

 

This is where everyday objects,

normally those associated with

power

and capitalism

and patriarchy

are subverted,

are hacked and reproduced –

where items from personal life are conjoined with scholarly writing

to disrupt our consciousness

and reveal not only the child labour behind the glamorous clothes,

but what this means to us,

what this feels like.

 

 

 

 

10 – the naked academic?

 

It is a process of sampling and remixing everyday objects,

of using familiar items

and putting them together in ways that disrupt perceptions,

that create new,

possibly subversive stories.

 

The hope is to invoke such disruptions for me

but also for the reader.

 

To subvert the tidiness of academic writing that can abstract us from lived experience

 

That asserts academic life and academic practice as embodied and embedded in social-political space

 

That produces a pause

or intensified awareness of the object of study

so questioning my sense of being

and opening up space to reimagine academic life

 

AND IN REIMAGINING ACADEMIC LIFE

SEEK TO LIVE IT DIFFERENTLY

How can we write of ‘academic depression’? Part 1

 

On Wednesday 9th July 2014 I gave a performance-presentation  entitled “Writing of the Heart: Auto-ethnographic Writing as Subversive Story Telling” at the Academic Identities Conference, Durham, England.

The ‘presentation’ was done in the form of a ‘spoken word performance’, a ‘doing’ of authoethnography, a ‘situation’.  

Below are the slides of this performance-presentation.  In Part 2 I will provide the text of the ‘spoken word’ performance.  In Part 3 I will provide an audio recording of the performance.

 

Writing of the Heart- Auto-ethnographic Writing as Subversive Story Telling

 

Writing of the Heart: Auto-ethnographic Writing as Subversive Story Telling

Although I have taken a vacation from this particular writing project I wanted to share a parallel development.

I am slowly re-entering the world of academic conferences, but with some trepidation.  They are challenging for me, bringing to the surface all those feelings of worth – should I be here; am I a fraud?

So I am being very selective.  Consequently I found myself attracted to the Academic Identities Conference 2014 being held in Durham, UK, this summer.

I wanted to say something about how I went about writing, rather than engage in the usual round of performing propositional knowledge that makes up most academic conferences.  But I NEEDED to write my proposal in the heartfelt spirit of this project.  And so, the text below.

I am pleased to say my proposal was accepted.  Here I come Durham.

 

Writing of the Heart: Auto-ethnographic Writing as Subversive Story Telling

 

– a proposal for a Pecha Kucha presentation

 

 

How do we write of ‘academic depression’ (Jago, 2002), of the heartfelt stories of academic lives that feel like death?  I want to speak of such writing, of my first-person autoethnographic account of falling into academic depression.  And in doing this I want to speak of the struggle to create an authentic articulation between my personal and professional selves (Bochner, 1997), a struggle that reflects the lived experience of inauthenticity, of a life where relations with myself and with others were overdetermined by the demands of performativity.  As such, I want to speak of autoethnographic writing as a form of re-moralisation (Frank, 2000).  Re-moralisation relates to Arthur Frank’s argument for stories of illness as voicing the experience of those categorised by expert knowledge, defined as without voice.  And as a form of re-moralisation I want to suggest that it defines a certain ethical standpoint; a recognition that the voice of those suffering depression was like an absent presence in the academic literature.

 

Having provided an account of the re-moralising power of autoethnographic writing it seems apt to outline particular strategies for conducting writing as a kind of care of the self.  I will therefore explain how Carol Rambo Ronai (Ronai, 1998) helped me formulate a layered account, and how I was able to provide a structure for this layering through adopting the structure of alternating between the poetic reflection of ‘being there’ with the necessary engagement with academic debates and considerations (Spry, 2001).  This kind of structured layering draws on Carolyn Ellis’ (Ellis, 2007) invitation to write in a way that moves back and forth between personal introspection and academic reflection, or Behar’s (Lindisfarne, 2010) discussion of the shifts between novelistic and scholarly voices.  This movement back and forth, these different voices mirror again Bochner’s concern about the splitting of our personal and academic selves.  I argue that the very structure of the writing both reflects and challenges this rupture, and in challenging contributes to autoethnographic writing as acts of re-moralisation.

 

Finally, I want to say something about the political importance of the specific nuancing of the text.  I want to argue that the use of autoethnographic writing has power because of of the way it makes it possible for others to see their own stories validated (Ellis, 1999).  When faced with resigning themselves to institutional advancement, such stories of vulnerability can be empowering, as ‘subversive stories’ (Ewick & Silbey, 1995), that challenge hegemonic stories of academic life by reconnecting private troubles with public issues.

 

Bochner, A. P. (1997). It’s About Time: Narrative and the Divided Self. Qualitative Inquiry, 3(4), 418–438. doi:10.1177/107780049700300404

Ellis, C. (1999). Heartful Autoethnography. Qualitative Health Research, 9(5), 669–683. doi:10.1177/104973299129122153

Ellis, C. (2007). Telling Secrets, Revealing Lives Relational Ethics in Research With Intimate Others. Qualitative Inquiry, 13(1), 3–29. doi:10.1177/1077800406294947

Ewick, P., & Silbey, S. S. (1995). Subversive Stories and Hegemonic Tales: Towards a Sociology of Narrative. Law and Society Review, 29(2), 197–226.

Frank, A. W. (2000). The Standpoint of Storyteller. Qualitative Health Research, 10(3), 354–365. doi:10.1177/104973200129118499

Jago, B. J. (2002). Chronicling an Academic Depression. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 31(6), 729–757. doi:10.1177/089124102237823

Lindisfarne, N. (2010). Anthropology off the shelf: anthropologists on writing – Edited by Alisse Waterston & Maria D. Vesperi. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 16(3), 682–683. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9655.2010.01646_27.x

Ronai, C. R. (1998). Sketching With Derrida: An Ethnography of a Researcher/Erotic Dancer. Qualitative Inquiry, 4(3), 405–420. doi:10.1177/107780049800400306

Spry, T. (2001). Performing Autoethnography: An Embodied Methodological Praxis. Qualitative Inquiry, 7(6), 706–732. doi:10.1177/107780040100700605

 

The Toxic Academe and the Broken Academic – INTRODUCTION #1

Hi – so this is my first, tentative venture into sharing my academic work more widely, of engaging in what Mark Carrigan has called continuous publishing.  I am also mindful of the warnings offered by Pat Thompson about the potential for our work to be misappropriated.  But, I want to try and reach a wider community of critical friends who can comment, discuss, suggest, argue against, signpost, etc.

What am I expecting from you, the reader?  I am unsure really.  I think careful responses!

The first entry is a draft introduction to a paper I am currently working on.  I am aiming to submit this to an international journal dealing with qualitative methodologies and is sympathetic to the use of autoethnographic approaches to research and writing.

So, WHAT DO YOU THINK?

 

The Toxic Academe and the Broken Academic

 

INTRODUCTION

 

The ‘crisis’ came after a busy doctoral study school.  In a way it was planned.  That might sound strange but I was already aware enough that something was seriously wrong with me, that ‘things’ – relationships, work, thoughts, could not go on as they were, that something had to change.  I had already gone through that step, discussed by Karp in his excellent book ‘Speaking of Sadness’, of redefining myself as ‘depressed’.  This new, powerful way of defining myself was to be the break with the past, the beginning of a new, frightening, me.  It was unstoppable.  Volition no longer appeared viable as an idea of how I was in the world.  My last, so it felt, act of volition to delay the moment of singularity where one life transformed irrevocably into another could be labeled as ‘admin’, that bugbear of academic life.  So, I woke on that fateful Monday morning, tired but not feeling too bad.  I drank my coffee in a relaxed state looking forward to an afternoon of relaxation.  But first, and isn’t there always a ‘but first…’?  But first I wanted (needed?) to go into the office to deal with course administration following the study school.  A few emails, a discussion with the course administrator, and then I could chill. The afternoon and evening would, however, escape any pretence at volition, of agency as a reflexive action in the world.

This article is intensely personal, my story, but in being thus it is also intensely objective since personal stories are always in context, and so always also social (Ellis, 1991).  It is a story of modern academic life and how it is molded by internal and external dynamics.  In particular it is a story of the relationship between exogenous and endogenous conditions that created a personal ‘crisis’.  In this narrative I am not blaming anybody, though there were managerial actions that precipitated my decline into radical self- doubt.  I hope to convey that a range of external conditions, that is external to my inner world, to consciousness, interacted with habitual ways of being in the world, of responding to certain scenarios, of deeply structured ways of being, what Bourdieu called ‘habitus’.  In this narrative I wish to say something about this interaction and therefore contribute more widely to debates about agency and the limits of agency.  Specifically though, I want to explore the intensification of academic labour, of how this occurs in the context of discourses of ‘excellence’, the ‘global university’, ‘new public management’, and expansion of higher education.  I want to narrate a phenomenology of academic life that captures the lived, embodied experience of how these discourses play out institutionally and personally.  In doing so I will meander through a series of related topics.

This is an unashamedly ‘first person’ account.  How could it be anything but?  I will, as an academic, justify this claim.  In preparing for this endeavor I have read numerous papers on autoethnography.  I have felt myself touched and warned by the cautionary tales and experiences of others such as Carol Rambo Ronai (1998), Barbara Jago (2002), Brett Smith (1999), Sarah Wall (2008), and Nicholas Holt (2008); of how they struggled for legitimacy of their autoethnographic tales that did not ‘fit’ many accepted academic norms; of the dangers to your credibility amongst peers by either adopting such first-person methodologies or of outing oneself as suffering mental illness. Yet, autoethnography seems perfectly placed to conduct the kind of sociological analysis that follows, of relating the personal self to the academic self (Bochner, 1997, p. 432), particularly when faced with an academe that splits the personal from the academic.  The autoethnographic enterprise is not about self-indulgence.  If anything it is the opposite.  Arthur Frank (2000) argues for the standpoint of the storyteller, that story infers relationship with a listener, that storytelling invites other stories, other listenings, not just analysis from nowhere.  This is the opposite of speaking from nowhere.  It privileges a location (in theory, in methodology).  It is an ethical stance.  But, an ethical stance towards what?  I could craft some memorable and clever phrases but I would rather point you towards the wonderful words of Ronald Pelias (2004, p. 10) when he says,

They were teaching students who seemed more interested in grades than learning.  They were working for administrators who seemed more concerned with the bottom line than quality education.  They were going to endless meetings that didn’t seem to matter, writing meaningless reports that seemed to disappear in the bureaucracy, and learning that service seemed to have little effect on others’ lives.  Productivity was the motto of the day, so they published article after article that no one seemed to read, particularly those who were the focus of the study.  They wrote piece after piece on social issues, but none seemed to make any difference.  They researched topics that got them promotions and tenure but seemed removed from whom they were.  They felt empty, despondent, disillusioned.

 

The ‘they’ he refers to are ‘us’, ‘me’, ‘you’.  He is referring to a certain crisis of faith in the purpose of higher education that many feel.  He is referring to that splitting off of the personal from the academic self that Bochner notes above and specifically the way the academe appears to want us to subjugate the former for the latter; what Parker Palmer describes as the ‘divided self’ (Palmer, 2010).  The study of higher education is filled with debates of questionable faith in the modern academe.  This maybe in terms of the academe as Academic Capitalism (Slaughter & Rhoades, 2010) or the rise of the Global University (Marginson, 2004; 2006).  I enjoy and love these academic texts.  I refer to them not just because they have taken on the mantle of ‘classics’, but, because they speak powerful truths.  I suspect, though, that this very power does not rely on the relaying of ‘facts’, of the scientific quality of the research, but because when we read them we feel what they speak of.   Part of what we feel when really engaging with such texts is a sense that the higher education world we are part of could be different.  This may be phrased in nostalgic terms that imply a certain loss of purpose, as if the origins of the university in the establishment and sustenance of social elites did not exist.  I do not want to join such nostalgia.  Rather, the sense of loss may express the desire that attracted many of us to the academe.  This could be a love of knowledge, a desire for deeper understanding, and possibly most important a belief that the work we do could make a difference.  As is often the case, at this point I come back to my intellectual touchstone, Edward Said, and his discourse on the role of the intellectual (Said, 2005; 2012).  If the role of the academic is not to speak truth to power, then what is our social function?  That is the question that animates me here and calls upon me to find a style of inquiry that speaks a truth to power through storytelling, by staking a certain ethical standpoint.

This standpoint is grounded in experience.  In my reading I was struck by the pained honesty of many writers in the tradition of autoethnography.  I was struck by the role that vulnerability plays in their texts, and the wider significance of telling ‘their’ stories as a way of telling ‘our’ stories.  This is an echo here of C. Wright Mills’ Sociological Imagination, of the translation of “private troubles into public issues”, of David Karp’s observation (1995) that his depression was indeed his but when so many American’s appeared to suffer depression it was definitely a public issue.  In linking his personal and academic selves Karp sought to give a sociological account of his depression in discussion with others.  His was an ethical standpoint; a recognition that the voice of those suffering depression was like an absent presence in the academic literature.  So, he felt compelled to speak from the position of one who suffered depression, and to speak with others who lived with it (11).  There is, then, a degree of ‘remoralisation’ in the telling of such stories.  It is a necessary process as depression and illness generally can be so demoralizing (Frank, 2000).  And many autoethnographists write of the therapeutic need to convey their stories.  But I feel emboldened by Frank’s further discussion of illness stories as acts of ‘care of the self’, a resistance to the power of expert knowledge to define us, resistance to being lost in institutional processes of managing the ill person.  Illness stories, my story here, can be seen as ‘technologies of the self’, as practices that privilege the knowledge of those defined as ill in such ways that challenge the hegemony of medical or institutional knowledge’s.  I see this resonate in Barbara Jago’s (2002) account of ‘academic depression’ where she states that “I write because my story is, in many respects, the story of the academy”.  To tell her story is to tell ‘our’ story; to open up the academe to critical scrutiny, but to do so from somewhere (the ethical stance) rather than nowhere.  C. Wright Mill’s articulation of the translation of private troubles into public issues implies a relational world.  The authenticity of my story lies in the extent to which it brings me out of an inauthentic ‘being with’ (self, others) that is dominated by ‘self-concern’ and renders others as mere objects, and makes possible a more authentic ‘concern for others’ (Batchelor, 1983).  Illness, depression, can face us with the existential reality of being alone and vulnerable in the world.  On the worst of days ‘sufferers become swamped by their selves and lost in them’ (Karp, 1995, p. 105).  On those days my sense of self was one where an ‘injured, hurting, pained self dominates thought, perception, and action’ (105).  Our existential reality, though, is also one of a horizon of possibilities.  The current illness is not the only option.  And, critically, it is a world of ‘being with others’.  It is this ‘being with others’, and the cultivation of a concern for others that brings us closer to an authentic existence.

So, telling this story is an act of ‘remoralisation’ at the personal and social levels.

 

Writing the my story/our story account (layered accounts)

Much of what constitutes my academic identity, and identity is a central feature of this story, is bound up with an interest in policy and policy effects.  Inevitably then I will touch upon policy in terms of text and discourse (Ball, 1994) as part of the exogenous conditions of my crisis.  I want to engage in a dialogue with what others have written about the nature of modern academic life, to see the continuities and disruptions with my own story.  The question is how to do this while maintaining a connection between my personal and academic self, how to write the my/our story without privileging the abstract minds eye (parker?p. xxiii) and subjugating the heartfelt concern that drives me here.

I am certainly not the first to encounter this question.  So, again my inspiration comes from those before me who have endeavoured to speak in a heartfelt manner about the private trouble whilst also attending to the sociological truth of the public issue.  And so it is from my reading how other autoethnographers have crafted their texts that I seek to write a layered account, where layered means ‘…a back-and-forth movement between experiencing and examining a vulnerable self and observing and revealing the broader context of that experience’ (Ellis, 2007, p. 14).  This approach can work to decentre academic authority (1998, p. 407), of combining ‘a novelistic and scholarly voice’ (behar 114).  So, this my/our story utilizes a moving between literary non-fictional accounts (emotional introspection) and more obvious ‘academic’ reflection (see Jago, 2002).  This will take on the character of a dialogue or set of discussions between my ‘being there’ (the work of recreating felt states) and ‘being here’ (academic reflections on the autoethnographic work) (Spry, 2001).  Consequently I speak to debates on the intensification of academic labour and the performative culture that is overdetermined by changing political economy of higher education.  But I do so from a bodily standpoint, of an understanding that my body is inscribed by ‘traces of culture’ (Spry, 2001, p. 711).

Good autoethnography, as Tami Spry has argued,  “is a provocative weave of story and theory” (713).  The narrative must be persuasive both affectively and critically.  Revelation is not enough in itself if it does not move the reader to a new place of understanding.  In doing this I hope to convince you, the reader, that this story of a damaged academic has wider validity.  This is not validity in the positivist sense, but rather of verisimiltude, of how it resonates with your phenomenological understandings (Ellis, 1999, p. 672).  In this my/our story I ask the reader to feel the truths contained, to share social truths by engaging with personal stories, engage with public issues through feeling private matters.

References

Ball, S. J. (1994). Education reform: A critical and post-structural approach.

Batchelor, S. (1983). Alone with others: An existential approach to Buddhism.

Bochner, A. P. (1997). It’s About Time: Narrative and the Divided Self. Qualitative Inquiry, 3(4), 418–438. doi:10.1177/107780049700300404

Ellis, C. (1991). Sociological Introspection and Emotional Experience. Symbolic Interaction, 14(1), 23–50. doi:10.1525/si.1991.14.1.23

Ellis, C. (1999). Heartful Autoethnography. Qualitative Health Research, 9(5), 669–683. doi:10.1177/104973299129122153

Ellis, C. (2007). Telling Secrets, Revealing Lives: Relational Ethics in Research With Intimate Others. Qualitative Inquiry, 13(1), 3–29. doi:10.1177/1077800406294947

Frank, A. W. (2000). The Standpoint of Storyteller. Qualitative Health Research, 10(3), 354–365. doi:10.1177/104973200129118499

Holt, N. L. (2008). Representation, legitimation, and autoethnography: An autoethnographic writing story. International Journal of Qualitative Methods.

Jago, B. J. (2002). Chronicling an Academic Depression. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 31(6), 729–757. doi:10.1177/089124102237823

Karp, D. A. (1995). Speaking of Sadness : Depression, Disconnection, and the Meanings of Illness. Oxford University Press.

Marginson, S. (2004). Competition and Markets in Higher Education: a “glonacal” analysis. Policy Futures in Education, 2(2), 175. doi:10.2304/pfie.2004.2.2.2

Marginson, S. (2006). Dynamics of National and Global Competition in Higher Education. Higher Education, 52(1), 1–39. doi:10.1007/s10734-004-7649-x

Palmer, P. J. (2010). The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life.

Pelias, R. J. (2004). A Methodology of the Heart. Rowman Altamira.

Ronai, C. R. (1998). Sketching With Derrida: An Ethnography of a Researcher/Erotic Dancer. Qualitative Inquiry, 4(3), 405–420. doi:10.1177/107780049800400306

Said, E. (2005). The public role of writers and intellectuals. Nation.

Said, E. W. (2012). Representations of the Intellectual. Random House LLC.

Slaughter, S., & Rhoades, G. (2010). Academic Capitalism and the New Economy. JHU Press.

Smith, B. (1999). The Abyss: Exploring Depression Through a Narrative of the Self. Qualitative Inquiry, 5(2), 264–279. doi:10.1177/107780049900500206

Spry, T. (2001). Performing Autoethnography: An Embodied Methodological Praxis. Qualitative Inquiry, 7(6), 706–732. doi:10.1177/107780040100700605

Wall, S. (2008). Easier Said than Done: Writing an Autoethnography. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 7(1), 38–53.

 

Helen Kara

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