On Senior Academics in the Age of Precarity
We always know it: there are really nasty seniors in academia. And the cost of such individuals is usually the dreams of (dozens of) juniors.
I never understand senior academics’ horrible treatments of their PhD students and junior academics. I think there is no logic behind it. It is not like once a junior, always a junior. They will become mid-career and then senior scholars in time and what you are doing today (bullying) will mark you forever.
I speculate that the same problematic system in academia that makes the juniors vulnerable to the mistreatment of senior academics also simultaneously turns the senior academics into insecure individuals; with sometimes built up rage that is ready to be directed to the weakest link in the food chain.
There are so many ways of being a horrible senior academic but that’s not what I chose to write about today. Instead, I will focus on beautiful examples that had helped me or many of my friends (academic precariat) to make our lives a little bit easier.
The Hard Working Carer
I am unsure about how to name the good examples but I will stay on the safe side and maintain their anonymity. So I will name them based on the sort of support they provide.
The Hard Working Carer is a person who is a woman of colour — although she comes from a privileged background. Very much aware of her privileges, she dedicates her life, her publications, her support, to use her privileges to advance the positions of those who lack the same benefits in life. Thus, when she was hired into a permanent position, she tried to say yes to almost every junior academic who wanted to work with her or apply for funding through her.
Caring is a gendered labour (normatively speaking) and she has championed that. During the very short period of time I had a chance to work closely with her, I had seriously worried that she would hit her burn out limit.
The Active Supporter
Unfortunately (for men), this example is also of a woman academic. Often, when the PhD candidates have to deal with various elements of life that can hit unexpectedly, their supervisors need to evaluate the best way to support them. In the case of crises such as family member bereavement, trauma, accident, and so forth, the supervisors are advised to follow a particular protocol that often includes directing the supervisees to counsel and signing a piece of paper that provides the supervisee with an extension. That is good and average behaviour. However, the Active Supporter analyzes the situation and makes an effort to take a more hands-on approach within the limits of ‘supervisor-supervisee’ relationship. Of course, this requires experience. What this particular Active Supporter did, for instance, upon a conversation with her supervisee, was to offer additional support. The supervisee was going through a particularly harsh time in their life and explained to the Active Supporter that they need to stay focused (but it was too hard to do). The Active Supporter then met with her supervisee, more frequently than she was required to, to make sure the PhD candidate could stay focused.
The senior academics’ load to provide support is heavy but those who can master it can have a profound impact on their students’ lives both at academic and emotional levels.
The Radical Compassionate
The Radical Compassionate is a woman I have never met in person, yet I follow her publications closely. She does follow my work as well, which is quite humbling actually. I was thrilled to be in a publication she organised, yet a number of things happened in the process. As I wrote in an earlier blog, I was in a survival mode yet I still hated to have fallen behind in responding to her. The way she was understanding was actually not coming from some un-filtered kindness but from political consciousness. She wasn’t just compassionate; she was a radical compassionate. As I was feeling very badly about not being professional, she had explained to me how the principles of professionality are always used to work against us, to hurt us, to undermine us. They are designed to make us part of the machinery, yet we are humans and life hits us from all sorts of angles. Being understanding is a must, especially when we cannot know what is happening in each others’ lives. (I then felt a need to elaborate a bit more on the difficulties I was dealing with.)
The Drama-Free Queen
You can spot them in a number of ways. People (and by people, I think especially think about Drama Queens) often find them distant, cold, and if they are sexist enough, ‘robotic’. My reading is that, the Drama-Free Queen just could never be tamed into the drama taking place around them, which is a good sign. The Drama-Free Queen is a very rational human being, engages with the juniors as her future colleagues and as intellectuals. Therefore, contrary to her outlook, you can actually approach her quite easily. There would be no keep-you-wait for the sake of it, no finding ways to make you apologize, no fake misunderstandings. Chances are, equally, there would be no excessive performance of love and compassion either.
You need to make sure that the material you offer to them is intellectually and scholarly rich (whether it’s an invite to a talk/series, feedback request, asking for guidance on a matter, etc.); not because they will otherwise decline, but because their assessment will be focused and you want to make most of this exchange. My favourite part of my relationships with her (them) is, she never makes me feel like I should (and I love this expression) ‘massage her ego’.
You can just bond with the Drama-Free Queen at an intellectual level and her confidence is not based on others’ admiration of herself.
The Friendly Champion
Yes, this time, we are talking about a guy. I know, finally! The Friendly Champion is quite a celebrity scholar, actually, a name bigger than a regular senior and therefore his name might intimidate you. As a result, you might hesitate to reach out to him, even though your research interests overlap, even though you look up to him, and even though the idea of receiving their feedback or contribution is really exciting. In principle, if any of these three feelings describe yours, just drop them an email. Just. Drop. An. Email.
You might be positively surprised. I say ‘in principle’ since I try to follow this as a rule, by forcing myself out of my comfort zone by following it. I have received really discouraging responses too, but I believe I found The Friendly Champion by not ditching my principles. He is someone who not only tries to use his energy to support juniors in person but also through providing various ‘guidance’ notes, about various struggles we go through by offering workshops and publishing papers.
The Impromptu Angel
I have a number of ‘Impromptu Angels’ in my life and I am forever grateful to them. They appear when you need their help the most. And you would be amazed how helpful they will end up being. I know a number of junior scholars who are, after years of mistreatment, pleasantly surprised by the Impromptu Angel they found in the middle of a crisis (a huge application, an important deadline, or while struggling for another major moment in their career). The Impromptu Angels are someone you haven’t really spend much time together, not your advisor/mentor/professor. Yet, they are still ready to share their wisdom on that topic you are struggling with and you are mesmerised by their generosity. It is, of course, sad that we are so touched by something so simple: an expert sharing their time (maybe 2–3 hours of their life) and wisdom to someone whom they haven’t even met before.
In my past diaries, I have written dozens of pages on how I felt disheartened by senior academics who blatantly bullied me or my friends. When I look back, I realise that exemplary seniors had far more impact on my life, my career, and my well-being than the bad ones.