Academia Broke My Brain
My twitter time line is full of threads about mental health in academia, I am thinking about my own mental health a lot and about the limits of what is and isn’t possible or acceptable, I am running the London Marathon for Mind…., there are mental health initiatives everywhere – about talking to each other, looking out for one another, being more resilient, training, knowing how to cope, reducing stress. It just goes on and on. Everything is, it seems, about mental health. My academic friends are doing their best not to give in to absolute cynicism and to protect their mental and physical health while still meeting the demands of our employers. Often they put on a brave face, in private, over coffee, in emails and social media private messages that face slips. But those are their stories to tell, not mine, so let’s make this about me. I’ve been realising something, it’s not exactly a comfortable realisation but the more I think about it, it is absolutely true: Academia broke my brain and it can never go back to pre 2015.
Ok I’m not making sense. Let’s start at the beginning. Remember 2015? Remember the day I was sat on the sofa with a brain so so poorly that it couldn’t process the words my girlfriend was saying to me? The day I experienced my brain shutting down and refusing do process anything else until it had had a proper rest. Remember that? Why would you. I do though. Since that day and the period of sickness absence that followed and the rebuilding of some sort of academic career that followed that I have heard time and time again that none of it was my fault, that it’s not me and that academia needs people like me. I only ever half believed that it wasn’t about me and that me being ill was not my fault and I really have no idea what ‘academia needs people like you’ really means. So, the uncomfortable realisation: It is about me and it is about academia and it is about academia and me. Academia simultaneously needs people like me and has no place for people like me. And by people like me, I actually just mean me because I know about me, I don’t really know about anyone else.
So to be clear, all bollocks aside, I know I am good at my job. This is not a post about imposter syndrome (though I am very familiar with that too) or looking for some ‘oh but you’re brilliant’ sort of affirmation and ego stroking. I don’t much care whether you think I am good at my job or not because deep down I know that I am good at the things I value and that are important to me. But the things I am good at are not really the things that are valued and/or made possible in academia anymore – and maybe they never were. Maybe I have a romantic notion of what academia should and could be. Maybe and maybe what I feel, think and experience is shaped by the institutions I have worked in and things are different elsewhere. Maybe. What is clear to me though is that what we have now is not good for any of us, staff or students.
I love teaching. But what we do is rarely about teaching these days. It’s about learning outcomes and module specifications and textbooks, it’s about progression statistics and good honours. It’s about pass or fail and it’s about assessment. In an age where information is easily accessed we still have content heavy degrees and lecture theatres full of students who are rarely expected to really think. That makes no sense to me. In a system which thrives on consistency and metrics, what I do doesn’t fit. Taking content out and asking students to read, reflect and think makes things less predictable in the classroom, draws on a different set of skills, takes a risk and sometimes makes my student evaluations drop. I’m supposed to care about that. Instead I care about the student who tells me she felt empowered by being asked to contribute to the discussion in lectures. A third of my students have failed my module. I am supposed to care about that. I do. I care deeply but not because of my module statistics but because it means that there is a third of my students I haven’t managed to reach effectively – and partly that’s my fault, partly that’s the fault of colleagues who don’t ‘get’ what I am trying to do with the module and partly it’s the fault of the system that fails so many of our students by admitting them in the first place and then not supporting them properly. I already have reams of notes on what needs to change for the next iteration of the module – but I won’t have the time to make even half of those changes.
Because you see, time is not something we have in academia. In a job where thinking, reflection, reading, more thinking is key, you’d be surprised at how little of that actually happens. My biggest fear, other than spiders maybe, is my brain packing up on me again like it did. It is impossible to explain – but imagine someone has changed the language that everyone speaks, the script/alphabet everyone uses is different and everyone seems to know but you. People are interacting normally around you and talking to you but you don’t understand. I don’t ever want my brain to go there again. But academia takes it in that direction because everything and I mean EVERYTHING in modern academia seems toxic to it. You see, this is about me. It’s about having a brain that is too broken and tired to keep fighting the battles that academia needs. It’s a brain that refuses to see resilience as a permanent state. I can’t give up. I can’t not work on building better sessions, modules and courses. I can’t not try to encourage colleagues to try new things in the classroom, I can’t not be a mentor, I can’t not try and build a better law school all round, I can’t not be me BUT I also can’t keep having the battles that make it possible to do those things. I’m stuck – unable to do what is required of me because I cannot act like or help produce little worker drones.
Research is the same. My brain is and always has been, even before it broke, slow. It needs time to let things whiz around a bit. I do actually think that every now and again my brain can be quite brilliant, that it can see connections and make sense of things in a new way that is valuable to others and worth sharing. It can produce insights and it understands stuff that sometimes doesn’t make sense to others. I think I can write and write well. I think sometimes I have something to say. Do I say it in a way that hits the metrics I need to hit as a modern academic? Probably not. Am I interested in things a modern academic in a modern university needs to be interested in? No, probably not. Do I bring in money? No. Do I do research that could bring in money? Not really. Is my research impactful (is that even a word)? Who knows!?! Is it valuable – well I think it can be. But there’s no time. No time to spend thinking about things deeply. No time or inclination to allow me to think deeply about something esoteric and a bit odd which might turn out to be really important. No time to read, think and reflect. Demands are such that research gets squeezed into the odd day, an evening here and there, a weekend. But my brain can’t do evenings and it can’t do weekends. It broke doing that. It won’t, can’t, do that again. My brain is not good at being squeezed into tight time scales, it makes it work too fast and then it panics and then what could have been isn’t.
I’m reasonable at admin and management stuff. I can do it and do it well if I see the point but I am not very good at doing things that I see as pointless or idiotic. And there is lots of pointless and idiotic admin in academia. It’s increasingly bureaucratic and a fabulous example of work and task creation and the glorification of busy-ness. This is not what I want to spend what little brain power I can muster each day on.
So I am and have always been a good enough academic. Not excellent, not amazingly brilliant but an academic who can teach, research and stay on top of admin duties. Good enough. But good enough is no longer good enough in academia. We all have to be world leading, in everything we do, all of the time. I don’t think I’m up for that. I’d like to help others be world leading, shine, reach their potential and step out into the limelight. I’m more of a behind the scenes kind of girl but academia is not about behind the scenes…
So where does that leave me? Well that’s an interesting question. Sometimes I just want to leave, walk out of the university doors and never look back. Sometimes I think things aren’t so bad and I am just having a crappy day. I’ve sat on this blog for weeks trying to work out if I am just having a bad day…, sometimes I really really want a management position like Head of School or Dean or something because part of me still believes that all of this can be done differently – but maybe my brain is too broken for that. So for now I just want to keep doing good enough. I want to keep teaching and I want to keep researching and I want to keep doing it my way. I’m not striving for excellence or brilliance. I’m striving for good enough with a sprinkling of disaster and pinch of brilliance and I am aiming for survival in a sector which is fraught with difficulties. I think I am aiming for riding out the storm and contributing, in what little ways I can, to turning academia (back) into calmer waters.
Anyway, I think you get the idea. Something has to change I think because too many of us are breaking. Once broken a little bit of our sparkle is lost forever because we have given just a little too much. We’ll always hold back because if we don’t we risk going back to that dark place that does not guarantee a way out, that doesn’t guarantee a tomorrow. Academia should not be about holding back. It should be about going all in with an idea and seeing where it takes us collectively and supportively, working in collaboration or on our own, with our students or with each other. That’s the academia I want and we all need – we’ve got a long way to go and for now I’m coming along, walking the line between trying to make it better and breaking and hoping that that line holds!