Cultivating networks of care and accountability in the academy

I just started my PhD (I believe it’s the third week now), and I am already able to see the differences in lifestyle, outlook and social norms that differentiate it from my Master’s experience. To be fair, I am in a different department (currently in Science and Technology Studies , but was previously in Faculty of Environmental Studies), my previous department had far more people (think 100+) and now I have 5 people in my cohort. FES also is the kind of place where people are using vastly different pedagogical methods to fulfill their degree criteria – from arts-based practices, historical/archival research, ethnography and GIS, and it wouldn’t be weird to hear singing in classrooms, or people running around barefoot in the common areas. My current department, on the other hand, is far more academic in the mainstream sense, but the members come from vastly different disciplines, which makes the feel of it very similar to FES. Interdisciplinarity is something common to both of the programs, however, the feel of the PhD program in STS is remarkably different from anything else I’ve experienced.

One of the key features that I have began to notice about higher levels of academia (think PhD programs and beyond) is the culture of busy-ness, and the frequency of social alienation and other more serious mental health problems like depression, anxiety and panic disorders that many students seem riddled with. It seems that the never-ending demands of the academy even produces bad research, along with the vast emotional, social and physical toll it takes on many of its participants.

How is it, that one of the treasured parts of society, where ideals of inquiry and rationality are valourized that such problems continue to exist? I thought to myself. Of course, the interior contradictions of academic culture have been noted by many people before me, but what continues to fascinate me is the sustained privileging of certain kinds of knowledge practices over others. This has included the exclusion of indigenous, postcolonial and gendered lenses on topics of academic inquiry in the past, and currently manifest themselves in other more insidious ways.

When will the academy start to value emotional intelligence and networks of care and accountability? We already have some sort of, rather imperfect peer-review process, some cohesive ideas about academic integrity and how to enforce it, but how about, for a change, and for the improvement of our research outcomes, we start fostering emotional health in a more involved basis, and focus on, in our own limited ways, to create loving bonds of nurturance and care and collective personal development? I believe that if starting from the undergraduate levels, professors, TAs, instructors, or bureaucrats involved in the academic process were to become more conscientious and empathetic towards students, there would be better outcomes all around, academically or otherwise. I realize that most campuses have some kind of mental health and counselling facilities, however, let us not outsource all the care to another institutional structure and wash our hands clean of the emotional labour required to sustain a healthy community. I know personally that many TAs, professors and instructors are already doing the emotional and social labour required for this, yet on a whole, the academy remains for many people a fundamentally hostile and competitive environment, and I think it’s time we looked at some alternative approaches.

To give you an example, here’s a simple story. Recently, I had lunch to catch up with a friend of mine. Within our conversations, came up the topic of toxic masculinity in the academy parading as “feminist, progressives”. This is perhaps a trope that many people have had to contend with, especially after the Hugo Schwyzer debacle of 2013 and the Jian Ghomeshi allegations came to surface in 2014, and most recently, with the abuses of power by Yale “ethicist” Thomas Pogge. Sadly, within the generally left-leaning culture of the academy, predators exist, and they often find refuge in progressive politics. Such characters have made occasional appearances in my experience, however, I did not benefit from any network of care and accountability when I needed it the most, which would have enabled me to escape situations and relationships that would prove injurious to me for quite a while. Speaking of such a character, I heard from my friend that he has been on an abusive tangent since his undergraduate days, and that he goes uncorrected based on the reputation of his alma mater, his academic credentials and just being a white man of privilege. Had I known of this abusive trajectory, I, along with a few others I have come to know, would have been better able to protect ourselves and create networks of accountability and care for each other.

This is just one example, but I am not alone with stories like this. Every university in Canada and beyond probably has someone like this who is able to get away with egregious harm on their peers, and are able to escape the scrutiny of institutions. The current infrastructure fails most people who suffer the abuses, but survivors of abuse are often aided by informal networks of accountability and care that are maintained by their peer groups. How can these networks further create influence beyond their immediate circles? How would you set up accountability, empathy and duties of care *within* such circles?

These are questions that have puzzled me in the last few weeks. More than anything, I want the academy to be a place of mutual nurturance, care and love (I don’t believe love is an exclusive emotion we can choose to cater to an exclusive view, but a responsibility towards our fellow citizen in building sustainable communities). While the question of care and accountability in academia seem like an elusive pipe dream, as scholars of STS Aryn Martin, Natasha Myers and Ana Viseu have pointed out, they remain a critical aspect of research and citizenship.

As I begin my PhD journey, I have met many people who make care and accountability a basic priority in their academic practice, however, they remain a minority. I want to hear of more people like this, more practices of such nature and of a salient drive to change the sterile nature of the academy. Surprise me with stories of academic kindness, care and accountability!

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Completing a master’s thesis and its aftermath

Welp, despite many assertions to the contrary, I have been thus far entirely unable to keep up with any kind of non-academic writing since I started my thesis, with very limited exceptions. I think I’m about done apologizing to myself for this, because it is only now with the experience of being devoted to a singularly focused project for a long time that I see how it can potentially sap one’s creative energies if one is not careful. I think most of the creative or non-academic ideas I had during the last year currently exist as point-form scribblings in a notebook that I keep with me everywhere with a particularly superstitious regard. Perhaps it’s time to revisit some of those ideas.

I’d love to talk to you about my thesis in detail now that it’s submitted and that I’m indeed on track to graduate this October, but I just defended it on August 23rd, and presented it at an international conference in Barcelona on September 1presented it at an international conference in Barcelona on September 1, and I’m still here, couped up in a student residence in the Gothic quarter of Barcelona, wondering why I feel so tired.

I make my way back across the pond tomorrow morning, and immediately after I land I go off to my PhD orientation at the program in Science and Technology Studies at York University. In the meantime, I’ve had to apply for conference funding, apply to attend a workshop on postcolonial and feminist science and technology at Harvard, and complete my initial applications for the Trudeau and Vanier Scholarship Programs. I am sure there was some way I could have planned this which would have avoided me feeling so drained at this moment, but such is life, and from what I’ve been told, the norm in PhD programs – so I’m seeing it as preparation for it. Sigh. I really need a nap. I’ll get on that now.