In this blog, Eda Ulus and Charlotte Smith ask us to think about academics and whether they are allowed to express emotion.
What would you think if I suddenly started crying?
How would you respond?
These are questions that Eda asks students, to introduce a lecture on emotions in working life. We reflect on the responses as a way of learning about emotion rules – these are the spoken, and unspoken, rules about which emotions are acceptable to show to others, and expectations about how to manage, express, or hide emotions at work. We discover that we sometimes follow these rules without consciously deciding to do so. We may struggle to locate where these rules come from, and why they are deeply settled as the right way of working. Of course, we consider the significance of social settings – seeing Eda cry at a sad movie is OK, but how about in the lecture hall? Most of the responses are: Definitely not! Unprofessional! Inappropriate! (with some exceptions, like a student who said the first response would be to comfort Eda/the lecturer and ask: What is it all about?….)
We talk about how emotion rules are gendered – when Eda asks students to think of a male academic, suddenly crying, there is often embarrassment among some individuals. Why? Because of a fiction, masquerading as normative, that men should not cry? A macho outlook that men can’t possibly be feminine, gentle, or open with emotions of pain? Are people supposed to have emotions according to their externally assumed biological sex? We like to discuss these assumptions, and consider how intersections of race, age, social class, and lived experiences influence our interpretation of emotions at work.
And we consider emotion rules of the profession – the academic. Do academics have feelings?
To understand our response when emotion expectations are violated, psychoanalysis – that is, a study of our unconscious desires and fantasies – provides a striking resource. As Professor Yiannis Gabriel notes, ‘To see a person of authority (and lecturers in the classroom do have authority in the eyes of the students, no matter what they themselves think) cry, represents a collapse of the fantasy of a leader as being above others, one who is not affected by the same afflictions as ordinary mortals’.
So we reflect on these fantasies, and their potentially dangerous effects – for, are academics allowed to be human? To be vulnerable?
If we allow academics to be human – then what is their purpose? Is an academic a neutral knowledge-conveyor? Is an academic’s purpose to satisfy today’s student? What makes academics happy in higher education today? Is academic happiness and wellbeing even relevant for discussing with students and other groups in higher education?
Charlie and Eda have been thinking about academic wellbeing. What does academic wellbeing mean in UK Universities? What does it look like? What supports it or undermines it? Who cares about it? We are particularly interested in individual wellbeing in connection to social and cultural contexts, such as ideas about student satisfaction, the valorisation of consumer choice, and judgment of performance, with metrics biased against women and ethnic minorities. We wish to understand the individual struggles and triumphs, the stresses and joys that can affect anyone in academia, while also analysing the entrenched disadvantages that undermine opportunities for wellbeing.
This means considering academic wellbeing through a wide range of possible experiences – from the pain of emotional health struggles, to the joys of making a difference in student learning, feeling inspiration from talks and seminars, and having support from colleagues.
And how about love, and the consequences when love is damaged or cannot be found? Are today’s University spaces nurturing of love for the job, love for learning?
In these reflections, we are building upon recent research publications about the experiences of academics, as well as sensitive disclosures in the media. A recent Times Higher Education survey indicates a range of academic responses about today’s higher education experiences – both uplifting and dispiriting. We would like to bring more closely together these findings in the press about the emotions of academia, with academic analyses of work conditions, by learning about the feelings and encounters that give breath to, or damage, individual wellbeing.
We often hear clichés like “You are only as good as your last publication”, but how is this embodied and carried around? How does it feel to dare to take a break from the inbox, only to return and see that email has gone beyond its normal relentless flow and is now approaching a full on flood? How does the body feel when receiving that “Manuscript decision” letter, that grant notification letter, that conference submission decision letter – the list grows – thanking you for your submission, but unfortunately also notifying you of your rejection, perhaps amplified by biting reviews?
We want to create a research space that shatters the stigma of talking about human emotional struggles as academics, with whatever labels are used or preferred for these difficulties. We would also like to explore more explicitly any links between the increasing frequency of reports about student problems and academic ones, and learn if higher education changes may be shaping both. The presence of stigma can conceal the fact that the line between dealing with an externalised crisis and falling into a personalised one is precarious. Afraid to show any chinks in their armour (to use masculine imagery), individuals may turn to internalised coping strategies such as the use of recreational illegal and legal drugs. For some individuals this usage moves beyond a recreational activity, shifting to one that is characterised by class A drugs and battles with addiction.
We don’t wish to question the benefits received by individuals from approaches to supporting academic wellbeing, like prescribed medicine or therapy. Rather, what we are questioning is whether there is sufficient attention given to the experience of academic wellbeing in the first instance. We wonder whether there is adequate energy given to exploring the social and political aspects of higher education today that may exacerbate pre-existing struggles or create new ones; and whether there is space to explore the experiences and spaces that enable love of academic work to flourish.
So we would like to generate more discussion in the manner of the students who responded to Eda’s question, by asking openly, with empathy, what do we feel, and who cares?
Alongside hoping to acknowledge a range of academic experiences including joy, we also wish to be sensitive to some difficult and painful topics included here. Hence, some resources that may be useful to contact are Samaritans or Nightline.