Even the flurry of live tweeting from MLA 2013 has not been enough to distract the academic community from Susan Adams’ recent article in Forbes. In a largely tongue-in-cheek featurette with a veneer of statistical clout and some grand proclamations, Adams declared university professors to have ‘The Least Stressful Job of 2013’. The backlash was swift, with over 150 academics quickly pointing out precisely why and how the life of a university educator is surely not lacking in stress.
I have no other points to add these comments, but I can’t help but think of an almost identical article from August of last year. In her popular blog ‘A Don’s Life’, Professor Mary Beard lamented the absurd job postings for university comms and PR positions. As she sees it, the job listings were a mess of ridiculous collocations and nonsensical phraseology, a feature that she subtly suggests is indicative of confused and perhaps entirely unnecessary positions within the marketing department of the university. Professor Beard’s article is certainly worth a read. But in the context of the recent Forbes article, I want to reproduce here my own comment to Beard, which sparked some discussion of its own:
As a humanities academic who spent a year working in the brand/design/communications sector while writing a book on the topic, I read this post with interest. In the same way that most people will view academic job postings as completely meaningless (e.g. ‘the successful candidate will contribute to the department’s international profile for research and teaching….’), many academics lack an understanding of what it is that many professionals actually do on a day-to-day basis. It’s no one’s fault, but perhaps suggests that ideal of knowledge transfer, as an ‘activity’ rather than simply a matter of course, is still maintaining a certain uncomfortable distance between academics and those in ‘hard business’. A job listing for, let’s say, a Senior Lecturer in Art History will contain loads of discipline-specific jargon that doesn’t reveal what it actually is that the person will do with their time–instead, it gestures toward the force of personality required of the successful candidate. Precisely the same is true in the communications, PR, and brand worlds. The people who get these jobs at the OU will be undertaking challenges that not many academics could face, and to consider that the funding for these posts might be more profitably channeled toward research seems to undermine the very premise of the modern university: to begin breaking down the barriers between the ivory tower, public policy, and hard business. We as academics have heard many times the complaints that we work only a handful of weeks a year and do very little, all on a hugely inflated salary. Yet we recognize that people who make these complaints simply don’t understand what it is that we do. In turn, perhaps we should make an effort to understand what it is that other people do as well.
The comments to Adams’ Forbes article are precisely the type of response that I discussed: the academic community’s backlash against unfair portrayals of working conditions in higher education. Adams has since issued a gracious addendum to her article which takes these responses into account. But with the recent discussion surrounding her findings, it seems an ideal time to re-evaluate how academics view those in positions outside of academia.
I am sure that Beard’s certain distrust of professional roles in media and communications is not unique in the academy. Indeed, the many comments to her post show that there are an awful lot of academics who fear that a Barnum-esque American business lexicon has entered the British university system. But as my comments to Beard’s post maintain, it’s entirely unfair to take issue with charges leveled against our profession whilst still distrusting the business world to the point of repulsion. In the twenty first century it is essential for academics to speak freely with and work well alongside their business compatriots. And the inverse, of course, is true as well.
Does academia bring with it the sort of acute stress an account manager or marketing director might feel when faced with a project deadline, a slack team, and an impossible brief? Perhaps not. But academia certainly does bring stress of its own. There is, for example, the 8-15 year period of training and apprenticeship, during which pay is negligible and prospects are slim. There is the extraordinary student loan debt which must be addressed during this very same period of penury. After all of that, there are the 80-hour weeks and endless nights of marking. And there are, as a bonus, the publishing requirements that can leave even the most confident and productive writers blanching.
Of course it is unfair to call university professors the least stressed workers of 2013. Though perhaps it is also unfair to call tailors or hairdressers–two other finalists on the list–similarly free of stress. Every profession brings with it its own challenges, pleasures, and disappointments. Many academics value the unique privileges of their position, while never forgetting the stress that these pleasures bring. And in just the same way, more academics should seek to understand what it is, exactly, other professionals do that make them valuable and unique.
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