I have visceral memories of the first time I went to a fancy dinner. Perhaps visceral is an odd word, but that is how I recall the night in question. It was enjoyable, yet searing. Everything felt unreal, like at any moment someone would yell ‘surprise’ and it would all be over. I was incredibly aware of my body, my movements, how I acted, how I spoke, and at the same time I was completely unaware of how I should move, act and speak. I felt out of place.
Previously, I have talked a lot about the materiality of academia, in particular class, mental wellbeing and how the neoliberal university functions. I want to use this post, however, to think less logically, and talk emotionally. Put simply, I want to ask how it feels to be young scholar right now, and in particular how it feels to be a working class person in an overwhelmingly middle class academy.
In itself, writing this post is an emotional experience. I am cautious of being truly exposed and vulnerable in an academy that does not appreciate messiness, as well as fearful of what people will think. At the same time, I do not want to elicit feelings of pity in others. And this is because this post is not simply about me and my emotions, it’s about the conversations I continue to have with my peers about feelings we share collectively, about how we have felt our way through the academy and about how our feelings are being negotiated. I am not looking for sorrow, I am searching for strength.
This yearning to speak emotionally stems from a recent phone call I had with my mum, in which I expressed that I felt like a failure. I even cried. The reaction was a different emotion altogether: shock. To my parents, simply undertaking a PhD is a major success. My mum told me about how proud she is, and asked why I couldn’t see this in myself. It was hard to convey my answer logically, and that is because it isn’t wholly logical. It’s emotive. How could I explain that my PhD did not feel like a success, because within the academy the PhD feels like the bare minimum? How could I explain, seemingly paradoxically, that any other wins feel minor in the face of the thesis, and are written off by the pressure cooker atmosphere of starting a career in academia? We can never do enough. Yet this is the very reason that discussing our feelings is important, because our emotions help chip away at the veneer the academy wants us to put up, allowing us to show that our labour is difficult and intense, and to expose the ways in which we are left frustrated, burnt out or let down. Talking emotionally allows us to seek out new ways of connecting with one another and to begin resisting the pressures we feel collectively.
Returning to my first dinner party, there are many reasons I felt out of place: I had not ordered wine before, I did not understand which fork to use, I had never been to such an expensive restaurant. Though I was with my then-boyfriend, I struggled to relax. Academia feels much the same. Thinking through the last couple of years, the emotions I have experienced in regards to my work have been overwhelmingly high energy: excitement, anxiety, stress, triumph. Everything feels driven by a frightening velocity. Rarely do I experience comfort when it comes to my work; I am constantly on edge, looking for another opportunity and hunting down the next item on my checklist. We have been all been told what we have to achieve to have a chance at success after the PhD has finished (articles, impact work, networking, conferences, funding grants, to name but a few) and ticking these off while writing a thesis requires speed, a pace that drives my emotions to giddy heights. No wonder, then, so many of us are suffering mentally. This is not just about the materiality of our situation or its physical effects, it is about how we treat ourselves, how we experience our successes and how we respond to what is happening around us. It is about how we feel.
Such feelings are only intensified by the way in which academia works. Here, I am thinking especially of the kind of feedback we give and receive, perhaps best summed up by two words: Peer Review. We have all read the jokes, all seen the memes. We make light of the infamous Reviewer 2. But the reality of the situation is often bleak. Having poured hours of energy into crafting what we believe to be an excellent article, we are skewered by a member of the community to whom we have no right of reply. Yes, there are reasons for this. Yes, to a degree it is about rigour. Yet, in the face of many reviews my friends have shown me, I cannot help but draw comparisons between peer review and online harassment. Protected by anonymity, it seems many reviewers feel it is okay to degrade not just the piece they are reading, but the intellect of the academic who has written it. Often it seems like the process is not about fostering productive, uplifting feedback, but about tearing someone down. It seems critique has become too readily conflated with condemnation. I think here of the theorist I feel most strongly about, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and her own work on affect. Why do we continue with such paranoid readings that excoriate writing, rather than asking what a text can offer us? Even writing this feels difficult, as we are not meant to react emotionally to peer review. The process is ostensibly about our research, not about us. Yet we can all see this is a fallacy. Within academia, our work is intractably chained to our standing and to the currency we hold within debate. Our work, then, is about us. In turn peer review should not leave us feeling wounded or attacked, but encouraged, hopeful, invested and uplifted. After all, it feels to me that positivity and respect are the most fertile breeding grounds for pushing our research to its full potential.
My experience of academia has been compounded by the way I have been taught to act by those around me in the academy. The world I come from is loud, shouty, intense and beautiful. It is my granddad catching wasps with his beer glass, then laughing and slapping his knee as he frees them again. Too often, I feel academia is a world away from this loudness, marked instead by an intense, fastidious hush. And I do not mean the silence we all need to undertake our work. I mean the manner in which we are permitted to act. Speaking with genuine feeling often feels improper. Referring to things excitedly as ‘fantastic’ or ‘brilliant’ is met with stern-faced measure and passive aggressive pushback: tight-lipped faces, sharp intakes of breath and muttered words. Apparently we cannot celebrate.
And yet we cannot moan, as we are told time and again that the difficulties we face are just the way things are in academia, just part of the process. In this fashion, we are cut off from our feelings, siloed into a space marked by neoliberal language where all that matters is the bureaucratic rulings of journal ratings, the REF and publishing standards. Our work must be adequate, passable, beneficial, at most interesting. It must never breathtaking, perplexing, curious, harrowing or inspiring. Such systematisation does not just affect our research, however, but doubles back around and leaks in to how we experience the workplace. In a marketized academy, passive aggression is the emotional reaction du jour. In this way, rigour becomes conflated with restriction. Speaking out, discussing our feelings, talking about the impact our work has on us all pose a risk. We must keep quiet, for fear of putting our head above the parapet. I reject this. Yes, we are meant to criticise from an objective standpoint, yet this cold, precise way of working does not need to extend to our conversations, or the way in which we treat each other. Feelings have an important place within academia. They are not gushing feebleness, but expressions of the realities we face in an ever-tightening system. Effacing emotions from our workplaces simply weakens the bonds we so rely on to uplift one another, to withstand changes that damage our capacity to feel well at work and to resist the marketization that sucks the life out of academic thought.
In all, my emotional reactions leave me feeling excessive. I feel too much. I feel gauche. I wonder if I am meant to be here. In this way I am reminded again and again of other dinner parties I have been at, of unspoken rules and regulations, of stifling etiquette. And so I begin to wonder if my excesses are marked by class, by vulgarity, tackiness, unruliness and bad manners. I wonder how it would go down if I took the same approach as my dad to his workplace, if I was as bawdy, brash, honest and jovial as the mechanics he works alongside. I wonder to what extent the explicit bureaucratic and implicit social regulation of feelings in academia is about gatekeeping who has access to the university. I wonder what would happen if I embraced my excesses and began allowing myself to react emotionally to my workplace. I am sure I am not alone in this. And I am sure that my peers have a multitude of different feelings, predicated on experiences mediated by class, race, gender and disability. Again, I wonder. I wonder how anger, sadness, joy, disgust and jubilation are employed by and against my colleagues. I suppose I am wondering because we are not talking enough about our feelings. And I hope that my own ruminations offer a gateway of their own. Not a gateway with a keeper, but an open door to discussion. How are you feeling today? Answering this in itself requires the motivation of a strong emotion: courage, but it is only by speaking about our emotions that we can come to understand how integral feelings are to the process of academia.
As I finish, I should draw attention to the brilliant work scholars are undertaking to discuss feelings. In particular, I am thinking of Ellie Mackin Roberts, who has been fostering academic kindness through multiple projects; of Laura Sefton, who has discussed her experience of academia time and again in a manner I struggle to do so myself; and of Catherine Oakley, who has successfully raised the necessary funds to examine the repercussions of taking parental leave. Follow them and support their work, because they are helping to make the dinner party that is academia a kinder, fairer and less regulated space. Could you pass the salt?