Triumphs: Story 1
She’s just won a prestigious prize (at a prestigious conference): praise was rightfully delivered and she basked it the glory, in the surprise that seemed to say she’d arrived in academia (early career no more). But she was worried. Did this really signal a safety in arriving, a recognition of value, labour, contributions? Or did it signal more labour, maybe this time without recognition or value? When the stakes are set so high do we have no choice but to keep apace, to endlessly indicate, effect and fear our own (in)capacities? When we compete with colleagues in a competitive university-marketplace – and when competition is so close it is generated by-ourselves-for-ourselves (as ‘keeping up’, ‘what next?’) – what cares, connections, capacities are rendered near and far? I tell her to add her award to her email signature, a neat summary quickly conveying who she is as a hyperlinked bio. But I pause. There’s a borderline between the achieving academic, the celebrity star and the pretentious, (self)promotional subject. I pause. These are laboured cares.
Trying: Story 2
‘How long to keep trying, to just stay in the same place – to move around geographically, while staying on the same bottom rung?’ After a sole-authored book and an edited collection, or two, she decided ‘trying’ had been long-enough. She’d put in the long-hours but was still stuck in the expanded category of ‘early career’. She was leaving academia. She feared telling me, and other academics, feared that she would be letting the feminist side down. The sides in academia are often sharp and painful and despite our tries, these persist. ‘Sides’ stick out as barriers to entrance, as promotional hurdles, in recognized ‘achievers’ – or ‘drop outs’. My colleague, contributor and competent academic feared she was on the wrong side: non-academic. Friends console, offer support, sympathise with the tough sole-searching and decision making when academia is something more than just a job. We write our sympathies and supports in between emails as other urgencies come through our inbox (from students, colleagues, funders, unions). How much to keep trying and caring, with the inbox, the entrance and endurance in higher education as painful sides pressing against us.
The sides of these stories are not straightforwardly oppositional, as success versus failure, as enduring effort or ended potential; we are ever-encouraged to re-work our ‘failures’ as insights, to expand academic horizons as these are curtailed, and to be ‘enterprising’ as cure for structural dis-investment. These are intersecting ‘stories to tell’, which we all might recognize from our academic biographies and personal-professional investments, cares and capacities. As ‘trying’ in academia becomes harder in recessionary times, let’s thinks about alternative stories which fracture the ‘us’ and ‘them’of the successful/failing academic and institution. What other stories of academic cares and capacities can be shared beyond a story-of-self, of the hyperlinked academic with the good CV to be ever added to?
Yvette Taylor, Weeks Centre for Social and Policy Research, LSBU.