Emotions in Academia, Part 1: Compassion

We could all benefit from taking some time and creating some space to reflect on our emotions and how they might be related to our work as academics. For this reason, I’ve decided to write this series of articles dedicated to unpacking the role of emotions in academia. This first article in the Dire Ed series focuses on the importance of compassion.

Let’s start by acknowledging a reality. Academia is a harsh and sometimes desolate wasteland for so many. It can be especially toxic and emotionally destructive at its worst, but even in its non-toxic and static form, it is still, normatively speaking, a pretty ruthless environment. In other words, when it is functioning normally, the weight of academia can still be psychologically debilitating.

For example, the whole process of peer review is designed to point out the flaws in our reasoning. How many other professions or occupations have to deal with a constant stream of criticism and critique? Being told, over and over again, that our ideas are flawed can be demoralizing, and it is especially so when we are told via condescending and belittling language.

I’m not saying that critique is a bad thing. It helps us grow. It expands the arena of knowledge. But I am saying that we should perhaps pepper our critiques of each other with some compassion here and there. Unfortunately, the opposite is much more common.

Sometimes I think we make each other suffer because we were made to suffer. It becomes something of a downward spiral. When Ph.D. students go through hell defending their dissertations, they subsequently make the next cohort of Ph.D. students go through hell. When an author receives a bitter and stinging review that makes unreasonable demands, he or she in turn delivers a bitter and stinging review that makes unreasonable demands. The cycle becomes self-reinforcing. Incivility begets incivility.

But we’ve all heard the saying, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” We are literally driving ourselves into the ground. Year after year, I’ve noticed academia becoming progressively more and more oppressive.

It is time for us all to practice a more compassionate form of academia. Compassion is based on empathy and a mutual understanding of the challenges we all face in a financially devastated sector that is squeezing every last drop of productivity from us. We can start with baby steps. Dedicate just five minutes a day reflecting on the hardships we face collectively. Professors should remember what it was like to be an early career researcher and early career researchers should remember what it was like to be a PhD student. Reviewers and editors should go out of their way to identify a manuscript’s strengths, however hard they have to look for them. Full-time academics should volunteer themselves to help sessional, casual, and adjunct professors. This might include mentoring over a cup of coffee (on them, of course). When your colleagues do something amazing and praiseworthy, don’t bask in self-pity that the success wasn’t yours. Praise them and tell them that you are proud of their achievement.

“It is time for us all to practice a more compassionate form of academia.”

You may think that such gestures are, in the broad scheme of things, meaningless, but you would be wrong. Although a random act of kindness is likely to result in only a modest or incremental increase in individual well-being, in aggregate, the effects can be culture-changing. So let me leave you with a challenge. After reading this article, forward it to a colleague or co-author and include a short note: “I am grateful to have had the opportunity to work with you.”

Professor Andrew R. Timming

This article is published under a Creative Commons 4.0 License.

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