I know that there are people who actually enjoy sports but I never thought that there would be such a thing as a dodgeball enthusiast. Well, there isn’t really. There are just highly competitive people who use dodgeball to satisfy that need to win.

Dodgeball, an autobiography

When life is understood as a career, the resume becomes an extension of the body. Gaps in the resume are institutional stigmas. Since most of us have to work, it is hard for ill persons to resist accepting “productivity” as the measure of our worth.

Arthur Frank, At the Will of the Body: reflections on illness

Prayer flags
all the time in the world
(photo credit: Kate Bowles 2014)

Last week a colleague came to visit and asked, pretty forthrightly, “When this is over, and you know what you give a shit about, what will that be?”

It was the right time to ask the question. I’ve reached a point in this process that I think many people experiencing illness go through. After the truck-crash of diagnosis and surgery fades in intensity, and the long slog of treatment begins, recuperation involves moments where you stop and think, over and over: wait, what happened to my life?  It’s the first week of the Australian teaching year.  I’m reading emails about car parking and welcoming students and new colleagues. My friends are back at work.  And I am here at home, taking stock of surgery, chemotherapy and the long road up ahead.

Having cancer is like repeatedly walking into the middle of the room and forgetting why you came there. You can remember, more or less, what you were just doing moments before, but now you’re standing here: this is real. Only this has not yet explained itself, it doesn’t yet make sense. So you go back over what you were doing just before (“Remember we said we would, you know, before …”) and you try to rebuild some kind of hindsight identity working backwards from the moment of diagnosis, to what didn’t begin at that point, which is of course a way of not thinking about how it will end.

When did it start? How much of this challenging treatment is the consequence of that work-delayed diagnosis?  What future for me and those I love was decided in that year that I didn’t get checked out? These are the questions I’m trying not to ask physicians, because I truly don’t want to know the answers. I’m worried that knowing might compel me to send a career-limiting email about the very irritating tone of our university’s workplace wellness programs, that do absolutely nothing to address to the culture of academic overwork that cause people to miss health checks in the first place. (Global Corporate Challenge, I’m looking at you.  Your emails this week reminding me that it’s not too late for a fantastic burst of energy have been fantastically mistimed.)

But if there’s one thing I do now know, the question of “when this is over” can only refer to treatment, because cancer won’t be over. That’s not to dramatise my situation, but simply to say that a cancer diagnosis is a status change like becoming a parent. Even when your child moves out of home, even if your child dies, you are still a parent. That part never gets unmade.

So I’m returning to the question of how being a person with cancer might work, especially in the context of a fairly long time being a person who works in a university.  Conversations this week—including with Philip Nel who has a beautiful piece in Inside Higher Ed on why academics overwork—have made me think hard about what academic work and illness have in common, and why this matters. It’s not that academics are unique in overworking in the current economy, but that there are structural incentives to our overwork that are fairly peculiar, and they’re matched by our coping practices that on most days amount to a weird co-dependency with a system that can no longer afford to run itself. Nel’s covered most of them, in my view, but I just want to add one that I think is becoming very important.

We overwork because the current culture in universities is brutally and deliberately invested in shaming those who don’t compete effectively; as a correlative to this we are starting to value and promote to leadership roles people who really do believe in the dodgeball triumphalism of university rankings as a way of nurturing educational values and critical inquiry.

The cruelty of this shaming is that it passes itself off as supportive collegial celebration of the heroic few; it’s hard to call out precisely because it looks like a good thing. It’s rampant in internal messaging (newsletters, all staff emails) that continuously reinforce the institution’s strategic mission by high-fiving those who win the prizes. It’s the self-justifying logic of casualisation, creating a vast second-tier of precarious and under supported university work for those who don’t get the real jobs. And it’s the immense project of research quantification, that crowds out practices of thinking, collaborating, listening and sharing in the name of picking winners and hothousing them because ultimately they pay off.

Being shamed isn’t the result of failing or refusing to participate in this system; it’s the result of being willing to supply your labour to enable competitiveness to work at all. Because there have to be losers, for there to be people who win.  (As Cate Blanchett put it so beautifully, “the world is round, people.”) For the 20% of ARC Discovery successes to have career valency, there have to be a very large number of people who calculate that it’s still worth their time falling into the 80% who fail.  To understand why we go along with this, and trash our physical and mental health in the process, you really need to read the literature on why people buy lottery tickets, and how they understand their participation in something with such a tiny prospect of success.

So I was thinking about how this deficit-driven measurement of value at work prepared me so well for being the subject of medical diagnosis, when I read yesterday a thoughtful discussion of the current culture of rankings-driven professorial recruitment in Australia, and the way that universities recognise whether their staff have value or not. And this is how it started: “An academic once told Third Degree that a failed academic was one who retired as a senior lecturer. A successful lecturer would have at least made it to associate professor.”

I’m a senior lecturer. You do the math. The tenor of this comment, and presumably the discussions at the university executive strategic retreat described in the article, imply that if I had any kind of professional integrity at all, any scrap of loyalty to the stated goals of my institution, I’d be offering to step outside the tent and take some time coming back.

But actually, I find this very liberating. Whatever it is I’m going to find I care about, I do so with the considerable freedom of being marginal to the university’s sense of itself.

So on that note, here’s a thing I care about. This week we opened CASA, an online home for those affected by casualisation in Australian universities. My colleague in this is a cultural geographer, and we both care very much about practices of belonging and hospitality in higher education. So we made a home for people to come together, and think, and share ideas for how this situation could be made less scarring for all concerned. I care about giving my time to this, and from the response and support we’ve had, so do lots of other people. We haven’t won a competitive grant; we haven’t published in a top-ranked journal. But we care about impact, and in this case, the human impact of our dodgeball culture is something we’re ready to call out.

All are welcome to join.

A few good things

Philip Nel’s essay “In Search of Lost Time” in Inside Higher Ed is accompanied by further reading and links to the pieces he cites, on his own blog, including a piece that deserves to be read over and over: Miya Tokumitsu’s “In the name of love“, originally published in Jacobin Magazine in January.

His piece has been covered, from opposite ends of the academic work spectrum, by Overworked TA (“The underbelly of putting yourself last“) and Ferdinand von Prondzynski (“Recognizing hard work in higher education“).

Richard Hall has provided considerable extension to all of this today, in “On academic labour and plutonomy“.

12 Responses

  • Thanks for the link here!

    I see a lot of this in the “always on the market” philosophy we are all encouraged to have. You are only as good as your last offer, to some degree. I get that it is smart to have leverage and I get that publications allow for this at every step along the way but at some point, you may just want to be comfortable and reach an “ending” point. Looking at it from the bottom, it sounds exhausting to fight, fight, fight until you are emeritus. I know a couple of faculty members in a couple of different departments who have laid off the workload post-tenure to finally take time for themselves and their families. They are perhaps the happiest and most self-aware people I know. The problem is that others don’t understand it and like to pull out the “s/he doesn’t even have it in ’em to publish anymore”.

    I think there should be a lot of respect for those who take time for themselves whether it be for health reasons, family reasons, or both. I have mad respect for a person who can say “nope, I can’t put that on my plate right now” because it means they are very in touch with what they need and what they can do. And it allows them better to serve all of those in the department by focusing on what they do best – teaching, working with grad students, charing committees, etc. If you try to do it all at a time you just can’t, you either half-ass everything or fall down and flail. It takes your health away no matter what you do, which SHOULD be unacceptable.

    You only get one life and one body. You have to learn to respect the limits. And you should respect those bold enough to know those limits.

  • iainmacl

    another perfect piece

  • Keith Lyons

    Thank you, Kate.

    I find your arguments profound and compelling.

    I think counter-balance is essential now to a headlong pursuit of putative impact measures.

    Good luck with CASA.


  • In beginning to read your article on living with a disabling illness and the hell we go through merely surviving for who knows how long, if not forever, I empathize with you and entirely understand your frame of mind. I developed Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Fibromyalgia eleven years ago and have been through every phase you have but they can’t find what’s causing it and there is no cure or treatments that can cause us to go into remission.

    Just want you to know I know your pain, your loss, your emptiness, and without God in my life now I would be gone. The depression plays such a huge role in our lives of pain and fatigue, weakness and loss of life in every single fashion. God bless you! Let’s keep in touch. I wrote a novel, “Courage Times Three” which really helped me get through my own suffering. You might enjoy picking up a copy to help lift the spirit in a different kind of way. Warmly, Brenda

  • Great post! Thank you!

  • A thought provoking post! In our rush to ‘digitize’ performance, we often leave out the softer aspects of life which impact performance at work.

  • My grandson had brain cancer at the age of two and survived. The family does not speak of it often but he is the miracle one. I believe what got him through it was the ability to laugh. To have the inner spirit to want to live. It is misery and I wish you the best. I blogged on it and if it helps give it a read.

  • At the end of the day, the only thing what matters to you as a person is your personal well-being, health and happiness. The society can put on your head the laurel wreath of victory, but they will forget about it as soon as you are out of the winning circle. So, damaging your health in order to win competition with any means is sort of a wrong-doing to yourself. Did anybody really appreciate that? I doubt it, since there is nothing fair on this globe. I wish you recovery and all the good things you can still have to enjoy.

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