What do you stand for? Who are you? How can you know that—and operate from that position of power?
There are times that it’s hard to know what to say. Things seem to ask for a response, even just a raised hand to say “Here”. But how to start with this world?
This week I discovered that the place where I work has a new brand tagline, and this is it:
Stands For Purpose
(It’s not that bad. My daughter’s primary school has Strive to Excel. Although this one’s apparently on the back of buses, which is about as funny as it gets.)
While I was still trying to figure out my own misgivings, let alone whether it’s legitimate to express them publicly (because brand) I came across a widely shared clip of bell hooks explaining how as a feminist she doesn’t find herself able to support Hillary Clinton’s run for President. In this one minute explainer, drawing down the powerful words of James Baldwin, she nails it for me: there are these identities we’re meant to embody with force and conviction, and yet they may not in any given situation represent the values that we stand for.
Values aren’t corporate mission statements or brand collateral because they’re personal. I suspect this is even true of people with faith, which I’m not. Values aren’t practices of compliance with institutional rhetoric, they can’t be. Values are who we are, and the only reliable source of our power to act in this world because they’re earned, through difficult experiences that make us proud of ourselves. Values separate us from machines and the stars. Our values make it possible to operate with intent, to think independently, to settle for ourselves the big question of how to live, what counts as enough.
So while I respect that this standing for purpose is the mission of my institution, and that it’s standing room only all the way to our chosen destination in the world university rankings, something else is tugging at me, something closer to what I’m learning that I stand for.
At the end of last year, I was asked a big question by someone whose thoughts are really precious to me. Are things getting worse, do you think? he said. And it’s complicated. The mood swings towards pessimism. Will children exposed to television ever play in cornfields again? Will the economy ever pick up? Will the planet survive our occupation of it? And because hard times have come again before, no one wants to get caught naively thinking things are different now. So we muffle our disquiet, because we’re not sure if our moment in history is a landmark or a decisive moment, or just another weary day.
But I think he’s really asking something about us, not just about what’s happening: are we the crowd applauding, whistling, cheering as the ice bridge caves in to the sea?
For me, the question is about work. Is it getting worse, and are we at risk of applauding as it does so, because we’re so busy standing for the spectacular, when we should be sitting and thinking very carefully about what it tells us about environmental cause and consequence?
I take this to be a question about employment as a whole, but the case study I understand best is employment in higher education. And because our role is to educate, it really matters how we manage our own working. Whatever we speculate in marketing or curriculum about the future of work, the practice we model to students everyday is how we occupy our own jobs now. Every time we meet, students learn from us how we sustain a critical professional voice as we go about our careers—and how we do this constructively, pragmatically and optimistically.
So let’s do this openly, and see what happens.
This week Liz Morrish has written an extraordinary post about breaking the code of silence in conversations with students about academic stress, and what systematic and structural pressures are troubling the people teaching them. She told them the story of Professor Stefan Grimm, who committed suicide in December 2014, and left clear advice for his professional colleagues about the particular workplace pressures that took him to that point. Several of us committed to keeping his name in our thoughts and our writing, and we have done so. But surely we shouldn’t talk about these things with students?
And yet, here’s what happened:
I hope I got it right. It felt as if I did. This was not a monologue; students had questions and comments. Most of all they offered support; their responses were simply heartwarming in contrast to the totalising judgement of management by metrics. As I lost my ability to contain my sadness, my voice trembled and I became tearful. A young woman stepped forward and offered a hug. Later more students arrived at my office with coffee and cake, or just concern. Students I barely know out of class offered more humanity and understanding than institutions with a duty of care to prevent workplace stress. I was humbled and grateful.
Two more writers have since responded. The peerless Plashing Vole detailed his 13 hour working day (and playlist, if you need one). And Siobhan O’Dwyer mapped out very carefully why even job security and a genuine appreciation of career privilege doesn’t remove the sense of personal unsafety that so often accompanies academic work.
Both Siobhan and Liz make clear that what prompts them to speak is the worsening health—and mental health—of colleagues. And this is also haunting me at the moment, for a whole range of reasons, not least the story of Fergus McInnes. In September 2014, he disappeared, and has not been found. His family are still waiting for some sense of what happened to him. With care and caution, his story was shared recently on the Matters Mathematical blog, and I found myself reading through his spare and beautifully written website, Fergus’s Brain Online. It’s just a big page of links like it’s 1996, but this is the story of a real human who was a colleague of all of ours, who carefully explained his struggles with depression, and his search for a way to manage it better. He had a stellar academic career.
What is a university’s responsibility if someone takes up an academic position and also has a disability of some kind, especially a mental health condition? Let’s make this simple: surely we should all be standing together for a safe mental health culture for everyone at work, just as there are wheelchair ramps into every building? If the expectations of academic pace and productivity are making work unsafe for some, shouldn’t we look harder at the values of the institution that causes these pressures to seem reasonable to anyone? Anyone?
Or have we really created a culture where, as I learned this week, a research executive who was told the story of Stefan Grimm responded that someone who enters a university career should understand what it takes to succeed. Is this how we persuade academics that it’s normal to push themselves beyond their own limits, without hope of care in return? (And is this relentless commitment to productivity at all costs the reason that academic job applicants who disclose hidden disabilities don’t get jobs?)
These are the values of an aspirational, purposeful economy in which everyone from students to whole institutions is lined up by rank, and the logic of measurement is used to allow the weakest performers simply to fail. It’s a brutal culture in which the competitive lucky ones get careers, and the rest get uberised or not employed at all.
Let’s stop standing for this.
Thanks to many influences here: Liz Morrish, Aidan Byrne, Siobhan O’Dwyer, Will Littlefield, Andy Clarke, Melonie Fullick, Mark Drechsler, Richard Hall, and the students and colleagues I get to sit down with every day.