Academia doesn’t deserve my labor

9 minute read


A Medium post by Eugenia Zuroski linked from Twitter, titled “Holding Patterns: On Academic Knowledge and Labor”, in combination with a brunch conversation in which my friend encouraged me to write down what I’ve learned from my advocacy work, motivated me to write this post. I honestly don’t know what I’m hoping to accomplish here. Maybe some part of me hopes that the faculty I’ve worked with read this and are spurred out of their complacency. Maybe being yet another voice calling out academia’s hypocrisies will magically tip the scale and lead to massive introspection campaigns from elite institutions. Or maybe I just want to be heard, and I want other student leaders reading this to know they’re seen and heard.

The leadership roles I’ve held during my PhD seem varied but are at their core all the same. From my work providing conflict management services to students to implementing diversity and equity initiatives in my department, I’ve always arrived at the same ideas: higher education needs to be radically re-imagined into a system that celebrates transparency and accountability and in which the concept of merit is critically scrutinized and redefined within the context of our society’s reality. But no matter what capacity I’ve worked in, I’ve always ended at the same place: the people who are most capable of reimagining and rebuilding this system are also those who are most invested in its current reality. And their lack of energy and creativity in addressing systemic issues is dumbfounding.

I was in a meeting with fancy senior admins when I shared a personal story about getting to a point where I became burnt out of doing diversity advocacy work on campus. One of the Deans there, a known and cherished ally, stopped me and asked: what about the work led me to be so burnt out? I’m not sure the answer I gave was particularly coherent and it certainly wasn’t comprehensive, but the real answer is in Prof. Zuroski’s post, in the exhaustion and tiredness that comes through it. I’m tired of being in a holding pattern with faculty, I’m tired of doing the work that they themselves could do with less effort and more impact than me, if only they wanted to. (Or, just to be completely clear, if they wanted to enough.)

Dear colleague: I’m not mad at you. I’m angry that I’ve learned not to say difficult or challenging things to you, while I’ve also learned how to absorb the difficulty of the things that are said to and around me all the time. I don’t need to blow off steam. I need my knowledge to land.

As I’m finishing my PhD this semester and handing off my leadership roles to my peers, I’ve found myself in a perpetual state of wishing I could dump the contents of my brain into my successors’ hands. I’ve been doing this, for the most part, relatively joylessly. Don’t get me wrong, I am so excited to have found motivated successors who I am confident will do a great job continuing what we’ve started. But I’m tired of being in conversations where I and my peers are providing as - if not more - thoughtful responses about improving higher education than faculty and admins who have worked in higher education for decades. I’m scrambling to catch my peers up with what I’ve learned these past three years, but I mostly just wish I didn’t have to. I’ve done this work, but I just don’t understand why I’ve had to. Why me, why us?

I’ll give a concrete example. In our department, there is no criteria for graduation and no definition of what a successful PhD student is. While I understand the need to maintain freedom and flexibility for what a PhD can look like, especially in a field as broad as biological engineering, I don’t understand why faculty are so stagnant on this. Some push back on whether such criteria are even needed or if they would even be helpful, and others are on board but skeptical that such criteria can even be defined. In all cases, I am amazed by the inertia and lack of creativity that faculty are approaching this issue with. What is so wrong with writing down what we value and what we attempt to do? How is our system so broken that we are constantly striving for producing successful students when we aren’t even willing or able to define what success even is? I’ve struggled to make a coherent argument for why we should push ahead on this issue, but I’m stuck because I truly cannot understand why we wouldn’t. And why am I, a student, the one pushing for this change? Why is it that I, a student, wrote a draft of these criteria in just a few hours? Why is it that I, a student, presented this idea at our department retreat and started this broader conversation? Isn’t this their job?

Academic allyship has to be focused on transforming institutions, overhauling their missions and methods, to make them worthy of the people they mobilize and claim to serve.

I don’t understand why we’ve allowed this system to be as broken as it is for as long as we have. The best answer won’t be easy to figure out, but I don’t understand why that’s stopped us from emphatically trying out new approaches incessantly until we arrive at an answer. All of the issues in higher education are rooted in the same few causes, from diversity and equity to publish-or-perish to toxic lab cultures. Finding solutions for any of these root causes would reverberate across all facets of academia. We need to stop clinging to our ideals of merit and critically evaluate what it means to be “worthy of”, in the real context of our society. We need to celebrate transparency because it is the only way to accountability, and interrogate our community’s allergic aversion to writing down our values and unspoken expectations. We need a way to protect students from imbalanced power dynamics, and give them tools and support which are actually useful to them in improving their relationship with their advisors. We need to celebrate and reward caring for each other first, and explicitly prohibit harmful people from gaining or maintaining power.

Dear colleague: We’re telling you what it will take for us to continue to offer our knowledge. We’re not asking you to show us the way to professional prestige; we’re asking you to rebuild the academy with us.

There’s a few other conversations I’ve had in the past few months which felt unfinished then but find a conclusion in Prof. Zuroski’s post:

The Dean asking me why I was so burnt out, and me struggling to tell her, the Provost, and the Vice Chancellor to their faces that it was their and their colleagues’ collective complacency that wore me down and chased me out. How the history of lukewarm response to pervasive inequity in our communities, how our inability to learn about and implement research about improving higher ed, just scream “meh” at me. The fact that I cannot comprehend how we as an institution are down to innovate on any and every new cutting-edge field but as soon as it comes time to critically evaluate our own power hierarchies we shut down and lose all ability to think critically.

A faculty member in my department, coming up to me after I presented the graduation criteria at our department retreat and beginning his rebuttal with “I’m not a big thinker like you.” Then I am uninterested in hearing your criticism of these ideas, you self-proclaimed small thinker! I am in the business of transforming higher education for the better, and I don’t understand why you are not.

A fellow student leader, who asked me if I was planning to do academia after I graduated and who wished I would so that I could continue to advocate for diversity and equity and thoughtful approaches to address the underlying issues rather than resulting symptoms. I told her no, but that I planned to continue my work by becoming wildly successful outside of the system, and in the process creating the world that I wanted to see here.

I want academia to approach improving itself like it approaches curing cancer: arrogantly and relentlessly, knowing that we will definitely find the answer eventually and stopping at nothing until we do. I don’t think academia ever will, and I don’t think it deserves my labor to nudge it in that direction. I’m not naive, I know I’ll encounter pushback and obstacles in my career no matter where I go. But I don’t think the complacency will be so deeply rooted. Or the missed opportunity so large.

Over two years ago, when I was just starting down this journey into diversity and equity advocacy work, an exhausted and jaded senior graduate student emailed me:

I value your passion in the face of an immobile Department.

This fight isn’t worth my time anymore. Immobile academia does not deserve my passion and energy. Instead, I’ll go build my world somewhere else.