The Dark Side Of Academia

Bullying is a problem that is prevalent online as it is in real-life. Sadly, this issue also occurs in academia, the audience my project is aimed for. Following on from the last post, we discuss some of the bullying issues and how it will impact my idea.

When first introduced to a grad student whose research was in a field closely related to mine, the student said “I’ve never heard of you.” Then, in case this comment was a bit too subtle for me, he added “You must not publish very much’ – FSP, 2008.

Bullying in academia tends to be (generally) about sniping at each others’ credentials, whether it is about published works, line of research or academic title. The above quote is an exampled termed the ‘insulting academic bully’ syndrome. They are people who spout ‘aggressive, bullying things that under normal rules of social engagement would not be acceptable to say and then uses those same rules of conduct to hamstring the other person’ (Chaos, 2008).

In many ways, it is not too dissimilar to other, more ‘mainstream’ forms of bullying. The person most likely to be bullied is always the new kid on the block.

New academics can sometimes be overwhelmed by the amount of work. ‘The current market-driven university model makes communities of practice more difficult to achieve; thus, new academics who are consumed with work find themselves isolated’ (Goodman-Delahunty and Walker cited Cantwell and Scevak, 2009: 166). As a further result, newer staff find that opportunities, such as being mentored by research supervisors, are thin.

This lack of opportunity can seriously stall one’s career. In their research into Australian academic practices, Goodman-Delahunty (in Cantwell and Scevak, 2009: 166) explains that ‘few university departments undertake to familiarise new academics with these rules.’ ‘These rules’ are regulations from other educational bodies such as the Australian Research Council (ARC) that publish various research journals. Failure to understand the processes can led to new academics with missed opportunities to ‘promote’ themselves. People like seeing their own written works published as a sign of achievement.

Promotion is often a very difficult and unpredictable outcome for new academics. Do you know that old saying of ‘it’s not what you know, but who you know?’ This mantra keeps flowing around job seeking, but in academia; ‘an alarming reality in a profession which allegedly values knowledge above other industries’ (Goodman-Delahunty and Walker cited Cantwell and Scevak, 2009: 166). In addition, promotion can be swayed using letters of recommendation. This isn’t unusual, but this does pose to risk that academics have to ‘suck up’ to established institutions like Harvard in order to be recommended.

Like most of society, academia is mainly male-dominant due to historical connotations. I mean, how many woman were allowed into universities back before they could? ‘More women are being ‘let in’ to academia, but relatively few progress to senior levels…past the level of Associate Professor…those that do…have higher divorce and separation than men, because of the multiple pressure points in managing a demanding career, maintaining a relationship, caring for children, and, in some cases, caring for aging parents (Probert 2005). In short, women in academia have had to put their career advancements on hold to care for children/families.

One of the major problems in academic life is the lack of resolution of inter-staff differences, i.e. ‘the fighting is so vicious, because so little is at stake.’ ‘Infighting centres on teaching tools and access to financial resources…office space, wall space…academics can be extremely territorial regarding research specialities: knives can be drawn when others are perceived to encroach upon someone’s research domain’ Brown and Robinson, 2010).

As humans, each one of us will have different opinions on certain subjects, and this is no different in academia. This difference in opinion, however, can led to ‘differences in theoretical orientation, research approaches and values and this can lead to substantial conflict’ (Goodman-Delahunty and Walker cited Cantwell and Scevak, 2009: 167).

One of the reasons that academia bullying is less known is because the bullying tactics are more subtle. These include commenting on one’s credentials, as well as talking behind their backs. Once again, women experience this more than men, in a process called ‘mobbing.’ This is when a person is subjected to accusations (mostly false), humiliation, general harassment, emotional abuse, and less chance of promotion. The ‘bully’ is often the senior supervisor or a person in higher power.

Westhues (2006) has conducted various studies, which shows the level of academic brutality. ‘Productive and hardworking academics when were effectively ostracised and subjected to ‘death by silence’ until they experience career assassination. Findings of unfair targeting by independent investigators are routinely ignored, leaving aggrieved academics little option but to quit or purse complaints through external agencies’ (Goodman-Delahunty and Walker cited Cantwell and Scevak, 2009: 168).

Obviously we can’t discuss the big issue in a single post. However, I hope to highlight some of the major issues about bullying within academia. Although most of the text was dealing with Australian universities, I’m inclinded to believe the same happens over in the UK. Sadly, it seems women are more likely to experience this. Whilst universities are now more determined to promote equal opportunities to staff and students, the problem of bullying still exists. Nobody likes to be singled out and nobody deserved to be bullied.

A solution suggested by Cantwell and Scevak (2009: 166) was ‘creating communities…can be highly effective….new academics will benefit from research collaboration and from a mentor’ Additionally, ‘inter-university networking with academics in the wider professional community is advantageous. Networking with other academics facilitates survival in academia, is a mechanism for social support and broadens one’s perspective. The tribulations of academic life can be discussed with people whoa re aware of the circumstances and constraints, but are not directly involved with the same institution.’

Foreshadowing are we? Creating an online platform like Steam is what I was thinking, and if the above account is anything to go by, this can help with people experiencing or have experienced bullying. A lot of considerations here. I don’t want to lose focus of the original idea, which was to allow people to share and collaborate, but I can definitely see an opportunity here. We’ll discuss this in later posts.

Anyone interested in the book I used, it’s ‘An Academic Life: A Handbook for New Academics’ by Robert Cantwell and Jill Scevak, 2009. Australian Council for Educational Research. p. 168

The quote at the top was from a blog by Professor Chaos (don’t ask me why).


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