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Recognizing heterogeneity in academia: There is no magic bullet for anything

While I write about ways in which I have improved my academic writing, or become more systematic and organized in the way I develop my literature reviews, and my own workflow, I am keenly aware that the techniques I use, the hacks I implement and the suggestions I provide can’t be implemented by every single scholar under the sun. If you have ever taken a class with me, that’s basically what I tell you on the first day and what I hope all my students will learn throughout the course of my lectures: Your Mileage May Vary (YMMV). Or in more academic terms: we ought to recognize the heterogeneity of our target populations.

I teach and research on public policy analysis, implementation, evaluation and public policy theories (what is called the policy sciences field). I more than anyone am aware of the need to recognize that we can’t offer blanket advice for everyone, simply because we are all members of different target populations. I wake up every single day at 4 am so that I can start working. Academic mothers, and some academic fathers who may share in baby care duties, will find it next to impossible to wake up at 4 am when they have been basically unable to sleep.

While I have shown symptoms of chronic fatigue, I am in no way afflicted by any type of chronic illness or disability that impedes my working progress. I have no learning disabilities, and while I have several allergies and my visual acuity is reduced, I am for all practical purposes an able-bodied scholar. I am afflicted with Seasonal Affective Disorder when it’s rainy and dark and during those times I will experience some very minor symptoms of depression, but I have never been clinically depressed, nor have I faced anxiety as a clinical condition. Thus, I can’t claim to know what a scholar with depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, etc. can feel.

I am keenly aware of the fact that we (academics) all belong to different populations, and each individual is unique. Therefore, I really try hard to make sure that everyone who reads my blog post is well aware of the privileged circumstances from where I write. I have smart, hard-working, reliable and dependable research assistants and sometimes teaching assistants. My teaching load is low (2-0 or 2-1, depending on the year). I have been able to win extramural and internal grants and obtain generous funding to do the research I do. I’m on a tenure line position. Not everyone is as lucky and privileged as I am, and I am the first to recognize it. I try to use my privilege to champion for and help those at the margins and disadvantage.

Which brings me to the main point of this blog post, which focuses on the notion of deep work as championed by Cal Newport, and the idea of the slow professor. I am very much sympathetic to, and champion the idea of slow scholarship. But it’s true that not everybody can afford to do “deep work”, not everyone can afford to sit down, think through ideas, relax and publish fewer pieces more well-though-out. Therefore, it is fundamental that we recognize that there is enormous heterogeneity within academia. That those of us who are privileged enough to be able to engage in slow scholarship champion those who aren’t as privileged. That those of us who are able-bodied academics also work to help those who aren’t. Not only do we owe it to ourselves and to our disciplines and profession to use our privilege to help those at the margins, those disadvantaged and marginalized, we also owe it to our society as a whole. We also ought to recognize this inherent heterogeneity and in doing so, accept that not everyone can follow the advice that we so joyfully (and earnestly) offer.

Sometimes, the best advice is NOT giving any advice. Lend an ear, offer syllabi, reading materials, lecture slides to contingent faculty, ask faculty facing challenges such as chronic illness, or mental health issues, or disability – how can I help you? How can I help create better conditions for your work? I have found that sometimes even just listening and educating ourselves on the challenges that these populations face is helpful.

I try to do this online by supporting a few excellent initiatives, such as Chronically Academic, Conditionally Accepted, The Academic Mental Health Collective (AMHC 2016) and the PhDisabled blog. I regularly promote their Twitter accounts and their blog posts. I also run my syllabi through intersectionality tests, and actively promote, cite and teach with the work of women and scholars of color. And whenever anyone who is a member of a marginalized or disadvantaged population reaches out to me, I try really hard to listen, understand and offer whichever help I can.

Moreover, one element that was pointed out to me by a fellow tenure-line assistant professor, Sarah Shulist (who is Mom to two toddlers) is that we need to restructure the conditions of academia in a way that is more accessible to marginalized, under-represented and non-traditional groups. That the set of goals and requirements that we ought to fill (service, teaching, research, and actually having a personal life, fulfilling for us and for our loved ones, and our families) are rather incompatible. Can we actually have it all within academia as it is structured right now? With competing demands for our time and energy, and the large degree of heterogeneity that exists within academic individuals and groups, each one of these demands affects each academic (student, professor, contingent faculty) in differentiated ways.

Only recognizing that yes, we are all part of the same academic community, but that we are all different and that there is inherent heterogeneity in our profession, we may be able to begin outlining different, focalized strategies that can help those at the margins, chronically ill, suffering from mental health issues and facing challenges as disabled people, we will be able to create ways to make our society more equitable. We also ought to recognize that academia itself as a profession and a guild needs to change substantially to offer ways to make those often impossibly hard-to-fulfill tasks more amenable to families and individuals, even more so those facing hardship and health challenges.

Basically, as my friend KJ Shepherd said to me (in a read of a draft of this post), I am “advocating that people who have the privilege to talk about their best practices not unduly center their experiences. And I think that’s important to mention when, on the one hand, we have an extraordinarily hierarchical academic labor system–and, on the other hand, we have social media and blog networks that value the ‘approachable expert.’ It’s easy for those blessed to have status in both environments not to see the systems as they are.”

We need a more human, and humane academia. Let’s work towards that goal.

With thanks to Tressie McMillan Cottom, KJ Shepherd and Sarah Shulist for a very generous and kind read of this post, your insight was very useful!

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