This evening, I read a wonderful blog post called “It’s Not on the Syllabus: Cultivating Collegiality as a Graduate Student.” If you’re an academic or considering pursuing an academic life, I strongly urge you to read it. The author is Melissa Ridley Elmes, a doctoral student in English and Women’s and Gender Studies.
Ridley Elmes makes a number of brilliant remarks over the course of her piece, but one that really sticks is her assertion that academic conferences should be safe spaces. I want to take this even further and argue that academia should, in all of its different facets, be a safe space. I do not, of course, mean that academia should cease to be a venue for provocation, intellectual stimulation, and debate. But it should be a space where we can share–and challenge–ideas without diminishing one another.
As is probably evident by the above, Ridley Elmes has inspired me to do a bit of thinking about the academic world that I would like to see. I pointedly do not refer to this as my “ideal” academia. All that I want–and hope for–is attainable if we navigate the field with empathy and intellectual generosity as guiding principles.
So, without further ado, here are some key aspects of The Academia I Want:
1. I want an academia where expressing vulnerability does not come at the cost of seeming less professional or competent. (I wrote about this topic briefly in my BWD post: https://positiveandpromise.wordpress.com/2013/09/02/the-bwd/)
2. I want an academia where we are encouraged–and encourage each other–to live varied and full lives.
3. As such, I want an academia where we support parents–especially mothers–who are striving to both raise a family and succeed in the field.
4. I want an academia that is aware, as Ian McEwan writes in Atonement, that we are all every bit as real as each another. Behind a professional demeanor there is always, always a vibrant and complex inner life. Behind a professional demeanor there is often suffering. When we remember these things, I believe that we are kinder to one another.
5. I want an academia that WANTS to be guided by kindness.
6. I want an academia where we discuss our ideas more than we discuss departmental gossip or politics.
7. I want an academia where the humanities are valued and supported financially. (Okay, here I might be drifting into idealism…unfortunately.)
8. I want an academia where our pedagogy is shaped by feminism.
9. Hell, I want a feminist, sex-positive, queer-friendly, diverse academia.
10. I want an academia where we are comfortable sharing in the successes of others because we are not encouraged, however implicitly, to compare ourselves to one another.
11. I want an academia that is always mindful of the ways it can shape the world at large and eager to do exactly that. We can all of us be activists – and we should be.
In composing this list, I do not mean to say that all of these things are currently nonexistent in the academic world. I am fortunate to know so many kind-hearted and intellectually generous people, both within and outside of my field. I know people who fight actively for animal rights, and others who inspire me as working mothers. I am a fortunate woman if I can make a career in a field where so many brilliant, warm, and charitable people exist.
But we can do better. I can do better. And as I work on my dissertation and think more concretely about the sort of life I want as a professional–a life that includes being a mother and a creative writer as well as an academic–I feel a greater urgency to help reshape academia’s less collegial dimensions. It is doable, of that I am certain. I hope that readers will respond in the comments with their thoughts on this topic. What sort of academia do you want?