Competition and space in Academe

by Andrea La Marre, March 2020

On many grant applications, there is space to describe “career interruptions” to help explain larger gaps on one’s CV. This is a space usually reserved for parental leaves, medical leaves, or other such generally government-documented reasons why an academic might have less to show for a particular amount of time in their career. I wonder about this space, and what else might occupy it. I wonder about the framing of life as “interrupting” work, and the implications of the need to constantly prove that we have been productive enough by way of ink on a page indicating that we’ve researched and written and had our words accepted by a high-enough tiered journal.

As academics, we are explicitly “in competition” come granting season—and on the job market. As an early career researcher, competition looms as a constant presence. Going into an application for an academic position, you often know that you are going “up against” people who you may know and whose work you may appreciate for a post that you sorely want.

In preparing an application package, your academic history stretches out over the page, spelling out several different stories at the same time. For a reviewer, the CV tells the story of your “successes.” It speaks to your experience, the amount of time you’ve spent developing your research, teaching, and service. For you, the CV might speak about different things. For me, it sometimes tells stories about moments where anxiety drove me into “hyperproductive” moments; it weaves a yarn about times spent lying on dorm room floors trying to breathe at back-to-back conferences; it chronicles exciting moments of collaboration and connection and, in equal measure, the times when it took rejection from six different journals and trimming 5000 words to get an article published.

This “thing”, this CV, this job application, is more than a piece of paper. Not to get too post-human, but that “thing” interacts with the world around it and the circumstances of the person creating or reviewing it. The policies, procedures, norms, and processes of academia make possible certain emotions—or mobilize certain affects—around them. This is really just a fancy way of saying that applying for jobs, or grants, or putting papers into review, is more than just procedural, at least for me. As an early career researcher in particular, each move can feel like it sets off a chain of events—can feel consequential and deeply emotionally draining.

Neoliberal academia tricks us into thinking that there is a “right way” to do all of this—and that it is incumbent on us to make this correct choice. So far, my career has followed a trajectory that fits this normative picture of “successful academic.” As I write this, I am preparing to make a very big move, from Turtle Island/North America (Canada) to Aotearoa/New Zealand. This move follows a one-year post-doctoral fellowship, which follows the completion of my PhD. I have published, been a collaborator and co-applicant on major research grants, presented at conferences, and taught courses. By all accounts, I have “played the game” of academia correctly.

Throughout this, my body has made its own interventions into this trajectory in a way that will likely never be captured on a grant application or even a medical test (my body, too, likes to keep up appearances). At the most recent ISCHP conference in Bratislava, I presented a digital story sharing part of my embodied experience of the endless forward-march of academia.

A scene from Andrea’s digital story

Nearly all the visuals in the story came from a dance I created close to the end of my PhD in which I used my body to explore both the themes that I wrote about in my dissertation and the experience of doing the research—the visceral tug of participants’ stories on my heartstrings, the tightness and frustration that arose in my chest upon hearing about systemic injustices, the pain of trying to support a loved one through an impossibly challenging experience. These experiences transcended even the 350 pages I wrote during my dissertation—the embodied response bubbled up and erupted into my embodied consciousness, challenging me to, once again, see the material “product” of my dissertation as more than simply words on a page.

I have written previously for the ISCHP blog about whether there is space for vulnerability in academia. There, I reflected on how digital storytelling is one way of “doing academia differently,” or of creating a different timescale from the one generally used in academia to, for example, determine the value of a period of time. Digital storytelling, and other arts-based approaches to reflexivity and research have allowed me to enter my bodily interruptions into the equation, at least within the spaces that permit their expression. They allow me to be present in a way that applying for jobs, preparing grant applications, and writing papers—these future-looking activities that hold the weight of evaluation and power dynamics—never will.

During the time between my post-doc and my upcoming move, I’ve been reading a little about time. In writing about presence and ethics in time, Elizabeth Grosz writes about the tension between living in the present and thinking about complexity and control. She notes:

“There is no formula for such a life, only preparations, exercises, in body and soul, in learning and doing” .

Grosz, 2017, p. 51

Of course, not having a formula for living in the present seems almost to be a core feature of the academic-structure-de-facto so many of us face. Being confined to live within the formulas that do exist for “how to do academia” may leave us feeling like there is no room for our bodies and affects to feature in our work—creating a violent-feeling encounter with the marchings-on of time and procedure.

I believed, when I wrote about vulnerability in 2016, that there was not yet enough systemic support in academia for bodies to be bodies and for imperfection and vulnerability to be “allowed” in the academy. I still believe this. And, sharing in this vulnerability and imperfection, these bodily interruptions, and this creative living-in-the-present is important for sustaining a vital creativity that scaffolds “learning and doing.” I am grateful to ISCHP for supporting this kind of space through, for example, accepting conference symposia that invite arts-based submissions. I would love to see more spaces for creativity—and for the embodied, messy experience of doing research and “being an academic” in the academy.

About the author

Andrea LaMarre, PhD, is a lecturer in critical health psychology at Massey University, New Zealand. She obtained her PhD from the University of Guelph in 2018. In her work, she uses critical, feminist, qualitative, and arts-based approaches to explore eating distress and embodiment.

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