Blog Confidential: Burnt out and nowhere to go

Each week, Dr Margot Feelbetter poses a dilemma and offers advice for readers to respond to online

March 4, 2010

This week: Burnt out and nowhere to go

The academy is getting me down. I have felt this way for some time now, perhaps for as long as five years. I'm a decade from retirement but it feels like a millennium.

I was a political activist once, optimistic about the possibility of changing society for the better, but now the glass looks half empty. My university has changed beyond recognition. We recently moved into a new building and everything feels synthetic, right down to the formulaic, meaningless pictures on the walls - chosen not for their artistic value, but to match the colour scheme. It's an Ikea-style university, with a "nice" business feel to it.

I have become increasingly disillusioned with the way universities are devolving into private enterprises. They operate in an ethical vacuum - last week's Blog confidential about China made me feel even worse. The academy appears to have lost its soul in a Faustian pact with business.

Sociology (my subject) is not the most popular one with students, which is depressing in itself. What made my heart sink even lower was the appointment of our new dean. His subject? The sociology of fashion.

When his appointment was announced, I carried out a quick literature search. To say I was unimpressed by his track record would be something of an understatement. The most original thought he has had is that wearing a beige shirt on sunny days can be counter-revolutionary. Perhaps "original" is not the right word.

Our glorious leader gave the department a little talk when he started. I went along and sat at the back of the seminar room in case I needed to beat a hasty retreat. I'm glad I did. After five minutes of his waffling, I thought I'd better go before the projectile vomiting started.

I'm not isolated: I have a few similarly desperate associates; we get together occasionally and rage about the dying of the academy's light, but does it help? No. I feel the whole system is corrupt. There is little critical thinking; a new wave of younger and more ambitious staff are comfortable with conformity and competitiveness. Me? I'm lost and trapped.

I'm not lazy, but I am disillusioned. If anyone suggests cognitive therapy, I will scream the place down. Is there a way out of this slough of despond?

Working in the academy when your enthusiasm has bled away is very difficult. Your cynicism is palpable, and I think you may be depressed. Depression is corrosive and can creep up on us, eroding our sense of self and emptying the world of joy. It sounds as if progressive politics was very important to you, and your loss of faith has made things worse.

Most academics would acknowledge that compromises have been made on issues such as student fees and competition. But the question remains - how are you going to change things? How are your students affected by the way you feel?

I am concerned about your state of mind. I note your comments about cognitive therapy, but there are other options. What do readers think?

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