Carping is a real senior disservice

February 17, 2006

Not all change is bad - just ask your less jaded young colleagues, says Susan Bassnett

The other day, a colleague asked me a tough question: would I consider academia as a career if I were starting out today? I pondered on this for some time because two different answers came to mind.

On the one hand, "yes". I have had a good life as an academic, working in areas that interest me, working with students, constantly renewed by encounters with younger generations, able to try out ideas on intelligent people and above all able to go on learning from others all the time, year in year out.

The second answer is rather different. Academic salaries are poor, starting salaries are dreadful, there is a great deal of spite and pettiness in academic life and these days there are constraints that appear to be Kafkaesque. My generation was employed primarily to teach and to fit in research around the teaching, with plenty of time to do both. Today's young academics are expected to publish as soon as they finish their masters, undergo training supposedly to make them more "professional" and training to enable them to bid for grants, and they face constant pressure to be "research active". All this while putting in more hours than anyone in my day would have thought possible and, horrors, spending yet more time on administrative tasks.

What this means, quite simply, is that people starting out in the profession do not have the time we had to try things out, to write and rewrite and, above all, to read. I did not publish anything for several years after I started teaching because I was reading, preparing classes, broadening my knowledge of my fields of interest and trying to gain a base on which I might start to build later. Had I been lumbered with training sessions, funding applications, administration and a university quality manager appraising me every few months, I doubt if I would have had time to do anything useful at all.

Having said that, the young people I meet when interviewing seem to show the same enthusiasm for academic life that my generation did. Far from being put off by the demands made on them, they seem to have adapted magnificently, not caving in under pressure, managing to teach and do research and appearing to enjoy life. In contrast, many senior academics are manifestly unhappy about the changes in their lives, to the point where early retirement, once unthinkable, has become desirable. Numbers of cases of stress have risen in recent years, matched by a rise in the incidence of student problems. Clearly, the shift to mass higher education and the pressure this puts on staff and students alike has, for some, been overly negative.

It is vital right now that there be dialogue between generations of academics. Young colleagues should not let themselves be cowed into silence by the wave of negativity from their elders, and my generation should listen to what people starting out in the profession see as advantageous to them.

The world has changed since we wrote our PhD theses on portable typewriters and had hours to spare sitting in libraries preparing our classes, but although what is on offer to younger colleagues fills my generation with dread, no generation shift is ever entirely about loss. Things must, in different ways, be as good or better for today's fledgling academics. We oldies need to be reminded of that and shown exactly where the advantages are.

Susan Bassnett is pro vice-chancellor at Warwick University with responsibility for campus life and community affairs.

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