New book provides self-help for those struggling in academe

Being Well in Academia offers guidance on ‘bullying, conflict, death, poverty, racism and violence’, says author and ‘agony aunt’ Petra Boynton

November 15, 2020
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Glitzy conferences often feel very exclusive to those whose practical needs are ignored

From the very start of her new book, Petra Boynton makes it clear just how challenging life can be for those working in universities.

Being Well in Academia: Ways to Feel Stronger, Safer and More Connected, she told Times Higher Education, was probably the first “general self-help book about managing the ups and downs” of life in the sector.

It includes not only “information about venting” but “a safety plan to help you address any suicidal thoughts and feelings”. It does not shy away from “precarity, stress, abuse, prejudice, overwork and exclusion”. And, alongside its guidance to individuals, it offers many pointers about where universities are going wrong.

Dr Boynton worked at UCL until six years ago, teaching in areas such as international healthcare, and still advises many universities on bullying, keeping researchers safe and staff and student well-being.

She has worked in sensitive areas such as reproductive health and had a parallel career as an agony aunt – a title she takes great pride in, despite “the snobbishness of some academics, particularly in medicine and healthcare, about the idea of giving advice over the internet or through the media…You only have to look at the situation we are in now [during the pandemic] to realise how vital it is to have really clear information that is accessible to the public.”

The central goal of her new book, Dr Boynton explained, was to help people “feel they are not on their own and can do something practical right now”. At the same time, given the range of people working within universities, she hoped to avoid the trap of “much traditional self-help literature”, which she saw as “based around having free time, a disposable income and facilities in your home that allow you to have your bubble baths and other self-care activities”.

Since Being Well in Academia touches on huge issues such as “bullying, conflict, death, poverty, racism and violence”, it is natural to ask what is specific to universities about them and whether things are not equally bad or worse in other sectors.

The norms of academic life can, in Dr Boynton’s view, give a different dimension even to an experience such as miscarriage, which might devastate women from all walks of life.

“There’s something about the precarity and competitiveness and the fear of not having a job next academic year that means you don’t want to disclose certain things,” Dr Boynton explained. But if “you don’t tell anyone you’re pregnant because you don’t want that to count against you within an academic space, how do you then tell people when you miscarry?”

Furthermore, Dr Boynton was wary about getting into comparisons with other sectors, since they could serve as “a green light to management to say ‘we don’t need to do anything, because it’s worse in healthcare or industry’”.

Her book explores how “academia is based on a white, middle-class, heteronormative model”, as exemplified by conferences that “rarely cater for parents or carers” and are frequently occasions for sexual harassment, racism and homophobia.

The problem, as Dr Boynton saw it, was that “the organisers of such events don’t have to think about those issues”. Yet as soon as people who felt excluded raised questions about childcare or the needs of those with disabilities or medical conditions, they were treated “as if they were demanding or strange, not cut out for academic life or some sort of diva...The resistance is very telling: why do we have to fight to make something accessible?”

In relation to all “academic traditions”, not only conferences but “essays, exams, assessments and publications”, therefore, universities needed to ask: “Who is this bringing in and who is it leaving out?” Similarly, in relation to any measure or metric, the key question is “Do we have to change it to make it more accessible to everyone or drop it and introduce something more inclusive?”

Although her book was completed before the pandemic, Dr Boynton was adamant that the past few months had illustrated some of the issues she explored.

“It has really illuminated the cracks that we’ve been talking about for a long time in the academy,” she said. Academics were now experiencing “huge amounts of pressure to provide teaching in so many different ways, a very visible sense of being watched, lots of unrealistic expectations from management − and not a lot of support”.

According to Dr Boynton, what only added insult to injury was when they were, for example, “given a video about mindfulness but still expected to work a 90-hour week”.

matthew.reisz@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (3)

"..still expected to work a 90 hour week". That's a six day week from 8am to 11pm. More than in the Victorian sweat shops before the Factories Act of 1833. No wonder academics are upset. I look forward to reading this book but if this ridiculous exaggeration is repeated throughout then I'm not hopeful
I fear for some that this is a reality
new
I think it is unfortunately the reality for some (depending on the stage in your career, your teaching load and student numbers, your field and the level of resources at your institution, etc), especially during this pandemic. I can definitely relate to that.

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