Higher education is undergoing massive changes. The values that underpin the institutions to which you are committed are contested at all levels, from department meetings to institutional strategies to government policies to public debates.
People’s livelihoods are at stake. The whole sector is facing increasing casualization. Even those with tenure, and thus a relatively secure livelihood, have good reason to fear the closure of their departments or programs or the radical restructuring of the job they accepted and to which they are deeply committed.
I have lived through a departmental restructuring in which every member of academic staff (North Americans would use the term “faculty”) was offered voluntary redundancy or early retirement. It was not pretty.
The media, especially the higher education media, exaggerates the positions in what is actually quite a complex debates to stokes fear (and generate clicks and outrage) about these changes. I am deeply concerned about the way this produces a situation in which (mainly) women prioritize certain kinds of academic work at the expense of others and their own self care.
The issues I help clients with and the things I observe on academic Twitter and Facebook suggest that a lot of people are making decisions, about how they approach their teaching and their research, and how they spend their time, in direct opposition to the positions that are used to generate outrage in the media. Of course, versions of those positions exist in their own departments and institutions as well as out there in the media. There are good reasons to be defensive.
As rational as your defensiveness is, I encourage you to let it go. Defensiveness shifts your attention away from the work you most care about and the people you would most like that work to have an impact on.
You give away the power to decide what is important to others. Often those others are not even specific others but a general sense that “most people” wouldn’t value this work. You do things to placate the attackers rather devoting your time and attention to doing the work you firmly believe is important.
Defensiveness also contributes to impostor syndrome. This particular form of external validation is particularly insidious because you are seeking validation from those least likely to give it. Your inability to convince those who hold very different values about higher education in general, or about the kind of work you do in particular, is not an indication that your work is not good enough.
You do not need to convince the attackers. They are not as powerful as you think; they are also scared. And in their fear they are picking up the weapons around them making themselves look big, and flinging them at you in the desperate hope that this will protect them. Your colleague may never see the value in the work you do, just as (some of) your students may not see the value in doing the work you know will enable them to master these important skills. But many others will.
I see their fear. You do not need to counter attack.
Shifting your focus
The counter to fear and defensiveness is hope and confidence. Clarify your vision. Trust your judgement about what is important. Trust that you are not alone in finding the work you do meaningful. Feed the hope that things can be different.
Yes, external validation is nice. But by not doing the work you find most meaningful you are cutting yourself off from the possibility of connecting with the people who would value it. Start looking for validation in places you might actually find it. Stop allowing people who do not share your values to undermine the value of those who value your work.
Look for those who are on your side and contribute to building the academic world you want to be part of. Find ways to bring in those who are scared or unsure but not adamantly opposed. Help people build on the good work they are doing to do more good work.
Go forward in your conviction. Model your firm belief. Do not act in desperation and fear if they do not follow or if they continue to attack. Lead those who want to go to the place you see.