A friend (not an academic) has recently lost their job and noted that one of the most frustrating things about it is:
“nobody ever looked at our performance, a decision was made several levels up and eliminated the department wholesale.”
My experience resonates strongly with this. I was a member of an academic department that was closed almost 20 years ago now. The redundancy offer was voluntary but, when a colleague asked, no one had a response to the question of what happened if one didn’t take it. A reason for the closure was given, but it became obvious that this was not the whole story. A decision was made several levels up.
In response to the pandemic, many short-term contracts have not been renewed. Redundancy programs have been announced in some institutions. The impact of the pandemic on university finances, and the government response to the issues, has made already precarious university budgets even tighter. Fear of job losses due to the closure or shrinking of departments and programs of study is very real.
Working harder won’t save you
The primary contributor to stress is lack of control. It is unsurprising that your initial reaction to this kind of uncertainty is to try to gain back some control. In a post about disaster scripts and the pandemic, Katherine Firth points out that an unhelpful disaster script can increase the danger and stress. The common academic disaster script, ‘rise to the challenge, over-perform and push through’, is one such unhelpful script in the face of Covid-19. I would argue that in the face of the job loss disaster, it is definitely unhelpful.
Working harder to meet unreasonable demands will not protect you from losing your job if your institution decides to close your department/program/whatever. That sounds harsh. It is harsh. It is also true.
It’s tough to refuse to do extra work. It’s tough to stop buffering your students from the shitty decisions your employer (to whom they pay their fees) is making. The reduction in your security knocks your confidence. Making confident decisions and sticking with them means focusing on what’s important and what makes this job meaningful. It also means assessing the real risks of not doing some of the things you are being asked to do.
Your first priority is rest. I wrote about that separately in What is your plan to rest?. Having rest as a priority means reducing the quantity of work you are doing. You deserve rest. In addition to your inherent deservingness, you will do better work if you are well rested. You will have energy to engage in collective action. You will be in a better position to cope if the worst happens.
The importance of meaningful work
You will have to make decisions about what is not going to get done. As you do so, keep your own values in mind. Before you engage with institutional demands or best practices advice make sure you know what is valuable to you about this work. There is nothing more discouraging than spending a lot of time doing things you think are worthless, pointless, trivial, or futile. The fact that someone told you to do them will only further frustrate you.
- What do you value about teaching?
- What do you value about your research and writing?
- What do you value about the work you do to contribute to the running of your institution (at whatever level), your field, etc.?
Be wary of the lies you have been told about loving your work. The parts of the work that you love are likely to be those most meaningful to you. Some of the more mundane aspects of the job will become meaningful if they are in service to these deeper values. Thinking about what you value and how you want the work to feel seems abstract but it can be a really good guide to decision making when faced with actual choices.
- How will this contribute to [thing you think is important]?
- What is essential?
- How can you make this easier?
What future are you building?
When you base your decisions on trying to prevent the worst happening, the tendency is to react to the demands of the institution (or larger policy forces) even if they are not aligned with the values that make this job or sector important to you. You then see the meaningful work as additional. I’d like you to consider starting from your values.
- What kind of future do you want to contribute to?
- What makes this job something you don’t want to lose?
- What makes you angry about the response to the pandemic in relation to universities in your country or institution?
- What do you think is worth saving?
This may seem selfish, but you are not alone in valuing the things you value. Find those who share those values. Support each other in making choices to prioritize those values. Make that the core of the work, only adding on the things that are not aligned with those values where absolutely necessary. Do the things that are demanded of you in ways that align with your values. It is much easier to defend meaningful choices. Your values are likely to be things the institution will want to at least pay lip service to. Your actions can make that more than lip service.
You also need to consider your own personal future. If the worst happens, you need to be in a position to apply for other work when it becomes available. No potential future employer will care that the reason you didn’t do X is because you were doing unreasonable amounts of Y in the hope your program wouldn’t be eliminated. You may also need to consider opportunities to gain knowledge, skills, or connections that would enable you to move into a different type of work should that be necessary.
Make sure that the things you decide to stop doing temporarily (during the pandemic) are not the things that you’d want to be central to your work when this disaster has passed. You may need to do less than you have in the past or less than you’d like, but if you stop an activity altogether it will be much harder to convince an employer in the future that those activities are important and should be a core part of your job. The threat of job losses is embedded in a wider attempt to restructure academic employment. Be careful not to unintentionally bolster positions you do not support.
In addition to the links in the text, you may also want to check out:
Autonomy in pandemic conditions (31 March)
Or a handy audio playlist of related posts on the theme of confidence, boundaries and priorities, here:
This post by Kathleen Fitzpatrick (part of a larger project) resonates strongly. Her whole project is worth following
Leading Generously 1: Introduction
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