Is There Space for Vulnerability in Academia?

~Andrea LaMarre (alamarre@uoguelph.ca)

As a graduate student, it can be tempting to hide behind an armoured cloak of protection, pretending that things like rejection – from peer-reviewed journals, from funding sources, from research assistantship positions – never happen. The face we want to show is a resilient one: a cheery, go-getter visage that shows the world (or at least your advisor) that you are eager and willing to put in the time and effort required to complete and excel in your postgraduate program.

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Lately there seems to have been a turn toward recognizing the mental health issues that circulate in the academic world. The stress that can accompany hard work in academia or elsewhere manifests in myriad ways, from distress around food and exercise to despair and feeling immobilized and unable to do the work expected of you (and that you expect of yourself). I see this increasing openness as a step toward really addressing the structural issues that can lead to highly intelligent and motivated individuals bowing out of the academic rat race to pursue alternative options – but only if we move beyond an individualizing discourse that makes each of us responsible for pulling up our socks and stiffening our upper lips.

Despite increasing encouragement of openness and honesty about postgraduate mental health concerns, making oneself vulnerable remains the exception, rather than the rule. Our vulnerability is solicited out of one side of the policy mouthpiece, while those who outwardly express their emotions in academic spaces risk being labeled hysterical, somehow deficient, or otherwise not cut out for the rough and tumble world of academia.

The case for vulnerability in academia is a complex one. To truly let emotion into the academic arena, we need to build spaces where emotions are seen as generative of creativity and innovation. Unfortunately, such spaces require re-thinking a number of things that academia holds dear: the publish-or-perish mentality, the expectation of 24-hour availability, and even the rhetoric of “but you’re doing what you love!” In the face of the poor job prospects we’re repeatedly told that we’re facing, why would we want to lose face?

Part of the problem is that we often are doing what we love – but in a precarious position. We are doing what we love to the extent that “the work we love” may be undervalued; feminized; exploited. And if we’re honest about the complexities of our lives, and how our spaces of belonging intersect with our work, we risk losing the privilege of doing what we love. So instead we carry on, pretending that we effortlessly balance whatever demands we face.

I’ve been fortunate, in my postgraduate career, to experience some of those rare moments in which the raw realities of life – the anxieties, the sadnesses, the joys – are recognized as valid sources of expertise. Digital storytelling workshops – research-based workshops in which we co-create art with participants – have provided me with a glimpse into how we might do things differently. By having the chance to engage in critical arts-based research, suddenly those aspects of myself that are seen as troublesome or disruptive are welcomed in, valued, and honoured. Expertise is flipped on its head, time slows, and participants and researchers engage together on a human level, connecting beyond the intellectual.

The trouble, then, is in the re-integration into academic life. Time moves differently in creative spaces, and vulnerability is an asset. Transforming what I’ve learned in digital storytelling workshops into academic products that position me as a viable candidate on the academic stage often forces me into boxes that can feel like a tight squeeze, or an abrupt encounter with time. The trouble, then, is in recognizing how rare these spaces are, and trying to devise ways of making the case for vulnerability in academia while recognizing the potential ramifications of doing so outside of these privileged spaces of creativity.

This post may read as an unresolved lament for some utopic space of emotional recognition in a world that does not welcome imperfection. In a way, it is that. It is also a call for reflection, however; a call for academics to ask themselves: what systems- and policy-level changes might we push for that would move us toward this welcoming-in?

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