The Demonisation of Average

I recently read this article from The Guardian, which talks about the culture of acceptance around poor mental health in academia. There’s a focus on PhD students here, but I think this could apply to all stages of the academic profession. There is an expectation that long hours will be worked, that stress is normal, that academia should come before all other things in life. The way we talk about academic life is also somewhat fatalistic; ‘publish or perish!’ we are told at every opportunity. I don’t particularly want to perish, so the other option is to publish. But by placing academic life into a ‘do or die’ context, we tend to overlook how hard it can be to ‘do’. Publishing work is difficult, requires a large amount of effort and time, and can be a really long winded process. I submitted an article 5 months ago, and it hasn’t yet been allocated a reviewer, does this mean it’s perishing?

When you fill a building with clever, hard-working people, there’s bound to be an expectation that the things that they do or create will be good. When these people have higher degrees and are technically ‘above average’, it might be reasonable to expect the results to be above average also. But within academia it seems that ‘average’ is being shunned entirely as unacceptable. The results of the TEF are due any time now (once we can agree on a functional government), and the discussions leading up to this shows a fear of average. Every institution wants to be ranked as ‘gold’, but not everyone can, otherwise the standard would become meaningless. Some will have to be silver, some bronze. This doesn’t necessarily mean that these are bad universities, being ranked as bronze is not the same as a school being placed in special measures following an Ofsted inspection. But the way they are talked about, it may as well be.

The requirement for everything in academia to be above average is at best statistically naive, and at worst, unhealthy. We all want REFable journal articles, but 5-star international journals can’t publish every piece of research, nor would they want to. The issue is that work published in ‘lesser’ journals is seen as not-worthy. We’re told to focus on international work that will develop the field, create impact, generate funding, and also be accessible to those outside of academia. Work that doesn’t tick all of these boxes is then looked down upon somewhat, whereas it might still be interesting, it might still be good work, it just doesn’t meet those very specific criteria. One of my concerns is the impact this has on those who carry out research and teach students.

Poor mental health is a pervasive problem within academia; a post on the Thesis Whisperer said that the process of a PhD takes bright, bookish, sensitive people and tries to break them. Academic posts don’t buck this trend either. Whether it’s requiring average pass rates for taught modules to be above 60%, or questioning people’s ability if their research work doesn’t set the world alight, we are essentially asking academics to be continually above average. This pressure isn’t good for mental health, whilst we can expect people to develop and improve, the stress of always having to be perfect can be very damaging.

The damage of this culture gets dismissed to an extent, because we’ve almost learned to expect it. ‘If you aren’t stressed, you clearly don’t have enough to do’ seems be a common viewpoint. Within academia we need to accept that whilst stress is normal, constant stress is not, constant pressure is unsustainable, and that average isn’t bad. I’m not sure how this can be achieved on a large scale, but for myself, I’ve started actually taking a lunch break rather than eating at my desk whilst checking emails. It’s only a small thing, but it helps me, and when I think about everyone I know working in different fields, it’s something they expect as standard. It’s normal, it’s average.

About Jess Urwin

Lecturer in social work at De Montfort University, youth justice researcher, musician, crafter, constant reader.
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