Academia, mean girls, and politicking.


I’ve been trying to work out my politic as an academic and ethnographer.

Some of these thoughts were formed during my serial-conferencing this year, because conferences are where young/junior/emergent academics

1) learn to navigate new intellectual and social terrain en masse

2) try to find our tribe, impress the seniors, and seek out collaborators

3) build long-lasting friendships (or rivalries?) from transient intimacies and makeshift revelries.

This means that a lot of facework (see my notes on Goffman here) – intellectually and socially – is on display at conferences.

Sometimes it’s conference questioning. Sometimes it’s conference presenting. Sometimes it’s the series of transient conversations we have at conferences.

I am cataloguing my relationship with academia on the PhD hacks tag, including kindness, mentoring, and more kindness. But academia isn’t always pretty (see after-dark, short-circuit, and depression).

Recently, I have been accumulating thoughts on the ways we young/junior/emergent academics relate to each other.

I say ‘mean girls’ in the title of this post not because politicking is hyper-feminine or involves only women academics; I find Mean Girls (2004) relatable to academia in the ways a) social competition is rife but not implicitly visible; b) relational aggression is built into acrobatic speech; c) I love the movie Mean Girls and I love academia (sorry not sorry).

That said, a majority of the vignettes that follow involved women. And some time in the future, I wish to write about Utertus Unity in academia.

For now, here are some brainfarts on academic politicking.

1) We often conflate criticism and critique.

Perhaps we mistakenly think it ‘chic’ or ‘intellectual’ to be constantly disapproving or disparaging of others’ work. After all, the basis of most of our work is to find ‘the gaps’ in trajectories of research or to problematize things and answer for/to them to a degree.

Much of the awkward small talk at conference teas/lunches/etc involves swapping notes on sessions we’ve seen. Sometimes we spew evaluative statements like

“the talk sucked because the speaker was boring” (okay but what was the content)

“the methods were dodgy and the speaker was only a first year PhD” (okay but weren’t we all once babies)

“oh it’s nothing new or exciting” (okay but what was the distinctive angle)

Critique isn’t just about ‘bashing’ someone else’s work. It is methodological, systematic, and disciplined. It acknowledges the merit in work along with its shortfalls. It offers suggestions for improvement. Instead of expounding on how The Things suck, we could be more productive and helpful with how to make The Things better. Above all, I think we should take care and be respectful with the ways in which we talk about each other’s work.

2) We often erase and diminish effort.

I get the sense that affirmation is not normative in academia. I mean, we celebrate positive peer reviews, or that someone liked our talk, or that we *actually* feel good about our work like a rare unicorn sighting/blue moon/lottery winning, because these feel-good moments are *that* rare. But sometimes when such gold moments come by for our peers, we erase and diminish their effort.

Three examples I’ve witnessed:

Post-conference dinner. Senior academic at the table compliments a postgrad on their conference talk. A fellow junior academic at the table chimes in: “Oh I’ve seen this talk before.” The subtext? “You’re not smart/good, you’re just rehearsed.”

Post-conference drinks. Two junior academics marvel over the brilliance of their ECR peer’s recent promotion and book. A fellow ECR responds: “Yeah but if I had a husband and childcare and money, I could do that too.” The subtext? “She had help. Let’s talk about her help. Not about how she worked to overcome her circumstances.”

Conference tea. Postgrad compliments a peer on a recent publication, and asks about time management. A third postgrad interrupts: “Oh she’s just one of those smart people. I bet it was really easy.” The subtext? “She is just some special alien humanoid. It’s not like she works hard or anything.”

I understand that sometimes we are trying to visibilize the intersectional and systemic advantages/benefits some academics have over others (i.e. when the ECR highlighted childcare and financial support). But most times, it’s just a plain erasure or diminishing of effortful labour.

3) We often one-up or one-down as persuasion.

This is a funny one that I still feel undecided about.

There are usually conference events or ad hoc socials for unwinding and merrymaking. Some of us enjoy these more than others. If you’ve already presented on Day One and are carefree, good for you. If you’re an extrovert who enjoys socials, good for you. If you don’t have work/care/Skype obligations, good for you. Others may experience a confluence of these factors, or have social anxiety, or do not want to be around alcohol.

But we often employ one-upping and one-downing to persuade these Others to come with us:

Leaver: “I’m taking off for the night. I’ve got to write my talk.”
Stayer: “Oh c’mon! I haven’t written my talk either. No big deal.”

Leaver: “I think I’m going back to rest; I’m really tired.”
Stayer: “I took a flight here. I’m more tired than you and I’m going!”

I feel undecided about this because I understand that the intention is to appeal to a similar plight, perhaps in a bid to alleviate anxiety so the Leaver would hang out with the Stayers.

In fact, my conference-BFF (*coughpaulcough*) and I always do this to each other as a form of positive peer pressure, so we get to enjoy conference socials but also keep each other in check to set time aside for work/rest. But I think this works for us because we are good friends who understand each other’s needs, and who make the effort to ensure that neither of us is stuck/abandoned in a social situation in which we feel uncomfortable. Plus, we don’t mean to be competitive when we speak in this way/tone; there is much reflexively self-ironic banter in this friendship (ilypaul).

However, when this happens among strangers or new friends, I often wonder if the Leaver feels publicly shamed (how dare I need more writing time or rest than these regular people?) or guilted (am I the only wet blanket?) into staying out of obligation. I’ll need to think through this one a bit more.

I’m grateful for this post-PhD pre-job lull that allows me to work out how I’d like to be as an academic when I ‘grow up’. But even the most senior academics I know often talk about how they are actually #adulting, so maybe we never truly grow up. (Seriously though, there is a paper to be written on academia and #adulting. Anyone up for it?)

I think empathy is underrated in everyday relations and in academic sociality. And as an anthropologist and ethnographer, I can only try to work on it in the littlest of ways every day. There has to be a name for this. Guerrilla empathy?


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