I wrote this some time ago in the past when I was feeling particularly vulnerable and helpless in my career. I should add that I am glad and grateful that these incidents did not take place at the institution at which I am based, and that I have mostly recovered from these experiences – so please don’t worry over me.
When I first shared these thoughts on a private platform among my personal friends, their reactions fell into four categories:
Some friends sent me affirmation and comfort, which made me feel that my friends were listening and cared for me.
Some friends commiserated with me and called out the situations for what they were – appropriation, exploitation, bullying – which was helpful in acknowledging the complex power relations at play.
Some friends who were in positions of authority to mentor others or to shape workplace practices indicated that such behaviour was not acceptable, which gave me hope in wanting to work with the right people to foster better academic culture.
Some friends recognized my effort in pushing back against the unruly demands of academia and encouraged me to press on. One friend wrote not to “give myself” to these people who will “suck you dry and leave your soul in the dust”, and another friend acknowledged my writing as “what good boundary-setting looks like”. I genuinely appreciated this support because they did not tell me to work harder to fix the situation, to be more aggressive and fend more for myself, or to internalize the blame as mine in any way. Instead, they highlighted the toxicity of academia which made me feel that the bad feelings I carried were valid and not trivial.
I felt really encouraged by these friends who were propping me up through a difficult lull at the confluence of several events. I was also grateful for all the generosity and care from the editors to whom I owed overdue work, for understanding my various commotions and giving me space and time. As I am about to take off for two weeks to conference-hop and give talks about research I am super passionate about and reunite with my most favourite people in the entire world in brand new cities I am excited to explore during our down time together (phew, breathe), I also want to acknowledge that academia isn’t always pretty.
I am now sharing this piece of writing in the public space of my blog as a public archive of underrepresented feelings that are usually taboo to publicly discuss in academia. Here goes.
I am in the thick of travels doing fieldwork I enjoy. You write to ask for a favour involving free academic labour. I respond that I am over-committed right now and must decline. You note that I seem to be happily posting on social media so surely I have the time. It seems I am not my own person and my time is not mine.
I have set my out-of-office auto replies. You email to ask for a favour involving free academic labour. I leave the email to simmer. You whatsapp me in the same hour to ask why I haven’t responded to your email. It is 2330hrs. I tell you to take this to email when I’m back in the office. You ask why I can’t respond right now since I’m on whatsapp any way. It seems I am not my own person and my time is not mine.
I wrap up a meeting and say we will regroup on Monday. You ask if I can rush out free academic labour over the weekend. I say I am going on R&R to rest. You tell me I have no kids and am away from my husband so I will probably be able to find time to do the work. I respond that I am going to rest this weekend. You ask me exactly how much rest I need so you know when to call me. It seems I am not my own person and my time is not mine.
I am meeting you for the first time. In your first three opening sentences you tell me you have seen my blog and know that I publish a lot and want to publish with me. I am suspicious and hesitant with your upfront exploitation of my free academic labour. You insist that I must be great to work with because I am fast and efficient and young. I can tell you know nothing about my research. You insist that we should co-publish about anything at all, you don’t really care, you just want it to be fast and I am just the right person for it. I decline. You tell me that I am young and energetic and work on many things any way so what is one more to the list. It seems I am not my own person and my time is not mine.
You, the many yous, who are academics who claim to rage against the structural exploitation of academia, you do not see, and you do not see me. You tell me I am digitally connected and young and energetic and efficient and childless and husbandless and good for free academic labour. It seems I am not my own person and my time is not mine.