This year, we should avoid returning to normal

A version of this article first appeared in Funding Insight in February 2021 and is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit www.researchprofessional.com

Hello and welcome to a reflective piece written by someone in a position of relative privilege in academia during a time of collapse and crisis. Written by someone who knows no more than you do about how best to cope with or understand it, and quite possibly substantially less.

So why am I writing? Out of an attempt to take stock of where we’re at as honestly as I can, without succumbing to the twin temptations of false hope of some brighter new dawn or the consolations of cynicism.

After a little reflection, this is what I want to tell you…

Kindness is everything

I don’t know who you are but listen, you’re doing really well. You probably know the saying by now: “you’re not working from home, you’re working at home in a pandemic”. And it’s true—you’re being tested in all kinds of ways, I’m sure. It’s so easy to focus on what we feel we’re not doing well that we completely take for granted the things we are doing well. This is the basis of imposter syndrome where we think of our own talents and achievements as mundane but regard those of others as vastly superior. See also: the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

We’ve got to be kinder to ourselves, as well as to others. I’ve been carrying a bit of residual guilt around because it feels like very little of the burden of the current crisis has fallen upon my shoulders. I have been able to continue working in physical safety and—in spite of some spicy days and weeks—with a manageable workload that doesn’t pose a serious risk to my mental wellbeing. As I don’t have children, I’ve not had pressures of home schooling.

It’s good to be aware that others have it tougher, to be willing to help, to show kindness and concern and empathy and consideration. To have a sense of proportion. But it’s a mistake to minimise or even discount the things that we’re finding difficult. The things we’re missing.

The fact that other people are in much, much more pain than I am doesn’t mean it hurts any less when I stub my toe. And I won’t make my toe feel any better by berating myself for being in pain and for not wanting to be in pain.

It’s easy to focus on those from whom extraordinary efforts are required during these extraordinary times, to compare ourselves to that extraordinary standard, and judge ourselves harshly. But if you’re anything like me, by this stage you’ve probably normalised a lot of the restrictions that all of us are asked to live under. Not seeing family and friends, severely curtailed leisure activities, having to adapt to remote working and so on. It’s all so [makes screaming sound] and this is the new normal.

But we should not forget that we’re all contributing. If you’re following whatever the guidelines are today, you’re contributing. I have always been ill-suited for a healthcare career due to my squeamishness and clumsiness, so perhaps I should not compare my contribution to theirs. A lot is being asked of each and every one of us even if you feel – as I do – your burden is lighter. From each according to their ability, and so on.

Won’t get fooled again

Kindness—for others, for ourselves—should be the order of the day but what is stopping it becoming the order of the everyday?

There’s a temptation to think that things must be different, will have to be better after this crisis. We should be aware that powerful forces will want to put things back more or less where they were before it ever happened (see the last financial crisis) or in even crueler positions (ibid). I’ve listened to a few podcasts discussing the post-1945 political settlement in the UK and the birth of the welfare state, and it’s clear is that none of that happened by accident or overnight. A lot of work went into preparing the ground and preparing the arguments and policy solutions.

If we want to “build back better” (sorry) in academia, we need to think creatively, we need to share ideas, we need to prepare the ground for radical ideas. We need to shift the Overton Window.

Equal treatment

For one thing, we can’t do better in academia without confronting our structural inequalities. And I am sorry. Yes, this is another white, middle-age, middle-class, heterosexual, cisgender man telling everyone what he thinks about equality issues. I understand the scepticism. But in my defence there’s only one thing worse than all that: someone who is all those things and yet doesn’t think about equality issues.

Over the summer I listened to a Hidden Brain podcast on ‘Playing Favourites’ which includes a story about a Yale academic who received markedly better treatment for a hand injury once the doctors discovered that she worked at Yale. And a story about an academic who agreed to an interview she would usually decline just because the journalist had been at the same university at the same time. Both the doctor and the academic could come away from their respective interactions feeling a warm glow as they’d both done something nice for someone else that they didn’t have to.

But as the academic in that second story—Mahzarin Banaji—said: “I think that kind of act of helping towards people with whom we have some shared group identity is really the modern way in which discrimination likely happens.”

Which leaves me to ask: who gets my standard service, and who gets my above-and-beyond, my extra mile? Who gets one last extra read of their proposal? Who gets a meeting rather than an email? Who gets a longer meeting? Whose request gets the quickest response? This year my challenge to myself is (a) to keep an eye on who find I want to do favours for; and (b) look to do more favours for members of disadvantaged/unrepresented groups who may not have had their share of favours in the past. I invite you to join me. My preliminary conclusion is that I tend to privilege the pushy because I’m a people pleaser. I should do better.

My one piece of advice

I’ve only got one bit of proper, real advice for researchers and research professionals and it has got nothing to do with research or academia and it is, I am sorry, only relevant to those privileged enough not to be shielding. Go for a walk outside. Or a run, or a cycle. If you can, you should. You won’t regret it. I seldom regret going for a run, and I never regret going for a walk. Around the park, around the block, whatever. Listen to nature or the streetscape, or put in your headphones, listen to your happy tunes at top volume or your favourite podcast, and stride purposefully like you’re five minutes late for a meeting on the other side of campus.

You may or may not feel better afterwards. But at least you’ll have been for a walk.

Region’s Greetings from one of my recent walks. Trent Embankment, Nottingham.
Picture credit: me. Graffiti credit: Probably not Banksy… Trent Banksy, maybe…
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