Anger and Apathy in Academia

It’s been a busy week for me. Sure, the undergraduates have all headed home for the Easter holidays, but the PhD students are still around and kickin’. Over the past few days, I’ve been trying – and mostly failing – to write Chapter 2 of my thesis, have been working my finance job, and have had the glorious task of marking half of my students’ midterm reports. I’ll get back to the marking thing in a sec.

Given that I have not felt particularly motivated to do much this week (perhaps due to my recent coffee restrictions and the ridiculous number of chocolate eggs I’ve eaten), I have been frequently taking five-minute Facebook breaks. Along with thousands of other people working in academic roles, I am a member of an Academics’ Support Network (ASN) Facbeook group. Because there are always dozens of new posts in this group whenever I log in to Facebook, I often find myself scrolling through, seeing if there’s anything that of relevance to me. Most of the time, it’s a no. However, commenters in the group are generally good for signposting to services and resource, as well as validating posters’ feelings when they rant. They also helped me spread the word about my large-scale online reader response questionnaire, so it very much is a useful group.

Earlier this week, however, there was a post that I found particularly upsetting. It is against the rules of the ASN to bring posts outside of the Facebook group, and it is absolutely not my intention to point fingers at particular people who have posted or commented about this issue. Rather, I want to start a conversation about this, but I do not feel like my own thoughts about the issue under consideration will be accepted, or even just taken seriously, in the ASN group. So, here I am, folks.

The ASN post in question was a rant from a woman who had interacted with a number of people throughout her day who she felt were uninformed about some important, but controversial, social issues. She noted what these people had said to her, expressing frustrating because she did not agree with their opinions or actions. To be fair, the poster did seem justified in her frustration. What was going through these people’s minds? How could they have such uninformed opinions?

The commenters, as they do, flooded in to validate the poster’s feelings, expressing their own frustration that resulted from the poster’s story. One commenter, however, simply made remarked about her own experience wherein she expressed a hint of sympathy for one of the people the poster was complaining about. The person being complained about was an anti-vaccination (anti-vaxx) advocate, and the commenter indicated slight concern about vaccinations that may not have gone through extensive testing, instead being expedited into the market. This is the same concern that my own mother had when the Gardasil HPV vaccination was released when I was a ~tween~, which is why my mother was uncomfortable with me getting the vaccination until I was old enough to decide whether or not I wanted it for myself. I did end up getting that vaccination of my own accord, which is a pretty good way of revealing that I myself do not identify as an anti-vaxxer. However, I do wholeheartedly agree that we should always question those vaccinations that we are getting, and that we should always do research into why we need them and what their side effects may be. This is probably largely because I was raised in a North American context, where we were constantly told that we should be wary of prescriptions, as doctors may just be doling them out on commission. I’m not entirely sure if this is true, and I don’t know if this commenter was also approaching this issue from a different country’s perspective. Nevertheless, I thought the commenter had made a reasonable point that was worthy of exploration through further discussion.

Evidently, the rest of the group did not agree. The commenter was met with hostile comments labelling her as discriminatory against disabled people – a response to the commenter’s unfortunate recollection of one vaccination nearly rendering her disabled. There were other comments about how it was completely reasonable for the original poster to assume that everyone in the group would be pro-vaccination because ‘we base our opinions on truths and facts, and not emotion’ (not a verbatim quote). Working from this line of thought, further comments just included things along the lines of ‘how can people outside of academia be so stupid?’

I have never before witnessed professionals in academia demonstrating such explicit online behaviour that so strongly supports the idea of academics as entitled and oh-so-holier-than-thou. The us-versus-them dichotomy set out in this post’s comments could hardly be considered supportive. I have seen many questionably elitist and rude post/comments on the ASN group, but this particular comment stream actually left me with a fear of commenting on future ASN posts myself. The commenter I spoke of above didn’t say she was anti-vaxx; she only expressed a concern about new vaccinations’ testing methods. This is a concern I share. While it may indeed be reasonable for a poster to assume that everyone in an academic group would be pro-vaccination (although I myself do not necessarily think this assumption is reasonable), I would like to think that it is absolutely reasonable for someone to express a concern and for an academic group to meet this concern gracefully through discussion that welcomes disparate viewpoints so that all parties may learn something about the issue and each other.

To simply ask how people outside of academia can be so ignorant is to discredit those individuals’ opinions altogether rather than make any effort to understand where those opinions are coming from. It is the easy way out, because in simply discrediting these people we get to avoid having difficult cultural conversations that may present us with perspectives we’re uncomfortable with. Even if we have facts to back up our points, only in understanding where those who disagree with us are coming from can we begin to adjust our arguments so that they can be understandable to those with alternative views. We need to know where people are coming from so we can meet them where they are. And ultimately, if our research doesn’t reach the society that we are all trying so desperately to improve, it is meaningless. The us-versus-them dichotomy makes us forget what we as academics fundamentally are: public servants. Not in the government sense. In the ‘we’re here to do some damn good’ sense. The response to that commenter’s comment shouldn’t have been hostility. It should have been ‘Why?’

This takes me to that marking I was talking about at the beginning of this post. As I marked, I found myself getting a bit frustrated with some of the students’ work. The ideas were all there; the students demonstrated some astute attention to detail and made some interesting observations about the books they were tasked with analyzing. However, there were consistent spelling and grammars that eventually drove me to such a state of frustration that I burst into a colleague’s office and blurted out, ‘HAS NOBODY EVER HEARD OF A COMMA SPLICE BEFORE?!‘ I swore that I would do a brief comma-related exercise or two during my next lesson. My colleague just chuckled and told me, ‘There’s no point. They don’t care. They don’t want to learn that stuff.’

I am not jaded. Maybe there should be a ‘yet’ at the end of that sentence but, if so, I am consciously omitting it. That attitude adopted by some academics, that students do not care, is particularly unfortunate. This is because if everyone just shrugs their shoulders and goes, ‘eh, the students don’t care’, then the students aren’t even given the opportunity to care because no one assumes the responsibility of teaching them the grammar that are they just expected to learn through osmosis.

It should be clear to anyone who has made it this far in this post that my issue with my colleague’s comment is about more than just commas. After a week of considering the ASN ordeal, the us-versus-them problem was very much at the forefront of my mind when this comment was made. But that is very much what comments such as these represent: us-versus-them. We are serious academics. People just don’t understand us.

Maybe people don’t understand us because we are not making ourselves understandable to them.

Have something to say?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s