To academic friendships

What does one write in a professional blog commencing the long-awaited summer break and concluding the academic year one was dreading for the last five years – the year of one’s tenure evaluation? My initial plan was to list and substantiate ideas to develop the tenure-track (TT) system. I wanted to focus on TT support, evaluation transparency and legal protection. But I am putting this idea aside – there will be plenty of opportunities to share my critical observations with community in the coming years.

In an ongoing work with several colleagues regarding the nature of critique and criticality in academic research and beyond, we have come to differentiate between two notions of critique. One is critique as deconstruction and exposure, that is, critique that debunks. This “negative” critique is helpful and necessary for understanding oppressive structures, including the ones that we ourselves are subjected to and complicit in.

Another kind of critique is a “positive” critique that goes beyond deconstruction and instead focuses on and intensifies (thus “affirms”) something that is still arriving in the object of critique. This “something” remains unredeemed and may become or may be in the making as an alternative to what is.

My object of critique is still the TT system and neoliberal university but let me look at these from an affirmative, and a more personal perspective. There is no doubt that academia continues to be wrought with the culture of individualism, competition and precarity – and that TTs are particularly prone to experience all of these topped with a heavy load of often unclear expectations and uncertainties about “what really matters” (read “counts”).

But how does our sense of belonging, confidence, and overall desire to research and teach in these conditions endure?

In this blog I seek to pay tribute to and acknowledge the importance of academic camaraderie with my local and international colleagues, students, and staff that blend personal and professional worlds. Largely it is this tight network of people and the entanglements of our concerns and fears, but also our honesty, commitment and an incredible amount of mutual care that makes academic work appealing for me.

Let me share a recent memory. On a regular busy working day my WhatsApp beeps with a message from a colleague: “I read this and thought of you”. I open my browser to read an online article. This line from the text stays with me for days “For them, the takeaway has been not that they needed each other to reach new heights, but that the support, knowledge, and community they found in each other made the lows a little less low, the highs a little higher, and helped each of them feel like they belonged.” It beautifully describes the academic friendship of six female, coincidently befriended, now tenured TTs working for the same academic institution but in different disciplines. I can relate to this article so much that I imagine substituting the names and faces in the article with the women I have come to think of and value as my academic friends.

There were many times when the TT process felt hard and there could have been a breaking point if there wasn’t a close-by or far-away academic friend to reach out to and share my vulnerability. These friends did not only generously offer their precious time to air my frustration and doubts, but repeatedly helped to understand how my experiences are shaped by the academic structures and made sure my confidence does not hang on my successes and failures in knowledge capitalism.

I do not shy away from sharing my ups and downs, and I regularly seek and give counsel. The best thing about academic friendships is that they span different career stages, ages, gender, and disciplines, offering a plethora of perspectives that sometimes confirm and at other times question my own. In our group chats, you might find us discussing everything from job applications, tenure evaluations, conferences, grant ideas or decisions, faculty meetings and academic dress codes to sharing what we have recently read and the interesting vacation places we have just visited.

We are inspired by and proud of each other’s achievements (personal and professional) and make sure to shout our acknowledgments loudly whenever we can – if only in a quick text message or a Tweet.

While competition, uncertainty and individualism lurk behind the corner, our occasional meetings and WhatsApp groups radiate mutuality, collegiality and incredible kindness.

Academic friendships must be brought to the spotlight, affirmed, and vigorously defended. These relationships are spaces where I believe another academic culture is still alive and well. Seasoned academics must make sure to share stories of their academic friendships and encourage younger scholars to build and nurture their own.

My academic friendships are what makes me look forward to returning to my desk in August.

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