Introducing the toxic academy and the broken academic – a too long introduction but much loved

here is a first stab at it, a collation of lots of notes, of passion rendered narrative.  it is too long and in its more developed form will be broken up, moved around, edited up and down.  but i wanted to share it as it is something I like and want to share – because it’s OUR story


Stamens and stigma of Malus florentina – Florentine crabapple – hawthorn-leaf crabapple (

The Toxic Academe and the Broken Academic


The ‘crisis’ came after a busy doctoral study school. In a way it was planned. That might sound strange but I was already aware enough that something was seriously wrong with me, that ‘things’ – relationships, work, thoughts, could not go on as they were, that something had to change. I had already gone through that step, discussed by Karp in his excellent book ‘Speaking of Sadness’, of redefining myself as ‘depressed’. This new, powerful way of defining myself was to be the break with the past, the beginning of a new, frightening, me. It was unstoppable. Volition no longer appeared viable as an idea of how I was in the world. My last, so it felt, act of volition to delay the moment of singularity where one life transformed irrevocably into another could be labeled as ‘admin’, that bugbear of academic life. So, I woke on that fateful Monday morning, tired but not feeling too bad. I drank my coffee in a relaxed state looking forward to an afternoon of relaxation. But first, and isn’t there always a ‘but first…’? But first I wanted (needed?) to go into the office to deal with course administration following the study school. A few emails, a discussion with the course administrator, and then I could chill. The afternoon and evening would, however, escape any pretense at volition, of agency as a reflexive action in the world.

This article is intensely personal, my story, but in being thus it is also intensely objective since personal stories are always in context, and so always also social (Ellis, 1991). It is a story of modern academic life and how it is molded by internal and external dynamics. In particular it is a story of the relationship between exogenous and endogenous conditions that created a personal ‘crisis’. In this narrative I am not blaming anybody, though there were managerial actions that precipitated my decline into radical self- doubt. I hope to convey that a range of external conditions, that is external to my inner world, to consciousness, interacted with habitual ways of being in the world, of responding to certain scenarios, of deeply structured ways of being, what Bourdieu called ‘habitus’. In this narrative I wish to say something about this interaction and therefore contribute more widely to debates about agency and the limits of agency. Specifically though, I want to explore the intensification of academic labour, of how this occurs in the context of discourses of ‘excellence’, the ‘global university’, ‘new public management’, and expansion of higher education. I want to narrate a phenomenology of academic life that captures the lived, embodied experience of how these discourses play out institutionally and personally. In doing so I will meander through a series of related topics.

This is an unashamedly ‘first person’ account. How could it be anything but? I will, as an academic, justify this claim. In preparing for this endeavor I have read numerous papers on autoethnography. I have felt myself touched and warned by the cautionary tales and experiences of others such as Carol Rambo Ronai (1998), Barbara Jago (2002), Brett Smith (1999), Sarah Wall (2008), and Nicholas Holt (2008); of how they struggled for legitimacy of their autoethnographic tales that did not ‘fit’ many accepted academic norms; of the dangers to your credibility amongst peers by either adopting such first-person methodologies or of outing oneself as suffering mental illness. Yet, autoethnography seems perfectly placed to conduct the kind of sociological analysis that follows, of relating the personal self to the academic self (Bochner, 1997, p. 432), particularly when faced with an academe that splits the personal from the academic. The autoethnographic enterprise is not about self-indulgence. If anything it is the opposite. Arthur Frank (2000) argues for the standpoint of the storyteller, that story infers relationship with a listener, that storytelling invites other stories, other listenings, not just analysis from nowhere.  This is the opposite of speaking from nowhere.  It privileges a location (in theory, in methodology).  It is an ethical stance.  But, an ethical stance towards what? I could craft some memorable and clever phrases but I would rather point you towards the wonderful words of Ronald Pelias (2004, p. 10) when he says,

They were teaching students who seemed more interested in grades than learning. They were working for administrators who seemed more concerned with the bottom line than quality education. They were going to endless meetings that didn’t seem to matter, writing meaningless reports that seemed to disappear in the bureaucracy, and learning that service seemed to have little effect on others’ lives. Productivity was the motto of the day, so they published article after article that no one seemed to read, particularly those who were the focus of the study. They wrote piece after piece on social issues, but none seemed to make any difference. They researched topics that got them promotions and tenure but seemed removed from whom they were. They felt empty, despondent, disillusioned.

The ‘they’ he refers to are ‘us’, ‘me’, ‘you’. He is referring to a certain crisis of faith in the purpose of higher education that many feel. He is referring to that splitting off of the personal from the academic self that Bochner notes above and specifically the way the academe appears to want us to subjugate the former for the latter; what Parker Palmer describes as the ‘divided self’ (Palmer, 1993). The study of higher education is filled with debates of questionable faith in the modern academe. This maybe in terms of the academe as Academic Capitalism (Slaughter & Rhoades, 2010) or the rise of the Global University (Marginson, 2004; see 2006). I enjoy and love these academic texts. I refer to them not just because they have taken on the mantle of ‘classics’, but, because they speak powerful truths. I suspect, though, that this very power does not rely on the relaying of ‘facts’, of the scientific quality of the research, but because when we read them we feel what they speak of. Part of what we feel when really engaging with such texts is a sense that the higher education world we are part of could be different. This may be phrased in nostalgic terms that imply a certain loss of purpose, as if the origins of the university in the establishment and sustenance of social elites did not exist. I do not want to join such nostalgia. Rather, the sense of loss may express the desire that attracted many of us to the academe. This could be a love of knowledge, a desire for deeper understanding, and possibly most important a belief that the work we do could make a difference. As is often the case, at this point I come back to my intellectual touchstone, Edward Said, and his discourse on the role of the intellectual (Said, 2005; 2012). If the role of the academic is not to speak truth to power, then what is our social function? That is the question that animates me here and calls upon me to find a style of inquiry that speaks a truth to power through storytelling, by staking a certain ethical standpoint.

This standpoint is grounded in experience. In my reading I was struck by the pained honesty of many writers in the tradition of autoethnography. I was struck by the role that vulnerability plays in their texts, and the wider significance of telling ‘their’ stories as a way of telling ‘our’ stories. This is an echo here of C. Wright Mills’ Sociological Imagination, of the translation of “private troubles into public issues”, of David Karp’s observation (1995) that his depression was indeed his but when so many American’s appeared to suffer depression it was definitely a public issue. In linking his personal and academic selves Karp sought to give a sociological account of his depression in discussion with others. His was an ethical standpoint; a recognition that the voice of those suffering depression was like an absent presence in the academic literature. So, he felt compelled to speak from the position of one who suffered depression, and to speak with others who lived with it (11). There is, then, a degree of ‘remoralisation’ in the telling of such stories. It is a necessary process as depression and illness generally can be so demoralizing (Frank, 2000). And many autoethnographists write of the therapeutic need to convey their stories. But I feel emboldened by Frank’s further discussion of illness stories as acts of ‘care of the self’, a resistance to the power of expert knowledge to define us, resistance to being lost in institutional processes of managing the ill person. Illness stories, my story here, can be seen as ‘technologies of the self’, as practices that privilege the knowledge of those defined as ill in such ways that challenge the hegemony of medical or institutional knowledge’s. I see this resonate in Barbara Jago’s (2002) account of ‘academic depression’ where she states that “I write because my story is, in many respects, the story of the academy”. To tell her story is to tell ‘our’ story; to open up the academe to critical scrutiny, but to do so from somewhere (the ethical stance) rather than nowhere. C. Wright Mill’s articulation of the translation of private troubles into public issues implies a relational world. The authenticity of my story lies in the extent to which it brings me out of an inauthentic ‘being with’ (self, others) that is dominated by ‘self-concern’ and renders others as mere objects, and makes possible a more authentic ‘concern for others’ (Batchelor, 1983). Illness, depression, can face us with the existential reality of being alone and vulnerable in the world. On the worst of days ‘sufferers become swamped by their selves and lost in them’ (Karp, 1995, p. 105). On those days my sense of self was one where an ‘injured, hurting, pained self dominates thought, perception, and action’ (105). Our existential reality, though, is also one of a horizon of possibilities. The current illness is not the only option. And, critically, it is a world of ‘being with others’. It is this ‘being with others’, and the cultivation of a concern for others that brings us closer to an authentic existence.

So, telling this story is an act of ‘remoralisation’ at the personal and social levels.

Writing the my story/our story account (layered accounts)

Much of what constitutes my academic identity, and identity is a central feature of this story, is bound up with an interest in policy and policy effects. Inevitably then I will touch upon policy in terms of text and discourse (Ball, 1994) as part of the exogenous conditions of my crisis. I want to engage in a dialogue with what others have written about the nature of modern academic life, to see the continuities and disruptions with my own story. The question is how to do this while maintaining a connection between my personal and academic self, how to write the my/our story without privileging the abstract minds eye (Palmer, 1993 p.xxiii) and subjugating the heartfelt concern that drives me here.

I am certainly not the first to encounter this question. So, again my inspiration comes from those before me who have endeavoured to speak in a heartfelt manner about the private trouble whilst also attending to the sociological truth of the public issue. And so it is from my reading how other autoethnographers have crafted their texts that I seek to write a layered account, where layered means ‘…a back-and-forth movement between experiencing and examining a vulnerable self and observing and revealing the broader context of that experience’ (Ellis, 2007, p. 14). This approach can work to decentre academic authority (1998, p. 407), of combining ‘a novelistic and scholarly voice’ (behar 114). So, this my/our story utilizes a moving between literary non-fictional accounts (emotional introspection) and more obvious ‘academic’ reflection (see Jago, 2002). This will take on the character of a dialogue or set of discussions between my ‘being there’ (the work of recreating felt states) and ‘being here’ (academic reflections on the autoethnographic work) (Spry, 2001). Consequently I speak to debates on the intensification of academic labour and the performative culture that is overdetermined by changing political economy of higher education. But I do so from a bodily standpoint, of an understanding that my body is inscribed by ‘traces of culture’ (Spry, 2001, p. 711).

Good autoethnography, as Tami Spry has argued, “is a provocative weave of story and theory” (713).  The narrative must be persuasive both affectively and critically.  Revelation is not enough in itself if it does not move the reader to a new place of understanding. In doing this I hope to convince you, the reader, that this story of a damaged academic has wider validity. This is not validity in the positivist sense, but rather of verisimiltude, of how it resonates with your phenomenological understandings (Ellis, 1999, p. 672). In this my/our story I ask the reader to feel the truths contained, to share social truths by engaging with personal stories, engage with public issues through feeling private matters.


Ball, S. J. (1994). Education reform: A critical and post-structural approach.

Batchelor, S. (1983). Alone with others: An existential approach to Buddhism.

Bochner, A. P. (1997). It’s About Time: Narrative and the Divided Self. Qualitative Inquiry, 3(4), 418–438. doi:10.1177/107780049700300404

Ellis, C. (1991). Sociological Introspection and Emotional Experience. Symbolic Interaction, 14(1), 23–50. doi:10.1525/si.1991.14.1.23

Ellis, C. (1999). Heartful Autoethnography. Qualitative Health Research, 9(5), 669–683. doi:10.1177/104973299129122153

Ellis, C. (2007). Telling Secrets, Revealing Lives: Relational Ethics in Research With Intimate Others. Qualitative Inquiry, 13(1), 3–29. doi:10.1177/1077800406294947

Frank, A. W. (2000). The Standpoint of Storyteller. Qualitative Health Research, 10(3), 354–365. doi:10.1177/104973200129118499

Holt, N. L. (2008). Representation, legitimation, and autoethnography: An autoethnographic writing story. International Journal of Qualitative Methods.

Jago, B. J. (2002). Chronicling an Academic Depression. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 31(6), 729–757. doi:10.1177/089124102237823

Karp, D. A. (1995). Speaking of Sadness : Depression, Disconnection, and the Meanings of Illness. Oxford University Press.

Marginson, S. (2004). Competition and Markets in Higher Education: a “glonacal” analysis. Policy Futures in Education, 2(2), 175. doi:10.2304/pfie.2004.2.2.2

Marginson, S. (2006). Dynamics of National and Global Competition in Higher Education. Higher Education, 52(1), 1–39. doi:10.1007/s10734-004-7649-x

Palmer, P. J. (1993). To know as we are known: Education as a spiritual journey.

Pelias, R. J. (2004). A Methodology of the Heart. Rowman Altamira.

Ronai, C. R. (1998). Sketching With Derrida: An Ethnography of a Researcher/Erotic Dancer. Qualitative Inquiry, 4(3), 405–420. doi:10.1177/107780049800400306

Said, E. (2005). The public role of writers and intellectuals. Nation.

Said, E. W. (2012). Representations of the Intellectual. Random House LLC.

Slaughter, S., & Rhoades, G. (2010). Academic Capitalism and the New Economy. JHU Press.

Smith, B. (1999). The Abyss: Exploring Depression Through a Narrative of the Self. Qualitative Inquiry, 5(2), 264–279. doi:10.1177/107780049900500206

Spry, T. (2001). Performing Autoethnography: An Embodied Methodological Praxis. Qualitative Inquiry, 7(6), 706–732. doi:10.1177/107780040100700605

Wall, S. (2008). Easier Said than Done: Writing an Autoethnography. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 7(1), 38–53.

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