Most of the people working in academia who watched The Chair, which aired this summer, were probably filled with a bittersweet feeling; indeed, Netflix’s comedy-drama depicted quite vividly American academic life, with its downsides and unmet expectations. Sandra Oh portrays the new chair of Pembroke University’s English department, the first woman appointed for this role, and also one of the few non-white faculty members, who finally gets to her dream job. She is a woman who, after overcoming many obstacles in her professional and private life, ultimately made it to the top of the hierarchy of the profession. Her character, Ji-Yoon Kim, takes the role with optimism and seriousness, hoping to change a secular institution, described as ”lower-tier Ivy”, into a more up-to-date environment that reflects new generations’ political demands and major problems, such as climate change, racism, criminal justice system, and homophobia. However, the Chairwoman (as she asks to be called) soon understands that her good intentions will have to reconcile with everyone’s interests and demands, and will collide with internal politics. The Chair is a sharp parody of modern universities’ unfortunate impasse, describing a conservative institution devastated by short-term contracts, funds’ cuts, really high taxes; painfully, it reveals a system that fails its affiliates, forcing them to compete with each other for the scarce resources, and marginalizing those who do not fit the status quo, offering a witty window on relevant topics, which are sadly too familiar for the insiders, such as the gender pay gap, academic cancel culture, racial discrimination, generational divide.
Chairwoman’s enthusiasm to make a change through the job she always wanted is quickly replaced by disenchantment and frustration; as she accurately affirms “I don’t feel like I inherited an English department, I feel like someone handed me a ticking time bomb because they wanted to make sure a woman’s holding it when it explodes.” The Netflix’s series comes as a good starting point to reflect upon the role of failure in academics’ life; indeed, the Chairwoman fails in every domain but, as she pointed out, she cannot succeed in the job, because she is not supposed to. Provocatively, we aim at asking ourselves and colleagues the impact that a lack of a culture of failure has on researchers’ work and their well being and, especially, encourage a first reflection on what can we personally and as a community do in order to develop a different narrative, attempting to answer the questions: how can we, as academics, change our relationship with failure? How can we elaborate a different perception of failing?
It has to be noted that the topic has already been discussed from different perspectives; indeed, from an epistemological level, failure is part of any scientific process since the path to discover something new is made up of failures that slowly become successes (Firestein, 2015). The avoidance of a culture of failure creates a hostile environment where researchers are compelled to conform within fixed dogmas and structures, inevitably leading to personal exasperation and often to explore fruitless knowledge to fulfill an agenda. Already in 1917 Weber delivered a lecture in which he accounted for universities’ structural problems, such as “terrible teaching, workplace discrimination, the exploitation of the labour force, an arbitrary hiring process, and a businesslike and, thus, uninspired understanding of the scholar’s vocation” (Wellmon, 2020), concluding that “The universitas litterarum (…) had become a ‘fiction’” (ibid). Paul Feyerabend, Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn had open the discussion in the realm of philosophy of science; more recently the Perestroika movement in the 2000s aimed at expanding the narrow borders of representation of groups within American political sciences in order to promote greater methodological diversity and inclusion (Dryzek, 2006).
What academics also disturbingly know from these previous experiences is that the system unfortunately hardly can change: why those who have the possibility of transformation should embrace this fight, when it is that same system that brought them to the top? (We do not want to spoil the show here, but once again it comes in help…). However, this should not be a pretext to avoid any kind of critical analysis on the dynamics affecting researchers, professors, students, and administrative staff’s work, or to prevent a reflection on how we can personally and as a community rehabilitate our recognition of failure. We will thus describe some systemic failure of academia and explain how these are affecting one’s possibility to fail, especially considering the realm of diversity, inclusion and mental health, and finally provide some comments on how we can better equip ourselves to fail.
Who can afford to fail?
Failure sucks, no doubt about that, but it is a really important learning experience. It is also clear by now that academia’s infrastructure presents some structural problems, but do they affect everyone in the same way? It comes without surprise that some people are better equipped to fail than others (remember the ChairWOMAN?); in other words, some academics can allow themselves to fail because they can afford it, mentally and economically. Both BBC and The Guardian (Coughlan, 2020; Adams, 2020) report that out of the 23,000 professors in the UK, only 155 are black, against a strike 89% of white professors; only 28% identify as women, whereas five years ago it was only 23%. On the other hand, the staff is for 46% women, confirming the gender gap in relation to professorship and the fact that women are most of the time relegated to administration positions. When considering students, BBC reports (BBC, 2018) that white people constitute more than half of the overall population (see graph below), with prestigious universities like Oxford and Cambridge reporting in 2016 respectively 1.2% and 1.5% of first-year black students.
Social classes also affect students university’s path: for instance, people coming from social strata rather than upper-middle class have more challenges in accessing top tier universities due to socioeconomic factors (Soria, 2018). Advancing in the academic ladder is directly connected to family income, which means that parents’ educational level influences the likelihood of earning a professorship, starting from primary education (Chang, 2018).
These data disclose some of the existing discriminations to academia, which is still failing to be diverse and inclusive, since some groups have less chances to enter the gates and when they manage it, they are still evaluated through different standards. It appears then that sexism, racism, and classism are preserved and perpetuated within academic environments, and often the maintenance of such biases is claimed to be unconscious, even when individuals affirm to follow inclusive and egalitarian values (Melaku & Beeman, 2020; Owusu, 2020). People, and academics particularly, think they act and make decisions based on merit and objectivity, but researches have on multiple stances showed that cultural history affects opinions and expectations in many processes, such as recruitment, grading, providing scholarships, reviewing articles, but ultimately also daily interactions (Melaku & Beeman, 2020).
The lack of representation, within curricula as well as work settings, might turn into psychological consequences, for instance the impostor syndrome, sadly a pretty known disorder, especially among women and non-white individuals, which affects one self’s perception (Simmons, 2016). The impostor syndrome describes a way of approaching failures and successes, specifically it relates to the feeling of insecurity and constant inadequacy resulting from the attribution of accomplishments to external factors (e.g. luck), implicitly denying one’s self-merits, skills and qualities. Basically, the “impostors” feel like a fraud since they perceive they do not deserve positions or some kind of recognition. This conviction is further boosted by the constant comparisons academics, especially PhDs and PostDocs, have to go through because of a really competitive context, leading to perceiving others’ successes as your own failures.
It is basically asked of academics to be resilient and persevere while enduring these working conditions because of a commitment to science and the truth, but not everyone has the same chances of resistance and the price of failure is thus higher for some because of an unequal distribution of resources:
Who we are, where we are from, what communities we belong to – all these factors determine how often our voices are heard and how seriously our research is taken. This, in turn, shapes our own self-perceptions (Blyth et al, 2018).
Tyranny of Vocation – A damaging Culture for Academic´s Mental Health
If we come back to the example of The Chair and the pop cultural image of the academic trope of the white, cis hetero, all-knowing, laid back, multitasking, lecturing and publishing genius, obviously wealthy professor, we are confronted with an image of a person, who is the epitome of intellectual vocation, throws himself with the zeal of a believer into an ascetic life for science and university. This mental image not just hinders diversity and gender empowerment on all spectrum, but it also advocates a devotion and work ethic beyond reach, a perfectionism without failings, to the point that not even the persona described above can live up to.
Weber suggested in Science as a Vocation that under capitalism with the influence of protestant work ethic, in a disenchanted world, work and vocation will intervene to the point where self-perfection becomes the ultimate goal (Wellmon, 2020). Furthermore:
Common to each of these modern disciplined ways of living was a commitment to truth, to facing up to the demands of the day, or what he termed a ‘matter-of-factness’. In order to claim a life as one’s own, one must be able to give an account of oneself in light of one’s present moment and the conditions in which one lives (Wellmon, 2020).
Still ruled by this mindset, the consequences for academics are precarious conditions, if they are not willing to give up on the intellectual vocation in their life.
The current German academic system is a good example to showcase how enabled academics became in this capitalist mentality. It is always easy to bash the English system as the neoliberal stronghold of capitalism, but as it is, the current regulations of German academic employment – although the country still sees and pictures itself as a socially engaging system – are harsher and more exploitative than in the free market. In 2009 of the approximately 146,000 full-time employees 83% were in temporary employment; in the private sector, the same year, 7% of jobs were temporary, in the public sector as a whole it was 9.5% (Wurzbacher, 2020). Since the introduction of the Science-Time-Act in 2011, there have been regular criticisms and protests. The newest is I am Hannah, which first began as a counter reaction trending on Twitter against the government´s video Ich bin Hannah, in which, through the fictitious protagonist Hannah, the Ministry of Education and Research explains why short term contracts foster innovation and fluctuation. There is no need to say that it has had exactly the opposite effect, what they hoped for.
Through these predicaments for those who devote their existence for an intellectual life comes low-payment, and an unplannable life with other hidden costs. Mental health and mostly the lack of it became in recent years more and more present in reviews and opinion pieces about academic life and work. Titles like “Being a PhD student shouldn´t be bad for your health”, “Managing an anxiety disorder in academia is a full-time job” or “The busy life of academics have hidden cost – and universities must take better care of their faculty members”, just to name a few, pop up frequently. In Germany hashtags like #FrististFrust, #95vsWissZeitVG or #IamHannah could move beyond the academic circle and reached a wider public. A common factor in these articles is overworking and being overstressed. From student level up to the status being a professor even a solid performance comes with more and more tasks: from finding unique research topics, publishing, apply for grants and funding, tutoring, lecturing, managing faculty, doing administrative work or due to the pandemic learning and figuring out online teaching. A successful career comes even with more tasks; overstressing is a normal company for any kind of academic as pressures are intense to perform on a high-maintenance level and keeping these levels up (Lashuel, 2020). It is even worse for academic staff, who historically have to prove themselves more as their white, male, cis, hetero counterparts; in these groups stress levels up due to daily micro aggressions, racism, sexism, homo- and transphobia and classicism. Currently, you can be the person who the system theoretically prefers, but if your family/nearest of kin can’t afford you to be an underpaid PhD student, Post-Doc, Junior Professor you probably won’t make it in academia in a long term perspective; successful or not (Clare, 2020).
Due to these factors academic life becomes a bundle of anxiety and constant existential threat, becoming a giant dementor in its own right and leaving joyless and burn out students and stuff. As further a person feels drawn to an intellectual life, more and more it becomes a willing creature, aiming for perfection, reproducing a cycle of self – exploitation and self-harm in the name of calling/vocation. What could we do to ease the burden and hack this mentality for our benefit?
The Right to Fail
In a 1995 lecture by Richard Feyman, he formulated the following plea: ‘Permit us to question, to doubt, to not be sure’, […], ‘it is possible to live and not to know’ (Amoore, 2016). In his lecture he reflected on the place of doubt in scientific practice, taking this idea further, the right to fail could be a successful mindset to ease academics mental burden and challenge social bias amongst scholars. When we began to elaborate on the idea of failure in science, in midst of the extensive theories and epistemologies, we found also interesting projects like the curatorial think tank The Institute of Failure from Tim Etchells and Matthew Goulish, the Failure CV from Johannes Haushofer, or from the Fuck Up Nights from the business scene. Through these examples we noticed that failure not only has an epistemological and creative value, but it can have a positive impact on people’s attitudes towards their own and others’ failure, as well as successes. As an experiment of researchers from Columbia University showed that not only recognizing other people’s failures,- in these case scientific idols Marie Curie and Albert Einstein – helps outgrow the feeling of shame attached to it, but it also helps perform better. Interestingly, students who only encountered the success stories of these scholars performed significantly worse, because in their minds these scientists were by definition gifted – unlike themselves. Owning our failing and being honest about how achieving success comes with try and (mostly) fail; moreover, it would increase our performance, create a sense of community in face of self-doubts, and ultimately, it would challenge ascetic work attitude, where pushing our limits is seen as the good scientific practice. This was our experience also in a recent event we conducted at Vilém Fluser Archive in Berlin at the University of Arts Berlin. The event was our first attempt to reach out to young researchers, creatives and students to explore the notions of failure. Our instant takeaway was the acknowledgement that by displaying failure we show empowerment: to share our vulnerable moments we create a sense of community. Shifting focus from the acquired scientific distance can change academic posture and be able to free participants from their fixed mindset to be defined by their successes and circumstances.
Furthermore, considering Bourdieu´s (1988) thought in Homo Academicus,
The sociologist who chooses to study his own world in its nearest and most familiar aspects should not, as the ethnologist would domesticate the exotic, but, if I may venture the expression, exoticize the domestic, through a break with his initial relation of intimacy with modes of life and thought which remain opaque to him because they are too familiar (pp. xii).
Failure can be seen as the too familiar aspect of academic life, which is neglected in favor of the exotic, as something like success. Our proposal is not just to exoticize the ever domestically epistemological failure, but to take the ideas and learnings to help ourselves in other fields of academic life. Failure as success are part of our lives, the building bricks of the foundation of academic life and scientific practice. Through acknowledging these even just with small steps like our event, we could make room for change and ease our scientific practice and be more patient with ourselves and others.
As history (of science) shows us in many cases as humans drive for change the same species disables every transformation it can. Science, Humanities, Arts and Academia is no exception. Nevertheless, it doesn’t mean we can´t thrive for better circumstances.
In other words, although they are never more than particular angels of vision, taken from points of view which the objectivist analysis situs constitutes as such, the partial and partisan views of the agents engaged in the game, and the individual or collective struggles through which they aim to impose these views, are part of the objective truth of this game, playing an active part in sustaining or transforming it, within the limits set by the objective constraints (Bourdieu, 1988).
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