Leaving academia

To complete my surprise trilogy of academic publications in the year after leaving academia, my interview about leaving academia with Daniel Cardoso is now available online here.

You can read about the other two articles from this year – on feminism and comics, and on queerness/plurality and comicshere and here.

This interview is published in the journal Sexualities. It is an important journal for me, which I still read, and which published two of my papers on non-monogamies here and here.

Here I reflect on a few of the themes that we cover in the interview.

Leaving academia

In the interview, Daniel and I start by discussing what academia is: what does it mean to be an academic, an intellectual, a scholar, and which – if any – of those things am I now? We also question the inside/outside binary, exploring whether perhaps I was always leaving academia, and/or whether I have really now left.

We touch on this post that I wrote last year about failure. People are encouraged to tell narratives about success and/or failure in academia, and also in life more widely. These don’t tend to capture the complexity of our actual situations, or the multiple stories we could tell through the same experience.

Selfhood

There’s quite a bit in the article about selves and selfhood. Building on that theme of telling stories, we reflect on how academia – and wider culture – encourage us to tell singular narratives of ourselves. For example, these may be stories of how we always knew who we wanted to be when we grew up and how our whole life was a process of moving towards that goal, getting closer and closer.

I’ve been questioning this idea in two main ways ever since I wrote Rewriting the Rules. One way is to see ourselves as the unfolding process, not as some end point we are at right now, or aiming towards: the journey rather than the destination. This idea of constant becoming is a lot more fluid and flexible for the unexpected things life throws at you (a pandemic for example!), allowing you to shift and change course more easily.

The other way of questioning the idea of a singular person getting ever closer to being a ‘successful self’ – or failing in that goal – is to see ourselves as plural rather than singular. Daniel and I reflect about which sides of a person may feel welcome, or at home, in academic institutions, and which may not. For example, we consider whether it is possible to be vulnerable within academia, or to bring more child-like and playful parts of ourselves out there. We explore intellectual/rational and emotional/embodied forms of knowledge, and how the former are privileged over the latter in academia, making parts of ourselves who struggle with that feel less welcome. We also talk about the emphasis on ‘doing’ and having over parts ‘being’ and reflecting parts.

Another piece of the selfhood conversation is about relational selves: how our relationships with others have the potential to open up and close down potentials in us. Daniel and I talk about our own relationship and the ways in which we have risked objectifying each other over the years (pedastalling and/or looking to each other for validation), as well as – hopefully – developing a relationship dynamic where we see each other, and feel seen, in our ongoing becoming and our multiplicity.

Finally, in relation to selfhood, we chat about what aspects of identity or experience are welcomed in academic institutions, and how that has changed over the years. Can everybody in an academic setting be equally open about their gender, sexuality, disability, caring commitments, or class background, for example? Does everybody see themselves well represented in the professors, the curriculum, and the research?

Systemic change

Finally, Daniel and I speak about the problems with current academic – and wider neoliberal capitalist – systems, and how these might change. We touch on the need to decolonise curricula and expertise which are founded on certain kinds of white, western knowledge and practice.

We consider how self-care, slowness, and mindfulness, are not possible as an add-on to the existing pressures of ‘productive life’, but only with systems and structures which genuinely support and enable collective care.

We explore how injustices are replicated in the forms of labour and expertise and that are, and are not, valued, and in terms of grading, funding, and publication.

We look at how academic processes – like forms of assessment and publication review – benefit those with certain early trainings and life experiences over others.

Conclusions

This was a vulnerable publication to put out there (when are they not?!) I wanted to do justice to the huge benefits that my time in academia afforded me – and the privileges which enabled me to be there in the first place – as well as speaking openly about the harms of bullying cultures in some institutions, of continued sexual harrassment and gendered injustice, of the current climate of academic transphobia, and of toxic non-consensual academic culture more broadly.

I wanted to ensure that I spoke of the help and support I’ve received from so many valued colleagues and friends of the years, as well as the systems and structures that can make being collegiate, cooperative, and compassionate very difficult.

I wanted to say how passionate I am about academic ideas – so much so that I left academic partly in order to have more time to read about them and get them out to wider audiences – but how I also value other forms of knowledge and learning, and felt there was not enough space in academia for that.

I hope that I managed to capture that paradox and complexity in the interview.

If you don’t have access to academic papers and would like to read the full interview, feel free to drop me a line.


Meg-John Barker is the author of a number of popular books on sex, gender, and relationships, including Queer: A Graphic History, How To Understand Your Gender, Enjoy Sex (How, When, and IF You Want To), Rewriting the Rules, The Psychology of Sex, and The Secrets of Enduring Love. They have also written a number of books for scholars and counsellors on these topics, drawing on their own research and therapeutic practice.

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