We Should Support Our Vulnerable Colleagues

Now, more than ever, we should consider those who are already in precarious positions within the academic structure, Emily Solari urges.

April 23, 2020
 
 
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Academe, just like the rest of the world, is quickly settling into a new reality. I have settled into a forced homeschool situation with my three young boys on top of an exponential workload increase. The things I deemed important three weeks ago are no longer.

Today, I worry about the health of my nuclear family, my aging parents and grandparents, and my friends far and wide. In a very real way, I worry about being able to manage my job while also managing my kids at home. I hope that someday soon, I will get through just one Zoom call without my 5-year-old interrupting it by yelling something alarming or silly that could worry the participants on the call or make them wonder a bit about my parenting.

As I work late into the night, trying my hardest to catch up, I often get paralyzed by the thought that I just can’t do it all. I can’t, and quite frankly, I just don’t want to. It feels weird to be pushing so hard on the ordinary work things when the world is in such a desperate and strange state. I worry that my kids are worried. Should I be concerned that they have started playing a game called “social-distance freeze tag”? I mean, that is a bit odd, right? I worry about the kids in schools who usually benefit in some way from my research in education and are often the most marginalized and disadvantaged. How are they coping at home?

Essentially, I worry about pretty much everything. And I am concerned that, with all this worry, I will never again be able to fully engage in the deep and critical thinking that is required in our line of work to be a productive scholar. As scholars, this is the work that we are evaluated and judged on -- not the daily busy work that many of us seem to be still managing even in the middle of this new reality. For many of us, it is the production of our scholarship that will suffer.

At the same time, I realize that my concerns are emerging from a place of great privilege. I have a roof over my head, resources for myself and my children, and job security. I have spent a lot of time thinking about the impact this situation will have on my more junior colleagues and those not situated in tenured or tenure-line positions.

Many academics work in lab settings they are no longer allowed to enter. Applied researchers in my field of education, whose work is largely conducted in school settings, can no longer gain access to those settings. All this will, by and large, have more of a negative impact on our junior colleagues than our more senior ones -- there is just no way around that fact.

People who hear the tick-tock of the tenure clock, or who have been collecting data for, say, a pilot study to submit for an early-career grant are especially impacted. Many colleagues in academe work on soft funding with little job security outside of federal funding. Dissertation studies are being altered as we speak, and graduate students and postdocs are looking at a potentially even more difficult academic job market.

We must keep in mind that people who are already in vulnerable positions within the academic structure live even more precarious lives in times like these. Now, more than ever, is the time to think about what we can do as a collective group to support such colleagues. I suggest the following three actions.

Support. One interesting consequence of our current situation is that I have heard on more than one occasion more senior colleagues suggesting that now is a great time for all of us to be productive. I’ve heard things like, “We are stuck at home, so why would we not consider how we can use this time to write more papers, conceive of new grant ideas and the like?” But such people should stop to consider how this narrative impacts the people around them. And how, in fact, actively resisting the notion of sustained and even increased productivity during this time can be a supportive step for women and our junior colleagues.

The majority of academics who are also care providers to children are women. Because of this, female academics are at a distinct disadvantage from a productivity lens. Multiple studies have shown that in most homes with heterosexual couples, even when both adults are working, women bear the burden of more childcare responsibilities. In homes with single parents, juggling work from home is exacerbated.

As we settle into this new reality, we each have our own individual demands and distractions. Some of us have increased childcare and/or eldercare responsibilities. Some of us are scrambling to provide quality content to our students in an online platform for the first time. Many of us have seen our research disrupted. And most of us are in a heightened state of anxiety, concerned about our students, families and the world in general. Let’s be mindful of that in our interactions, especially those of us who are in positions of power within institutions. And more important, let’s try to be intentional in support of our colleagues, especially those who are struggling to find secure footing in their personal and professional lives during these extremely trying times.

Advocate. I also urge people who are in positions of power across institutions, and those who have secure job positions, to be unapologetic in your advocacy for folks in our community for whom this is not their reality. Those of us who can speak up should. We should be asking the hard questions about whether and how our institutions will provide adequate funding for graduate students, protect faculty members who are not tenured or on the tenure track and deal with the many other issues that will surface as we move forward. For faculty on the tenure track, granting one-year extensions is a first step, but let us not forget the current circumstances when we are called to provide external review of candidates or are discussing tenure decisions.

Be the person who surfaces such issues at faculty meetings and engages with other senior colleagues about them. Ask the hard questions about your institution’s plan to support graduate students. Lead the efforts around how to rethink the notion of productivity in 2020 and 2021. It is very likely that many academics, especially those whose research is in the early stages, will not be as productive over the next couple of years. This leaves our junior colleagues in a precarious position, as productivity has real implications when it comes to the -- increasingly constrained -- job market, funding opportunities and tenure and promotion. Our junior colleagues should not be left alone to grapple with how the current situation impacts them in inequitable ways. Support and action in the form of advocacy from more senior colleagues is essential.

Connect. Let’s be purposeful about connecting with each other, both socially and professionally. We are more powerful as advocates when we communicate with one another, when we share ideas across institutions, when we troubleshoot together. As our new reality sets in, we should share what is working for us, as well as how our institutions are responding, and any thoughts about how to best provide more support for our colleagues in higher education across institutions. Both local institutional policies and decisions and broader discipline-based ones have the potential to influence the career and life trajectories of our colleagues. I urge us to think collectively about how they will impact our junior colleagues and others in vulnerable positions.

In short, let’s take care of and be kind to each other and ourselves as we move through this uncharted territory.

Bio

Emily Solari is a professor of education at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education and Human Development. She is also the founding president of Providing Opportunities for Women in Education Research.

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