Academia: Utopia or Dystopia?

I’d like to warn our dear readers: This piece is likely to be a somewhat dark one.

May 25, 2011

I’d like to warn our dear readers: This piece is likely to be a somewhat dark one.

Here I am about to end another academic year and maybe for the first time in my life, in the past few weeks I have felt the need to do a retrospective evaluation of the whole year, maybe even an evaluation of my entire academic life. Actually, I know that my teaching and research experiences are enriched by each passing year and I always take a mental note of these experiences. However, for the first time since the year 2000, when I first started teaching, I have the opportunity to express my opinions on academic matters to a wider population thanks to this column at the University of Venus.

I would like to offer two conflicting perspectives in order to discuss which one is more relevant to my experience:

The perspective number 1 would be called “Academia as Utopia”. In that perspective, I’d see academia as a place with an efficient and motivating administration and with dearly held ideals for real progress, where students’ lives are enriched, their views changed, their knowledge multiplied. In that sense, one would see academia as a rational wizard of transformation towards better people, better generations and better societies.

The perspective number 2 would be just the opposite and would be called “Academia as Dystopia”. In that perspective, I’d see academia as a place where all the above optimism is shattered, where the efforts to create better people, better generations, better societies prove to be in vain. It would signal a hierarchical, ineffective, status-quo oriented organizational structure coupled with human flaws such as jealousy, laziness, greed and a student body unwilling to invest in learning.

From one side when I grade exam papers where students used their analytical skills and made valuable arguments, caught significant comparison points or when I come across a student who ended up turning in a good graduation project or when I attend the defenses of the 4th year students’ graduation projects and observe how their spoken English as well as their presentation skills improved, I tend to see academia as a utopia which we can hope and aim to reach. The same thing happens when individual faculty members are acknowledged and applauded for good teaching and research by their colleagues and superiors or when I hear successful projects or publications of other faculty members. I then think that what we do means something, that all the rain we have to absorb without an umbrella is actually worth it.

Unfortunately from the other side when I come across plagiarized student papers or when I have students who refuse to even do the readings or when I have to fail students who do very poorly on the exams, my perspective shifts to that of a dystopia. On top of those, when the superiors remain indifferent to faculty members’ efforts and keep on demanding more, when hierarchy becomes more valuable than capacity and merit, when faculty members are often left with too many administrative duties, the sense of a dystopian academia gets even darker.

Experience mostly shows me that the reality oscillates between these two perspectives. However two major points bother me: First of all, I am not so sure how healthy this oscillation is. Secondly, I have been observing lately that the dystopian picture reflects more of my experience than the utopian one.

A utopia is an ideal hard to reach. However to hold on to an ideal in the face of stark truth is where the hope lies. Hope may be the only thing that shields us under a heavy rain of frustrations. When the frustrations are too much to bear and bring me closer to a dystopian perspective, I leave the daily academic life aside for a second and think of initiatives like the University of Venus to serve as a kiss of life, for University of Venus represents the utopian face of academia for me.

Istanbul, Turkey

Itir is a founding member of the editorial collective at University of Venus.

From the archives - this post was originally published at http://uvenus.org on 2010. 06.14


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