Academic bios -- such as those for department or personal websites, conference proposals and social media -- are supposed to simultaneously explain scholars’ work and "sell" their potential. While they aim to make one seem intellectually desirable and hirable, authenticity isn't usually a priority.
But what if academic bios got real? Well, they did -- at least this week on Twitter, where those from all walks of academe posted under #realacademicbios. The hashtag is less activistic than honest, providing an unusually frank peek into the emotional lives of academics.
Contributions from graduate students and both tenure-line and adjunct faculty members range from funny to sad, addressing everything from breastfeeding while typing to racism to trying to secure the elusive tenure-track job. Here’s a sampling:
The hashtag was started by Eva Mroczek, assistant professor of religious studies at the University of California at Davis. While Mroczek’s own bio on her department home page discusses her interest in “the texts and traditions of ancient Judaism, including the Hebrew Bible,” her first post in the thread said, “Tradition of (mostly male) scholars who describe idyllic life w/ wife & kids in academic bio needs to be supplemented w #realacademicbios.”
Some of Mroczek’s contributions to the thread -- which she said were either inspired by her personal experiences or those of her colleagues -- include, “She is going through nasty divorce & worries she'll have missed her child-bearing years before securing stable employment,” and “She doesn't have any beautiful children, having heard from the chair of the search committee that it's a bad idea.”
Mroczek said via email that she started #realacademicbios based on a pattern she observed in book acknowledgements and institutional website bios -- a "stereotyped version of what a scholar is and what a scholar's life looks like, usually a married man with a supportive wife and children." It's so common, she said, "that it can create a false impression that if your life is different, you are falling short or don't belong."
Of course, most academics don't live those kinds of lives, Mroczek said, and the proof is in the hashtag. While lots of posts speak to the notion that academic women's family lives differ from many men's, "in fact everyone's lives are more complex than their curated public presentations suggest," she said.
What emerged, for example, was that people of color deal with a set of obstacles that "tend to be invisible to white people," Mroczek added. "So a lot of the tweets were about facts of gender and race, as well as the myth of meritocracy and the problems of adjunctification."
Overall, #realacademicbios seemed an invitation to crack the facade of academic life and initiate a real conversation about some of its particular challenges.
One of the first to respond was Nyasha Junior, an assistant professor of religion at Temple University. She offered a few snappy but serious contributions of her own, including “She was ABD [all but dissertation] & living on popcorn & hope,” and “‘You're out of time,’ said her dissertation adviser & her gynecologist.’” Several of Junior’s tweets, including, “No, I’m the other black woman,” addressed what it’s like to be a minority in one’s department, and racism more generally.
Junior said in an interview that her tweets were inspired by things she or her colleagues experienced. The tweet about being “out of time,” for example, spoke to the pressure female academics in particular feel about trying to establish a career during their peak child-bearing years. The tweet about being the “other” black woman spoke to the idea that people of color within a department may be frequently confused, even if they look nothing alike, she said.
Adjunct professors also were well represented under the thread.
Andrew Robinson, a non-tenure-track instructor of physics at Carleton University, in Ontario, tweeted that he was, “An award-winning teacher on precarious four-month contracts and one-third the salary of his ‘research-intensive’ tenured counterparts.”
On his personal blog, Precarious Physicist, Robinson wrote that the post had become his most popular tweet ever. Although he’d previously been chided by peers for addressing the more “negative” aspects of academic life, he said he felt the need to continue to speak out. But he said he understood that not everyone could.
“Some of the contributors are anonymous because there is a real possibility that they could lose their jobs if they reveal their true identities,” Robinson wrote of #realacademicbios. “A simple administrative decision can wipe my job from the books, and I have no appeal.”
Tiffany Kraft, an activist leader with the Faculty Forward Network (which is affiliated with Service Employees International Union), and an associate faculty member in English at Clark College, in Washington, posted about how she once went to an interim department chair to discuss the increased employment of adjuncts and was referred to the university career center.
She said she thought #realacademicbios gained traction and trended on Twitter “because it struck a nerve with all faculty who are tired of corporate academe” and conditions that have led to “diminished academic freedom, student debt and contingency with its itinerant woes.”
Kraft noted a few posts from faculty members who said they were happy in higher education, and said they didn’t seem to understand some of the larger structural concerns being addressed. On the flip side, Kraft said, she was particularly struck by some of the tweets about what faculty members of color continue to face.
Quoting a tweet by Altha Cravey, an associate professor of geography at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Kraft said #realacademicbios could be described as an “intersectional analysis of racism, classism, sexism of academic job market & intensification.”
Non-tenure-track faculty members have often taken to Twitter to voice their concerns about the state of higher education -- in fact, last year’s National Adjunct Walkout Day began as a question on social media. But it’s somewhat unusual to see both tenure-line and adjunct faculty uniting over work-life issues as they have under #realacademicbios.
It’s also unusual for so many academics to be willing to pierce the veil of having everything under control, upon which there seems to be a premium in academe.
That's ultimately why the hashtag -- in the face of so many other “performative” aspects of social media and academic life more generally -- was so appealing to so many, Junior said.
“There aren’t very many places where people can be honest and real about what they’re experiencing,” such as crushing student debt or struggling to secure health insurance, to name a few concerns, she said. “For a lot of academics, it’s all about posturing or presenting your best self to the world in order to get that job or have that grant proposal approved. … A lot of academic life is about faking it.”
Mroczek said #realacademicbios took off in ways she never expected, and offered her best guess as to why.
"I think people found a sense of solidarity in telling the truth about their lives," she said. "This theme of telling the truth seemed to resonate across the board -- graduate students [and] non-tenure-track and tenure-track faculty. In our efforts to project the right scholarly persona, we are not always sincere with each other."