Undercare in the academy


Sometimes a new (to me) word comes along that seems to perfectly encapsulate a whole lot of previously disconnected ideas. This week that word was undercare. Not neglect, just not enough care.

I read the word in an article in The Australian magazine: What doesn’t kill you about the impacts of chaotic childhood experiences. It also included this interesting paragraph on fast and slow choices:

Broadly speaking, those who grow up in safe, predictable environments with adequate material resources tend to employ “slow” strategies – they study hard, delay gratification, put off marriage and reproduction, and generally follow the advice given to most middle- to upper-middle-class kids on how to stay on that course. Those who experience considerable upheaval early in life tend to employ “fast” strategies … [Their] “reward ­horizon” is shorter, and their future less assured; they will take a smaller immediate reward instead of a larger payoff later …

A child growing up in a stable, loving home who is presented with a lolly and told that if she waits half an hour she can have two would be wise to wait. But if her home is chaotic and her caregivers deliver only sporadically on their promises, it would be quite reasonable to take the lolly while the getting is good. Grabbing what you can when it’s in front of you in this context is not impulsive or short-sighted, as those behaviours are typically – and disparagingly – labelled. It’s strategic.

Of course, I immediately applied this line of argument to slow academia, which works well when you have a long-term reward horizon and your future is assured. When your future employment is precarious, you scoff the lollies as soon as they are offered.  You say yes to every opportunity that comes your way. You take on too much, even though you risk feeling sick. It’s strategic. I have said it before: this is when you need the values of slow academia more than ever.

Undercare is rife in the academy. Frequent messages include: get used to rejection, you are not enough, no matter how hard you work, the measures tell you so. (Of course, care is also widespread, so a big thank you to those who continue to offer a listening ear, a critical eye, a new opportunity or some sage advice).

(Photo by on Twitter)

On a related note, I have just listened to a recording of a recent talk at the University of Newcastle. Dr Marie-Pierre Moreau from the University of Roehampton (UK) explores how university policies and care regimes shape the experiences of academic staff with caring responsibilities. She includes childcare, elder care and bereavement in her discussion. Her research looks at the experiences of student carers and she has forthcoming work on academic carers and more inclusive spaces for care in universities. The sound quality is not great, and unfortunately the accompanying slides do not seem to be available, but she makes very interesting points:

  • There is a continuing association between academic excellence and being ‘unencumbered’ by domestic responsibilities and care work
  • Academia can be careless and toxic
  • The university environment discourages the physical associations of care – e.g. children are an unfortunate interruptions in all sorts of ways
  • The managerial university individualises learning and advancement (for students and academics)
  • The mobile academic is assessed on quantitative measures that do not recognise the demands of care work. Simultaneously, there is a discourse of intensive parenting, and intensive mothering in particular. Both academia and the family are “greedy” institutions
  • As an academic parent, you are competing against (and measured against) a better, more care-free, version of yourself, and against others without caring responsibilities.

I think there is a link between the lack of consideration for carers, and a lack of care for wellbeing in universities. Care is fundamental to slow academia:

We must take care of ourselves before we can take care of others. But we must take care of others. Find concrete ways to support and find support in someone else who might be struggling… Do not shy away from talking about life and how intertwined life and work are. We need and want to be able to do this with our students as well (Mountz et al, 2015).

I need to think this through a bit more, but the notion of undercare is a starting point. It offers a useful descriptor for (some) of my experiences with rejection, change management and job hunting.

13 thoughts on “Undercare in the academy

  1. Great article. I completely agree that academia can be a very cold and hard place. Caring is also a question of emotional intelligence (self-awareness, awareness of other people’s feelings, etc.) Here’s hoping that one day academics will be trained to have a IQ that matches their EQ.


  2. Thanks Philippe – yes, emotional intelligence is crucial to caring well (and the labour of that work needs to be recognised). I haven’t (yet) experienced useful training on emotional intelligence in a higher education context, but I will keep my eyes peeled for what is happening at my own institution, am am keen to hear what others are up to.


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