This post returns to an idea from Rosalind Gill’s review of Les Back’s Academic Diary. She asks about bad affects:
Academic Diary is … overwhelmingly positive … Where are the other, less palatable, affects and behaviours? Where is the envy, the rage, the nastiness, the bullying, the bad behaviour, the competitiveness, the mean-spiritedness, the colleagues who dump on others, the people who just do not reply? It is not just that the pain and hurt of academic life seems absent, then, but also that much of the difficulty and messiness of academia is missing too.
Unsurprisingly, with the amount of work I have been missing and leaving undone or half-done while my daughter is sick, I haven’t had a lot of good feelings lately. There has been a great deal of difficulty and messiness for all of us. I was once described by a former manager as “relentlessly cheerful”—I even won an award for it—so this a big admission for me. I am drafting this post from hospital, where my brave daughter is undergoing another round of tests over the next few days.
So James Burford’s paper What might bad feelings be good for? Some queer-feminist thoughts on academic activism has been a timely publication and offered a welcome opportunity for reflection. It appears in the current special issue of Australian Universities’ Review on Activism and the Academy which I co-edited with Kate Bowles and Karina Luzia.
The bad feelings Burford writes about—numbness, shame, exhaustion, depression and anxiety—resonate for me right now. And, as always, the line between work and life is permeable, so bad feelings in either space contaminate feelings in the other. Here’s a taster of Burford’s argument:
I am concerned that some affects like cynicism, fear, hostility and depression are frequently written-off without due consideration of their agentive capacities. While I understand desires to move academics on from ‘dirges of despair’ (Kenway, Boden & Fahey, 2014, p. 259), I am suggesting that it may be politically profitable to think about what happens when academics feel bad, and the kinds of transformations these negative felt experiences might generate.
Here are some of the things that are making me feel bad: I am not at work, and have let people down by not honouring prior commitments. I am relying on others to do work for me. I am not answering emails promptly. I am not carefully checking work that has my name on it. I am feeling impatient with the ‘petty’ concerns of the workplace. I have little energy for the emotional labour of relationships with colleagues. If I am at work, I am distracted and working more slowly than usual.
So, challenged by Burford’s question, and now I have all that misery off my chest, what might these feelings be good for? I won’t be using them to make a wall of failures, but that is one example of bad feelings doing good.
There is much to be thankful for in the midst of these bad feelings. I must acknowledge the immense privilege of being able to ‘care less’ about work during this time and still have a paying job. That cannot be understated. I am grateful for the generosity of colleagues; for grandparents who have taken on childcare; for excellent healthcare; and for hospital volunteers who knit bears, visit with therapy dogs, make us laugh and give parents coffee breaks.
Most importantly, bad feelings can be politicising. They offer further impetus to change higher education for the better. There are many who are at greater risk than I am of long-term ill-effects from bad feelings. This matters. For now, my daughter’s suffering has turned us inward, but as she slowly recovers I look forward to helping others, both individually and systematically, who are grappling with bad feelings in academia.