Academic Life in the Coronavirus Crisis

Before you ask, no I haven’t spent the lockdown writing my next book while learning another language from an advanced yogic position. 

No. Childcare.

No. Childcare. While. Working. Full. Time.

To be fair social isolation is a familiar state for a single parent of a toddler, but I now have to do it in a home reduced to rubble combined with weetabix, where the remnants of charm and socialisation have been stretched to their very limits by the shear animal desperation for rest. 

In the lockdown, along with the shock and night terrors, I had to rewrite for the seventh time an academic article for publication. This sounds like nothing much but academics work within a system where getting published in a high ranking journal is often career defining. Or career crushing depending on how you look at it because the competition and rejection rate is so high that it can at times feel like being set up for a long walk towards failure. 

I am a big fan of the peer review process – done right it’s developmental, collaborative and it works. As the politicisation of scientific research shows us graphically in this crisis, the protection of critical friends is profoundly and increasingly necessary. 

I am also lucky in that I found an intellectual tribe in the sociological community. Despite being populated by people who can’t help but go to the dark side of experiences of work, I use the word community correctly. Coming to academia late in life, with no friends and no idea how to navigate my way to a decent job in higher education, I only survived it because I found a group I genuinely wanted to be a part of. 

Perhaps unusual in academia, my experience of being engaged in the sociological world and working on an academic journal has been a masterclass in what it means to be a peer.  The ability to form a functioning community says a lot about the people who populate this world and our bias towards understanding how power dynamics are played out at work. As you’d hope, the stewardship of the editors and trustees of the sociological world means paying attention to the minutiae of fairness, democratic dialogue and social capital. I don’t think it makes you Mary Poppins to acknowledge that if you’re going to play the academic game, there are still places where we can do it well.

But even within this precious scholarly space, the fact that over the last 4 years (yup, it takes that long to get published) I submitted a paper four days before giving birth, rewrote it during a heatwave while on maternity leave and then rewrote again during lockdown when constructive criticism goes straight to the rawness of being in survival mode. Ironically the article is about 10 years of work on mental health with healthcare workers working under target cultures and performance management systems, presenting something of a dilemma about whether to override a nagging feeling that I clearly don’t have a handle on working life, least not my own. 

The consequences of the Coronavirus Crisis on academic work are emerging as reports of a decline in research outputs by academics with caring responsibilities and concerns about the growth of long term inequalities in the profession start to be vocalised. This is within a national context where mothers are 23% more likely to lose their jobs or be furloughed than fathers just as the higher education sector is about to take a big financial and recruitment hit. 

A survey for academics is being launched today by the British Sociological Association Open to all academics, the survey aims to get a picture of the impact of C19 and the issues facing academic workers over the next 12 months. The survey will be open to any academics working in Higher Education for one month. All data will be anonymised and held by me, Dr Elizabeth Cotton, working with Prof Eleonore Kofman and Dr Janroj Kelles all members of the BSA’s Work Employment & Society (WES) journal Editorial Team. 

Responses will be used to produce infographics and provide an overview of what is happening in higher education – both in the UK and internationally –  and used to open up a debate within the BSA and its journals about how to respond to the challenges ahead.

If you are an academic please take our survey here:

Please send this link through your networks and to anyone you think would be interested in telling us about their experiences of academic life during this crisis. 

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