I’m currently working in what’s called a ‘toxic’ department in the States and I’ve been there for quite a few years. Toxic is such a fantastic expression—the dreadful dynamics of these departments quickly infects and poisons all the other aspects of your life. To be fair, my department only really became properly toxic about a year ago after it became clear that our new line manager was truly ineffectual and unwell. Then the bad behaviour of certain people who would like to style themselves as big bully bosses (though they have no status above any other lecturers) really went off the charts. If it had been like this all along there’s no way I would have lasted so long. So here’s another bit of my unique contribution to the post-academic blogs, a list of ways that academia can prevent you from having a personal life in addition to the general guilt about any week, day, hour or minute spent doing something other than academic work. It’s not very long, but hopefully pretty revealing.
- Sudden requests to cover for staff who are chronically ill or dealing with personal turmoil (eg, death, divorce) and not supported properly by the institution (eg, not given lighter workloads they are more likely to be able to handle). The extra prep eats up your weekend—if you had one to take in the first place. And in unhealthy departments the list of disasters never shortens and no one escapes, no matter how young or healthy you are when you arrive.
- Dealing with back stabbing and petty power games exhausts you so much that you don’t have any energy for any socializing on your time off. Negotiating this type of behaviour takes up so much mental and emotional energy that it will make it difficult to get your usual weekly teaching duties covered, let alone any research tasks or, god forbid, any social activities. You have to constantly think about strategy. Then you have to work up the courage to send that email or attend that meeting where you know aggression will be thrown back at you. Who has the capacity for things like nights out or dinner with friends when you’re under that much pressure?
- Dealing with back stabbing and petty power games puts you off interacting with anyone because you come to expect this behaviour from everyone. The mental and emotional costs of being in a toxic department are enormous.
- The isolation caused by being in a toxic department where every interaction may well be part of the latest scramble for power is a slippery slope. You never know who’s going to point the finger at you next or if you’ve inadvertently done something that will be seen as offensive without at all intending to. It starts within the department but quickly infects all of your other interactions through the three ways listed above. Isolation breeds isolation.
So there’s some more of the sad reality that those leaving academia are escaping: run as fast as you can! You can probably guess that the reason why I’m musing on toxic departments this week is that some stuff kicked off recently. I’m going to play it safe and not be specific about what happened, but I will say that I spoke my mind (what the hell, I’m putting my notice in soon anyway) and there have been fireworks. It does not bode well for the reaction I’m going to get when I put in my notice, though I must say some of it has been absurd to the point of being amusing.
Just a couple more weeks . . . There are a couple of practical, uninteresting things I want to happen before I put in my notice. My big research project is done and there is only one more research task to finish up. Just a couple weeks to go . . .