Is the University a bad boyfriend?

A couple of weeks ago I visited Sydney University to give a keynote address during research week. During morning tea I got chatting to the director of the Graduate Studies Office, Simon French, who invited me over to his office to continue the conversation before I left for Melbourne. Simon told me to find my way to the Quad on the main campus and then call him, as his office was hard to find.

The University of Sydney Quad is arguably the most magnificent of the ‘Oxbridge’ style pieces of architecture in Australia, as you can see in this photo. Simon is lucky enough to have an office tucked away in the corner of this immense structure. It must be like going to work with Harry Potter (as you have probably guess, I was quite jealous).

It was a pleasure to nerd out with Simon for an hour or so. He is one of the few people I’ve met who is as fascinated by the complexity of the issues in research education as I am. Most of our conversation was about the dissatisfaction research students feel with the research culture at their institutions. It seems research students are happy with the quality of the education they are getting, and most like their supervisors, but many are unhappy about universities as places to be.

On the face of it, RMIT University seems to be in a completely different league to the University of Sydney. Our campus looks more like a collection of funky office blocks than an outpost of Mother England. And – if the buildings are anything to judge by – we have a lot less research money to play with. I thought University of Sydney students would be a pretty happy lot, given their obvious material advantages, but Simon told me otherwise. As it turns out, University of Sydney are just as dissatisfied with the research culture of their university as their RMIT counterparts.

Universities are always working on the ‘research culture’ problem, but all the strategies seem to fail. If students complain about not having space on campus we give them desks, which they rarely use. If students complain about needing more intellectual engagement, we provide them with workshops – which are poorly attended. No matter what we do, we just can’t make them happy.

‘Culture’ is a difficult concept to define of course; it is more than the physical spaces which we inhabit or the people who surround us. I wondered aloud if the problem of research student unhappiness is that university life just fails to live up to our expectations. Simon agreed and then said something both wise and funny:

“I tell people that the University is like a bad boyfriend. Sooner or later it is going to break your heart”

I laughed because it was true – at least of myself. For years I carried around a Brideshead Revisited inspired fantasy where professors sat around drinking port with their students in book lined rooms talking about the meaning of life. My undergraduate experience, although grueling, did nothing to dispel this image. My lecturers  were all so clever and interesting; I wanted to BE them and live the life of the mind. I assumed The University was a charmed place to work; a happy community of scholars living in an intellectual meritocracy.

I was in love with The University, but it broke my heart when I first applied for a lecturer’s job, some four years after I started working as a casual tutor. I was shocked when I was passed over in favour of the research assistant of an influential professor. To my mind I was the better teacher, which made this decision deeply unfair. I said as much to another staff member, who gave me a little talk about the difference between nepotism and patronage and the importance of cultivating Contacts.

It took me awhile to appreciate the value of this cold blooded advice. I went on to be rejected four more times before I had to face up to the sad truth. Just like a bad boyfriend, the university was happy to go on dates with me, but was not willing to commit to a long term relationship. I was just not sexy or interesting enough – I didn’t have a PhD or a list of publications the length of my arm. It’s an unhappy truth that a research heavy CV is the tight leather trousers of the university employment dance. Teaching ability is like a good personality – you are grateful for it after you have known the person for awhile, but it wont make you take them home from the disco.

Simon claimed that some people lead a charmed life and don’t get their heart broken until they fail to get promoted into the professoriate, or get retrenched out of existence because someone decides the university isn’t teaching medieval history anymore. Some unhappy students get their hearts broken in undergraduate courses and never complete; other students are broken by a research supervisor who makes their life a living hell. Simon went on to talk about bouncing back after The University has become your bad boyfriend. It’s true that people do react in different ways to being unlucky in love. Some will swear off having a relationship forever and go out to get paid more in the private sector; some stay, but are permanently bitter.

Others, like myself, realise they were being unrealistic and decide to continue to love The University while being aware of its faults. The happy conclusion to my story is that I decided to put on the tight leather trousers and get  PhD, while continuing to make the most of any opportunity that came my way. Now I have a wonderful job that, amongst other things, pays me to write this blog and think about stuff for a living. The best revenge, as they say, is to have a good life.

As I left Simon’s office that night, and walked with him through the soft purple twilight of the Quad, the bell tower started chiming the hour. It was the perfect moment – a picturesque stroll after a happy hour of talking about meaning of life stuff. For just a moment I thought I had got a glimpse of The University Life I have always longed for. I suspect that, in the contemporary academy, a glimpse now and then is all you are likely to get. For me just a glimpse is enough to keep the love alive – what about you?

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56 thoughts on “Is the University a bad boyfriend?

  1. Ben says:

    Great post. I love the analogy good looking, good personality types are hard to find. Seriously though it always strikes me that teaching and research are both very vocational and yet very different jobs. If you do not enjoy teaching and don’t want to be a teacher then you will be a bad teacher, regardless of how good your research is. The converse is also true.

    I also think teaching skills are vastly underrated. Everyone is a teacher – or they should be. If you’ve been asked a question and you’ve tried to explain something, then you’ve taught. Becoming a better teacher is certainly a priority for me and I think it should be for everyone.

  2. DeanGroom (@deangroom) says:

    “Just like a bad boyfriend, the university was happy to go on dates with me, but was not willing to commit to a long term relationship” – nailed it … at some point I tell myself I should take my fascinations to a new level. The problem of being fascinated by games is, that University is build exactly the opposite of how you level in games. A post like this goes someway to explain it.

  3. djbtak says:

    Great post! I think academics are more sucked in to the ideology of meritocracy than other people. In the rest of the world it’s perhaps easier to see that the lines of power and influence are what you have to negotiate. Academics are attached to a mode of truth where they feel that their own capability should be fairly assessed in the job market. Of course, that’s what makes academics useful teachers, that commitment to the ideal that everyone wants. But as you point out, just as in romance, one’s attachments don’t necessarily follow the meritocratic pattern.

    On the other hand, not everyone loves leather trousers, so one’s own preferred attire can also be appealing to someone, somewhere (sandstones are different than vocational ed for example). Maybe it’s just making the most of your own style and seeing who’s into you.

  4. bogurk says:

    The bad boyfriend is a great analogy for the university system. Unfortunately I’m still bitter after the university broke my heart. I got the PhD/tight leather trousers, but I realised partway through that no matter how much effort I put in, I was always going to be competing against hundreds of others who were just as academically pretty. I’ve now left university for the public service, and it’s a much better “relationship” for me.

    That’s not to say that the university boyfriend is bad for everyone. You just have to be prepared for a high-maintenance relationship.

  5. Linda says:

    Interesting timing: your post, as it comes just seconds after I e-mailed the man most likely who wasn’t (we’re too old now to call him my boyfriend). He and I have not been together for as long as my on-off relationship with my current university (decades).
    I can’t give either of them up. I think I am like The Whisperer and have decided to continue to love to the best of my ability. Sometimes that isn’t very well, and sometimes it has the potential to be glorious!

  6. ginger megs says:

    As a somewhat disenchanted PhD candidate, I’m coming to the sad realisation that for me the University is the young, clever boyfriend that preys on those of us who crave the intellectual stimulus and kudos after a life of raising children and ministering to families.
    We get sucked in, and we believe the young lover when he tells us that, yes, we are clever, and yes, we have beautiful ideas that could become great theses. We even start to believe that, like Cinderella’s glass slipper, the tight leather trousers of the University dance can be ours. Alas, he lied. And he broke our hearts.
    For mature candidates, it has been made clear in none too subtle ways that we will never be invited to the dance – a middle-aged, leather-clad arse is never going to be asked on to the floor, and so we wonder why we even bother to turn up, or keep trying to get published or developing a reasonable CV. I wonder why I sit up late at night, writing chapters for a disinterested lover, who I know will never call, while my real husband is asleep in our warm bed.

    I think that this disenchantment has clarified why I’m putting myself and my family through the trials and tribulations of a PhD – it’s not for the bad boyfriend, the inattentive and selfish lover that is the University, rather it’s to show the bastard that despite our breakup, I will not be cowed by anyone, and my thesis will be brilliant, and life goes on.

    Now it’s time for chocolate.

    • Char Psi Tutor Mentor says:

      I hear ya~ I withdrew with 3 months to go on my Master’s~ disgusted and disenchanted at the lack of student-centredness and the discord within the School I launched my own online biz~ that School provides me now with a steady income from disenchanted, frustrated students, including post grads. And now I use my experiences as fodder to blog about and seek to change the system from the outside, whilst providing learning support for academic literacies to enable competent and competent social science graduates which my community, at least, needs.

  7. Dr Anon says:

    I’m the bitter one who stayed.

    I love my research, but I am incredibly cynical about the university system in general.

    It is not only the administration, but the level of academic politics and the mind boggling amount of dodgy things that go on that we’re expected to accept or turn a blind eye to that has cultivated my view of academia. Having worked in the private sector in the past, I know these things go on elsewhere, but I perhaps had this ideal that academics were better than that.

    Academia is not just a bad boyfriend. It’s an abusive boyfriend.

    • ingermewburn says:

      I suppose we all have to find ways to go on when we feel disillusionment. I still prefer academia to private architectural practice. That was my abusive boyfriend!

    • Vicki says:

      Yes the dodgy business, nepotism and craftiness – and people reckon Aboriginal affairs is bad! it all depends on where the gaze is focussed……but for me, Im stayoing in there, for the most opportunity for freedom of expression, with or without a brilliant career!

  8. Elizabeth (Careers Service) says:

    Another great post, Inger – thanks. Think I need to link this one to our academic careers website!

      • Elizabeth (Careers Service) says:

        Ooh, I’d love that! It’s a common issue which arises with our postgrads. Any tips on strategies for doing that (or pitfalls to avoid) would be very welcome.

        I’m on leave shortly but will be back by early September, so any time after that, I’d love to hear from you. I’ll e-mail you directly to follow up.

        All the best

  9. Karen Kelsky (@ProfessorIsIn) says:

    I love this post (only totally annoyed I didn’t think to write it myself!!) and I adore this comment stream. I’m really not sure I’ve ever heard a better metaphor (analogy?) for the academic career, or lack thereof.

    And boy, does it explain the gender dynamics inside the university.

    I’m going to need to write about this on my blog (with a link of course!) Thanks for the insight and inspiration.

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      I’m perpetually amazed how the vagaries of the internet bring people together. Karen, I think you were a keynote speaker at a conference I was convening in 2001 in Brisbane, Australia (Mark McLelland invited you?).

      Thesis Whisperer (Inger) is now my colleague at RMIT.

      I just visited your website – fab stuff.

  10. Sanna says:

    Good analogy, and the ‘abusive’ tag would seem to fit as well. I find it extraordinarily distasteful that the university produces far more PhDs than it would ever hope to employ, and then expects from its products years of casual tutoring limbo and unpaid research work under the university byline before they can prove themselves worthy of an entry-level academic position. The university has its benefits, many of them, but they don’t really tend to be accessible for the newly minted. The flexibility and good conditions are the carrot at the end of a very, very long pole.

  11. alan le map says:

    I am reminded of a very old quote from a wise colleague during my days as a young research assistant. “In academia the politics and jousting for advantage are so very intense only because the stakes are so very low.”

  12. sivkoburko/CXW says:

    Extending the analogy, my bugbear isn’t so much the bad boyfriend as the way his family keeps on justifying or even encouraging his behaviour on the grounds that he’s only doing it because he loves you/knows what’s best for you/wants you to do well and you’d look really great (rather than just OK) in those tight leather trousers if you just shaped up a bit by raising your profile, publishing more, networking more… Sure, you might have to sacrifice teaching quality or be more perfunctory in how you interact with students, but you want to look good, don’t you?

    A couple of years after having got the tight leather trousers (and already having reservations about the preferred style at UK red brick unis), I concluded that I need them to be a bit looser and more practical/protective – biker trousers rather than fashion ones, I guess. End result was looking for (and thankfully finding) a new job in a university with a pretty different profile from my present one, which I hope will let me make good use of my style of trousers and have a few more family members who are willing to call out the boyfriend on his behaviour – or at least acknowledge it and the need for him to change, not for everyone else to put up or get out.

  13. Larissa says:

    Don’t let Sydney Uni’s fairy tale facade fool you – I worked in one of those beautiful old buildings for four years, there was no central heating or cooling – in winter we hunched over our individual heaters and in summer I had to work from 7 am til 2 pm, because after 2 my room was unbearable. Not to mention that the closest toilet was in the next building so in winter you would have to put on an overcoat just to go to the loo! Yes the romance is only skin deep!

  14. don Miller says:

    An excellent site and a wonderful idea. Ive taken works on Creative Thinking with PhD students at MU. They loved it for so many reasons. Can we talk?

  15. Megan says:

    Great post Inger. After many years as a sessional (15) I too made the decision to move away from teaching. Seven months in the new academic relationship & I can’t quite work out why I stayed in the old relationship, I think I out grew it! It may be something about notions of acceptable research in the frameworks of disciplines. The university is larger than disciplines and for some of us works in our favor.

    • Lucyanna says:

      First in either the GPA or ACT no pacltruiar score is required. The school admits a range of scores.Second if you do well in one score you might be able to get away with doing not as well in the other score.Third the school uses about a dozen or so criteria for admission with varying degrees of importance for each one.

  16. Jo VanEvery (@jovanevery) says:

    Brilliant metaphor. And your day discussing it’s details would only be perfect if you did it over port or maybe sherry. I did once meet a Dean who had a cabinet full of sherry for hosting impromptu meetings. (In Canada, no less, where that requires getting a liquor license for the Dean’s office.)

  17. Kelly says:

    I have just got round to reading this article & I think you really hit the nail on the head. When I was an undergraduate I loved being in a university environment. I felt like I was in an enlightened place with like minded people. But it seems the further up the academic ‘food chain’ I go, the more disenchanted I become with it … but I still love spending hours in the library & broadening my horizons, so I guess there is hope for me yet.

    Kelly @
    Elegantly Academic

  18. Carlos Ferreira says:

    Brilliantly put. Makes me fear for a number of friends and colleagues who invest a lot in the teaching agenda, and might well get hung out to dry when the time comes to decide who get the Teaching Assistant position. Teaching brings the short-term, can-do satisfaction that research doesn’t, but the pain of research pays off in the long term. We all, PhD students, need to hear this so we can make our decisions for the long term.

  19. anon says:

    I found this blog post pretty profound, read it several months ago, just came back to say ‘thanks’, really sums up the ‘heartache’ involved in working for a uni these days…

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