I work at an NGO, and largely outside the academy, in what could be termed an alt-ac job. One of the biggest differences is that there aren’t (m)any students around. Sure, there’s the occasional PhD researcher, but they’re more treated like the other staff (which can be both good and bad), but in the last 3 years, I’ve found that the lack of students is what I miss the most about not being affiliated with a university.
In addition to the discovery of knowledge and education of students, I think that universities have a significant role to play in pastoral care. Deriving from the religious origins of the university as a societal institution, pastoral care is the assistance in personal wellbeing of students. There is a whole corpus of research and literature on the role of universities in modern society, and of their faculty and staff in student development and wellbeing; I remember some of it from my liberal arts undergrad aeons ago, but I am wholly unqualified to summarize or discuss it here. This is more of a personal reflection.
When I went off to university 15+ years ago, I was only the second in my family to do so, and the first to move away for university (both my parents did 1-2 years in various programs, but always based at home). I was 18, still in the closet (and in oblivious denial), and realizing for the first time that there was a great big world outside my small/suburban upbringing. I had 9/11, the invasion of Iraq, the Columbia space shuttle disaster, and my first introduction to the studies of globalisation, religion, colonialism, gender, and philosophy. I loved (nearly) every minute, but I was very much a fish out of water. Socially awkward, didn’t drink or party, and figuring out for the first time in my life who I was and who I wanted to be. In retrospect, I likely showed signs of depression, and anxiety, and I had at least one experience in 2002 that I still find discomforting and troubling (though that is for another day).
And in my four years of undergrad, I was fortunate enough to know two faculty members who made my life and experience so much better. One of them did so consciously (and we’ve since discussed it), while the other might not have, and we lost touch years ago. And though I said I was fortunate, I know in speaking with others in my cohort of students, years later, that this was the norm at Mount Allison. These were people I could call at 11pm on a Sunday if I had to, who helped me, and many others, far beyond our academic studies, and were invested in the success of the whole person. (How well this tradition is continued with increasing university corporatization remains to be seen).
And after I graduated, and became more comfortable in my own skin, I began to notice that others around me were going through tough times – whether that was related to science, academia, or their personal lives. I helped where I could. As a PhD student and postdoc, I knew the system and resources better, and could start to point people in appropriate directions. I was also often one of the few people talking about how we do science, and about scientists as people, which I hypothesize might have made me more approachable.*
When I was involved with the Canadian Improv Games (which I maintain is one of the absolute best organizations in the world for young adults – seriously, just check out this video), it was our mission to maximize each individuals’ success. And in many of the students that I coached, or adjudicated over the years, I saw glimpses of myself, which only made me want to foster that success even more. Their successes brought me ever greater joy that has, to date, been unparalleled by any other professional experience.
But now that I find myself outside the university, and in the UK (without a comparable improv program for students), I find myself thinking more and more about pastoral care in science more broadly, and the culture of research and wellbeing of scientists outside university environments. Some of the challenges I had in undergrad persist (I still tend to be quite anxious, for example), but unlike the university, I feel much more like I’m flying solo. Sure, part of that is the progression from an 18-year-old student to a 30-something research scientist, but occasionally, the support that I would like seems to be missing. And equally, the opportunities to support others in a meaningful way are much more difficult to cultivate. Why is this?
I think part of it relates to the general workplace culture. Here, we’ve all got a job to do, and not enough time to do it. Interactions are either entirely spontaneous or involve coordinating Outlook calendars of >3 people. I have an open-plan office, which doesn’t encourage pastoral interactions. But perhaps most critically, there’s no culture of support or mentorship, and a sense that asking anyone to do anything must be predicated by the phrase “I know you’re incredibly busy, but…”.
I think that the culture of mentorship is incredibly important (and I’ve argued before how this applies specifically to the LGBTQ scientific community). Many of the same arguments apply far more broadly, too. Mentors don’t have all the answers, but they’re (hopefully) invested in the success of their mentees, whether this relationship is formalized or not. And as a friend recently put it, sometimes we’re helpers, and sometimes we need help – pastoral activities aren’t something we do OR receive, it’s both.
Maybe I’m just waxing nostalgic and have an undue rosy expectation based on my own experiences. Pastoral care doesn’t get added to a tenure dossier, or used in annual job evaluations. We are too busy, and have enough problems of our own to deal with without having to deal with someone else’s on top of that. But, no one’s epitaph reads “they wish they’d spent more time at the office”, and very few of us are remembered for the reports we reviewed or strategy sessions we chaired. What matters are people and relationships. And non-university research organizations (and increasingly corporatized universities) need to do a better job looking after, and nurturing them.
With thanks to Terry Wheeler for fruitful discussions
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*I’m not trying to blow my own horn here. I’m sure (and I hope!) that many others fulfilled this/these role(s); this is just my own perception. YMMV.