Magazine article Times Higher Education

Know Your Worth

Magazine article Times Higher Education

Know Your Worth

Article excerpt

Universities capitalise on a culture of gratitude among junior staff but deteriorating conditions hurt us all, argues Luke Brunning

If you frequent the parts of the internet where philosophers gather, you may be familiar with a controversy that happened earlier this year involving a woman known only as W, whose job offer at a US liberal arts college was retracted after she attempted to negotiate a better deal.

W's style was direct. She had put forward several requests aimed at making it "easier" for her to accept the proffered tenure-track position at Nazareth College in Rochester, New York. These included a pay rise, a term of maternity leave, a cap on course preparation, a sabbatical before her tenure review and a delayed starting date. The college promptly withdrew the offer on the grounds that "[W's] provisions indicate an interest in teaching at a research university and not at a college, like ours, that is both teaching and student centred".

There were polarised reactions to the incident. Many people were shocked and appalled on her behalf. Although her approach lacked nuance, many thought it was perfectly reasonable to ask, especially as W was anticipating the birth of a child. Others argued that her requests were extravagant, suggesting that she was woefully out of touch with her lowly status as an early career researcher trying to secure their first job in a saturated market. That latter response is symptomatic of a culture of gratitude in higher education that is helping to erode ever further the welfare of junior academics.

Life would be barren indeed without opportunities for gratitude, and all young academics have legitimate reasons to be grateful. One thing that makes the slog through a PhD manageable, for example, is the anticipated pleasure of being able, in your thesis acknowledgements, to thank those people who offered love and advice. You could even argue that an ideal academic environment is formed of voluntary interactions centred on a love of learning and the desire to encourage others: what you might call a true "gratitude economy".

As things currently stand, however, gratitude culture, and its internalised effects, is being exploited: it is being used to mask deteriorating academic and financial conditions within higher education for young academics.

As soon as we arrive on campus as undergraduates we are encouraged to feel grateful just for getting in; that somehow our hard work and ongoing payments of vast fees to the university are not fully relevant.

Over time, we discover that university life is complex and resources are scarce. …

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