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Four Metaphors About the Academy

Four Metaphors About the Academy

While doing research on and talking with people who have left academic positions, I noticed four metaphors that people commonly used to describe their relationship to the academy. These metaphors are ways of describing the pain and challenges folks have faced, and the shifts they need to make to transition out of higher education.

At OPA, we’re really interested in speaking to the realities of our experiences in academia. We affirm the difficulty of any kind of shift away from higher education, not merely as an institution, but also as part of our lives and identities. We know the transition out of the academy is hard.

The metaphors that emerged are very strong metaphors. I want to be clear that they’re not “my” metaphors, they come from talking to and listening to academics and post academics as well as a survey of 80 women who had left academia. This was inductive research and every one of these metaphors was used several times by different people in different ways. They came from the data.

These metaphors suggest similarities between very difficult lived experiences and one’s time in the academy. I want to be clear that I am not equating the two. Instead, I am suggesting it can be helpful to engage with these metaphors in order to grapple with our own experience of academia. To help, I’ve added questions that help you go further with each metaphor. I strongly encourage you to discard anything that does not fit for you or is off putting. Some people have found it useful to write or talk these questions over with others.

Academia as a Relationship

This asks us to consider what parts of our experiences in academia were similar to a romantic relationship. We consider what we fell in love with, when things started to fall apart and what the ending was/is like.

  • If you were to describe your time in academia as a romantic relationship, what kind of relationship would it be?
  • What were you attracted to? What were your hopes and fears about the relationship when you started it?
  • What were the good times like? What were the bad times like?
  • When did the relationship change? Did academia become an unrequited love? an indifferent partner? an abusive partner? Was academia aware of your needs?
  • What does the ending of the relationship look like for you? Is it a painful divorce? An amicable parting of ways? A tentative separation? Did you break up with academia? Did academia break up with you?

Academia as an Addiction

In thinking of academia as an addiction, we’re using this metaphor to investigate the feelings, emotional states or ways of being that looked towards the academy to provide. We can also explore to what extent we felt powerless over the experiences we had.

  • What part of academia enticed you?
  • Consider a high point of your academic time, what was it that you enjoyed about the academic system? What did you want more of?
  • Consider a low point of your academic time, what were you willing to do to return to the high places?
  • Where did you feel powerless? What were you unable to control in academia? The system itself? The job market? Your professors or your advisor? The university? The students? The negative comments and critiques? The results of the publishing process?

Academia as a Cult

The metaphor of the cult asks us to see where we were misled and perhaps seduced by a system that wasn’t what we thought it was and to investigate where it might have caused us harm.

  • Who were you before you spent time in academia? Who were you afterwards?
  • Did you believe anything about the academy that turned out not to be true? If so, where did that false belief come from?
  • Were any behaviors that you were encouraged to do in order to be a “better” academic that were destructive of your individuality and your self-concept? What did it feel like to do that work?
  • Did you feel as though you were brought into a secret or exclusive group of people? What did you do to gain access?
  • Did the academic system benefit from your work in ways that were harmful to you?

Academia as a Ivory Tower

Finally, the Ivory Tower metaphor is about being removed and isolated from the rest of the world and being in a position of connection only to others who also had experienced what we had.

  • Where were you separated from others who were not academics in the course of your experience in the academy?
  • What was esoteric and hard to explain about your work or your teaching? How did it feel when people didn’t understand what you were saying?
  • Where did you feel isolated? What reinforced any feelings of isolation?
  • Where did you feel connected to others who were inside the ivory tower? What reinforced that sense of connection to others inside academia?

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash