To learn or not to learn? Choices in academia

“The capacity to learn is a gift; The ability to learn is a skill; The
willingness to learn is a choice.” Brian Herbert, House Harkonnen

I write this blog post on the assumption that academics have a capacity to learn. Regardless of what they are like in private, they have proven that they are capable of learning. They have also proven an extraordinary ability to learn, so they are gifted and able people. What about their willingness to continue to learn though? If the willingness to learn is a choice then what does an unwillingness to learn stand for? What does it mean when a capable and skilled academic elects not to learn from unfamiliar situations or incidents?

I have come to ask myself lately why the past four years of my life have been a steep learning curve for myself but not anyone else I used to know in academia. While there may have been a modicum of learning on the part of a handful of people I still consider my friends,  I cannot possibly claim to be the beneficiary of wisdom or insights on the part of people in whose lives I used to play a professional role. It is not unfair to them to state the fact that friendship and professional relationships have fallen by the wayside of my chronic illness. I would like to add that while ill all my life with a debilitating illness, I was fortunate enough to suffer only a  mild form; but my health deteriorated dramatically in 2011, which fundamentally changed my life. I was now physically absent from the workplace as I could no longer move my body. Little did I know about the consequences of my physical absence. Almost mysteriously, my body had been a guarantor for proper work; my conceptualised existence on the other hand became something different altogether.

I have a wish and desire to understand why this is so, and there is no shortage of obvious, reasonable explanations: people get on with their lives, they are (frantically) busy, academics chase deadlines constantly, they teach, they research, they network and they have far too many administrative tasks on their plates. I am no fool who does not understand the logistics of life and the pragmatic choices people, myself included, make. But I cannot help asking myself what I would have done if it had been me that kept on climbing the career ladder or that would have stayed in the rather cushy position I had already reached, and a vivacious, entertaining, collaborative-minded colleague had vanished from seminar rooms, faculty meetings, semi-formal dinner parties in honour of a visiting scholar, lecture halls, special committee meetings, ordinary staff meetings and workshops. I wonder what I would have felt if I had walked past the office of a formerly active member of faculty with whom I had shared laughs, with whom I had taken walks to clear our heads during lunch breaks, with whom I had given joint presentations at conferences, sat on several committees with and travelled to a number of conferences together over the years? How much would I care, how much would I thought I should care? I do not know the answer. Of course like everyone else in the position of the outcast it would be easy to say that I would care a great deal and that I would do things completely differently; it is easy to live under the illusion that I would be A Better Person, but that is not certain at all, it is mere speculation. Life can be tough on everyone, what looks like privilege to me from my perspective may well be someone else’s humdrum hell from which they wish to escape. Or not. Maybe they are living their dream and their dream happens not to translate into a sliver of an interest in me and my life. I say, fair enough.

Still, something undeniably rankles and chafes. On closer examination, I realise it is the very unwillingness to learn that I cannot reconcile myself with. Not only are we academics, whose very business it is or ought to be to learn (admittedly, mine may be an outdated, romantic or even sentimental notion of academia first and foremost as a place of learning) but as education researchers we owe it to ourselves, our colleagues and students to listen. In my academic discipline, education research, reams of books on the significance of listening, the prerequisites of learning, the necessity of inclusionary pedagogies, the superiority of pedagogical leadership, the tenets of continuing professional development, self-reflexive practice, self-critical examination to be better researchers and practitioners have been written. Some of these books and papers are very good, others smack of self-congratulatory smugness. I have tried my utmost to stay in touch with academia, in particular with my education researcher colleagues. I have turned to those who I thought would be particularly interested in or even excellent at listening and learning. For four years, through excruciating physical pain, frustrating encounters with healthcare professionals, days, weeks and months of crushing loneliness, I have remained self-motivated. Time and again I have dusted myself off after another fall, professional or personal, and carried on. The intellectual input, the encouraging pat on the shoulder, real or symbolic, that we all need sometimes to feel reassured of our place in the world have been absent from my life for these past four years, a time that has been the darkest in my entire life, and I say this as someone who had cancer in her teenage years and who lost her best friend at age fifteen. I say this as someone who has had plenty of darkness in her life prior to those four years; they were by no means the first bump in the road of an otherwise privileged middle class life.

The sensation of chafing may well stem from the fact that I did reach out. I did not hide, instead I spoke up for myself and soon I spoke up for other sufferers, too, because I discovered a whole new world of pain, a level of suffering and neglect I had no idea existed. To my academic friends and colleagues, I did wave my pathetically weak arms to signal that they could continue to reckon with me, rely on me but that I could no longer do my work in splendid, academic isolation. Housebound as I had become, in order to keep on publishing I would now need to co-author, something that is often desirable anyway in my discipline. In order to participate in conferences, I would need to be given a wheelchair, a carer who is willing to push me around and a sound-proof room near the main venue. Or, alternately, I would need to be able to participate online. On the few occasions I did participate in staff or research meetings, the loudspeakers did not work, Adobe Connect would not connect, Skype crackled so much it triggered a nasty bout of migraine. On more than one occasion, I sat staring at a dark screen because I had been forgotten altogether. It had taken me two hours to get out of bed, get dressed, put my face on, nervous happiness spreading through my ill body while thinking, I may be ill but I am still going strong. With some goodwill, there should be plenty of opportunities for me to continue participating in what matters most to me.

I suggest that the unwillingness to learn on the part of my academic colleagues and friends means that I am being robbed of something that matters a lot to me, namely to derive meaning from education contexts, learning, collaborative actions, and discussions on how to render educational settings more accessible and student-oriented while at the same time challenging them intellectually. I derive meaning from being part of that. Lately, I have been made to understand by a number of colleagues, that not only are they unwilling to learn but that I have become an inconvenience, possibly because I make comments from an obscure position in the margins. I have had to learn that not only is their unwillingness to learn about my particular position (which has a lot to offer because I can speak out about student achievement and departmental politics where tenured academics clam up for fear of being subjected to sometimes rather nasty measures) but that it quickly results in worse, for instance ‘othering’ when what I do or say doesn’t suit; and now that I am a suspicious obscure other, it is easy to get rid of me. If former allies and friends do not listen and even less learn, they effectively let others, far less friendly, even disability-denying administrators into the picture who do not shrink from portraying me incorrectly. Contemptuous undertones have begun to sneak into emails.

As I mentioned initially, the above is merely my perspective but it is a perspective containing salient points as regards listening and learning. It is also well worth thinking about what an unwillingness to learn can and will do to people who are dependent on others’ learning capacity. I love my work and my academic field, there is still so much I want to do, yet chronic illness and the response of many fellow academics to my new situation has left me isolated and disempowered, when some small consideration and empathy would have enabled me to continue a fulfilling and useful role in society. This is the case for many other chronically ill people, too, I am far from being unique. On a lighter note, I cannot wait to see what I will do next, once I have dusted myself off after the most recent fall.

©Claudia Gillberg for Uttingwolffspouts

16 thoughts on “To learn or not to learn? Choices in academia

    1. Utting Wolff Post author

      You are right, and still, I expect better of learned professions. The absence of visibly participating bodies cannot be a sign of incompetence while the present bodies represent knowledge and expertise regardless of what they utter. Is it time for a second Enlightenment?

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    1. Utting Wolff Post author

      Where was that, Liz? Were some of your colleagues real friends, too? Did you have a dialogue about what was happening to you at some point? Were you trying to continue to work? Apologies for all these questions but I am very keen on finding out more about this topic (not very surprising, considering my special fields are workplace, adult and lifelong learning). What gets me is that especially in the field of education you’d think people have ‘higher’ professional and personal ethics, but that certainly isn’t the case from what I have seen and studied.

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  1. Liz Willow

    I was working with fellow lawyers. They knew me when I was well and it was quite obvious to them that something had changed. I looked ghastly, could barely stand up, and became increasingly inarticulate. Nobody really knew what was happening to me at that point, including my doctors. Some of my colleagues were friends. They were sympathetic and supported me. I was in denial regarding the increasingly disabling nature of the disease yet they were not and told me. Dialogue was limited as I barely could speak and no one knew what I “had”. So I received expressions of concern. Mind you, others thought I simply wasn’t carrying my share of the load and suggested I be fired.

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    1. Utting Wolff Post author

      Oh, Liz, that sounds almost identical to my situation. How horrible when you yourself are trying to figure out what is going on. The (not so) subtle accusation of not carrying your share must have been very painful. I was guilt ridden all the time as it was, who needs to have suspicion piled on top of all that?

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      1. Liz Willow

        Frankly, I was so sick and barely able to show up, let alone do my work, the uninformed criticism was unwelcome but not my primary struggle. I was hit hard cognitively so I was making mistakes which I luckily caught in time. But this horrified me as law is very exact.

        I wish a doctor had told me to take a leave of absence. Instead, I kept trying to work, using vacation, sick leave, and short-term disability leave to cut down on my hours. I had a supportive boss and was able to work from home a bit, but I my ability to read, analyze, and write was so severely impaired it didn’t make much of a difference.

        The critics were in the minority, thank goodness. It was obvious to my bosses that my work was markedly different in quality from what I was producing pre-illness (I had a sudden, very noticeable, onset). I was lucky that I’d established a very good track record when I was well.

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      2. Utting Wolff Post author

        This reads like my own story, except it wasn’t sudden onset but the transition from mild to moderate/severe was very sudden. Same re track record etc. In a chapter I was due to submit back then I wrote ‘collude’ instead of ‘collate’ and was mocked by the editor. I didn’t make much sense, my sentences were garbled and bizarre, sometimes I didn’t understand what it was I had wanted to express. Medics could have spared me much of that nonsense. When I was finally put on 100% sick leave it was such a relief to be ‘only’ dealing with the horrible, multiple symptoms, but that didn’t mean I wanted to be excluded (not that I cared then and there). Of course working with clients like you must have been very stressful and impossibly demanding; I was responsible for hundreds of students at the time, some were about to graduate. Fortunately, my old PhD supervisor stepped in for me (he came out of his retirement, how sweet was that?). There are some adorable people out there, but they’re not usually the ones caught up in the midst of their own careers. In my experience, they’re often people who’ve been through very difficult situations themselves and/or are more talented than most (sometimes without being aware of it), they are without fear of losing prestige, and they share generously.

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      3. Liz Willow

        I believe you are correct in identifying supportive colleagues as a bit above the fray due to their position or superior talent. Law, like academia, is very competitive. A fallen colleague is attacked very quickly by those who are are on the same career track and relish the thought of culling the field.

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  2. Liz Willow

    I wanted to add that I was unable to participate in any dealings with my colleagues for years, except perhaps one-on-one at home for a limited time. I was grateful that some helped me by shopping for groceries or navigating the maze of potential support services. I really could not talk. I couldn’t even come up with a grocery list. It’s easy not to “miss” interaction when one is completely incapable of it, as I was. When I was well enough to attempt group interactions, it took immense effort to follow the conversation and inevitably my contribution (carefully concocted before articulating) was on a point everyone had already moved on from.

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    1. Utting Wolff Post author

      As another (ill) colleague put it the other day, it is like Dante’s slow descent into hell. Thank you, Liz, for writing in such detail, it’s very much appreciated. I hope we can continue this important dialogue over time.

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  3. ~SerendipityCat~

    This reminds me so much of my own experience of trying to hold on to my place in academia. The begging for a separate office at first, to isolate myself from the general noise of the open landscape where the others were seated.
    Then the vague criticism when I was not in that office, even though I tried to explain that I had been meeting with a client at their office, and that there was just no way I could “stop by” MY office before heading home to crash in bed.
    All the attempts of participating at department meetings, showing up and not finding the others because they had forgot to tell me they had moved it, or cancelled it. I had started to become to invisible.

    Then the days of trying to work from home and experiencing that noone really cared to include me in important conversations because they “just forgot”. I fought, so hard, for so long.

    Being told there was no way they could include me in this or that project just for a few hours every week. It had to be full time, or nothing. Being present, being available every day, or nothing.

    I did not give up, but my body did. The choice of trying (fighting!) to work even part time was taken away from me then.

    So I was out, and soon forgotten by most of my former colleagues. I passed one of them on the street this summer. It was a bad day, and I had my crutch with me. Hunched over in pain from carrying a small bag of groceries. He looked at me, and then looked down, not even acknowledging me.

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    1. Utting Wolff Post author

      Another shocking narrative of exclusion due to chronic illness. Only it’s not ‘another’ narrative for you as it is your life, your hard work going to waste, your poor health and pain, not theirs. I am so sorry, Cathrine. I am in the midst of writing a chapter for a textbook that addresses this type of problematic, because there really aren’t any textbooks or articles on inclusion in the workplace as regards chronic, ‘invisible’ illness (I have a strong dislike of the term invisible, too many reasons to mention in one comment). We live in ableist societies where the healthy body is hailed as the norm. Either you suffer from something that responds to rehabilitative measures so that you eventually will be able to return to the fold of the ‘normals’ or you are discarded as a hopeless case. Remaining ill has somehow become a ‘choice’, which of course translates into victim blaming and ultimately gives the state the excuse to do nothing for us (by claiming that the rehabilitative measures are refused when we all know CBT and GET aren’t the cure for e.g. myalgic encephalomyelitis). On a personal note, I fail to understand how intellectual people with analytical skills would buy into that sort of discourse and behaviour, why they don’t have a better grasp of our situation and what is really going on here. I am shocked to see intelligent people behave in this emotionally stunted manner. One of many questions is where do we go from here? What can be done to break the ‘othering’ of chronically ill people? The othering I was subjected to the other week was an email from a colleague, ‘explaining’ to me things that ‘we’ do in academia, talking to me as if I was too stupid to understand, thereby making it perfectly clear I was no longer part of that ‘We’, when only a few years before I initiated and led a task force to address the very problematic that colleague now tried to ‘explain’ to me. In light of such insults we are forced to let go and seek out new meaning elsewhere – or create it, here, between you and me, in our blog posts, and maybe in new projects that could evolve eventually. Thank you so much for sharing your experience and please know that I know you’re stronger and more courageous (and quite possibly more talented) than your former colleagues.

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  4. Pingback: Untold Stories of Academia | Helen Kara

  5. Luther Blissett

    I’m not sure if it would be any help to you, but your position sounds quite similar to the problems discussed in the book Disciplined Minds, where the author was sacked from a prestigious job, not because of illness, but because he became unwelcome because of his political and outspoken ways.

    His website is here: http://disciplinedminds.tripod.com/

    and his website has a link to a site with a full free reading of the book, here: http://www.unwelcomeguests.net/Disciplined_Minds

    from the website: “This book explains the social agenda of the process of professional training. Disciplined Minds shows how it is used to promote orthodoxy by detecting and weeding out dissident candidates and by exerting pressure on the rest to obey their instructors and abandon personal agendas such as social reform — so that they, in turn, can perpetuate the system by squeezing the life out of the next generation.

    Shortly after writing this book, Jeff Schmidt was fired from his position as Editor of the academic journal, Physics Today. After many years of legal battling, he was judged to have been dismissed without good cause, awarded a considerable sum of damages and reappointed, whereupon he swiftly resigned.”

    There is also an interview here: http://www.unwelcomeguests.net/339

    Your situation reminds me of the rules of our current society given by Susan Rosenthal in her book Power and Powerlessness, further links here: http://www.unwelcomeguests.net/Power_and_Powerlessness

    I don’t really have much personal insight, as I never finished sixth form college, nevermind went to university, but experienced similar social “death” when I lost my job to the same illness.

    My wild guess is that the situation is partly brought about because of the widespread unacceptability of Doubt. You seem to be fighting against people who are unwilling to examine their assumptions and biases because to do so would be to show doubt, and these social and professional systems prefer to blunder from one “right answer” to the next “right answer”, without anyone wondering, never mind questioning, why the previous “right answer” turned out be wrong, and wondering what mistakes were made that produced the previous “right answer”. To doubt professionally would be to show an unwillingness to accept on faith that the leader is right, thus harming professional progress. Empathy and compassion are seen as a weakness, where the system demands that everybody Compete Or Die.

    I wish you good luck, and thank you for provoking many thoughts for me, i’m glad you are speaking out.

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    1. Utting Wolff Post author

      Thank you, Luther, for your thoughtful reply. Academia is complicated and has a long history of power hegemony. As a (former) researcher into the history and politics of higher education as well as a pragmatist (feminist) philosopher and educator, I place my main focus on a) participation (and therefore also non-participation) b) reciprocity c) (applied) ethics d) multi-perspective solutions for sustainability. Ultimately, if we as a collective are not willing to engage, reciprocate and listen to people’s points of departure a deeply undemocratic society will evolve and cement itself. I’d argue we are well on our way to such a scenario and universities should be held accountable for uncritically upholding internal as well as external power hegemonies. Anything and anyone that smacks of ‘otherness’ has to be ‘weeded’ out as others, too, have discussed. However, weeding out knowledgeable ‘others’ is not a university’s brief, on the contrary. Sadly, I no longer need ‘good luck’ in the sense of surviving or even changing academia, as I’m pretty much out of the loop, home-bound and often tied to my bed as I am. In a way, this makes it easier to speak out as I no longer feel duty-bound (not that that has ever prevented me from at least trying to conduct critical discussions). As someone who has held considerable power over others’ futures I understand what it is like to be in a powerful position on the one hand and utterly disenfranchised on the other. It is a complex and confusing situation to be in. Still, I believe that change is possible, in fact, the only thing we can be sure of is that there will always be change, the question is, how humane/ethical/inclusive/sustainable will it be?

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