Sunday, February 22, 2015

Our mental health, we need to take care

...we need to be mindful.

To expect truth to come from thinking signifies that we mistake the need to think with the urge to know
Arendt, The Life of the Mind, 1971. 

Welcome back to Psephy's~ologies. That's more a welcome for me than the readers I guess. I've been working a lot behind the scenes with this one--working on Hannah Arendt, updating the manuscript on the Japan-Australia security community book, lots more on our friend Watanabe from the 1893 and all that blog, and I'm soon to launch the whaling story. 

There has been much to write about politics too. We've had a change of government here in Queensland. Let's hope the commitment to a new and different politics of integrity is carried through. 

And, I'm about to recommence the teaching year and one of the purposes of this blog is to walk through all things Japan, security, university with students who take my classes. Indeed, there is so much to write, to think about, to post...and as much as the daily #project365 is a great recreational blog, the time has come to restart the writing here. 

For all the many objectives this particular blog has, another one is for those tweeting moments when, try as I might, I simply cannot tweet in 140 characters a suitable response to something I have heard on the radio. 

This morning, I listened, as usual, to Background Briefing, a Sunday morning staple for me on Radio National. Today was on mental illness, psychological injury and the toll it is taking on our workplaces. I drafted a tweet or three in tentative response, but I didn't send them. It needed a more thoughtful, less ambiguous response from me. 

The program identified mental heath issues in fields such as the law and in NGOs. It mentioned the expression 'toxic workplace'. It could have also looked at universities, for there is much there to consider as well. It made me think about why it is we are finding ourselves in this situation. 

It is the cookie-cutter phenomenon. It is a senior management imperative to knead and press everyone in the workplace into looking the same, sounding the same, producing the same things at the same rate. Universities don't actually function well when you try and apply a desiccated version of Taylorism. It has, in recent years, cost my friends and colleagues their jobs, and, tragically in some cases, their lives. When I hear programs such as today's Background Briefing, I think of them. I think about them and wish I could do more. 

But of course, I am one of the management annoyances, I am an old-school academic, with a view of education and scholarship that is vocational, intangible and a value that shall not be measured in dollars. My research doesn't bring in big dollars, I don't need them and it would be a contrivance to even pretend to do so. And yet, I'd like to think my work enriches our knowledge, our shared histories, it allows me to teach students a little more about ourselves that we knew before. I might get to publish an article or two about it, perhaps a book. It is research I do on my holidays, on leave, at 2.00am or on a Sunday. It just happens. 

Across the sector, managements are boring through academic staff, tossing them aside because they fail to fit that cookie-cutter. We have so many metrics against which our performance is measured that I suspect there are metrics to measure the metrics...oh, yes, the KPIs against which senior managements are awarded bonuses. 

The sorts of things that are happening in our higher education sector for short term gain will have long term consequences. Indeed, I doubt there will be a higher ed sector of any real meaning in the future. So many of us in professional vocations--my friends and colleagues in law, health, primary and secondary education, any of the many strands of public service--are feeling the effects of the neo-liberal putsch of the last two or three decades. We are being pushed to levels of stress and, as my doctor once made the important distinction, "distress" over matters that simply cannot and should not be quantified. We are forgetting our reasons for just 'being'. Or if we are trying to 'be', we are cowered or punished for it.

This is a sector by and large turning on itself, chewing on itself, swallowing itself and regurgitating the unspent. Like a dog, many of us have little choice but to return to eat it up and so the cycle begins again. 

So much of what I heard in today's program could be said about the university sector. 

I hope, ultimately, that I am wrong. I hope that one day, universities can return to be places of higher learning, experiments, challenges and failures, and all without fear or favour. Right now, for those without favour, there is much to fear and we shall all suffer for that. Those of us who choose 'public service' do so for all sorts of reasons. Many more reasons than you will find in a packet of Arnotts Family Assorted. The cookie-cutter just won't cut it.

When all the efficiencies have been dividended (as is the current predilection of those who pull the budget strings) there will be nothing but a dry husk left. We will be the poorer for it. And I'm hoping for a much more pithy epitaph than 'I told you so'.