A-holes in the Academy

Why are there so many in academia? Does the institution attract them or does the institution make them? What is institutional gaslighting? And how do we care for each other in this often toxic space? In this episode, we chat with academic aunties, Dr. Nisha Nath, an Assistant Professor of Equity Studies at Athabasca University, and Dr. Mariam Georgis, a SSHRC Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Manitoba about coping with exclusionary academic norms, the messages that the neoliberal academy sends that breeds toxic behaviour, and the value of checking in.

Mentioned in this Episode:


Mariam Georgis 0:00
Do you want me to say my name? Like my white people name or like my actual name?

Ethel Tungohan 0:03
No, say your name the way you usually say it.

Mariam Georgis 0:06
Yeah, it’s because you know what? When I first started doing my PhD, I would always say, “hi my name is Mariam Georgis,” and people would be like, “what?” My jobs all throughout high school, my managers would change my name to Mary.

Ethel Tungohan 0:16
Mary? [laughing]

[Intro music]

I’m Dr. Ethel Tungohan, an assistant professor of politics at York University. Welcome to the first episode of academic aunties. I started this podcast because we need to create new norms in the academy. There are too many academics who are miserable and who are suffering. Lately, I’ve started to really take notice of how dysfunctional the academic world is. Maybe it was the isolation of COVID that brought all of these inequities to life. But in the past year, my mental health has plummeted, not because of the stresses brought on by COVID. But because of the stresses brought on by the neoliberal academy.

And I’m not alone. Last year, an international survey of over 4000 researchers found that there were shocking levels of stress and mental health problems in the academy. 55% describe their research culture as negative. 43% said they had experienced bullying or harassment, while 61% had witnessed it.

To survive the academy I’ve had to lean on the support of my academic aunties. I have a circle of trusted and beloved aunties, mostly women of color, who I trust with my life. The function as my “no” circle. People who tell me when to say no. They remind me that it’s not me, it’s the academy. Our conversations plant the seeds for the possibility for structural change, and the auntiesin my life are pretty damn funny. We have the best conversations.

Others have written on academic aunties. Erica Violet Lee, an indigenous feminist political theorist, pays tribute to academic aunties and how academic auntie gossip saves lives. Academic aunties are everywhere. There are multiple Twitter and Instagram accounts of self professed academic aunties. There is even a call for papers for critical aunty studies. I will drop all of this info in the show notes. So it is clear that academic aunties help those of us who are never meant to be part of the academy survive this world. And now that I have also become an auntie, in that many of you have started to ask me for advice, I decided to create this podcast for all of you who ever felt the need for auntie wisdom. Each episode, we will speak with aunties and occaisional uncles to figure out how to navigate the cesspool that is the neoliberal academy.

In today’s episode, we talk about academic assholes. Does the institution attract assholes? Or does the institution make us into assholes? And how do we care for each other in the space? Joining me today are two of my favorite academic aunties. I love them so, so, so much, I wouldn’t survive the academy without them quite honestly. They are Dr. Nisha Nath, an assistant professor of equity studies at Athabasca University. That is auntie Nisha for you. And Dr. Mariam Georgis, a SSHRC postdoctoral fellow at the University of Manitoba. That is auntie Mariam. Thank you both for joining us.

So one question I just kind of was thinking about if I had to talk to the two of you about this is the following: Why are there so many assholes in academia? Why? Tell me why. I don’t understand. Why? Why? Why is our world so full of assholes?

Nisha Nath 3:56
I mean, definitely academia rewards assholes.

Ethel Tungohan 3:59
What do you mean by that? Well, what is an asshole? Like an asshole with someone who is…

Mariam Georgis 4:03
A man dude. A mantastic man dude, who knows all, knows everything. Constantly corrects you. Constantly calls you angry if you have any kind of inflection in your voice. Constantly asserts that they know more than you even about places that they’ve never seen or heard of. And that you are from. And I think part of that is because academia is based on like, knowing stuff, right? And who is the knower always? It’s the white man dude. And so you are not, you are not the knower. Right? And so I think when you feel, like, you know everything, then there’s kind of like “that asshole.” But also there’s, like, no humility, right? You just know everything…like how the fuck are you going to know everything? Well calm down. You barely scratched the surface of anything, right?

But that’s the thing. Academia is something that rewards this behavior, but breeds it too. And it’s just like a cesspool of them because it’s that’s what it’s based on.

Ethel Tungohan 5:10
It’s this posturing, right? It’s this embodiment of knowledge of places they’ve never been to, theories they probably haven’t really read. Right?

Mariam Georgis 5:24
And even if they had, so what?

Ethel Tungohan 5:26
But I like I like what Auntie Nisha is saying as well, right? Like academia rewards, assholes. Can you speak more about that? Like, how does academia reward assholes?

Nisha Nath 5:37
It rewards entitlement and that comfort of taking space, claiming space. And that happens in so many ways. So what happens in classrooms, I think we’ve all been in classrooms as students, where the people who take that space and don’t enter with any kind of humility, which is, I think, in some ways, some of our learned way of entering into these spaces.

And that even in funding, right, so in terms of how money is circulated, what is considered to be a value in academia? So I think it’s, I mean, it’s the whole system, right? So it’s a neoliberal academy, that is capitalist that trades on some people being sites of data, or sites of stories of pain, right? And then some people as being authoritatively granted the ability to circulate those stories or to trade on them or to take that space or to manage that space or to be the people who can invite us in. Right?

So I think it’s all set up for ease of entry for certain people, certain bodies, and that is not us.

Ethel Tungohan 7:11
Absolutely. It’s not us. And I find that when we inhabit these spaces, it disturbs the order. We’re not meant to be in these spaces. And I find that in some ways, you know, I’ve learned a lot through the years. But in some ways, I felt that in order to inhabit that space, I’ve also had to be an asshole, right? So I found that the prototypical graduate school seminar, I found that in order to be listened to, I had to embody those norms. Right? And only now upon years of reflection, am I at the stage where I’m like, we can reject those norms. We’re allowed to. I don’t know if you’ve kind of thought about your academic journeys and felt the pressure to embody these norms as well, in order to gain some traction in order to be listened to.

Nisha Nath 8:13
Well, I’m curious as to what have you, like, what are the norms that you felt that you did have to embody? And then I’m curious about, does that make you the same kind of asshole? Or is that something different going on there?

Ethel Tungohan 8:30
That’s a really good question. I don’t know. There are professional development norms that doesn’t necessarily translate into you becoming an asshole. And we’ve all had to learn that language and we’ve all had to learn, clumsily in a lot of ways this hidden curriculum. But I think in terms of the need to posture and grandstand, I feel that for some of us, we’ve had to try to do that in order to get traction. But then what we find out is that in doing that, we don’t get the same reactions because we’re not supposed to be read in that way. Right? And by that, I mean, being as argumentative in a seminar, right? Seeing folks who are, you know, cis het white guys do that, and you doing that, and then facing backlash, right? And so, then I’m starting to realize that these norms weren’t meant for us, and we have to create new norms. Right? And so that’s why I’m like, well, maybe it’s time for us to foster new ways of being and knowing.

Mariam Georgis 9:56
I think I like what Auntie Nisha just said right there, does it make you the same kind of asshole? Because I would argue no, right? I think for some of us it’s a matter of survival, right? It’s a matter of we can’t just walk in somewhere, claim space and claim all this and then get, not just the same reaction like you were saying, but also the same position, the same whatever. Like, you have to do things differently, you have to do them 10 times more, you have to do them more convincingly, you have to make a million more arguments, you have to first excuse yourself and contextualize yourself and prove what you’re saying before you even get to say what you’re saying. Right?

Ethel Tungohan 10:48

Mariam Georgis 10:49
I’ve never once written a paper on Assyrians, which is what I am, Never have I ever written a paper on Assyrians without first having to say who Assyrians are, what they are, where they come from, they still exist, they’re not all dead. Never in my life. I’ve never once had to just jump in and use any kind of critical theory in my field of study without first saying why I can’t use conventional theories first, because they’re the standard. And those are the people you have to embody in class, right? Because even as a graduate student in class, if you’re not embodying those people, then you’re not even…how intelligible are you? How coherent are you? How are you being understood? Are you being understood, right? It’s just even the language, the vocabulary you’re using. Right? So I think all of that comes into play. So I think if someone who is marginalized tries to do that as a matter of survival in this one class? No, I’m not going to look at them the same way as I would that manbro doing that, right? Like, it’s just a totally different position because that white boy doesn’t have to do so much work to embody all those norms.

Ethel Tungohan 12:21
I’m sure some of you have been on the receiving end of…well, I certainly have have emails being like, you know, in this time of whatever…how do they say it…like this time of COVID has been unprecedented. But if we look at the silver lining, this is also atime of rest, of recuperation and of writing. Rest, recuperation and writing. For who?

Mariam Georgis 12:50
I want to slap everyone who rests.

Nisha Nath 12:54
Big no.

Ethel Tungohan 12:56
Who’s resting? Are you resting? Are any of you resting?

Mariam Georgis 13:00
No motherfucking no. I have a nine month old, she wakes me up every three hours.

Ethel Tungohan 13:06
Why? But that’s the thing. Who were these messages for? Like who? Who? What? Okay, so when we think about who these messages are sent to, it’s not us, right?

Nisha Nath 13:22
Or is it? Was it just kind of another instance of institutional gaslighting? Right? Like, you know, when that becomes the line of the institution that some people can meet, right, and some people do experience, but certainly it’s not us. It’s not people with caring commitments, it’s not people who are disproportionately dying from COVID, their families, their loved ones, their community.

I think, all of these these messages are actually for us, and maybe more so for us because it becomes…you know these messages are in some ways, disciplinary. Right? Like they’re they would be punitive even if they are…I mean, that’s how the institution kind of regulates our inclusion, all sorts of messaging like that.

But I mean, what is more effective in any kind of institution that relies on power is to make people feel that precarity so fundamentally, or to feel that insufficiency or to, I mean, that’s like a neoliberal impulse, right? That who is being seen to be deficient or defective or, you know, pathological or all of these things, right?

So, you know, maybe those messages are precisely for us, which is discouraging.

Ethel Tungohan 15:10
You are making me feel so many things right now. You’re right. Because you know what I feel when I see these messages? I mean, I’ve internalized the need to hustle and to grind. I mean, these are the Asian immigrant or maybe a universally immigrant mentality, right? You’ve got to hustle, we’ve got to grind. What’s that line in Hamilton? We can’t…no one’s gonna take away my shot, right? And so I see these messages, and even as I’m drowning–literally drowning in family care work, in care work for the institution, for my colleagues, for the community–I see this and I think there’s a lack in me. And so I don’t sleep and I hustle. I try to finish, I try to write. More frequently, I don’t write while I’m sitting in my office awash with guilt. And so I’m thinking, yeah, absolutely. It’s a form of institutional gaslighting. You’re right, it is meant for us.

Nisha Nath 16:10
All of us, know other women of color or Black, Indigenous women of color who then become sick because of the institution, right?

Ethel Tungohan 16:22
What do you mean by sick, like physically sick, or just like mentally fatigued?

Nisha Nath 16:25
Yeah, like ill. I mean, we’ve all…I think ill in all sorts of ways. And maybe, you know, these responses of illness, what happens to our body, is not just like, kind of this deficient response. But it’s actually a healthy response that is saying, no, what is happening to you in this context, when nobody’s checking in, where the care is only coming from you and not back towards you, our bodies respond. I mean, there’s only so many years that one can engage in that kind of work without it taking a toll on bodies, which becomes why these circles become so important. Because we become the spaces of care that actually keep us to some degree well, or healthy. And that’s the work of the institution. We’re like managing the crisis of the institution by caring for each other.

Ethel Tungohan 17:32
The institution, the academy tries to get, get, get. It’s very extractive, right? Like, and I don’t mean this in an Instagram, hashtag self care sort of way. But how do you try to kind of maintain your sense of self to maintain these boundaries as we plod through this?

Nisha Nath 17:50
I don’t have answers, because I think my boundaries are very poor. Like they’re terrible. I work all the time. I don’t feel well. Right? I work constantly, I have very few boundaries. But I think going back to, you know, maybe some of the questions that animate this beautiful podcast that I’m so excited about, and then even in offering us this opportunity to talk to you today, these questions about, you know what don’t you know, right, in terms of, of being like a first generation university student or PhDs, person academic in one’s family. I think that part of what I am only now just understanding around boundaries, is having a more critical lens on what those asks are. So not every ask is an opportunity.

Ethel Tungohan 18:54
That’s so important. You’re right, I’m going to put this on my board because I have a whiteboard here, right? Not every ask is an opportunity. I need to learn this. Because you know, as someone who’s first gen, you think, oh, they’re asking or they’re looking out for my career. You know, this will be good for my CV. That ain’t true. Right? In some cases, maybe. But in a lot of cases, no.

Mariam Georgis 19:22
If you’re on the job market, like I am, literally, everything becomes strategy, everything because it becomes like I can’t say no, because I have to be so…people have to know my name before they hire me. I have to keep doing, doing, doing, doing. Like Nisha I have no boundaries. I work all the time. And I never noticed that until I had kids. Because my kids will say…my kid is two and a half. And he says “no mama work,” because he thinks I work all day long. But I keep doing it. I keep applying for everything that comes my way. I keep saying yes to everything that gets asked. Because I’m not in a position to say no.

Ethel Tungohan 20:12
And I think people, some of the people who make these requests know that you’re not in a position to say no, hence the ask, right?

Mariam Georgis 20:22
And it’s, it’s different when you have that lineage of academics in your family and when you don’t. And even if you…just your whole…like, nobody told me what grad school was, nobody told me what it was about. Nobody told me what it would be like. Nobody…I didn’t even know how to apply to grad school. I didn’t even know how to apply to undergrad, I didn’t know how to apply to universities. I didn’t know what SSHRC was. I never applied. I never applied because I never knew what it was. I never knew what any award was. I never got any awards, I had no idea they existed. Literally, I didn’t even know how to pick courses. I had to learn how to apply for financial aid. Without even knowing what I was signing for. I just knew I needed it to go to school, I didn’t know what the terms were or how I would pay it back or anything like that. I had no idea. I had no idea what it would feel like to sit in class with this person talking about anything that had anything to do with me and think that’s not real life. Literally, like, I had no clue. Nobody told me this, I was the first one. And I…and I…it’s not just feeling alone. Writing an email gives me anxiety. That’s why I actually would have preferred someone tell me, you’ll feel lonely. You’ll feel out of place. You’ll always feel brown. I didn’t go through life thinking I was brown all the fucking time. Right? But, but you learn quick, you don’t belong here.

Ethel Tungohan 22:11
Well let’s talk a little bit about like mentorship and teaching and your academic aunties and the people who you’ve mentored through teaching, right? And I think we talk about impact. And I must say, like, I feel in this last year alone, showing compassion and being compassionate, and being a human being has made such an impact on students. And having people be kind to me, as well has made an impact. Right? Like, what does it say about academia when a student being like, look, I just want to check in to make sure that you’re okay because we’re touching on topics that are deeply personal in our real life. What does it say when someone says that, and you kind of tear up and you’re thinking, wow, yeah, thank you for the check in.

Mariam Georgis 23:06
Let me tell you, I’ve been taught by many, many great scholars, great scholars who’ve had huge impacts in their, in their fields. All of them act differently. But I’ll tell you something, the ones who come from places like I do have in common: They check in. Right, because they know that their their job is not to just give me knowledge or go through hoops or whatever it is, right? Because they are people too, or they might have experienced that too, or whatever it is. I remember when I was doing my dissertation, ISIS happened. Totally fucked up my everything. Right? Nobody asked me how I felt how I was doing what was going on. I couldn’t even breathe sometimes. Except my supervisor. He’s from Iran. Right? And so he knew why I wasn’t doing any work when he checked in. So instead of being like, yo, where the hell are..where’s your stuff? Right? So when I walk into his office and say, I don’t really feel like my work matters at all, who gives a shit, people are dying. People I’m writing about are dying. So like, what does it matter? Right? But he knows to check in. He comes from somewhere where that could happen. Where that has happened. Right? He writes about people that that happens to and I think that’s the difference. Right? So I thinkit’s easy for someone like you to adopt that kind of practice. I think other people have to kind of, in a lot of ways rethink what their job is, what they’re doing at the institution. What they’re doing as scholars as researchers, right? And it’s not just to drum in a specific kind of knowledge. Right? But it’s also to be people, especially in our field where it’s about people, like, what is political science, if not about people?

Ethel Tungohan 25:17
Auntie Nisha, who checks in with you?

Nisha Nath 25:20
You know, I’ve had key people in my life in terms of my academic life that I would not have survived this without, you know? My PhD supervisor, my MA supervisor, my, I mean, you know, good friends, like, you know, Dr. Rita Dhamoon is like a huge person that continues to support me and make me survive, right? So I think the other piece here about all of our inclinations to support and check in and inhabit that affect, are occurring within this reality of an institution that never checks in on us. Never, ever, ever, ever. It’s only individuals within, right, as Mariam was saying, you know, individuals where we can reflect on why and where and how they’ve come to inhabit that affect or that need to check in. But that just creates a really hard dynamic, especially if, as you were saying over the past year, where I’m sure all of us have been checking in with our students and really trying to lift and support them through this and that takes a huge toll on us in an institution that never checks in. Right? In fact, thrives on not checking in. The institution can’t survive if it were to check in because then everything would just be exposed.

Ethel Tungohan 27:07
Thank you Auntie Nisha and Auntie Mariam for sharing space with us today.

Nisha Nath 27:12
It was just good to chat.

Mariam Georgis 27:14

Ethel Tungohan 27:17
That’s Academic Aunties for this month. If you enjoyed this podcast, rate, review us and subscribe on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. That’s also where you can find all of our show notes for today. Academic Aunties is hosted by me, Dr. Ethel Tungohan, and produced by myself and Wayne Chu. Tune in next time when we talk to more academic aunties. Until then, take care, be kind to yourself, and don’t be an asshole.

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