The Challenges of Academia and Finding Positivity during the Pandemic

The Challenges of Academia and Finding Positivity during the Pandemic

Sociology

By Myron Strong

There is a sadness in parts of academia, facilitated by toxic structures like outdated tenure systems, labor exploitation, unrealistic research demands, financial constraints, isolation, and COVID-19, to name just a few. And as I go on Twitter and scroll through posts, there is so much pain from professors and students and I am reminded of Jay Z’s song Song Cry:

I can’t see ’em comin down my eyes
So I gotta make the song cry.”

Some social media posts often convey a sense of hopelessness from academics, and even if I cannot see the tears coming down their eyes, I can feel them. Without question academia can be a challenging place and the pandemic and magnified existing problems. Yet how can we begin to fully understand the world and how to solve problems if we are caught in a web or sorrow and misery?

To explore happiness does not mean you are not socially aware and ignore problems, it is about putting yourself in a state that allows the best version of yourself to emerge.

Recently, I have been revisiting early pandemic writings. This experience has given me the drive and power to push on. The global shift in the world’s cultures made many scholars theorize that now is the time to envision a new world. For example, in her essay “Society After Pandemic,” sociologist Alondra Nelson ends by saying  that we must create “knowledge pathways to a better worlds.” Better worlds, huh? What are better worlds?

When I saw a Tweet from a young scholar who was excited about reviewing for a journal, I  remembered and appreciate how I felt the first time I was asked to do a review. I recalled how excited I was when I first reviewed for a peer-reviewed journal in the discipline. The anticipation and giddiness made me feel like  a knowledge holder who can shape the future. I recalled that feeling again this summer as I reviewed article after article for different journals.  The memory fueled me, and reminded me what I was in this profession for.

If writing is authentic, people put parts of themselves in it. They deserve respect, support and most of all encouragement and validation so they know that their effort is valued. I remember going to my first conference in grad school and how the cliques and gatekeepers made many of us  feel isolated. But nevertheless, I was excited for the journey to be involved in the mainstream of the discipline, to make changes, of which I see many.

While I know that our social self is largely defined by social context, happiness is not completely connected to our social situations. Lemon Swamp and Other Places: A Carolina Memoir by Mamie Garvin Fields with Karen Fields reminded me that even during Jim Crow, Blacks were able to find happiness. It was the first time I thought about the fact that we often view ourselves through the gaze of the dominant culture. It is limitation to understand and our view of hope. Blacks took Jesus and made him a revolutionary and produce science, art, philosophy, music that had a lasting effect.

We take so much for granted that is often hard to think about gains and wins the little things that make us excited. This pandemic has made us think about inequalities and oppression. But it also created a sort of alienation from the memories and feelings that are the very core of who we are.

After I saw that post on Twitter, I realized that creating new paths takes more than just having the intellectual understanding of problems;  there must also be the intellectual curiosity and imagination to do so.

So, while it is hard not to be cynical sometimes, remember that core motivation and interests may help shape us. I am not suggesting ignoring personal struggles or social problems, but instead tapping into your curiosity, happiness, and hope.  Don’t forget that part of you that rushed home from school to play kickball or video games, or chased butterflies or taking apart computers, or picked up dirt and intently studied it.

There are some cultures and scientific theories that suggest time is  circular, rather than linear. We do not live our lives in sequence of point after another, but rather all the points in our lives exist already in a circle. If time is circular, then we are simultaneously winning while we are suffering. The lessons we learn from the past and present help create a better future.

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