Notes on the Academy has now been in operation for a little over a year. We have tried, during this period, to bring you a perspective on academia that is both honest and hopeful.
Why did we start this project? All too often, honest criticism of academia that is offered in good-faith is either blunted to begin with, or ignored entirely. Talking about academia can be very confusing: form is routinely confused for essence, process is almost always mistaken for substance, and a forensic dissection of petty intrigues is what passes for structural criticism. Matters are confused further by groups within academia that actively disorganise and scuttle any meaningful resistance. We wanted to change the way certain conversations are had. Every new crisis reminds us that our work is far from done and, happily, that there is much to learn in the process.
With this in mind, we feel the moment is ripe for an expansion in our activities. Starting soon, Notes on the Academy will have two brand new sections.
The past year has witnessed a striking number of deaths by suicide at institutions of higher learning in India. It is often difficult to talk about these events, tragic and inexplicable as they are. Harder still is the task of navigating the discourse surrounding suicide and its prevention that inevitably follows. A reliable pattern of response has now been established, to which all concerned parties hew closely:
- University press offices rush out statements, careful to distance themselves of all blame. Committees will be formed, which in a few weeks or months will invariably find that although it was all really very tragic, the only effective mitigation strategy is to spread “awareness”.
- Tenured professors on Twitter will bemoan the loss of young, talented academics, and remind their followers of the importance of mental health and “getting help” in a timely and responsible fashion. They assure us that they too appreciate the pressures of being a young academic, having also been young academics once. For their part, students on Twitter will retweet these exhortations; most of them will do so mechanically but a few will do so with anger and passion that inspires hope.
- Journalists interfacing with academia will mutter words like “systemic” and “structural” and quote tweet university press handles, focusing their criticism on how sentences are phrased. Some will commission articles on the ballooning crisis of mental health in academia, informed by what passes for progressive senior academics, and occasionally counsellors with experience treating mental illness.
- Most of the above parties will congratulate each other on a job well done. Any differences that arise in this churning are buried, or left unaddressed.
Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
We believe that, like us, our readers are inundated with and sick of mental health advisories, op-eds, and press releases. Instead, we’re going to try and understand this crisis of mental health as an inevitable outcome of the way academia is organised.
This article is a compilation of my thoughts, mostly disagreement and criticism (or rather a myriad of questions I have) of Inventa – the endeavor started by a group of students from various elite science institutes (IISERs, NISER, CEBS & IISc) to communicate science.
On their website, they say, “As students of science, we believe it to be of utmost importance to be able to communicate the fruit of our [scientific] work, to the masses” (emphasis mine). As agreed by many fellow researchers, it is our responsibility to communicate our science to a broader audience. But, my question is, who are the masses?
For a student of science life is confusing. When I started I always had a clear idea – the beauty in mathematical formalism, the joy in creating and understanding phenomenon in a lab, the pleasure of learning why something is the way it is, the fascination of reading about great minds of the past and the desire to unlock some unknown mystery of nature.
Gradually I reached an advanced stage in the process. I realized that science isn’t simply joy, it is also applying for PhDs and projects and after that for postdocs and faculty positions. It is about impressing people and making the right connections.
It has been 17 months since the first of a series of pandemic related lockdowns in the country, and working class livelihoods have yet to recover from its devastating consequences. Hamara Manch has come up with a series of reports on the conditions of campus workers during this period (all the reports, including the ones cited here, are available at: https://nirvaakiitk.wordpress.com/). We have also reported that the conditions of workers have become qualitatively worse after the second wave, especially for those who work in the hostels.
- In June this year, we brought out a report on the conditions of women mess workers, most of whom are the only earning member in their family and who have been practically without any work for 15 months. As the wages have stopped, so has the ESI support, leading to a severe medical crisis for the workers. As narrated in the report, one woman mess worker in her 20s, who is unlettered with two small children, has a husband whose both kidneys have failed. Without ESI support, she now needs to find Rs. 30,000 every month for just the dialysis.
- One work that has been going on all along amidst the pandemic is construction. Some of these women mess workers tried to find work on a construction site, and from them, we came to know that all the women construction workers on one site were fired in July 2021. When Hamara Manch went to enquire about it to one of the residential sites of the construction workers, we found that they were living in containers that are generally used for shipping/transportation. Twenty persons were packed in each container in these times of ‘social distancing’! A young woman died on the same day due to a lack of access to any medical facility.
- In August, over a thousand workers signed a letter addressed to the community seeking support for a dignified existence, mentioning that some of them do not even have the money to get the free government-provided rations milled.
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