Self-centeredness is the core of organizational politics in the university. The antidote for fear and loathing in the academy is a pedagogy of engagement, which means consideration for others.

Veteran scholars gather around coffee and engage in “Camelot talk,” conversations about the glory days of departments and times when standards seemed more rigorous and plain. Neophyte scholars are disappointed their dream of strolling contemplatively across green campus lawns has proved  a mirage: they are, instead, treading anxiously among the thorns of tenure, promotion, merit structures, and a  working life that seems  so much less than  promised. Fear and loathing underscore what are becoming professors’ common laments that academic culture is in a state of decline.

A PhD dissertation completed at the University of Alberta exposed academics as a rather unhappy and hopeless group; only two of 20 professors interviewed in the study described their academic life in positive terms. Most said they “hated” their jobs. This sample may be small, but it is corroborated by our own observations — many of us are wounded —and the same can be said of the system. We view this condition of disease as a pedagogy of disengagement and wish for restoration of hope brought about by understanding the sources of the malignancies. We wish to offer some strategies to inspire a pedagogy of engagement.

A pedagogy of disengagement

A pedagogy of disengagement results when academics accept a way of being plagued with paternalism, patronization, imposition, and cultural arrogance in which we presume our colleagues’ needs. Professors complain about perceived loss of control over their time and work; they feel that the work of the university (administration, service, etc.) has overtaken their “own work,” even if the stated ideal is one of individual self-governance. A fatalistic attitude eclipses agency. The disengaged believe there is nothing they can do to change or influence the academic environment. “This is not what I signed up for” or “I have to play the game” are the pedestrian versions of this state.

What is worse, perhaps, is that this existence has become normalized to the point where professors fail to see the academy’s slip, from lofty ivory tower filled with those pursuing the meaning of life (Kronman, 2007) to an iron cage where questioning is disallowed or futile and someone else’s rules are supreme. Neither chosen nor intentionally cultivated, this Zeitgeist of resignation reflects Whiteheadian notions of things we take for granted. Essentially, disengagement not only describes the academy but is the academy.

In light of the above, if we accept that our social world is constructed, our constructed knowledge shapes us. In Thomistic terms, operation follows being. The architecture of the university — salary negotiations, promotion, merit systems, expectations to secure research funds — is a “truth” that professors are compelled to live by, and this “reality”’ of the academy encourages self-promotion and the dismantling of communitarian philosophies. Consequently, for many professors the academic life is bereft of pleasure, joy, and camaraderie. As cocaine is to Thompson’s Las Vegas, competition, fear, and isolation are to the lost academic.

Sources of tension in the academy

The academy is a changing place, and its shifts are creating tension between how academics experience their work and what they imagined would be the best job in the world. The academy increasingly operates within a functionalist paradigm. The integration of knowledge into national economic structures has created a dogmatic commitment to instrumentalism (Furedi, 2004). Because universities are competing globally, what is deemed the hallmark of a university’s success — production of its workers measured by graduation rates, research dollars, publications, patents, etc. — is an imperative passed down to the professoriate. We see how this stifles impulses towards community in our own institutions.

Disengagement takes many forms: self-protection, self-assertion, self-censorship of ideas that might challenge status quo, isolation, and suspicion of, or disdain for, those who seem content. The academic thing has become disconnected from the why or who, and a strong academic announces in private that she cannot wait to retire from “this academic gig.”

Self-centeredness is at the core of the organizational politics of the university. One becomes adept at ranking forms of work and positioning herself to capture finite resources. A first-year education professor who recently declined working with educators in the field described the choice in terms of his need to think and write. Tacit, crude distinctions between “real” academics who theorize and publish and “consolation” academics who engage in service-oriented activity (or perhaps the distinction works the other way) is symbolic of a systemic “legalism” that enforces a new order that can, and does, entrap us. However academics define their work is partly up to them. Our point is merely that the privileging of activity and the pressures for solitary greatness are causing some of us to loathe our jobs and sometimes ourselves. We are led to believe we must be stars shining in conspicuity, yet constellation is what creates The Academy.

Rudyard Kipling described creative writing as a process in which one must “drift, wait and obey.” Though research is a creative process, the time to develop ideas seems to be endangered. Annual review, tenure, and promotion depend on proving oneself in terms of time-specific, measurable items. The better — and the more quickly — we can crank out publications, the faster we rise. In such a mechanical world, we close our doors and turn off our lights to feign absence and engage in our “personal universities.” Or, we stay away and inadvertently contribute to the shift of the university from intellectual space to physical place, the very change we seem to resent. As Rubin (2004, 75) reminds us, “Obsessions are deadly mirrors … we become what we behold.”

Talk of the tenure clock reverberates in new professors’ minds,  so passionless projects are taken on because we are told they will look good on the c.v.; we compete for research grants given by organizations whose values we do not embrace; we lust after sexy topics because they are lucrative but, when we are in bed with them, we feel uninspired. We become academically promiscuous from  fear of not being loved by The Academy. This doesn’t always happen, but it happens.

Recently, a distinction between “basic” and “applied” or “commercial” research has surfaced. In part because of our current economic crisis, applied research that has an immediate impact on the labour market seems to have more currency as mentioned on In fact, the cultivation of intellectual curiosity without a definite sense of its impact is seen as frivolous and irresponsible within the corporatizing framework of the university. Though we do not wish to disparage enterprise as an activity in itself, we want to remember that living for ideas, rather than living off them was why we entered the academy in the first place. But many of us have internalized the very aspects of the academy that we wish to challenge (Donoghue, 2008). This internalization has helped us to build ideologies that rationalize a certain poverty of spirit.

The university adjudicates us individually, and yet there are expectations (and intuitions?) to be collaborative and inter-disciplinary. How do we reconcile individualism with the need to work with and learn from others? We are communal by nature. Yet, we know professors who have gone through the tenure process successfully and have been told to have more single-authored publications. Those who have mostly single-authored publications are told to do more co-authored work. We are told that our “local” work and service is strong but that international work is more valuable – because the reputation of service is more valuable than service itself. This is confusing and leads us to embrace academic gamesmanship more than scholarly study. At the heart of this tension is that  accountability mechanisms breed fear, competition, and what Stephen Ball calls  the “poetics of fabrication“, where working together means little more than colleagues’ agreeing to add each others’ names to publications so that each can have yet one more line on the c.v.

It is out of our obedience that all this happens. We are champions of excellence. We are achievement-oriented and goal-driven. We want to do well; we are well-meaning; we want to respect our systems. We are told a “researcher” develops expertise by following a trajectory, so we get on the path and hold fast to it. We do not stop to smell the proverbial roses. We learn that there is no space for Kipling’s drifting, no time for his waiting. Perhaps we believe that if we forfeit the fun now, if we get just one more publication, attend just one more conference, then we can do what we really want. But, deep down, we know better: we are coming to expect that then never will come.

We want something different. What we really want is a pedagogy of engagement.

The pedagogy of engagement

Aristotle noted that humans are social animals distinguished by rationality. Community requires people-centered activity.  Fostering a pedagogy of engagement means professors must act as catalysts in encouraging dialogues and relationships. We must generate mutual self-interest. Thus, a pedagogy of engagement is an ethical stance because it recognizes and elevates human agency. If we live with such intentionality, then we can counter the victimhood stance that is perforating the academic will. If we engage in our world as victims, and we view events as happenings we cannot  shape, we become overwhelmed by a deep psychological cynicism from which there appears to be no escape, leaving us  no rational choice except to become deeply unhappy. If, however,  we have a philosophy of action based on the combination of knowledge and will, we will have impact upon our environment and, thus, ourselves in it.

Creating a pedagogy of engagement

What lies at the heart of saving the academic’s dream? Our strategies rely on an assumption that whatever ails the system does not have to ail us. A pedagogy of engagement implies consideration of others. Chemists tell us that a catalytic agent induces change without confounding or altering the molecular structure of the host elements. In catalysis, the host elements are released from inhibitive structures. If scholarship is to be viewed as the highest moral pursuit, it must aim both to modify and release others from domination. Abiding by a law of physics, two objects may not occupy the same space at the same time; therefore, if we can fill our lives with a pedagogy of engagement, disengagement may be displaced. We can begin by:

  1. Embracing our academic lives as ones of privilege and fortune. To be in the academy is to carry a gift, and with this gift comes responsibility, not entitlement.
  2. Seeking goals that promote partnership but also allow us to cultivate our own passions and compassions.
  3. Envisioning long-term commitments that require us to bring to fruition the knowledge and skills of others, as opposed to honing omni-competence in ourselves, a short-sighted goal that leads us to be promiscuous and non-committal.
  4. Trusting that our individual aspirations and passions will be edified by — not suffocated by — our corporate responsibilities and pursuits. We must liberate ourselves from the fear of losing control and responding with the self-seeking actions that fear promotes.
  5. Acknowledging the complexities of environment, our colleagues, our students, and our publics. By accepting these complexities, we can be gentle to ourselves when we get pulled in less positive directions (e.g. project greediness—taking on work that we don’t really believe in, doing it for the money). At the same time, we must refrain from oversimplifying in either direction; academic work is neither beyond our control nor always within it. If we orient ourselves to the pursuit of truth and knowledge in the traditional sense, our integrity will be a trustworthy guide.

Final thoughts

Do professors hate their jobs? To ask the question is to know the answer. The culture of the academy is sick and needs to be healed. The pervasive unhappiness is the result of a moral disease perpetrated by both the unconscious individual (the academic as person) and the academy itself.

At the heart of our fear and loathing, if we can accept it as that, is a despondency that our dream is fading. Consider this: on the occasion of being awarded Norway’s Holberg Prize in August 2009, Canadian professor Ian Hacking described curiosity as his “governing world.” Hacking is a self-proclaimed dilettante with interests in too many topics. Isn’t this what our academic dreams were about? If so, perhaps dreams can come true.

Bonnie Stelmach is an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Administration, University of Saskatchewan. Jim Parsons is a professor in the Department of Secondary Education, University of Alberta.  William C. Frick is an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Leadership & Policy Studies, University of Oklahoma.


Donoghue, F. (2008). The last professors: The corporate university and the fate of the humanities. New York: Fordham University Press.
Furedi, (2004). Where have all the intellectuals gone? (2nd ed.). London: Continuum.
Kronman, A.T. (2007). Education’s end: Why our colleges and universities have given up on the meaning of life. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Rubin, H. (2004) Dante in Love: The World’s Greatest Poem and How It Made History. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Valpy, M. (2009, August 26). From autism to determinism, science to soul. The Globe and Mail.