GenX women in higher ed from around the globe

Academia: Utopia or Dystopia?

In Under the Rain With No Umbrella on 2010/06/14 at 09:00

Itir Toksöz, writing from Istanbul, Turkey

I’d like to warn our dear readers: This piece is likely to be a somewhat dark one.

Here I am about to end another academic year and maybe for the first time in my life, in the past few weeks I have felt the need to do a retrospective evaluation of the whole year, maybe even an evaluation of my entire academic life. Actually, I know that my teaching and research experiences are enriched by each passing year and I always take a mental note of these experiences. However, for the first time since the year 2000, when I first started teaching, I have the opportunity to express my opinions on academic matters to a wider population thanks to this column at the University of Venus.

I would like to offer two conflicting perspectives in order to discuss which one is more relevant to my experience:

The perspective number 1 would be called “Academia as Utopia”. In that perspective, I’d see academia as a place with an efficient and motivating administration and with dearly held ideals for real progress, where students’ lives are enriched, their views changed, their knowledge multiplied. In that sense, one would see academia as a rational wizard of transformation towards better people, better generations and better societies.

The perspective number 2 would be just the opposite and would be called “Academia as Dystopia”. In that perspective, I’d see academia as a place where all the above optimism is shattered, where the efforts to create better people, better generations, better societies prove to be in vain. It would signal a hierarchical, ineffective, status-quo oriented organizational structure coupled with human flaws such as jealousy, laziness, greed and a student body unwilling to invest in learning.

From one side when I grade exam papers where students used their analytical skills and made valuable arguments, caught significant comparison points or when I come across a student who ended up turning in a good graduation project or when I attend the defenses of the 4th year students’ graduation projects and observe how their spoken English as well as their presentation skills improved, I tend to see academia as a utopia which we can hope and aim to reach. The same thing happens when individual faculty members are acknowledged and applauded for good teaching and research by their colleagues and superiors or when I hear successful projects or publications of other faculty members. I then think that what we do means something, that all the rain we have to absorb without an umbrella is actually worth it.

Unfortunately from the other side when I come across plagiarized student papers or when I have students who refuse to even do the readings or when I have to fail students who do very poorly on the exams, my perspective shifts to that of a dystopia. On top of those, when the superiors remain indifferent to faculty members’ efforts and keep on demanding more, when hierarchy becomes more valuable than capacity and merit, when faculty members are often left with too many administrative duties, the sense of a dystopian academia gets even darker.

Experience mostly shows me that the reality oscillates between these two perspectives. However two major points bother me: First of all, I am not so sure how healthy this oscillation is. Secondly, I have been observing lately that the dystopian picture reflects more of my experience than the utopian one.

A utopia is an ideal hard to reach. However to hold on to an ideal in the face of stark truth is where the hope lies. Hope may be the only thing that shields us under a heavy rain of frustrations.  When the frustrations are too much to bear and bring me closer to a dystopian perspective, I leave the daily academic life aside for a second and think of initiatives like the University of Venus to serve as a kiss of life, for University of Venus represents the utopian face of academia for me.

Itir Toksöz

Photo of Itir taken by photographer Erzade Ertem.

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  1. Students never change but I want to hold on the possibility that the administrative body will, one day. As you know, bureaucracy could be exhausting and if you are in Turkey this could be even perishing:) Since you’ve done with grading, It’s time to go to the Eagean Coast, Itır:)

    • You are correct. students are similar in many places. working in an international setting may present more problems and issues. like youmention the bureacracy will exhaust and push you to the limit. remembering the reason for the academic journey may be a help to you .

  2. Dystocia, or a poor fit may describe the inability of students to fit into the expectations of a course. the reasons may be anything from lack of motivation to a lack of understanding of exactly what the expectations may be. working to equalize the disparity of the ill fit of the classroom and the student that is not fitting into the academic process may be a chore. taking a breather for the educator/facilitator must be allowed. give yourself a break take soem time off and next semester there may be more light at the beginning and the problems of the past may not be as dominant. techers who question and allow some frustration to be seen are able to work thru these problems and move to a different path that may displace the dystocia or poor fit of the student to the classroom.

  3. Being a part of the academic circle is a great satisfaction in many ways for people who really like the job they do. There is an endless research opportunity, an environment to share similar interests, a chance to be with the younger generation witnessing the change of habits, etc. Doesn’t it sound like a commercial? Happy academics, happy administrative staff, happy students in their bright and clean clothings with big smiles on their faces under the bright sun -of course without an umbrella-?! Well, academia is not always this optimistic. We all encounter difficulties almost everyday. I noticed that when two or three of us come together, we always discuss the problems that we face in the academic world, not the good things. I guess we have a bad influence on each other. Maybe we need to remind ourselves why we have chosen this path and try to dream -that a utopia is possible.

  4. seems to me that the discussion that often follows between to academics (or anyone for that matter)tends to focus on the down side or the less optimistic topics. human nature to discuss what is not so great, we seem to take pride in having the inside scooop! I am not sure that this a bad influnce so much as just the way we are wired. things that do not go the correct way give us time for reflection and an opporutnity for evaluation to improve methods.

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