Guilty, as charged


I’ve been thinking about guilt lately. Academic guilt. And why I seem to feel it – a lot.

The most recent guilt ridden occasion was just last weekend. The week before I’d been away for four days at a conference. I’d left home at 5 am on Tuesday and arrived back at 2 30 am on Saturday. Gah. Just the way the flights worked out. But it did mean that on Saturday I couldn’t do much more than get my laundry done. Shattered doesn’t really describe it. And on Sunday I got up quite early, blogged, did slides for two presentations I had to give on Tuesday and sorted out some urgent research project admin. That took me to a late lunch and then I stopped. Stopped but feeling guilty that I hadn’t done more.

Guilty that I hadn’t

  • responded to a colleague’s paper that I’d promised to read
  • read and fed back on a long thesis chapter I‘ve had for about two weeks
  • finished the reviews on a special issue

Let alone

  • written a very overdue review of two books
  • revised two collaborative research papers that have been stuck for quite some time
  • done any more on a book which is due alarmingly soon
  • gone back to the draft paper I am co-writing with a PhDer….

I could keep adding to the list of things not done, but these are the particular set that were associated with feeling guilty.

Now, I’m pretty sure that if I asked a number of my colleagues they would come up with a todo list too. The details would be different, but in common would be things that are urgent that aren’t done, and things that are nearly as urgent and should be done. By woukd they feel guilty about them? Is there a pattern in what I feel guilty about? Because, you see, not everything on my todo list induces guilt.

My guilt comes from the fact that I haven’t got to things where other people are involved. People that are important to me. It’s the people I’m letting down that matter. I don’t feel particularly guilty for instance that I haven’t quite sorted out my ORCID although I can see that it could be helpful. I don’t feel guilty that I haven’t recommended any books to the library or that I haven’t checked lately to see if my online profile is coherent. No. My guilt happens because I am holding up other people and potentially causing them to lose time, adjust their schedules, scrabble around to fill the gap that I have created. This kind of guilt is a low level feeling of worry, of unhappiness that I am harming, or will harm another person.

And my guilt goes beyond the current situation. Although I do get things done, the guilty feeling remains. Guilt seems to be an endemic academic emotion, well, certainly for me. I am never caught up. I always have people hanging on what I am not doing. Therefore, I compel myself to work on the weekend, regularly, as means to keep a vague check on the list of things that affect other people, the list that I can’t ever actually completely manage.

So I’m pondering. Is guilt integral to the performativity of the contemporary academy? Is it an essential emotional companion to the intensification and acceleration of academic work? If emotion sits between ‘structure and agency’, then system is certainly implicated.

Well –  maybe yes and maybe no. If all I had to do was to satisfy abstract bureaucratic measures then I wouldn’t be nearly so keen to get things done. It is, perhaps somewhat perversely, a kind of resistance, a desire for academic relationships that are pushing my guilt…

So there is no point telling me to take time off. Nor to adopt some fancy new kind of time management system. Nor to try out some kind of life hack. Nor to say no. Nor to just make better choices. I know all this and I can actually do all of those things thanks very much – my point here is that I choose not to – because guilt is not about personal management… Academic guilt as I experience it is not amenable to simple and rational intervention, because (certainly in my case) it is a response that comes from a commitment to maintaining a sociality and relationality that is fragile and undercut by competition, audit and abrasive organisational cultures. It is deeply, and at the same time as personal, profoundly structural and systemic.

Well that’s my current theory.

Guilt keeps me working on those things that might support collegiality, a gift economy, a more generous academic culture… and yes, it’s clear how this is also simultaneously made risky when it’s impossible to meet promises and expectations.

I guess I’m just wondering aloud, and in public, how widespread academic guilt is. Is it now a common form of academic emotional labour?  How important is guilt, driven by an ethic of care, to the regulation and completion of academic work in the contemporary university?