Pandemic Burnout in Academia

Virginia Gewin, writing for Nature:

Even before the pandemic, many researchers in academia were struggling with poor mental health. Desiree Dickerson, an academic mental-health consultant in Valencia, Spain, says that burnout is a problem inherent in the academic system: because of how narrowly it defines excellence, and how it categorizes and rewards success. “We need to reward and value the right things,” she says.

Yet evidence of empathetic leadership at the institutional level is in short supply, says Richard Watermeyer, a higher-education researcher at the University of Bristol, UK, who has been conducting surveys to monitor impacts of the pandemic on academia. Performative advice from employers to look after oneself or to leave one day a week free of meetings to catch up on work is pretty superficial, he says. Such counsel does not reduce work allocation, he points out.

Academia has a rampant problem in how it is professionally configured. To get even a short term contract, now, requires a CV that would have been worthy of tenure twenty or thirty years ago. Which means that, when someone is hired as an assistant professor (with a 3-6 year probation period) they are already usually more qualified than their peers of the past and have to be prolific in the work that they contribute to and output, and do so with minimal or no complaints so as to avoid any problems in their transition from assistant to associate professor (i.e., full-time and sometimes protected employee).

Once someone has gone through the gauntlet, they come to expect that others should go through it as well: if the current generation can cut it, then surely the next generation of hires should be able to as well if they’re as ‘good’ as the current generation. Which means that those who were forced into an unsustainable work environment that routinely eats into personal time, vacation time (i.e., time when you use vacation days to catch up on other work that otherwise is hard to get done), child rearing time, and so forth, expect that those following them do the same.

Add into this the fact that most academic units are semi-self governing, and those in governorship positions (e.g., department chairs, deans) tend to lack any actual qualifications in managing a largely autonomous workforce and cannot rebalance work loads in a systemically positive way so as to create more sustainable working environments. As a result of a lack of formal management skills, these same folks tend to be unable to identify the issues that might come up in a workforce/network of colleagues, and they are also not resourced to know how to actually treat the given problem. And all of this presumes they are motivated to find and resolve problems in the first place. This very premise is often found faulty, given that those who are governing are routinely most concerned with the smooth running of their units and, of course, may keep in mind any junior colleagues who happen to cause ‘problems’ by expecting assistance or consideration given the systemic overwork that is the normal work-life imbalance.

What’s required is a full-scale revolt in the very structure of university departments if work-life balance is to be truly valued, and if academics are to be able to satisfy their teaching, service, and research requirements in the designated number of working hours. While the job is often perceived as very generous–and it is, in a whole lot of ways!–because you (ideally) have parts of it that you love, expecting people to regularly have 50-75 hour work weeks, little real downtime, little time with family and friends, and being placed on a constant treadmill of outputs is a recipe for creating jaded, cynical, and burned out professionals. Sadly, that’s how an awful lot of contemporary departments are configured.

Shifting from Mendeley to Zotero: A Real PITA

(Photo by Andre Hunter on Unsplash)

Over the course of the pandemic I’ve finally built up a good workflow for annotating papers and filing them in a reference manager. Unfortunately, the reference manager that I’ve been using announced this week that they were terminating all support for their mobile and desktop apps and pushing everything into the cloud, which entirely doesn’t work with my workflow.

This means that I’m giving Zotero another shot (I tried them back when I was doing my PhD and the service wasn’t exactly ready for popular use at the time). On the plus side, Zotero has a good set of instructions for how to import my references from Mendeley. On the negative side, Mendeley has made this about as painful as possible: they encrypt the local database so you need to move back to an older version of the application and they then force you to manually download all of the documents which are attached to entries before the full bibliographic entries can be exported to another reference manager like Zotero. They have also entirely falsely asserted that the local encryption is required to comply with the GDPR which is pretty frustrating.

On the plus side, the manual labour involved in importing the references is done, though it cost me around two hours of time that could have been used for something that was actually productive. And Zotero has an app for iOS coming, and there is another app called PaperShip which interoperates with Zotero, which should cut down on the hopefully-pretty-temporary pain of adopting a new workflow. However, I’m going to need to do a lot of corrections in the database (just to clean up references) and most likely have start paying another yearly subscription service given that the free tier for Zotero doesn’t clearly meet my needs. Two steps backwards, one step forwards, I guess.



McSweeny’s list, “Critically Acclaimed Horror Film Of The 2010s Or Your Ph.D Program?” strikes eerily close to home.

Number 2, in particular, seems familiar: “You find yourself in an opulent but sinister setting that possesses subtle but undeniable links to antebellum slavery. Everyone who has been there longer than you seems to have completely lost the will to live. You are warned by at least one of them to get out. You try to comply but powerful forces keep pulling you back.”



One of the things I enjoy most about academia is the emphasis on intellectual freedom even when expressing such freedom might be seen as problematic for the University’s commercial interests. Case in point: I was quoted in an article raising concerns that some universities’ contractual agreements to automatically transfer certain 5G telecommunications patents to foreign companies (based on research funded by the same companies) could be disadvantageous to domestic national security. One of the universities that is caught up in the issue is the one employing me. Despite my statements potentially being disadvantageous to my own university’s interests there are no rebukes but, instead, praise for being involved with national issues. If only all employers could be so similarly open-minded!

The Roundup for October 8-28, 2018 Edition

Glass, Rising by Christopher Parsons

Content moderation is something that is fraught with challenges; is too much speech being blocked as a result? Too little bad speech that harms others being permitted? Does moderation enable political actors to distort the public sphere? Enable corporations to advance their interests at the expense of competitors and innovators?

These are all important elements of the ‘content moderation’ debate. But it’s not what has me thinking about moderation at the moment. Instead, it was a more localized environment — a conference setting — that left me with a bad taste in my mouth because of how things were not moderated. Specifically, in a situation where there were only men on a panel addressing threats to electoral processes, another older white man asked how society should deal with cases where women accuse politicians of sexual impropriety, abuse, or other misdeeds: how do we deal with such threats to the political process that run the risk of undermining white men’s abilities to run for office?

The panelists muddled through the question/statement and noted how these disruptions could be challenging for electoral processes. None asserted, as panelists, that women do not tend to allege such activities unless they genuinely happened; women know the costs of making even the most absolutely best-founded allegation, insofar as society will demonize the accuser and tend to shield or defend whomever is accused. Moreover, while an accuser may suffer for the rest of their life for raising the allegations — they may be less likely to be employed, as an example — the accused tends to be fine: they can re-enter society after a minimal ‘cooling off’ period and shrug off the allegation or accusation.

So I was annoyed by the panelists and their decision(s) to not engage with the question head on. But I was most upset that the moderator for the panel didn’t just slap down the ‘question’ and move on: the very fact that the question was upheld as legitimate by the moderator showcased the structural problem that continues to face women who merely want to declare that given persons are, or have been, dangerous. Moderation at the global scale carries with it a unique set of challenges — noted in the opening paragraph — whereas in more localized settings those challenges are remarkably less problematic. It was deeply disappointing that in such a localized setting male white privilege was permitted to reign supreme, with no moderation, though it did affirm to me — and made much clearer — that panel moderators and panelists themselves need to be more affirmative in not accepting the premise of the question in the first place.

And, failing a willingness to stand up and push back against questions that raise doubt about women’s experiences, how people react to such questions at least indicate which men are not committed to equity in a meaningful sense and, as such, are not persons who strike me as suitable to collaborate with on current projects. I just don’t think that I could, or would want to, work with someone who carries a latent suspicion of women either consciously or unconsciously.1 That’s a value-set that I cannot appreciate or understand, and think is fundamentally the latent set of values that had led to the passive approval of individuals and political parties which are substantially committed to the supremacy of (white) men over all other persons in the political commons. And that’s a kind of value-set that needs to be stamped out and have a stake driven through its ideological heart.

Inspiring Quotation of the Week

“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

– Fredrick Douglass

Piece of Poetry

Love after love

The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.

You will love again the stranger who was your self.

Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.

Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

– Derek Walcott

Great Photography Shots

Grey Chow’s astrophotgraphy is absolutely stunning; looking at it, it makes clear that the universe is so much larger than we imagine and surrounds us, though often in ways in which our sense of time prevents us from immediately perceiving.

Music I’m Digging

  • Tom Misch – Reverie (EP) // Misch has a kind of jazzy album which I’m enjoying listening to when I’m cooking or reading, or just generally want to generate a downtempo mood in my home. It’s not the most magical of sounds but it is pleasant to have playing in my backgrounds.
  • Logic’s Bobby Tarantino, Bobby Tarantino II, and YSIV // Logic is a rapper who came from Maryland and, for his first few years, thrived principally on mixtapes. The character/play of the Bobby Tarantino series showcases both a kind of nihilism in the lyrics as well as solid rhythms and poetic inflections, and strong homages to the classic eras of west coast wrap. YSIV has a series of tracks that I’m absolutely captured by: Wu Tang Forever is one of the best Wu Tang songs from the past decade or so, 100 Miles and Running speaks to the challenges and triumphs that come with success, and the final track on the album — Last Call — is a really beautiful story of his life and what he went through to become where he is now. I’ve been listening to logic on near-constant replay for a week and I’m still just picking out more depth and appreciation for the work he’s doing.
  • Abir – Mint (EP) // I’ve been listening to Abir’s 2017 album over a series of playlists for over a year, but it just never struck me that it was part of the same album. That’s not because it lacks cohesion — it does! — and more that I just hadn’t paid sufficient attention to link everything together. The album significantly speaks to being alone, or single, and surviving in the world. Survival, I think, is probably the right word: Tango, Young & Rude, and Finest Hour all speak to the challenges that can arise especially following challenging relationships, or even preceding new ones. The album, on the whole, feels cohesive and as though it could also be merged with a larger series of works to create a narrative arc of relationships through a full album.

Neat Podcast Episodes

  • Modern Love – I Was Hardly the Perfect Fit // This podcast, about a distant father trying to connect with his son who lived with his ex-wife, resonated with me; though the relationship that I had with my own father was notably different, elements of the story sounded similar to the relationship that I had with my own dad. The ending — where the strength of their present relationship was revealed — was painful: it was exactly the kind of relationship I’d have dreamed to one day built with my own father.
  • Lawfare – Jim Baker on AI and Counterintelligence // Jim has a good, broad, assessment of the counterintelligence challenges associated with AI technologies. He isn’t a technologist so the assessment of AI is pretty high level/superficial at the technical level, but the analysis of ways that foreign state actors might interfere with or compromise the development of domestic (USA in this case) AI systems, algorithms, and technologies is relatively comprehensive. It’s a useful listen if you want a good and fast intro to some of the challenges in this space.

Good Reads for the Week

  • Four Hundred And Eighty Two (On Vulnerability // I found this transcription of David Whyte to be beautiful and powerful; the thrust is to unpack what is vulnerability and why it’s not something to run from but to embrace. Fundamentally our relationships, at their core, are best when they involve committing to vulnerability to one another. The pursuit of vulnerable relationships is the pursuit of relationships that matter the most, and resonate the most, throughout the course of our lives.
  • How to get that great “hoppy” beer taste without the exploding bottles // Jennifer Ouellette has a cool story of how Brewer-scientists figured out how dry hopping beer leads to refermentation and, by extension, increases to pressure in cans and bottles. Specifically, brewers can add hops after the heated fermentation process to impart flavours but without significantly contributing to the bitterness that is often associated with hops when they are heated. The culprit to the refermentation was found and that may mean there are fewer exploding dry hopped beers on shelves and homes as brewers take the results to heart.
  • Why Public Transportation Works Better Outside the U.S. // While I may disagree with some of the cheery assessment of Toronto’s transit infrastructure, English’s article nicely summarized the core differences between transit systems in the United States and other jurisdictions around the world. Key is that investment never has stopped in other jurisdictions and urban planners have built transit with the idea of people and businesses then coming to encircle the transit hubs, as opposed to trying to build hubs into existing urban infrastructure.
  • Senate Truce Collapses as G.O.P. Rush to Confirm More Judges Begins Anew // The norms of governance continue to be challenged by the GOP while they seek to transform the quality and types of justice that will likely be meted out in the coming decades. The systematic stacking of the judiciary with Republicans will mean that even should Democrats manage to disrupt and undue the GOP’s gerrymandering and voter suppression efforts, that any legislation they pass will likely undergo undue scrutiny and hostility from an increasingly politicized judicial branch of government.
  • Eight Stories of Men’s Regret // This set of eight stories demonstrate different levels of sexual aggressiveness or assault or inappropriate behaviour. They’re not the sole worst kinds of stories that exist but, in a way, that’s what makes them most significant: they are public revelations of the misdeeds of men that reflect their failures and, in some cases, the social pressures that led to their misdeeds. Those pressures do not excuse the behaviours, nor do they justify them. They do, however, provide a mirror upon which men can see themselves, through these other men, in questioning their own pasts and considering how to engage with other persons in the future.
  • Collapse of ancient city’s water system may have led to its demise // The failure of Angkor’s irrigation and water delivery system is a warning that societies are typically ill-suited to deal with massive changes in weather, let alone climate. It can and should be read as a herald of what may come six centuries later as our politicians and publics steadfastly fail to address the real, serious, and imminent threats posed by climate change.
  • The Goal in Love // I like this essay because it asserts we should be seeking ourselves, first, in our relationships as opposed to trying to find ourselves in the persons we enter into relationships with. Indeed, if I can think of single major lesson I’ve learned in the past few years it is the importance of accepting yourself and not depending on others to enable such acceptance; it’s by being comfortable with ourselves as whole persons that we are able to engage in wholesome relationships with one another.
  • When to Open a Bottle: Aging Wine Without the Anxiety // While I move too often to even contemplate what it would be like to cellar a wine for a decade or more — let along have the space to do so! — this article from the New York Times is helpful in guiding a novice through the process of properly investing, aging, and testing wines that have been cellared.
  • The Ultimate What To Bring Guide // I understand the rationales provided for making sure that you always have all the camera lenses you might need when on vacation, with a focus on covering off a fast prime, as well as having a short-, and long-range zoom. But I actually think that most travel is better done with a pair of lenses, maximum. My preference is a 35mm or 50mm equivalent, and a long-range (e.g. 80mm-300mm) zoom if I’m going to be travelling into the wilderness. I personally find that by having a fixed focal distance I’m inspired to be more creative and mindful of what I’m shooting, and spend more time just shooting as compared to thinking about what lens I need and when I need it.

Cool Things


  1. Yes, people can awaken and change. And so in the future it’s always possible that people holding these values might turn into someone I’d feel comfortable working with. But in the here and now I don’t think it would be appropriate to work with, or support, persons who hold (or at least don’t oppose) such views.


Good: I’m on track to getting a bunch of writing done today! Bad: It’s writing that was foisted on me by an external party and the writing is to their (immediate) deadline. Depressing: All of the writing might get tossed away should their editor decide to can the story.

The reality of a day in the life of a public intellectual…



Peer review is a hit and miss proposition. Sometimes whoever reviews the work is clearly unsuitable. Other times the reviewer’s suggestions would have you write a totally new paper. And other times the reviewer shows how the argument you’re making can be helpfully deepened and strengthened. That last kind of review is rarer than it should be but, when you experience it, can help to transform a good paper into a considerably stronger and more meaningful piece of work.



I have a deep and abiding dislike of editors of academic journals who enrol me in their content management systems and then issue peer review requests without bothering to first send me a personal inquiry. I appreciate the ‘ease’ of automating the requests but doing so significantly diminishes the likelihood that I’ll ever review for them or suggest another peer to take on the assignment because I don’t like the idea of them being spammed, either. Further, the way these requests are issued raises security concerns: I don’t know the journal, there’s no reply-to-human contact, nor can I verify the legitimacy of the link by just glancing at it. The onus shouldn’t be put on me to sniff around and confirm the sender in order to do free labour for them.


Metadata in Context – An Ontological and Normative Analysis of the NSA’s Bulk Telephony Metadata Collection Program


In the aftermath of the Snowden revelations, the National Security Agency (NSA) responded to fears about warrantless domestic surveillance programs by emphasizing that it was collecting only the metadata, and not the content, of communications. When justifying its activities, the NSA offered the following rationale: because data involves content and metadata does not, a reasonable expectation of privacy extends only to the former but not the latter. Our paper questions the soundness of this argument. More specifically, we argue that privacy is defined not only by the types of information at hand, but also by the context in which the information is collected. This context has changed dramatically. Defining privacy as contextual integrity we are able, in the first place, to explain why the bulk telephony metadata collection program violated expectations of privacy and, in the second, to evaluate whether the benefits to national security provided by the program can be justified in light of the program’s material costs, on the one hand, and its infringements on civil liberties, on the other hand.

A terrific paper from Paula Kift and Helen Nissenbaum.


The Inanity of Academic Publishing

From Verena Hutter and Karen Kelsey:

I have made it clear how I feel about book chapters in edited volumes or editing volumes (read chapter 16 in the book, and don’t publish in edited volumes, and don’t EDIT VOLUMES, until you are tenured). If my advice has come too late, and you have no other publications, it’s fine to mention the book chapter in your publication para, but don’t try to pass it off as an article. Some edited volumes are in fact peer-reviewed, but your contribution is still not an article.

It drives me nuts that edited volumes are given so little prestige compared to journal articles. There is a general position in academia that book chapters are not rigorously reviewed as compared to journal articles but, really, this has more to do with the publishing outlet than anything else. I’ve published with some journals where the review has been a joke and vice versa. The same is true of edited volumes.

But what bothers me even more about the focus on journal publications over edited volumes is that academics are encouraged to publish places where only the wealthy universities can afford to access/read what is written. I was given advice as a very junior scholar that almost no one in government will read academic journal publications because they can’t justify the per-article cost, whereas departmental and government libraries can justify purchasing books.

If you want to make a public policy impact, or want to generally have your work theoretically more available, then publishing in books (or putting pre-pubs in public repositories like SSRN) is a must. But academics are disincentivized from such practices: they’re punished for trying to actually expand the numbers of people who could read and use the work. So while they’re actively glorifying knowledge production they’re simultaneously hindering the dissemination of what is produced.