Worriers anonymous

By anonymous (obviously)

I am in the habit of oversharing. A habit whittled in ladies’ toilets the world over, I partly do this out of a compulsion to be honest, partly because I find it amusing to send up that honesty – and partly because I sincerely believe that sharing is good for you, as it defuses anxiety. Many of the things we build up in the confines of our own brains as crippling sources of inadequacy and anxiety are in fact shared by a shocking number of those around us (note how I am able to use the expansive ‘we’ in this sentence, with which I instantly assume you, the reader, will identify). I know this, because my compulsive oversharing is more often than not met with an enthusiastic chorus of ‘me too’ and ‘oh, I get that’. Thus, oversharing has become above all else a coping mechanism, to reassure myself that I am human and flawed in a comparable degree to other people I respect and like. (That it frequently makes people laugh is, I suppose, a bonus.)

This is particularly the case within academia. Not one hour ago, a student who is well known to me, having taken several of my modules, came by my office ‘to talk about work’. After ten minutes of mundane chatter about the lecture, I could sense the student drawing a deep breath. After crossing over the threshold from anticipation from inevitability, they then went on to apologise for having been a bit out of it lately, ‘only I suffer with anxiety’. They couldn’t know, because I hadn’t told them (and because I hide it, so I am told, well) but I have been in their seat on more than one occasion: with my PhD supervisor, my former teaching mentor, my current teaching mentor, my P.I., no doubt others who have balled into one in my memories. I know deeply the shame and the fear that accompanies such confessions, the vicious cycle that generates not only from feeling anxiety but from interpreting anxiety itself as something to be concealed at all costs. I know how insidious it is when that anxiety attaches itself to your academic work – formerly a source of pride – to the extent that you can’t open your inbox, or a word document, without your lungs trying to crawl out of your chest. Above all, I know how important it is for your self esteem to be brave and share, however terrifying it may be.

A recent facebook post on a similar topic raised, likewise, a to-me shocking amount of camaraderie and sympathy. I had an inbox full of messages from academics I had met once at a conference, eager to unburden their similar experiences. I was stopped in the corridor by a colleague I was on merely loose coffee-drinking terms with, who seemed practically overjoyed to tell me that they ‘got it’. More than anything, I read the frantic sense of relief with which esteemed colleagues dispensed hard-won advice, about stifling panic attacks, sleeping through the night, getting through dark periods of writers’ block and the feelings of inadequacy and powerlessness that accompany it. We are all at some level desperate, I think, to expose our inadequacies and thus render normal our sense of abnormality.

I am as yet unsure whether to be comforted or disquietened by all this. Serving as a lightning rod for people’s sincerity is always a deeply affecting and rewarding experience, but I have a quiet fear that I will be marked out as ‘the mad one’ as a result of my blatant encouragement of it. I am comforted to be going through such a shared experience and disturbed that so many of my friends are having to share in these feelings. I am worried that academia fundamentally enables it, not  only by entwining our sense of self-worth with our work, but by enforcing a culture of silence surrounding mental illnesses (and their perhaps less stigmatised cousins, panic attacks and anxiety disorders) such that they are instead poured out into email inboxes and pints at conference venues. I fear that creeping neoliberalisation and an academic culture that is profoundly out of step with the modern job description fosters feelings of intense inadequacy that can in no way be attributed to individual failure. But I do at least know that talking about my feelings, regardless of my fear that it may mark me out within a managerial culture not tolerant of weakness, makes me a better human being. I try to surround myself with people who equally believe that being a better human being makes you a better academic.

AIDS Drugs and Profit: Dear Martin Shkreli, You Will Not Win

Sophie Harman

3000

Hello Martin,

I don’t believe we’ve met before but I think I can call you Martin as working with people living with HIV I have found it’s common decency to remember their names and address them directly. Also, I need to give you some personal advice: this whole putting up the cost of Daraprim may have seemed a good idea at the time, but in the words of one seriously divisive feminist: big mistake, huge.

If there is one feel-good story in global health politics it is that of AIDS activism. Simply put you’ve picked the wrong disease to mess with. AIDS treatment is one of the most emotionally-stirring diseases of our time. This emotion is linked to injustice in the lack of attention and care and abundance of stigma towards people living with HIV/AIDS in the late 1970s and early 1980s; the fight to demand treatment as a human right and the commitment of people living with HIV, volunteers and activists to make this an accepted norm in global health; the takedown of a government in South Africa for AIDS denialism; and of course the piece de resistance: the failure of 39 pharmaceutical companies to bring a lawsuit against the government of South Africa, or as one pharmaceutical insider once told me ‘the time big pharma decided to sue Nelson Mandela.’ In case you haven’t already Martin, I would cue up We Were Here, Fire in the Blood, and How to Fight a Plague for your next Netflix session.

I don’t mean to be mean, but in comparison you’re small fry dude. The AIDS community have been looking for something or someone to assemble around and my guess is you are currently target number one. Do you really want to take on the activists who challenged Ronald Reagan, got the WTO to change its rules (the WTO people!), discredited a whole government (just google Mbeki if you don’t believe me), and generally acted in a badass way to suggest that accessing treatment is a human right? Trust me on this one, I don’t think you do.

And then there’s the whole humanity part. Sure, you provide the drugs to keep people alive so we should really send you more kisses. But guess again. How much money do you really need? And I mean need rather than want. And how good does it feel to price people out of treatment and push up their insurance premiums? Have you ever cared for someone living with HIV/AIDS who is unable to access treatment? If you have I am sure you will know how difficult it is to give them peace, dignity and to alleviate their concerns about the stigma they face, often from their family and community. Perhaps you also know women who contracted HIV from their husbands, who were unable to negotiate safe sex to protect themselves and their future children, and have to balance their work, family and treatment in the midst of social stigma. I think we both know that without affordable and accessible treatment they would not be alive and would transmit the virus to their children. I think we can also both agree that’s a major bummer Martin.

But then again, I get the impression that you care less for the humanity aspects of this whole treatment shebang. I note from your tweet you’ve given money away to good causes, but come on Martin, everyone knows that someone who tweets about their good deeds is generally a bad guy. The pharmaceutical industry is worth billions so why shouldn’t a young-buck like you get a slice of the pie, am I right ladies? Now I am not a financial wizard but let’s consider two things: your competition and your customer. On the competition, you are competing with multiple producers of HIV-related treatments from around the world. Indian companies are really going to screw you on this. True, it is harder for these companies to access the US market, but if we’re talking AIDS treatment then really think about the pool of 24.7 million people living with HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa. I know you’re greedy (who else would increase the price of a drug by 5000%) so you must be thinking about this market. But let’s think about the average customer: HIV/AIDS affects all different types of people and the one thing the global AIDS response doesn’t need is another stereotype, but to give you a basic idea your customer base is most likely to be a woman living on less than $2 a day. Less than $2 a day Martin – I’m guessing that is less than the coffee you’re drinking right now. In some ways they are your perfect customer: they have the virus (tick!), have less links with annoying journalists (double tick!), and most likely are not smartphone addicts that will tweet the heck out of this (triple tick!). But of course, the killer problem is ability to pay. The US government has poured money into helping these women access treatment (not without controversy) but most development assistance for HIV/AIDS has begun to decline and there are questions over who fits the bill. This basically means no-one in sub-Saharan Africa – your main customer base – will buy your goods. No-one in South America will buy your goods as they have developed a wiley system of bulk-buying that has helped keep costs low (ish). So really, you’re only left with screwing over your friends in the US – those with Twitter accounts, links to journalists, and resources to mobilise against you – and as I noted before, this is not going to end well for you Martin. You will not win.

You’ll note I have raised a serious of questions in this blog, and I really hope you write back to me. I’ve been looking for a pen friend. And for purely selfish reasons I’m making a film on the everyday risk of accessing treatment and care for women living with HIV in Tanzania and think a scene of you explaining your price-point tactics to these women would be cinema gold. I hope you listen to some of my advice Martin because this really isn’t going to end well for you.

Sophie

On supporting student learning in Higher Education (and why we need to radically rethink the ‘Just Make ‘Em Do a Compulsory Skills Module’ paradigm)

Nicki Smith

Driving instructor: OK, so you need to read the DVLA handbook, and here’s also a presentation with photos of people driving, and a description of what makes a good driver. We’ll test you on all of that, and then you’ll be able to drive!

Student: Don’t I need to get into a car and stuff?

Driving instructor: Not if you read the handbook! Now, here’s a photo of someone using the clutch.

Student: This is a bit … dry, and I still don’t feel like I really know how to drive …?

Driving instructor: Ok, so let’s get that test underway … STOP THE CAR!! You are a terrible driver! Didn’t you read page 23 of the handbook??

Student: No, I got bored at page 2 but … could you maybe explain to me what to work on while I’m actually in the car?

* * * * * * *

Notes: Although it’s common in HE to bracket-off the ‘skills question’ (literally) into separate modules, it should in fact frame all aspects of our teaching – this is because the issue of what students learn (i.e. the ‘content’) is simply not separable from the issue of how they are actually learning that content (i.e. their ‘skills’). 

This means engaging students in ongoing dialogue about how they are learning what they are learning in practice (i.e. the actual substantive content of each module) throughout the duration of their studies.

This is a collective project and can’t just be left to a few individuals (‘the skills people)’. To state that ‘someone has to teach skills’ or to ask ‘who’s going to teach skills?’ is precisely the issue – for great learning & teaching/NSS we should all be integrating skills into the teaching we are already doing.  

Skills development is not a ‘thing’ that we can ‘give’ to students; it is a process, not a product, and depends upon ongoing dialogue (‘feedback’).

TIME

Anonymous Contributor

  

On NSS and REF across the UK – here’s what I’ve been trying to say to my own institution, at pretty much every opportunity I can get (although not quite in these words):

If you want academics to produce research and teaching excellence, then there’s just one word that you need to know. It has four letters. It is, of course, our old friend TIME. 

We all know it; we all keep saying it to each other; we all keep writing ranty blog posts such as this; and yet I can’t help but notice that – in formal contexts – it’s the one thing that people don’t say: nobody says ‘I don’t have the TIME for us to do this’, because then you’re *that guy* who isn’t committed to their job/institution. I believe that this is a huge mistake and that we should all talk about TIME, well, all the TIME.

Imagine a brain surgeon – highly trained and entirely capable – being forced to perform complex brain surgery in, say, a 30 minute slot. Then imagine that the brain surgeon is also being asked to (wo)man the phones on reception whilst undertaking that surgery, whilst simultaneously undertaking a variety of other clerical tasks as well. (On a related note, the brain surgeon had to answer 40 emails immediately prior to surgery and so didn’t have the chance to scrub up, oops …).1

Blast it. There’s brain juice all over the operating theatre. How in the blazes did that happen??

In order to produce research and teaching excellence, the single thing above all else that academics categorically do not need is another initiative, another set of bells and whistles, pretty much another anything that in any way eats into their TIME. What academics need is not presence, but absence. We need to lose stuff. We need stuff to be cleared away. Less is 100% more for us. I watched Fantastic Four the other day and saw the entirety of academia in Dr Doom. Can you imagine how much writing he could get done on that planet?? My actual thought was: would I be able to whittle down those rocks into some kind of writing implement? It literally felt more plausible to me that I could hop through space and time to another planet than to get some actual space and time to think and write.

So, the single, overriding purpose of any new initiative should be this: how does this help to make TIME for academics to produce the quality teaching and research that we are capable of delivering? How will this new initiative help not only to preserve, but to expand, that most precious (and, in hard monetary terms, financial) resource: academics’ TIME? How will this new initiative take away stuff from academics, not add to it? We absolutely do not need new stuff; we need to lose stuff. 

We know how to do it. Just give us TIME.

1. 40 emails per morning @ 5 minutes each = 3.3 hours per day = 16 hours per week = two full working days per week on email alone

HOW TO SPEAK OUT AS AN ACADEMIC COMMUNITY? HELP NEEDED!

LIMinality

Our message is blunt: migrants are dying who need not. […] It is time to do more than count the number of dead. It is time to engage the world to stop this violence against desperate migrants.

William Lacy Swing, Director General, International Organisation for Migration (IOM)

IF YOU’RE SHORT OF TIME, JUST READ THIS

With this post, we urge the IR academic community to take action to help stop the deaths at the Mediterranean Sea and other border zones of the European Union.

In case you do not have the time to read the entire post, please click here[1] to sign an Open Letter from IR academics and wider community to European decision makers, so safe and legal routes of entry to the European Union can be opened. No one is illegal.

In short, the petition urges European decision makers to:

  • Open legal and secure channels to all migrants, and ensure that refugees have access to the European territory where their individual situation can be assessed;
  • Stop making access to the EU for non-EU nationals conditional upon the signature of readmission agreements by their country of origin, and stop using external cooperation as a means to reinforce border controls;
  • Urgently prioritise search and rescue tasks over surveillance, and provide both financial and technical support to competent Search and Rescue (SAR) mechanisms and not to Frontex;
  • Urgently activate the 2001 Directive on Temporary Protection, and address resettlement needs of refugees fleeing conflicts in the Middle East, particularly victims of the conflict in Syria, in sub-Saharan Africa, and everywhere else;
  • Immediately revoke of the Dublin Regulation that is hindering mobility.

In short, these policy measures would ensure that no one has to die, or rely on smugglers’ services in order to enter Europe. The requirements are based on the tireless work that the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network (EMHRN) has done in the Mediterranean death zone for years. The recommendations are therefore based on solid, research based knowledge.

By mid-October we will contact key European news agencies and ask them to publish the letter. At that point, our signatures and press releases will be addressed to EU representatives and decision makers.

WHY SPEAK OUT, AS A COMMUNITY

According to the IOM’s Missing Migrants project, Europe continues to be the world’s most dangerous destination for “irregular” migrants. This has largely to do with the fact that there are no legal means for migrants to enter Europe, and hence the only available means to file an asylum claim within the EU is to physically set a foot on European soil. This means that, in order to apply for asylum, there is no other way but to cross the border irregularly, by relying on unsafe boats and dinghies of the smugglers.

As of 3 September, the annual toll of deaths in the Mediterranean had risen up to 2,701. From these people, 999 came from Sub-Saharan Africa, 359 from the Horn of Africa, 315 from Middle East and North Africa, 18 from South Asia, while 1,010 bodies remain unidentified.

But that’s just for this year. Even if the humanitarian spectacle is now unfolding before our eyes in the media, the phenomenon of migrants having to die on their way to Europe is not new. For most of us, this is not news. This has been going on for years. During all those years, the solutions to stop the deaths have been there, in the hands of European decision makers. The crisis we are witnessing thus is not simply a humanitarian crisis. It is a political crisis, where bad politics makes people die.

During all these years of dying, many of us academics have known the solutions. Nevertheless, apart from those, whose own work deals with the theme, perhaps involving methods of activism, most of us have remained silent, letting the deaths to continue. Now, however, the time has come to speak out, as a community, with one clear message: the decision makers have to use the means available to stop the deaths. Those means are listed in the Open Letter.

Political crises are not simply spectacles. They are not just tragedies. They are also political openings, where it becomes possible to intervene so to make things better, more just, less violent. In the case of the Mediterranean political crisis we, as an academic community, have a means to intervene. It is called the expert voice – that is, the very privilege of our position as both witnesses and analysts.

In fact, as International Relations scholars, we are perhaps particularly responsible to speak out. We are, after all, the people who make a living from the analysis of the humanitarian/political spectacles like the one being witnessed in Europe now. The political meanings of Aylan’s image in the media, for instance, are likely to be discussed in various conference papers and articles in years to come, whether as an example of ‘trauma porn’, or something else. And all that critical analysis of ours is still as important as ever. Now, however, at the political opening of the crisis, we must use our position to intervene, in order to make things better, more just and less violent.

Until now, the international academic community has remained surprisingly silent about sustainable solutions to the crisis. As a community we have, quite bluntly, left the activism to human rights organisations or individual scholars and citizens, while focusing on critical analysis of what is going on. While the critical analysis is utterly important and necessary, our role as a community cannot stop there.

An Open Letter from Academics to Decision Makers has been created in order for the academic community to speak out, as a community. It is a tool. It does not matter who created it, what matters is the aim.

The tool, however, seems not to work very well. Since its launch some days ago, we have managed to gather approximately 150 names. That is very little, not even a whisper from an actor imagined as an “international academic community” as we like to portray ourselves at conferences like EISA, ISA, and the like.

We refuse to believe that the reason for this is that academics would not believe in the message of the Letter. We refuse to believe that, as a community, we have turned too cynical to believe that change is possible. We refuse to believe that, as a community, we only care about critical analyses of the spectacle.

We want to believe that the reason for the low number of signatures is the fact that very few people know about the Letter, or its purpose. Putting aside cynicism, and frustration, we believe a Letter like this can help make a difference. However, to do so, at least three things are required.

First, we need a lot of signatures, please sign.

Second, to gain a lot of signatures, the Letter would need to go viral amongst academic communities across the world. It would require the maximum attention in the social media. Thus, in addition to signing the Letter, please distribute it to your own networks via Twitter, Facebook and personal emails. Recurrently, if need be.

Thirdly, for the Letter to go through in the media in October, and to gain maximum attention there, we would need not only a lot of names, but also Big Names from the higher ranks of the International Academia. Please, utilise your personal networks to get influential individuals to sign the letter. Also, if you have good contacts with media that could be utilised when publishing the letter with signatures, please get in touch with us directly.

Thank you!

Tiina Vaittinen & Federica Caso, Federica Caso & Tiina Vaittinen (in no particular order of authorship)

[1] We are aware that using a platform such as change.org for political activism may be problematic, but we needed a workable platform to collect signatures – plenty of them we hope – before publishing the Open Letter elsewhere. Thus, even if in principle you would not sign petitions in Change.org, we do hope you would make an exception this time.

When telling the right from wrong turns impossible, alarm bells should start ringing

liminality4

Tiina Vaittinen

Over the past days, there has been a lot of discussion about a picture of a boy. A dead boy. Lying lifeless, face down in the sand, on a beach in Bodrum, Turkey. We now all know his name too. Aylan. And we know different versions of a story of the last minutes of his life, allegedly told by his father, mediated to us through various news agencies across the world.

Click.

Click.

I don’t have to link these stories here, since the links are abundant in your Twitter, in your Facebook. And I actually think we do need to read them – if and when we feel we need to read them.

We are watching people die at the fences of our homelands, and we are all at loss on what we should do. If it means clicking open a (profitable) news story about the faith of a boy, his elder brother and mother dead at the sea/fence, his dad in Turkey now returning to Syria, and aunt in Canada urging Syrians not to try their ways to Europe anymore, then be it.

Who is anyone to judge, what is a right thing to do, when you have to watch people dying – and there seems to be nothing you can do.

I also do not have to post the picture of Aylan here (anymore). Reading this, you can all see him, lying there. Just lying there. Dead.

I don’t have to show that to you. Not anymore. We have all seen the image of his body by now, and there is no way to unsee it. And there should not be.

There has been a lot of important discussion, whether anyone should have ever posted that picture, or pictures of similar kind (also here). Or what we as academics should do next. People have defended their choice to share the image, while others were provoked to write something equally important, and informative.

Why Aylan’s image had such a media impact when images of a black African toddler drowned in his diapers, or a woman in her scarf some days earlier didn’t, is another discussion, irrelevant for what I want to say now. (Though please do remember, none of this is only about Syria. None of this is only about Aylan.)

I myself have not posted Aylan’s image directly in any social media (though it was embedded in the link to a petition worth signing). I did, however, post another image of the similar kind, showing a girl of my daughter’s age, just lying there, on some beach somewhere, like Aylan.

Dead.

Like thousands of bodies of human beings over the past years. Dozens each week.

How many today?

Posting an image of the body of a dead girl, I knew it was a morally questionable thing to do. Yet, I did not know, what else was I supposed to be doing, when people in my country focus on debating which municipalities should or should not house asylum seekers, and how many exactly are we responsible for. When my fellow citizens organise demos with banderols telling asylum seekers to “**ck off!”, when MPs in our parliament “declare war against multiculturalism”, and the spokesperson of a government party calls those crossing the Mediterranean “surfers for a better standard of living”.

When in another EU member state, asylum seekers are identified and registered by writing a number on their arms! When in Budapest, asylum seekers step onto trains that they think are taking them to Germany – only to be driven to nearby camps, against their own will.

Wake up Europe!! What the hell is it that we’re witnessing now?!

Have you ever thought how it was possible for the German people to allow for the Holocaust to happen? Over the past weeks, I have thought about  that a lot. As International Relations scholars, we actually know quite a bit about the developments that led to the Holocaust. We might even be able to argue that the German people were – at least partially – accountable for doing nothing, for letting it happen.

We, too, are accountable. For those bodies that we bear not to watch. Who just lie there. On the beaches of Europe. Dead.

The common argument against sharing the images of the dead bodies of the drowned, is that it is a breach against their humanity. We need to respect individuals, even and especially when they’re dead. I agree.

I also find it distressful that there is a lot of profit made, by news agencies for instance, as the images circulate in the cyberspace.

Click, click.

Click.

Yet, when posting on my Facebook a pic of that little girl whose name I do not know, lying dead at the shores of the Mediterranean, I was thinking: Could the Holocaust have been stopped, if the world would have seen the pictures of Jews in concentration camps earlier? Could it have been stopped, if people saw the bodies piled up?

In the Mediterranean, the bodies are not piled up.

They are lined up. In body bags. Every fucking week!!

That is not humanity! Humanity in the European border policies is long gone!

So yes, I do think we need to debate about whether or not sharing an image of any dead human body is morally justifiable. We do need to consider that long and hard, each and every time we face such a choice. But I cannot believe we are actually facing such a choice! In fact, I think the moral dilemma resides also with those who choose not to share. Who choose not to show the image that might just be the shock we need to make a difference.

This is not an accusation against those who choose not to share these horrific images. Neither is it a defence for us who have chosen to do so. The thing is: There are no right or wrong answers here! No points to be shared for moral supremacy, no judgements to be made. For people die there, by the fences of our homelands, with or without anybody’s judgement.

The bodies on the shores of the Mediterranean are perhaps the ‘bare life’ which can die without a judgement. They are the homines sacri whose death in the borders of the European Union now – yes, right now – forms the very fuel of sovereign power, for the EU and its member states.

The thing is: For our governments, the lives of these people stopped mattering long ago, in the numerous decisions where legal routes of entry to Europe were gradually closed.

The humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean operates like a zone of indistinction where, perhaps, the usual rules of humanity no longer apply. Indeed, the very dilemma of whether or not to share an image of a dead child’s body arises, because we are there too.

As citizens partially accountable for our governments’ policies we, too, stand in that liminal zone of indistinction, where – suddenly – it may seem right to share an image of a dead child’s body on the internet.

I know, it is insane! To share an image of a dead child’s body on your Facebook page! It is truly immoral – while simultaneously it may also be the most moral act to do.

When telling right from wrong turns impossible, and the two become indistinguishable, alarm bells should start ringing. Loudly.

People drown, in the Mediterranean, because putting a foot on the EU territory is the only legal means to apply asylum in Europe.

The only way to stop the drowning is to open up legal routes of entry to Europe, by utilising the humanitarian visa and allowing applications for asylum to be filed without having to physically enter Europe.

As long as this is not done, it is the EU policies of closed borders that leads people to travel under unsafe conditions, to be smuggled, to suffocate in trucks, to drown in the sea.

You may be reading this in a zone of indistinction, where the right cannot be told from wrong. This, however, is not a hopeless space. It is not a stagnant space. It is not an apolitical space where things could not be changed. But it is a space, where we are accountable, as we watch bodies wash ashore.

If you agree, please click here, to sign an open letter from academics to the European decision makers, to urge them to fix the policies so that people need not drown anymore. So it’d be possible to tell the right from wrong again.

[The image on the top retrieved via Google image search, with term ‘liminality’, which lead to this site: http://www.otakuelite.com/database/video/anime/-hack-Liminality/overview/433.info%5D