For the past 8 years, early career researchers from across different universities in Belgium have been coming together to discuss the place of a researcher within an institution and wider society. The seminar series “What does it mean to be a researcher in 21st century academia?” started as a collaboration between VUB, KULeuven, and UGent to promote slow science, and now includes two additional Universities, UAntwerpen and the newest member UCLouvain. Its continued growth and the community that has emerged around it is a testament to the power of dialogue among researchers to cross institutional and regional boundaries, and to the character of the universities involved.
As young researchers we face many challenges: the casualisation of teaching and support roles within universities, public distrust of academia, the defunding of key university departments and services, not to mention more general social and geopolitical tensions or the environmental crisis. Dealing with these difficulties alone can be overwhelming, leaving us feeling powerless to reshape some of the unequal structures in which we work. Coming together and discussing these challenges with peers from across different universities and disciplines by contrast makes us feel strong, supported, and seen.
It would have been easy for the seminar to turn into a mere circle of complaints, but a set of clear goals and themes ensured that there was space for both sharing experiences and actively brainstorming future practices. These practices were developed on multiple scales, from self-care initiatives that could help keep us motivated during a longer pursuit of structural change, to establishing inter-university communication channels through which early career researchers could mobilise collectively.
The conversations that we had were not easy, it seems nothing important ever truly is, and they required self-reflection. In order to imagine a new future for academia we had to deconstruct the university systems within which we were operating, and upon which we depended. Actively working to change the university requires effort, time, and commitment. I am sure the feeling of having to pull a double shift to combine this type of work with administration, teaching, and research is a familiar one for many at our association's Member universities. We might assume that the strong spirit of competition that now exists among universities would ensure their dynamism, but often quite the opposite is true. Those pushing to change the academy in ways that challenge the status quo are on occasion met with resistance, often stemming from a fear of losing prestige in relation to peers rather than enthusiasm coming from an eagerness of exploring new ways to continually improve, to be more caring, inclusive, and open. Universities are big institutions and with this can come inertia and lethargy.
During the three days we spent together across three different campuses, we discussed mental health, knowledge production, and labour structures within universities. Each session within the seminar series was unique, from group discussions inspired by OST (open space technology) to a workshop on collective action facilitated by Tractie. The variety of methods applied highlighted just how broad and diverse our toolkit is for making change. In this way the very structure of the event was directly opposed to the “There is no alternative” mindset, instead embodying the possibility of transformative practices and horizontal structures.
Many of the issues discussed—work-life balance, the criteria by which we value research, the publish or perish paradigm, the commodification of research outputs by publishing houses and other actors, obstructions to communication within and between universities, a lack of transparency and consultation in policy development—reflected challenges raised during the DORA workshop organised earlier this year by our Task Force Human Resources and anticipate agenda points in the upcoming CAM 2022 workshop Supporting diverse and modern academic careers. Though early career researchers and university leadership may often take a different approach to these topics, the overlap in their mutual desire to improve universities and make them more responsive to global and systemic challenges is clear. How could we better integrate these two circles and what could our academic future look like if we allowed its imagining and implementation to be more inclusive?
Annelies Van de Ven (UCLouvain)
Anne Hoffmann (UCLouvain)
Sophie Samyn (Ghent University)
Marte Beldé (Ghent University)
Elvira Crois (Vrije Universiteit Brussel & Universiteit Antwerpen)
Emma Verhoeven (Universiteit Antwerpen)
Mariam Diallo (UCLouvain)
Pieter Beck (Ghent University)
Pieter Maeseele (UAntwerpen)