Wednesday, 31 August 2016

In The Psychiatrist's Chair

I've been seeing a lot of memos about 'resilience' recently, the latest buzzword in corporate personnel management. Firstly organisations were meant to be 'resilient', and now employees have to be too. There's even a piece about it in the Guardian today, countering the argument that staff and students should become 'resilient', which seems to be a politer version of that awful phrase 'man up'. We've all become pathetic weak flowers unable to cope with reality, it appears to imply. We demand 'safe spaces' and can't take a bit of banter (an example: the first time I spoke to the Dean of my school back in 2004, his opening gambit was 'oh, that's who you are: I've just sacked you'. He had, too: he'd cancelled all the hourly-paid lecturer contracts).

Where does all this come from? Well sadly, I can say that I was at the forefront of resilience training, involuntarily and unpleasantly. A few years ago the successor to the Sacking Dean was a quite nervy individual who preferred not to engage in direct conversation. She wrote respectable sociology books and went on to greater things at another institution. One day I received an email from her secretary, announcing that I had been selected to take part in a training course, which consisted of a series of meetings with an 'educational consultant', designed to enhance my career prospects.

Having never had a conversation with the Dean, I was pretty suspicious: she knew nothing of me, my past or my future desires, and long experience had taught me that managers taking an interest rarely if ever led to the sunlit uplands of peace and contentment. But being eager to please as always, I agreed and presented myself at the appointed place and time. After a few minutes' conversation with the 'educational consultant', it turned out that my Dean had been rather economical with the facts. She was no educational consultant: she was a psychiatrist specialising in workplace development, and she was rather shocked to discover that management hadn't made this clear to her clients (patients? victims?). I rather liked her, and she told me about impostor syndrome, which is when genuinely successful academics experience being me. Asking around the school, I tracked down the other beneficiaries of this scheme: we all turned out to be those whom management felt were underperforming, according to the kinds of metrics they like (the reductive ones, obviously). The purpose of these sessions, which occurred every two weeks for several months, and the exercises and questionnaires which filled my waking hours between consultations, were to establish why I was such a useless, resentful layabout, and to encourage a better and more productive mindset that would culminate in that elusive Fields Medal or Nobel Prize (you think I'm joking, but a friend's university has a checkbox for Nobel Prize on the promotion application form).

Now it should be acknowledged that I'm a lazy, damaged wastrel with very little to show for all these qualifications, but even back then as a naïve and innocent youngster I knew something was wrong here. I'd heard of the Russian habit of sending political dissidents to psychiatric hospitals, and this seemed to be a related tactic. On a  more fundamental level, I knew that sending me to see a psychiatrist – under false pretences too – was not just highly unethical, but evidence of a radical shift in management thinking. Having looked at my paper existence, they decided that the slow start to my research career must be evidence of psychological weakness: a lack of resilience, if you will. This meant that the responsibility was entirely mine. I had failed to act like a good Protestant by engaging in a process of self-surveillance and striving: I had let my inherited Catholicism lead me in to the error of thinking that our collective efforts and support lead us into the path of righteousness. It let the organisation off the hook: they had no responsibility for my situation, despite me teaching across six departments on a part-time contract, receiving no research support or time. In short, there were no structural problems which placed me and my colleagues in this situation: it was all a matter of individual shortcomings.

And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and thereare families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It's our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour.
The failure is mine. I understood a university to be a community of scholars engaged in a common, higher purpose. They now see it as a workplace in which employees are to be sweated for a product: those who fail to meet arbitrary targets are simply fired or demoted, as has happened to a number of professors in this institution. The psychiatrists, thankfully, disappeared with the departure of that particular Dean, and I don't think anything quite so crass will reappear, but the individualisation of collective conditions is very much the order of the day. Only now, they call it resilience. It's a trap and serves only their interests.


Phil said...

I heard about 'resilience' a couple of years ago from a friend working in public health, of all areas. I hate to see psychological concepts being warped into tools for managerial bullying, and this is a particularly glaring example. Resilience is a useful concept, but in the literature it's always conceptualised as a process - your 'resilience' is how you deal with external stresses and shocks, and the only good resilience is the process that gets you out the other side in one piece. Turning 'resilience' into a standardised process which everyone is supposed to go through in the same way is bad enough; reifying that process into a quality of the individuals themselves - a quality which essentially measures how much abuse they can take without buckling - is really contemptible.

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