‘Stay Alive’: What Academic Annual Reports (Don’t) Say

by Katherine Blouin

For academics, the end of the academic year marks the beginning of annual activity report season. In my university, the report is meant to assess faculty’s “progress through the rank”, that is scholarly, pedagogical, and administrative ‘productivity’ or ‘output’. It goes a bit like this:

How many courses did you teach and on what, how many students were enrolled in your classes, how many students did you supervise, how much of your teaching material is new, how many hours did you spend teaching and mentoring students, did you create pedagogical content, if so how much, how many refereed publications did you write/submit/publish, did you successfully apply to grants, if so how much money did you get, how many talks did you give, where, on what, how many committees were you on, how many hours did you dedicate to your administrative duties, how many reference letters and referee reports did you write, did you get paid to provide labour elsewhere, if so how much and what for? Is there anything else you want to add?

This largely quantitative, and self-branding, process repeats itself every year. And every year, a departmental committee made of colleagues reviews all the reports, and then meets in order to rank all members of the faculty. The goal is to judge how ‘good’ everyone’s year was in comparison to their colleagues at a similar career stage. The one with the highest ranking gets more money, and sometimes a little bonus called ‘award’. A ‘high’ ranking is generally achieved through the publication of a monograph and/or getting a big grant. But this is not always the case. For example, the year my last monograph came out was the year when I was ranked the lowest in my career; others in my department just had books out too, and some colleagues got grants and other publications, so that their performance was deemed ‘better’ than mine. Inversely, some departments do at times factor in the attenuating circumstances that impact faculty’s ‘productivity’. Thus in my undergraduate department at the University of Toronto Scarborough campus, we have recently taken the concerted decision to not buy into the ‘we are all in this together’ fantasy, and, instead, to acknowledge the non-quantifiable and varying degrees of trauma, suffering, and disruption the ongoing pandemic caused in the lives of our community members. We considered cancelling the annual report altogether, but our understanding was that it wouldn’t have been allowed by the higher administration.

As far as I can tell, and despite calls for change, meaningfully compassionate approaches to academic productivity this past year remain few, and they most commonly take place at lower levels (departments, research teams, and individual faculty members). Indeed, since the pandemic started, I have been struck by the dissonance between the administrative performances of care deployed at all academic levels, and the commitment to avoid or else minimize any of the structural (and ‘costly’) changes such a care-centered governance calls for. If the university was already a fractured home before, the earthquake it is now experiencing has deepened and widened the fault lines running through its Humanist veneer exposing more clearly than before in the process the corporate, white supremacist backbone of its foundations. While the institutional messaging tends to advocate for support, open communication channel, and flexibility, while there is on paper an acknowledgement of the highly disruptive circumstances at play for instructors, researchers, staff, janitors, service employees, and students, in practice, universities have shown a strong commitment to ‘business as usual’. As a result, the past academic year has put in yet an even sharper relief how as a ‘system’ and, increasingly so, a corporate enterprise, the university does not fundamentally care about the fact that its (non White, non cis gendered, disabled, female, working class) constituents are people.

This manifests in subtle but sustained and aggregating ways. Most academics have for instance been throughout the year on the receiving end of an endless stream of advertisements for workshops on “how to remain productive during the pandemic”, “how to teach online”, or “how to cope”. These come together with quasi-daily reminders of “funding opportunities” of all sorts. As early as the spring 2020, funding agencies in the Humanities and Social Sciences were encouraging scholars to create projects that focus on the multifaceted impacts of the pandemic on communities, nationally, and worldwide. And so have we witnessed scholars creating, at times out of the blue and in a rather opportunistic manner, research programs that conformed to the funding agencies’ agenda and relied on the extraction of data from hard hit (that is essentially working class and racialized) communities. Call it academic scavenging. I have also been receiving invitations to volunteer an hour or more of my choked up time to a national academic study that explores how the pandemic is disrupting academics’ lives. I have not responded to the invitation. So far, it has been sent to me four times. I am not kidding you. In addition to what ends up feeling like academic spamming, the move to work from home and to online teaching also came with new layers of bureaucratic hurdles (basically more forms and surveys).

These bureaucratic initiatives are meant to allow for the university to better control its remote (material, human and budgetary) assets, but they also increase the workload of faculty and staff, and contribute further to the feeling (and, one might argue, the reality) of having one’s self and agency intruded upon. To be fair, the weight of the institutional messaging is such that low-level administrators tend to find themselves with little room to manoeuvre, let alone resist. Many messengers do acknowledge that we are not in a ‘business as usual’ situation, but my experience and that of colleagues has been that those who are ready to make space and advocate for, and implement, the structural changes needed in order to sustainably account for the traumatic times we find ourselves in are the exception rather than the norm.

Instead, we are now offered the possibility to “share the pandemic’s impact on [our] teaching, research, and service responsibilities and goals documented in [our] activity reports” with either the annual report committee members or only our chair. The idea is that if shared, these ‘impacts’ will be taken into account by the committee and chair in their ranking of one’s annual report. For the faculty, opening up about our struggles of the past year in this context means covering our back against accusations of “performances failing expectations” and, maybe also, getting a little bit more money. But this comes at a cost. For the sharing process can also be retraumatizing. Perhaps this is why the choice to not share is also explicitly stated as a viable option. Yet to choose not to share amounts to an act of institutional exoneration because it means faculty are the ones who, of their own will, render invisible to the institution ‘the pandemic’s impacts’ on their labouring bodies and minds. Either way, this invitation to share can also provide a sense of being heard and cared for. But ultimately, this performance of administrative empathy does not alter the structure nor aim of the annual review process. It is, to quote Sara Ahmed, an embodied “process of institutional funneling”:

“The body of a professor becomes a conductor; information, energy, and resources travel through that body; you have to go through the professor to get anywhere. We could understand this process as institutional funneling; how paths become narrower and narrower at the exit points. Uses of use, a restriction of possibility that has become material, uses of use, a narrowing of the routes; the more a path is used, the less paths there are to use; more going through less.” — Sara Ahmed 2019, Uses of Use, 185

None of this is surprising or new, and these dynamics are in line with the way the pandemic as a whole has been ‘managed’ by governments, including here in Ontario. Thus, thanks to Ontario’s corporate handling of everything including higher education, public universities — and especially the Humanities and Social Sciences — have seen their budget cut quite drastically. This State strangling is now trickling down to departments, especially non-STEM ones. Memos I’ve received on this topic over the past year indicate that the expectation is now that for Humanities’ graduate departments to get graduate funding, they now ought to do more like ‘the sciences’ and encourage their faculty to get more grants. The idea is for us to contribute more to funding our supervisees with our grant money. In other words, as the pandemic is raging, we are being told that we faculty have become responsible for a substantial portion of our students’ funding. In the long run, this means no grant, no student. And so are we invited to attend yet more workshops, this time on “how to apply for grants”. These are typically offered by administrative staff whose sole job is to help faculty get grants. I have also been reminded that it’s been a few years since my last grant so I should apply for one now. That this year might not be the year where I can (mentally, timewise) afford to dedicate weeks on end to writing a grant application doesn’t seem to matter. Neither does the fact that I am currently overwhelmed with research projects, none of which requires of me to access a 80,000$ budget. Yet academic culture has it that pandemic or not, this is what I should be doing right now; for myself, and also to make my departments look good. Meanwhile, in Ontario as all over North America, graduate admissions in the Humanities and Social Sciences have been cut quite drastically, if not paused altogether, this despite the fact that the pandemic has led to a substantial rise in graduate applications.

The tightening corporate grip the pandemic has brought upon the university is also visible in more openly political ways. Think of the ongoing censure of the University of Toronto by the CAUT “because of the Administration’s failure to resolve concerns regarding academic freedom stemming from a hiring scandal in the Faculty of Law” (for details see Vincent Wong’s piece and Masha Gessen’s New Yorker’s story); of the dismantlement of 60 programs Laurentian University/Université Laurentienne; of the termination by York University of Dr Aimé Avolonto, a Black scholar who had publicly called out the University’s structural anti-Blackness; of the dismantlement of the University of Alberta; of the termination of Senior Lecturer Robert Morkot by the University of Exeter over his failing to meet a book manuscript submission deadline during the pandemic. These events are unfolding in a context where universities are putting “EDI” at the forefront of their branding and outreach. Until last summer, the ‘trend’ in Canada was to hire and forefront Indigenous scholars and Indigenization initiatives. As of last summer, commitments to ‘anti-racism’ and the valorization of Black lives have taken over and university-sponsored events dedicated to these themes multiplied. Yet as Sara Ahmed, Rinaldo Walcott, Girish Daswani and others have shown, such White institutional displays of commitments to “inclusion”, “diversity” and “equity” are just a distraction aimed at soothing, and ultimately silencing, dissenting (and oppressed) voices.

So these are all the things I am thinking about as I am starting to write my “annual activity report”. And I wonder, what counts a ‘productive’ or ‘good’ year this year? And to whom?

Right now, after 14 months of pandemic survival, what I understand as the implied definition of ‘success’ in our ‘business as usual’ annual report’s form is within the reach of a privileged few. These privileged few were able to overcome the pandemic’s challenges and successfully apply for grants, write papers, articles, books and get prizes. These privileged few’s (hard, and at times brilliant) work often benefits from other life perks. They might not be women, non White, carers; they might have had access to full time childcare (that is to daycare, to a — working class, most often racialized — nanny or to the free labour of a partner or family member); they might not have been forced to drop publication or talk commitments due to overbearing parenting duties or the fact that they were denied submission extensions; they might not see themselves face career setbacks as a result of the toll homeschooling, anxiety, or bereavement have taken on their writing time; they might not be suffering from disabling mental health issues and ongoing traumas as a result of the pandemic; they might have been lucky enough to not have to grieve or fear to lose a loved one this year; their (White, settler) privilege might have sheltered them from being affected by the waves of anti-Indigenous, anti-Black, anti-Asian violence that keep washing up on North America’s Land — including in the academy — this past year (and all years); they might not have found themselves doing way more emotional (and therefore invisible) mentoring labour with students in crisis; they might have spent lockdown(s) in a household where there is no domestic violence and abuse; they might not have had to cope with family members losing their jobs or dealing with the long term effects of covid-19 on their body; they might be able to retreat to a cottage, drive around, enjoy a lush backyard in a posh neighborhood; they might also have been able to travel their way around borders and viruses; they and their loved ones might have accessed vaccines early on in the year. And yet, some of those whose positioning qualifies as belonging to these privileged few might not feel like they belong to this group. After all, the pandemic took away so many of our lives’ coping mechanisms, and generated such a sense of loss of control, that many (me included) feel like all that is left as a secure, immovable haven is ‘work’. And so some ‘did’ a lot workwise, and their year looks good on paper. But it doesn’t mean they feel good within themselves.

So to get back to my earlier question: What amounts to a ‘productive’ or ‘good’ year this year?

To me, what truly mattered this past year are the doings that will not make it into my annual report. These doings are more affective than effective; or, rather, they are effective because they are affective. These doings are seldom-quantifiable ‘outputs’ of the type academia likes to compute, extract, digest, and market. They tend to be tucked in the private, inner crevices of our disjointed, languishing, private lives; they are the transitory spaces and places that have kept so many of us, our dependents, loved ones, and students, alive.

It is in that spirit that I recently asked the following question on social media:

What follows are some of the public responses I received on Twitter, as well as some responses shared on my personal facebook page (with permission to anonymously quote here). I also received many responses (which I am not sharing here) on the private facebook group “Academic Mamas”. While reading them, I felt like crying. Of anger, sadness, and compassion. These sharings are a lot. The amount of (invisible, emotional, logistical, caring) labour academic mothers (and parents/carers) have been performing this past year, often without any proper departmental support or empathy, all while continuing to teach and do their best to write and be good citizens of their departments is, literally, too much to bear. Bodies are breaking, minds are aching, we are crying and holding on. We are keeping our students taught and our children and selves alive. We are exhausted and burnt out, and yet aware of how privileges many of us are, and angry, so angry at the widening inequalities pandemic politics has caused.

The sharings below make visible the affective, bodily, and relational realities on whose erasures the neoliberal model of ‘University as business as usual’ relies in order to sustain itself. The solace many of us found in the Land, in creative practices, in (re)connecting with our own bodies and minds, and in building communities of care, is opening up spaces of resistance, transformation and refusal, within and beyond ourselves. May they help us mitigate the nefarious manifestations of what ‘not going back to our lives before’ will look like.

“ Stay alive”

“ Spent more time than ever before with my family (with the unfortunate exception of my parents). My institution thankfully has suspended annual reports for the time being”

“ Made it through, despite everything.”

“ My Latin students succeeded beyond any expectations. I had x2 the retention rate, the majority got As/Bs, but I didn’t slacken requirements (we have to finish Wheelock, I have no choice). I only tweaked deadlines, emphasized communication & empathy, encouraged-and they KILLED IT”

“ I finally lost all the second baby weight. It may seem stupid, but it means I finally feel like I have my body back. And, I’m finally comfortable training, which makes my runs fun again.”

“ barely stay sane during a pandemic”

“Figured out how to control my breathing while singing and learned to sing several pieces which were in my dream repertoire for the last 25 years.”

“ overhauled every course to work in the pandemic, and got this evaluation, which I printed out and taped to my wall”

“ Kept my baritone playing going. Supported my son in choosing his university”

“ Learned to cook! (With a lot of help/inspiration, esp from Antiquity Foodies. Citing colleagues here esp b/c the whole process was far from isolated from my intellectual life this year but made me seriously rethink how to conceive communal/embodied knowledge, lived experience & collaborative cultivation/transmission of knowledge, “productivity,” etc”

“ Visited a retired mentor living alone at least once a week”

“ I made this zine to report the real things that happened & asked friends to contribute… “activities” included, “being alive,” “being an object of transphobia,” “this page intentionally left blank.” #academictwitter #fuckproductivity

“DIY rehabilitation after chronic illness and almost no medical care (huge shout out to husband for his support) and have basically regained former function.”

“ Had a third child….”

“ Same here”

“ Managed to get my divorce, after three years of stress and worry, and finally start to rebuild my life. Also learned to make good omelettes!”

“ Supported my colleagues and helped keep our department a cohesive, friendly place. Advocated for our adjunct colleagues.”

“ defeated all the odds and made it into my dream university after years of hard work ❤”

“ Join with my (kids’ school) community to confront anti-Black racism. Think about ways in which my own upbringing and life has contributed to institutional racism and continues to do so.”

“ Un deuxième bébé !”

“ Not die. Was touch-and-go for a moment.”

“ Became a better parent.”

“ Quite honestly, surviving this year and making it through in one piece”

“ I did the impossible. (We all did.)”

“ Always wanted to learn how to play the guitar, so jumped in the deep end and using You Tube clips learnt how to play Bossa Nova style. Brought pleasure to a pretty miserable year: olha que coisa mais linda!”

“ Made a wildlife pond — which has definitely helped with the survival — and dramatically improved my skills in jazz composition.”

“ I embraced my creativity and enrolled on an embroidery course.”

“ Made tea and boiled an egg.”

“ Spent more time than ever before with my family (with the unfortunate exception of my parents). My institution thankfully has suspended annual reports for the time being”

“ I’ve read your question over and over during the day. So many tiny little things but I guess the best I could think apart from getting stuff done despite the chaos was try to take care of my body better.”

“I included ‘pandemic days’ on my syllabi and a student then sent me a word bubble with my name in the middle as the faculty member who had been the most respectful of our collective trauma.”

“Knitted my ancient Dad 2 pairs of wool socks. Full of mistakes , but perfect fit for his poor cold swollen feet. Two pairs because I accidentally made two left ones to start with, so no real option but to knit on …”

“ kicked some very self-destructive habits and dependencies! “

“ I wrote a cool article that I wasn’t paid for but was super fun and well-received. Also, got married.”

“ Learned to keep house plants without killing them.”

“Spent the last 14 months participating in weekly health & safety meetings and ventilation workshops w/ my union siblings and formed a campus committee to be organized to protect everyone in our college communities when we get called back to the workplace. Plus, dug a huge hole in an empty lot and created a hugelkultur bed, fixed the rain barrels, grew lots of starter plants to share with my fellow community gardeners. And TNR’d 5 feral cats.”

“ The one good outcome of this year was I felt I did great progress in therapy. Things were so shitty for so much of the time, and every relationship so tense, that all last year really was like a therapy boot camp. I’m hoping that once life goes back to ‘normal’ the lessons I learned the hard way will have been worth the struggle “

To all those who answered my question: Thank you.

Katherine Blouin is a YQB-born Associate Professor of Roman History at the University of Toronto and one of the editors of the blog Everyday Orientalism.