Content warning: blood
So here we are again: we are back on strike. We are on strike over pensions, pay devaluation, pay inequality, job insecurity and rising workloads. We will be out for eight days, but the union is talking in terms of ‘waves’ – so we’ll see.
When I last wrote, our union, the UCU (University and College Union) had come to the end of a historic strike over pensions. Lasting fourteen days, it had been the longest university strike in the UK. It ended with the establishment of a Joint Expert Panel (JEP) which would look over the future of our pensions.
The JEP has since made recommendations, which have mostly been ignored by our pension scheme, the USS (Universities Superannuation Scheme). We are now facing rises in our contributions that most can ill afford. Add to this the constant erosion of our salaries over the last ten years, and it is fair to say that choosing a career in academia is not particularly attractive financially. That is especially the case when we consider that getting a permanent (or rather ‘open-ended’) job in academia is extremely difficult, and that many face years of short-term contracts. Job insecurity is at an all-time high in British academia.
And there is more! There are massive gender and ethnicity pay gaps in British academia. These make me particularly angry, I have to say. How is it acceptable that a supposedly enlightened sector should perpetuate social inequalities in this way? I will address those further in this diary.
The cherry on the cake: ever-increasing workloads, caused by ever-changing and ever-rising expectations. An academic these days must be an excellent – and the expectation is one of excellence – researcher, teacher, student adviser, public communicator, administrator, and generally leader (whatever this last word might mean). Some might thrive in this hyper-competitive environment, but most will suffer from impostor syndrome – the constant feeling of not being good enough.
Often, I feel like every drop of goodwill is sucked out of me. I feel I’m almost bled dry. Readers of this diary might remember that, as a child in Belgium, I experienced three long periods of strike (during my last year of primary; during my first year of secondary; and during my last year of secondary). Now, the teachers’ slogan was ‘j’en saigne’ (roughly: I’m bleeding from it), a pun on ‘j’enseigne’ (I teach).
There is a difference, however, between saying ‘j’en saigne’, which implies that one has been wounded by a system, and ‘I’m bled dry’. For the expression ‘to bleed dry’ refers to the historical practice of bloodletting, which would allegedly have rid a patient of some bad humours. A skilled physician was able to bleed patients sufficiently without depleting them of all their energy.
In Greek and Roman antiquity, the bleeding cup (or cupping vessel) was one of the symbols of the physician. Witness for instance, the funerary stele of the Athenian physician Jason (second century CE). In the right hand corner is an enormous cupping vessel, a symbol of his skill.
Or observe this small vase, so-called Peytel aryballos (beginning of the fifth century BCE), where a doctor is represented scalpel in hand, ready to bleed his anxious looking patient – a cupping vessel hanging between the two protagonists.
The thing with cupping vessels is that, unless you know what they are, you won’t think much of them. Their appearance is rather innocuous. Unlike a scalpel, which looks dangerous, they are not obviously threatening – their purpose is not obvious. Shown in a museum, hanging on a little tree as in the example below, they won’t evoke anxiety in most visitors.
I feel that I never saw the metaphorical scalpel in my career. Often the threat did not feel extremely acute (I acknowledge that I might be very privileged in this respect). I only saw cupping vessels, and at first I wasn’t able to recognise their function. But I have learnt, and I know that I won’t allow myself to be bled dry. We won’t allow ourselves to be bled dry!