The academic obituary

22 Jan

I have read about half a dozen academic obituaries and tributes over the past few months. One thing that is striking about them is that most of them say nothing – or next to nothing – about the individual beyond a glowing account of their career. It is understandable that an obituary of a public figure concentrates on their professional career. Some academics are public figures. Most of us are private individuals with jobs that sometimes have a semi-public facing role.

An obituary that charts a career and ends with a tart, ‘She is survived by her husband John and her three adult children’ seems to do a disservice to the person. Certainly many academics see their career as a core part of their identity. Often academia is a way of life, shaping where people live and their social circle. But most of us are more than our job – or I would like to think that is the case.

Perhaps the professional obituaries are a function of a deeper issue – something that might be called ‘the always on syndrome’ or an overly-professional face that some academics maintain at all times. I have noticed, even at major conferences where people might be expected to have some down-time, that many academics stay in professional mode at all times. So a full day of conference panels is followed by drinks and dinner where the only legitimate conversation topics are work-related. Possibly precarity (the need for a permanent post or tenure) encourages this permanently professional persona that some maintain. Perhaps some people feel that there should be a firm distinction between work and private lives and thus it is inappropriate for conversation to stray from work-related matters. Perhaps some people feel – perfectly appropriately – that their personal lives and any of their thoughts and interests beyond work – are their own business. But to remain ‘in character’ all day must be exhausting and is – well – odd.

Over the years, the academics that I have really respected were those who were professionally on top of their game but who could light up a room with the force of personality, who could deploy humour at the right moment in the dullest of conference panels, who could take the time and effort to show an interest in early career colleagues, and who could show empathy when required. Many of them also had non-work passions that could be seen in the classroom or seminar room. This is perhaps best demonstrated by those colleagues who bring baked goods to seminars: nothing lights up a cold Wednesday afternoon meeting than when someone brings in a cinnamon cake to share. But I have also been captivated by academics who gave presentations that reflected their love of gardening, music or horses (to name a few). There was no dumbing down in what they said – it was simply a hook that humanised them and the session.

Maybe the strictly professional obituary and tribute is a function of corporate academia, where the obituary is simply an extension of corporate branding: “We are sorry that Joan has died but don’t forget that our Institution is now 47th in the QS indicators.” I should make clear that there are plenty of humane and personalised academic obituaries that take full account of the individual’s hinterland well-beyond their professional life. And I do know of lots of cases where colleagues have felt truly bereft at the passing of a colleague. I am merely commenting on the half dozen obituaries and tributes that I have read recently that made no allowance for the person having much of a life beyond work.

So if anyone is tempted to write an obituary of me when pass I on: those dull books and articles were not the most important things in my life.

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