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In the context of league tables, national student surveys and increasing competition for students and resources, measurement and comparison is an ever-present – and ever more significant – aspect of contemporary academic life. Institutional definitions of prestige and success intertwine with individuals’ sense of value, career-progression and everyday work activity in varying ways, from active championing of particular dominant visions of ‘excellence’ through to varying forms of resistance, both passive and active. Faced with such challenges, increasing attention is being given to where academics find support, value and motivation in their working lives. This paper explores academics’ narratives of the relationship and practices that shape their career decisions and frame their academic practice, highlighting the everyday pressures that squeeze space for compassionate collegiality.
The paper draws on narrative interviews that explored how academics experienced kindness and collegiality as they transition through their careers, examining detailed personal narratives of 23 academics based at Scottish universities. Participants shared their CVs and three artefacts (pictures, objects, or events) that were significant to their career journey. The resulting narratives offer detailed insight into how participants negotiate institutional pressures and frame relations with colleagues in order to create meaning, value and (degrees of) ‘happiness’ in their work.
The paper argues that while there is recognition of the impact of universities’ strive for ‘excellence’ on staff interactions and work priorities, this is largely de-politicised in institutional contexts, with attention given to personal resilience, finding work-life balance, and individuals developing soft-skills to manage everyday interactions. The more socially-oriented concept of ‘compassion’ offers a fresh perspective from which to explore the everyday interactions within the university and consider the practical and political steps required to create supportive work environments.
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