Silences & Selfishness: The Politics of Blogging the Personal

As some of you know, to date I have written two blog posts that deal with what many, including me, consider very personal topics: mental health and money (or rather the inconvenient lack of both). This post is prompted by a thought-provoking conversation I recently had about the implications – not to say the politics – of blogging about such personal issues in a space which represents, for the most part, my professional identity and my work. The concerns were some I had considered before, but had chosen to put to the back of my mind after having weighed up their possible consequences. In this post I’m revisiting the questions which are inevitably produced by any academic (or indeed professional) who blogs about issues which cross the shaky boundaries between private and public identities, if there are indeed such distinct entities at all.

The concerns revolve around issues of professional appearances in the widest sense, the most obvious question being whether I am making myself less employable by discussing my anxiety issues and (now resolved) debt problems in such a public manner. Will a prospective employer see my past struggles with anxiety or my past financial situation and feel I won’t make an effective and lucrative employee? Am I, by admitting to the extent of my anxiety and by discussing my experiences of it, destroying the image of the competent, resilient and hardworking academic, for colleagues and students? Of course the irony here is that I think we all know this image is just that – an image, a mask – usually an ill-fitting one at that (and I doubt none of you have ever been seen rushing through corridors like the stereotypical mad professor, and writing papers and reading notes minutes before a conference or meeting).

Worryingly, it’s almost expected that as an academic your reply to “How are you?” must begin with a heavy sigh and a frantic list of the things you still have to do today, this week, this month. Admitting that you suffer from anxiety, however, is somehow overstepping the mark. It medicalises the issue and thus exceeds the limits of what is all too often perceived as a “normal” level of stress and worry in academia (a level which in itself is very unhealthy and not “normal” at all, at least not in my view). It highlights that I am not delighted or secretly thrilled by being too busy, anxious, worried, and rushed off my feet. I had no problem with sharing my experiences of anxiety because I know how many of my colleagues – at any career stage, including Ph.D. students and renowned professors – suffer from it.

The surprise wasn’t that someone suffers from anxiety, but that this person, too, suffers from anxiety, and the numerous public and private responses to my post were a testament of that. I’m proud of my work, which I’ve always carried out in a reliable and efficient fashion, and I’m especially proud of my relationship with my students, who know that they can count on me, but who usually respect me (at least as far as I’m aware). So does my anxiety or making it public render me a bad member of the academic workforce, someone who is unreliable? No, quite the opposite, I feel.

This does not mean, however, that I do not take my colleagues’ points about the potential pitfalls of blogging so openly about these personal issues. Especially when it came to clicking “publish” for my post on debt (which I have been meaning to revise, and have since taken offline), I had considered carefully the effect it may have on future employers, colleagues, collaborators, but I decided to publish the piece nonetheless. Again, similar issues apply. Everyone is aware of how expensive it is to go through higher education if you are not funded, and I struggled even though I held a scholarship. There seems to be a dangerous yet prevailing opinion that to get into debt, you must simply be bad with money, or greedy, or frivolous.

However, the many of you who have responded – again, both privately and publicly – to my debt post seemed well aware that there is nothing to be good with when there is quite literally no money. Yes, I wasn’t great with money during my Ph.D., but I can also assure you that I wasn’t frivolous. Until now, I’ve never been clothes shopping more than once a year (and in fact that in itself makes the activity seem more elaborate than it ever was), I wear shoes and bags and other items until they quite literally fall apart. I don’t drive a nice car. I hardly drink alcohol and I don’t go out. And as someone quite rightfully pointed out on Twitter, with the privilege of funding all this is one matter; without it, it’s quite another, and even worse. As with so many assumptions, the notion that someone who is in debt has inevitably found themselves in that situation because they are “bad with money” is rather uncritical and shortsighted.

Both money and mental health are issues which are common in academia, the former among postgraduates and early-career researchers in particular, the latter across the entire career spectrum. I wrote my debt post out of relief, and out of the knowledge that other people would be able to sympathise with that relief, and with the difficulties the post describes. I published a piece on anxiety because I was trying to deal with and take action against a problem that was starting to have a serious effect on my physical health, and a problem with which I knew I wasn’t alone.

As early as my undergraduate years I got to know academics who were struggling physically and mentally with the stress their jobs brought with them, and this image was further normalised for me when I began my Ph.D. research. Being selfish and not speaking about the issues – and thus not risking the potentially bad impression future employers and colleagues may have of me – continues the silence which often surrounds these and other problems. I don’t advocate that everyone lay bare their financial or psychological difficulties, but the further we stay silent and selfish – no matter how great the personal benefits – the more these issues will spiral out of control, perhaps now more than ever, with increasing economic and government pressures in higher education.

And yet, I find that I will have to be selfish. As my colleagues so astutely pointed out, there is a fine line to be drawn between raising awareness through personal anecdotes and protecting oneself and one’s professional identity – selfishly – to not render the situation worse, on an individual level. Perhaps blogging and other social media – no matter how openly, cautiously, personally or professionally it is done – can help us find that line, as a sector and a profession, and thus to raise awareness without harming ourselves. It’s this line that I will have to learn to walk, though I doubt I’ll be doing it in silence or on my own.