Reflecting on 2021 and beyond

The end of 2021 was different and yet the same. I wrapped up the year with some amazing experiences, from a wonderful launch podcast on Fragile Futures to finally the in person COP26 conference on Design for Planet. Here I spoke about the challenges of pitting digital inclusivity of the next billion users against the rise of data centers and its impact on the planet. Also, got to talk about diversity and inclusion with EUROPOL, AI and Creativity with Adobe, and feminist design with the NGO Sudwind .

I am incredibly grateful to have found my calling. I love the intellectual life. I love the thrill of unpacking an idea, engaging with different people and organizations to critically engage on the future of society, and share this with my students on an ongoing basis. Yet, beneath it all, I remain angry. It’s this slow burn anger that comes from an ongoing impotence against the toxic culture of academia.

Academic life, although having moved online during the pandemic, remains the same in terms of its toxic culture of overwork, and undervalue of its workers. For a profession that centers critical thinking, innovation, and societal impact at it’s core, it has shown remarkably little imagination in the reshaping of this field. It is astounding how tone deaf this system has been with the onset of the pandemic, channeling more energies in the rhetoric of inclusiveness, diversity, and societal impact and little towards their workers and the structures that perpetuate precarity, fear, stress, depression, and worthlessness.

The system consumes its workers and thrives on the honor culture which translates to basically free labor. This year was no exception as I was asked to be on numerous boards, to review reports and articles, to serve on external PhD and advisory committees and more – pro bono of course in the name of duty and care. Why do it then? Collegiality, curiosity, and camaraderie – the gift culture in academia which serves as perfect fodder for institutions to appropriate and exploit. Teaching, while being constantly evaluated by a minority of students, means little in terms of the bottom line of promotions. Academics in this neoliberal enterprise called higher education are meant for one primary purpose – to be fund raisers and project managers. The chase of grants equate value and nothing else. There is little room to define value outside of this scope.

I do not deny the worth of activism in academia over the years but it is unfair to burden an already overburdened staff to fight for the basics of being treated humanely. Change must come from above and in a collective and global fashion. We need to let go of academic rankings as equivalent to quality education and scholarship, recognize the deep Anglo-saxon bias in academic scholarship and citation politics and gender bias in management policies, and instead rethink our place in society and the role we must play to change society for the better.

In the meantime, much like many academics I know, I cocoon myself in my own networks and with my own people, the little bubbles I have nurtured with craft and care over these years. I navigate with detachment, estrangement, and angry silence, holding onto my deep passion for ideas and communities and moving forward by reminding myself that my mind and body needs protecting as covid is here to stay with us for much longer than we would like to admit.