Being Well in Academia: Ways to feel stronger, safer and more connected by Petra Boynton, Routledge. 2021
Normally I read books at least once before reviewing them. I haven’t read all of this, because it’s difficult to read – in more than one sense if you have the Kindle version. Nonetheless, it’s definitely one of the most important books of the year.
Who is in academia?
‘Academia’ might bring to mind people like professors or researchers. Obviously, these are people in academia, but Boynton starts the book explaining that workers in academia include many people overlooked like cleaners, security staff and managers. Also, ‘academia’ includes people who may be independent researchers or researchers in industry.
The inclusive approach might be described as a welcome. The introduction makes clear that people will be coming to this book from many different directions. Most of the first chapter is a guide to the rest of the text. This is usual, but for this book it’s unusually important to read it, as it can get pretty grim.
“If you’re new to academia or have never experienced problems within it, you might find the descriptions presented here or off-putting at times. Yes, bad things are happening, but that does not automatically mean they will happen to you.”
The chapter ends with a space for you to make a safety plan, if you’re suicidal, which works much better with a hard-copy than an e-book. Fortunately the book includes a link to the resource that inspired the plan. This is followed by links to organisations that can help if you’re overwhelmed. The rest of the book is a guide to help make sure that things don’t have to get that bad.
The next three chapters tackle intertwining problems, where to get help, how to ask or give help and working out what help you need. While friends and family might seem obvious places to start, they’re not options for everyone. There is advice on how social media can help – it’s not just for shouting at people. Professional societies may also be able to help, as might charities. There were plenty of organisations listed that I hadn’t been aware of.
Boynton even mentions pets as a source of support. This is the only section where I’ve found a problem with the book. She states that cats are best, and this is either an error or else a typo for d-o-g.
One of the most helpful sections, in a staggeringly helpful book, is the section How do I know I need help? When people talk about a person’s need to recognise they need help it’s often in the context or alcohol or drugs, but it’s a problem in many cases. Do you need help with a problem, or is this something you should cope with yourself or ignore?
To answer that, there’s a very plain checklist in clear language. A follow-up problem is that even if you recognise you need help, you might not feel you’re very good at receiving it. Boynton highlights potential problems in accessing help. It’s here I was introduced to the UnRecovery Star. As an example getting out in nature is often touted as a method of stress control. But that’s not necessarily the case if the place you’re visiting also exposes you to racism.
How to administer self-care
The next three chapters are about your wellbeing, with an A-Z list of problems, a chapter on warning signs and a chapter on self-care.
The A-Z list is the part of the book I had most trouble with. Reading an alphabetised list of all sorts of ways academia can go wrong is a recipe for depression. In the ebook the text is formatted as a table, so the solutions can go next to the problem – which should work. Unfortunately the formatting is uneven, so text can be legible or tiny. There’s an embiggen button on the tables, which expands the tables, but this seems variable in how useful it is. I can’t say that I’ve read every word in this .
The warning signs chapter has similar formatting issues in the ebook, which is pity as there is a lot of useful advice in it. I particularly liked that Petra Boynton writes like she’s met people with problems, compared to some other authors who write like the biggest problem is you’re not smiling enough.
“Many self-help guides require you to think happy thoughts and do kind things. These are important but can gloss over inequalities and disadvantages. Forcing everyone into compulsory positivity is counterproductive. There are times in life when you want – and need – to embrace ‘negative’ feelings and emotions.”
Looking after yourself, when you need help, is more of a challenge. Fortunately there are steps you can follow, again laid out simply. I find scheduling extremely helpful as a mental shortcut when I’m overworked.
Getting out of a bad situation
The final chapter is entitled Letting go, moving forward. This might feel like giving in to some people, which Boynton acknowledges. “Many messages within academia are based around resilience, persistence and tenacity. In such an environment letting go can feel counterintuitive; forcing us to remain in situations that may be harmful or destructive.”
The chapter gives advice on how to leave situations but remain within academia, or how to leave it should you wish to move on. Useful in this section is guidance on building a skills inventory to help you move into employment elsewhere.
Who is the book for?
The book is extensive, but not comprehensive. So while there’s a good chance that some of your problems may be covered, there may be some that aren’t in the index. ‘Pandemic’, for example, doesn’t appear in the index, so you may want to try Petra Boynton’s twitter feed, or her website No Star To Guide Me. You’re also probably the person it’s aimed at. As mentioned above, Boynton takes a very broad view of what ‘academia’ is. No matter how tangential you feel to traditional academia, you should be able to find something of use in the book.
However, if you’re not currently in need of help yourself, you might still find the book useful. Petra Boynton is drawing on years of experience as an Agony Aunt, so has encountered a wide variety of issues. If the average person is not going to have encountered the same amount of difficulties in life, without seeking them out. So if you’re seeking to help someone else, then this is still a valuable guide to aiding people.
Though it was written before people had heard of COVID-19, it is a topical book. The pandemic is a cause of stress for so many people. If you don’t have a problem, then there’s a good chance you know someone who does.
A much needed aid to supporting people in academia in the broadest term of the word. A book that should be in all departments, and deserves to be read but – given the topic – not in extended reading sessions.