Conformity, compliance, and complicity: Reflections from a younger academic

By Ruth Surenthiraraj

I caught myself the other day saying something to this effect in the classroom – “now that you know what I expect, I’d like you all to think through why you’ve chosen the answers you have”. At the time, I assumed that this was a very open invitation to students to revisit the whys and hows of their choices within the second language classroom. Upon further thought, however, I realise that even this exercise allows for freedom on the student’s part only if they agree that my framing of language competency is not to be questioned. In essence, I had already biased their answers by requiring them to be familiar with knowing what I wanted as a teacher.

As Harshana Rambukwella recently pointed out in the Kuppi column, our university system fosters conformity among its student population because it ensures the smooth running of systems with minimal interruptions to or divergences from well-laid-out plans. The problem runs deeper, however, because the hierarchies within academic and administrative staff often mandate conformity as well. While these hierarchies might be helpful to the maintaining of a system, they become dangerous when they discourage dissent or divergence. They often rely on the fact that subordinates will neither refuse nor challenge decisions that are made at the highest levels. While this really is a systemic problem, I have often wondered how to acknowledge our own complicity in perpetuating these systemic issues in our own interactions with teaching/learning contexts, research, and administration. In fact, leading off from Udari Abeysinghe’s unembellished Kuppi Talk article on problems faced by younger academics, I would like to explore how we (early-career academics) undermine our own worth in the university system, sustaining these unhealthy systemic patterns and exploitative practices when we are often on the receiving end of them.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that the workload of academics in general (and early-career academics in particular) is untenable in the long run. As already pointed out many times in this column, academia has a very wide scope that looks for impacts from the classroom to the community. The defunding of education, the politicization of the administrative arm, and the recent increase in migration are just some of the problems that further worsen the existing workload of academics. Additionally, the unwillingness of mid-to-late career academics to take up either administrative or teaching responsibilities or their assumption that early-career academics can be overburdened, with little to no repercussions to themselves, has seen more early-career academics being compelled to step into these positions.

Often, we (early-career academics) are told that we have very good potential and the required skills to handle the responsibilities given to us, but the reality is that we lack institutional knowledge that would make the navigation of these spaces and situations easier. So, either we are more than content to follow senior academics without questioning why the role/responsibility needs to be framed in this particular way or we see the opportunity to ‘make a change’ or ‘prove our worth’ and dive straight in with very little understanding of the mid- to long-term results of taking this approach.

It is unfair to assume that all early-career academics are categorically incapable of handling these responsibilities – there may be outstanding individuals who are able to perform well in key administrative positions that directly impact undergraduate and postgraduate study programmes. The problem is in the assumption that all of us can do so. Furthermore, the ‘I trust you’ narrative is insidious because it meets the early-career academic at their most vulnerable – it fulfils our need for appreciation in a system that rarely values talent/effort. On the other hand, a more direct compulsion that you cannot refuse anyone who is in a more senior position than you, greatly affects an early-career academic’s capacity to turn down responsibilities that might not be feasible for them to accept.

When faced with a situation when we clearly should say no, the most obvious stance taken by most early-career academics is that we cannot (and should not) refuse those who are senior to us, a view stemming primarily from our culture of conformity and ‘respect’ for those who are more advanced in their careers. Unfortunately, ‘respect’ in this view seems to tally exactly with unquestioning acceptance of their wishes. This stance is problematic because it also subconsciously sets up expectations for how those who are junior to us in the system should behave, be they our colleagues or our students.

Another reason we cannot seem to refuse is because we genuinely believe that we are fully equipped to meet the requirements. This stance is even more problematic because it reflects the dearth of an equally important capacity – to critically and realistically reflect on both the external expectations attached to certain responsibilities and our internal capacity to recognize our own very real limitations. The lure of being appreciated for our effort might doubly cloud our judgment and this too invariably ties back to how career progress and reflective practice is (or is not) built cogently into the system. For instance, there seems to be no mechanism to help younger academics reflect on their approaches to teaching/learning, administrative roles, and research ethics in a sustained and meaningful manner. Existing mechanisms for professional development are often superficially connected to promotions, undermining the non-linear nature of truly self-reflective practice. This lack of self-awareness, especially in positions that are meant to function as check and balance to a certain part of the system, could lead to disastrous decision-making that can have long-term impacts on the system and those who are part of it.

Perhaps, a related reason why we struggle to refuse is because we are also subject to an extremely unhealthy culture of competition. While both the collective and the individual are meant to be valued in an ideal university system, the reality in most Sri Lankan universities is that the collective fosters herd mentality while the individualism (quite paradoxically) fosters a merciless need to get ahead of the pack. The latter especially seems to demand that we take up more visible responsibilities in a bid to draw attention to ourselves, in turn leading to more recognition and reward. I see this yet again as a failure in the system to build collaborative measures for integrating and applying learning, but we certainly seem to exacerbate the problem by unquestioningly buying into the individualist narrative that is often solely linked to performance and progress.

I would like to bring this reflection to a close by posing one last question – how do you say no if you are fully aware that a role/responsibility cannot be filled by you? It must be acknowledged that refusing superiors’ requests is not at all a common or even occasional occurrence. However, the idea of challenging the hierarchy in any way is often highly romanticized – too often, in a system where most tend to conform unquestioningly, the one who refuses to do so tends to be viewed as a deviant. Inhabiting this space over a long period of time could very easily lead to me seeing myself as the sole person capable of taking on the pressures of a system and becoming a role model for others to break away from unhealthy traditions. While this may essentially be true, the tendency to romanticize and overvalue such a position may lead to unrealistic expectations as well. Therefore, if we aim to be truly self-reflective early-career academics, we should not simply say no for the sake of saying it – the decision should come from a carefully and reasonably deliberated process of thinking through the pros and cons of taking up the said responsibility.

This would also entail a realistic understanding that such decisions to turn down certain responsibilities may be misinterpreted as either insubordination or a deliberate undermining of others’ initiatives. It is highly likely that this will have very real impacts on a younger academic’s career development. While it may be possible to mitigate the effects of these decisions to some extent by setting up channels of open communication with senior academics, there is no guarantee that our honesty will bring the respect and support we may expect. At such a juncture, I have found it helpful to remind myself that we need to look towards the best interests of the system as well as the individual academic (in a non-superficial manner). If my refusal today will contribute in some way towards scaling back the increasingly untenable expectations being thrown at early-career academics, then my short term ‘loss’ might indeed be a small price to pay.